This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
October 21, 2006 Annual: Genesis 1:1 – 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 3; Hertz p. 2) Triennial Cycle: Genesis 5:1 – 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 30; Hertz p. 16) Haftarah: I Samuel: 20:18 – 42 (Etz Hayim, p. 1216; Hertz p. 948) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen An Invitation As we begin a new Torah-reading cycle, all Jews are invited to renew our relationship with the Torah. The text may be understood on a variety of levels. Even if you are well acquainted with the basic story line, there are opportunities to probe deeper and to explore the values that lie beneath the surface of the text. If you are willing to undertake the challenge, we will make every effort to match your efforts through the weekly Torah Sparks. Summary of the Parashah The Torah opens with the familiar story of creation. God is depicted as creating the world in seven days. Every aspect of creation is portrayed as being purposeful, not random. The culmination of God’s work is the creation of a day of rest. Man is situated in the Garden of Eden and presented with Woman, who will be his peer and partner. They are given rules about the fruit of the trees in the Garden, and they break these rules. Thus ends their idyllic stay in that carefree environment. Adam and Eve have children. These children, once grown, manage to argue until one kills the other. The Torah spares us the details of their bickering, as if to assert that the particulars of the argument are far less important than their utter lack of respect for human life. The balance of the parashah occupies itself mostly with the genealogy of the generations between Adam and Noah. At the end of the parashah, we are told that God was dissatisfied with the behavior of the creatures in the world that God had created. This sets the stage for next week’s story of Noah. Issue # 1: The Value of Human Life The Torah describes the first human being as the deliberate product of God’s creation. This description of God creating an individual human being, rather than a batch of human beings, has broad implications. Consider the following passage from the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5): For this reason, man [i.e. the first human being] was created alone: to teach that whoever destroys a single life is as if he had destroyed an entire universe, and whoever sustains a single life is as if he had sustained an entire universe.
Moreover [the first human was created as an individual] for the sake of peace among men, so that no one could [legitimately] say to his peer: “My ancestor was greater than yours.” On a surface level, this Mishnah text makes it clear that human life must be valued and safeguarded. What other implications might we draw from this text a. for parents or teachers? b. for the way that we relate to our peers? c. for relating to those less fortunate than ourselves? Issue #2: Genesis vs. Darwin We are well aware that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is widely accepted in scientific circles, was developed without regard for its possible contradiction of the account of creation transmitted in the opening chapter of Genesis. This apparent conflict has inflamed passions in America, from the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925 to the recent debate over creationism as a theory proposed for inclusion in the science curricula of public schools. For example, the idea that our planet is billions (or at least millions) of years old seems to contradict the Jewish notion that the Earth was created less than 6,000 years ago. The Torah does not pretend to be a textbook of science or of history. It is instead a transmitter of timeless values. But if we choose to read the Torah as if it were a chronicle of natural history, we might find that the chronological conflict with Darwin is less pronounced than we might have imagined. Consider the absence of the sun, in Chapter 1 of Genesis, until the fourth day of creation. This implies that the days described in this creation story are not 24-hour days, but rather periods of time whose length is unknown. Reread the creation story with this thought in mind. How can we now reconcile the broad outlines of the creation story in Genesis 1 with Darwin’s theory of evolution? What details, if any, might still have to be reconciled? On the other hand, even if we are successful at reconciling the broad sequence of creation with the broad sequence of evolution, there is still a significantdifference in perspective between Genesis and Darwin. Darwin’s theory requires random mutations in order for species to evolve. Once a mutation has occurred, then his principle of “survival of the fittest” takes over. In this way, postulates Darwin, species adapt and survive. However, the notion of random mutations is foreign to the worldview expressed in Genesis, in which all aspects of creation are deemed to have a divine purpose. This gap is more difficult to bridge than the chronological gap. Can you think of any ways to resolve this difference?
October 28, 2006 Annual: Genesis 6:9-11:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 41; Hertz p. 26) Triennial Cycle: Genesis 11:1 – 11:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 58; Hertz p. 38) Haftarah: Isaiah: 54:1 – 55:5 (Etz Hayim, p. 65; Hertz p. 41) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah At the conclusion of last week’s Torah portion, we learned that God was disappointed with the way our world was unfolding and so decided to make a fresh start. This week’s Torah portion opens with Noah being singled out to salvage a remnant of that world. In a story that is familiar to us all, God singles out Noah to build an ark that will save human beings – Noah’s family – and many species of animals from the impending flood. Noah follows this commandment faithfully. As the floodwaters eventually recede, Noah sends forth first a raven and then a dove to ascertain whether the earth is again habitable. Eventually, God commands Noah and his family to exit the ark and to get on with their lives. In addition to being directed to be fruitful and to multiply, they are given some restrictions that define a framework for their lives. God offers a covenant to Noah in which He promises never again to destroy the entire world by flood. The rainbow becomes the sign of this covenant. After the Torah compiles a genealogical summary, it relates the story of the tower of Babel, in which communications went seriously awry. In the final verses of Parashat Noah, we are introduced to Abram (later Abraham), who followed Noah by 10 generations. Issue #1: The Noahide Commandments According to Jewish tradition, Noah and his descendants were given seven divine commandments as a framework for human society. These commandments are often referred to as the Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noah, or the Noahide Laws, because all subsequent human life could trace its genealogy to Noah. (Noah and his anonymous wife, along with Noah’s three sons and their wives, were the only human beings reported to have survived the flood.) A concise summary of the seven Noahide Commandments follows. (How these specific commandments are derived from the text of the Torah is beyond the scope of this discussion.) I. II. III. IV. Prohibition against worshipping false gods. Prohibition against blasphemy. Prohibition against murder. Prohibition against immoral sexual activity (incest, adultery, bestiality, etc.).
V. VI. VII.
Prohibition against stealing. Prohibition against eating flesh that was torn from the body of a live animal. The requirement to set up a system of courts, laws, and enforcement.
The Talmud understands these seven principles to be behavioral requirements for all human beings, not just for Jews. Questions for Discussion: 1. What is special about the Noahide laws that would cause them to be postulated as binding on all human society? 2. As Jews, we are aware that there are many more commandments that we are expected to fulfill. (The number 613 leaps to mind.) Why do we need so many additional commandments? What do they add to the religious quality of our lives? Issue #2: The Tower of Babel In Chapter 11 we read the familiar story of the tower of Babel. On a surface level, this story belongs here mainly to resolve the problem created by the Torah telling us that all peoples have a common origin, although people around the world actually speak many different languages. This story is told in a value-laden manner. Human beings sought to make their mark in a way that challenged divine supremacy over the world. The divine response was to mix up their communications in order to thwart their apparently unholy initiative, and to scatter humankind over the face of the earth. This era is referred to in rabbinic literature as dor hap'lagah, the generation of division. Are we, in our generation, also at risk of a communication breakdown? We live in a society characterized by increasingly complex and specialized communication. Jargon gets in the way of understanding so frequently that a new word – technobabble – has surfaced, referring to phrases that are so specialized that they fail to communicate sensibly. How can we avoid, for our generation, the fate of dor hap'lagah?
November 11, 2006 Annual: Genesis 18:1 - 22:24 (Etz Hayim, p. 99; Hertz p. 63) Triennial Cycle: Genesis 21:1 – 22:24 (Etz Hayim, p. 112; Hertz p. 71) Haftarah: II Kings 4:1 – 37 (Etz Hayim, p. 124; Hertz p. 76) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Abraham receives three strangers who come to visit, in a way that demonstrate that both he and Sarah are highly solicitous hosts. We imagine that welcoming strangers is a regular event in this household. (The midrash amplifies this feeling by picturing Abraham’s tent as being open on all sides, so that he might readily spot passing travelers and welcome them.) On this particular day, one of the visitors delivers the unlikely message that in a year’s time, Sarah will bear a son. Abraham and Sarah, by now both advanced in age, are incredulous but happy. After the strangers depart, God shares with Abraham the plans to destroy Sodom and the neighboring towns. Abraham takes God to task for possibly planning to destroy the righteous along with the wicked. God accepts Abraham’s point. After some negotiation, they agree that if 10 righteous people can be found within Sodom, then the entire city will be spared. Not only were 10 not found, but we also are shown a sample of the cruel and corrupt behavior of the townspeople. The city definitely is to be destroyed. However, Abraham’s semi-righteous nephew, Lot, and his household are to be saved. Abraham migrates to the land of the Philistines. Again he refers to Sarah as his sister, and confusion ensues. Months later, Sarah gives birth to a son, who is named Isaac. She soon becomes concerned about the behavior of Ishmael, the teenage son of Hagar the concubine. Sarah delivers an ultimatum to Abraham: “Cast out that slavewoman and her son.” Abraham, caught in the middle, turns to God for guidance. God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah. Abraham completes a treaty with the Philistine king to resolve a dispute over water rights. God commands Abraham to bind Isaac as a sacrifice upon an altar at a location to which God will guide Abraham. Abraham and Isaac comply. At the last minute, a voice from heaven cancels the command to sacrifice Isaac.
Issue #1: Primogeniture vs. Personal Merit The Bible displays some ambivalence between respecting the ancient tradition of primogeniture (preferring the first-born consistently) and requiring that children demonstrate their worthiness to lead through their actions. In Genesis 21:12, God reassures Abraham that protecting the later-born Isaac and dismissing the first-born Ishmael is an appropriate course of action, “… for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.” In commenting on this verse, Rabbi Max Arzt (1897-1975) wrote: A recurrent theme of the early biblical narratives is the rejection of the older brother (whose claim to distinction is based purely on the accident of primogeniture) in favor of the younger brother. This theme is apparent in the accounts of the preference of Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Judah over Reuben, and Ephraim over Manasseh. This can suggest to us that the claim of personal worth is higher than that of prior birth. Justice and Mercy, pp. 130-131 What are the advantages, and what are the disadvantages, of replacing a system based on primogeniture with a system based on personal merit? Note: This question will be treated most fruitfully as a question of public policy rather than an opportunity to justify your own status as a first-born or later-born child. It should also be obvious that later-born children are not automatically assumed to possess greater merit; their behavior must demonstrate personal merit before they can begin to justify a preferred status. Issue #2: How old was Isaac at the time of the almost-sacrifice? Many of us were raised on a version of the story that pictures Isaac as a young child. This picture has been reinforced by countless paintings and other graphic portrayals of the binding of Isaac. Jewish tradition tells a different story. Although Isaac’s age is not given within this narrative, it is assumed that he was at least 13 years old. If he were not, he would be considered an extension of Abraham. We would like to believe that Isaac, too, earned a share of the credit for obeying God’s difficult command. The maximum age for Isaac at the time of this incident would be 37. This is derived from the fact that Sarah, who had given birth to Isaac at age 90, dies shortly after the binding of Isaac, at a reported age of 127. Thus, if she died right after the incident, Isaac would have been 37 years old. How do the possible variations in Isaac’s age affect your understanding of the story? After reflecting upon the different age-possibilities, which age makes the most sense to you?
PARASHAT HAYE SARAH - BIRKAT HAHODESH
November 18, 2005 Annual: Genesis 23:1-25:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 127; Hertz p. 80) Triennial Cycle: Genesis 24:53 – 25:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 137; Hertz p. 86) Haftarah: I Kings 1:1 – 31 (Etz Hayim, p. 143; Hertz p. 90) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Our parashah opens with the news of Sarah’s death. Abraham negotiates with the local Hittites to buy a place to bury her. Although an exorbitant price is quoted, Abraham is uncontentious because he seeks to close the deal promptly. The centerpiece of this week’s Torah portion is the search for a suitable wife for Isaac. We have read the straightforward promise that God’s covenant with Abraham would continue through Isaac to countless generations of descendants. But without a wife for Isaac, those descendants are a mere abstraction. Abraham sends his trusted senior servant to Abraham’s homeland to find the right woman for Isaac. The story is told in detail three times, making for one of the longest chapters in the Torah. First, we read the servant’s marching orders. Next we read about his faithful execution of his mandate. Finally, we get the opportunity to listen in as the servant tells the family of the wife-to-be how fortunate it was that all the details of his mission had fit together so expeditiously. Following this story, and before moving on to tell us about Isaac and Rebecca’s life together, the Torah supplies us with two paragraphs of endnotes to the life of Abraham. First we read that Abraham remarried after the death of Sarah. Other children were born from this union. Then, when Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael together buried him. This story is followed by an enumeration of the genealogy of Ishmael’s descendants. Issue #1: Detail and the Absence of Detail Sometimes the Torah tells us more than the modern reader wants to know. For example, the genealogical lists that surface periodically (e.g., 25:2-4 and 13-16) do not seem to advance our understanding of religious values in any obvious way. Sometimes there are lessons to be learned from these tabulations, but we will not dwell on them today. There are also passages in the Torah that are surprisingly sparing in the details they transmit. Although these silences are purposeful, they are frustrating to today’s readers. After all, we are accustomed to having access to minute detail whenever we want it, whether in a movie or an internet search. We may find it frustrating when the biblical narrative is so stingy in transmitting details. A case in point is the identity of Abraham’s trusted servant in Chapter 24.
Through three tellings of the story of the search for a worthy wife for Isaac, the Torah does not once share with us the name of the senior servant deputized by Abraham to find the right woman for Isaac. This glaring omission is so frustrating to readers of the Bible that for hundreds of years many biblical commentators have sought to fill in the missing name. Eliezer, the name most often supplied, was Abraham’s chief servant at the opening of Chapter 15. Whether this same servant was still alive when Abraham wished to find a wife for Isaac decades later is a matter of conjecture. What is clear is that the biblical narrative intentionally omits the name of this loyal servant. Perhaps there is a lesson here. Which is more important in communicating values to the reader of the Bible, the identity of the servant or the manner in which he carried out his responsibilities? Is there ever a value to completing a task without calling attention to yourself? Issue #2: Criteria for the Selection of a Matriarch We have no record of Abraham telling his servant how to select a wife for Isaac. We may conjecture that a senior servant in Abraham’s household had absorbed some of the values that were central to that household. The servant seems to have decided intuitively on a behavioral profile that would indicate a personality suitable to be Isaac’s wife. What personal qualities was the servant looking for, and how did he test for the presence of those qualities in the candidate that he found? Issue #3: Burial Responsibilities Our parashah opens with Abraham’s responsibility to bury Sarah and closes with Isaac’s and Ishmael’s responsibility to bury Abraham. Clearly there were no professional funeral directors involved. The mourners themselves took responsibility for planning the funeral and carrying out their plan. Why is it that over the centuries the custom of delegating the physical aspects of a funeral to professionals or to volunteers has developed? In what ways might this enhance the funeral and the mourning process, and it what ways might it detract?
November 25, 2006 – 4 Kislev 5767 Annual: Genesis 25:19-28:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 146; Hertz p. 93) Triennial Cycle: Genesis 27:28-28:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 157; Hertz p. 99) Haftarah: Malakhil 1:1 – 2:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 163; Hertz p. 102) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Isaac and his wife, Rebecca, were childless for a long time. When Rebecca finally conceived, she learned that she was carrying twins. These fraternal twins, who were intensely competitive even prenatally, were born with one (Jacob) holding the heel of the other (Esau). As they grew up, Esau showed an affinity for hunting, while Jacob became a herdsman. One day, Jacob prepared a stew of lentils. Esau, returning hungry and tired from the hunt, asked Jacob to feed him. Jacob took this opportunity to bargain with Esau for the birthright. (We think that this meant both the mantle of leadership within the family and the double portion of inheritance that was considered the entitlement of the first-born.) Not only did Esau sell the birthright to Jacob, but he also scoffed at any value it may have had. Isaac continued to live in the Promised Land, following in the footsteps of his father, Abraham. He weathered frictions with the Philistines and even undertook treaties with them. Jacob was still single, while Esau married a Hittite woman. Isaac and Rebecca were both perturbed by Esau’s choice of a spouse. Later, Esau tried to find favor in their eyes by also marrying a daughter of Ishmael, his father’s halfbrother. When Isaac, feeling old and with failing eyesight, asked Esau to prepare some food that might inspire him to bless Esau, Rebecca overheard the conversation and swung into action. She pressured Jacob into disguising himself as Esau, and she provided the food to accompany the ruse. Jacob completed this charade before being found out by Isaac or Esau, but Esau made known his plans to seek revenge from Jacob. Jacob had received Isaac’s premier blessing, while Esau had to settle for an improvised blessing. Rebecca sends Jacob to her ancestral homeland to seek a wife. (This mission also removes Jacob from Esau’s environs at a time when Esau was vocally upset with Jacob.) Rebecca gets Isaac to sign on to this plan as well. Jacob prepares for his journey. Issue # 1: The Quiet Patriarch Isaac was a less colorful figure than Abraham or Jacob. Although he may have been quiet, he definitely ranks as one of our patriarchs. Consider the following
passages. What does Isaac add to the unfolding saga of our people? Consider the following passages. Genesis 26:1-5: There was a famine in the land – aside from the first famine, which had occurred in the days of Abraham – and Isaac went to Avimelekh, king of the Philistines, in Gerar. The Lord had appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you. Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your offspring, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.” Genesis 26:18: Isaac dug anew the wells that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and that the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death, and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. Genesis 26:22: He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehovot, saying, “Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land.” Genesis 28:1-4: Isaac sent for Jacob and blessed him. He instructed him, saying, “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.” Issue #2: Special Relationships And Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, too, my father!” And Esau wept aloud. (Genesis 27:38) What lesson(s) can any parent of more than one child learn from this verse? What, if anything, can any person with more than one friend learn from it?
December 2, 2006 – 11 Kislev 5767 Annual: Genesis 28:10-32:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 166; Hertz p. 106) Triennial Cycle: Genesis 31:17-32:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 181; Hertz p. 114) Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 189; Hertz p. 118) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Jacob’s mother has directed him to journey to her ancestral homeland. The dual purpose of this trip is to escape Esau’s wrath and to find a wife who is not one of the local Canaanite women. When he gets there, Jacob meets Rachel at the local well. He is so inspired by his immediate love of her that he is suddenly able to move a rock that ordinarily would require the joint efforts of several shepherds to budge. After staying with his uncle Laban, Rachel’s father, for a month, Jacob strikes a deal with Laban that he may marry Rachel after working seven years for her father. When the time for the wedding arrives, Laban surreptitiously substitutes Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Negotiations the following morning give Jacob the right to marry Rachel a week later, in exchange for a pledge of seven more years of work. Eventually, Jacob remains with Laban for six years beyond that, for a total of 20 years. Leah is fertile, giving birth to six sons and a daughter. Rachel has one son. Rachel and Leah have each given Jacob a concubine, and each concubine bears two sons as well. Jacob and Laban have made a deal to compensate Jacob for his labors by giving him the spotted and speckled livestock of Laban’s flocks. Through some wizardry of animal husbandry not fully understood by this city-slicker-turnedsuburbanite, Jacob is apparently able to bring about an exponential increase in the numbers of the spotted and speckled livestock. This is resented by Laban and his sons. Jacob feels that he has worn out his welcome. Upon consulting with Rachel and Leah, he learns that they, too, feel estranged in Laban’s domain. They resolve to leave for Canaan without saying goodbye. When Laban learns of this after several days, he sets out in hot pursuit. When he catches up to them, a frank exchange of complaints ensues. Laban also is aggrieved that some of his idols are missing. Eventually Jacob and Laban undertake a peaceful covenant of non-aggression, which they solemnize with a celebratory meal and the dedication of a monument. Issue #1: Perceiving the Divine Presence At the opening of this week’s Torah portion, we see Jacob recognizing, to his surprise, the presence of God in a seemingly God-forsaken corner of the world.
Near the end of our parashah we observe Laban, who has finally caught up to Jacob, searching feverishly for his idols. (We are puzzled that Rachel has surreptitiously taken along these souvenirs of her childhood home. We may wonder whether she was motivated by an aesthetic admiration for the artistic quality of these idols, or by nostalgia, or by a righteous desire to rid her father of idols to worship. The Torah does not help us to solve this mystery, but it is clear that the Torah is not praising this action of Rachel’s.) This attempt to secure the physical possession of his idols appears to be the total extent of Laban’s religious searching. By contrast, Jacob is a religiously seeking person who is open to finding the divine presence wherever it may be possible for human beings to identify it. To learn more about Jacob’s relationship with God, see Genesis 28:10-22, which includes a dream, a wide-awake perception, a dedication, and a prayerful vow. In what ways does Jacob’s quest to find God differ from Laban? Jacob further acknowledges God’s protection in Genesis 33:42. Issue #2: Laban's Concern for his Daughters In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz (1872-1946, and incidentally the first graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America) suggests that Laban’s concern for the welfare of his daughters was merely a smokescreen. Commenting on Genesis 33:43, Hertz says: Laban is unable to answer Jacob’s reproaches, and therefore repeats the claim based on primitive usage, whereby the head of the household is the nominal possessor of all that belonged to its members. He then pretends to be solicitous for the welfare of his daughters and grandchildren. Seven verses later, Hertz comments: Laban still keeps up the pretext that the pact made between him and Jacob is for the protection of his daughters; but he immediately proceeds … to safeguard himself from any aggression on Jacob’s part in the future. Has Hertz pre-judged Laban unfairly, or is there a basis within the Torah text for these dismissive comments? One clue worthy of consideration is the statement of Laban’s daughters, made privately to Jacob earlier in this chapter (verses 1416). What other clues can you identify within our parashah?
December 9, 2006 – 18 Kislev 5767 Annual: Genesis 32:4-36:43 (Etz Hayim, p. 198; Hertz p. 122) Triennial Cycle: Genesis 35:16-36:43 (Etz Hayim, p. 214; Hertz p. 130) Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1 – 21 (Etz Hayim, p. 222; Hertz p. 137) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah On his way back to Canaan, Jacob prepares to see his brother Esau. When Jacob had departed 20 years earlier, Esau had wanted to kill him. Now Jacob prepares to mollify his brother, and to defend his household if the need should arise. Jacob follows a route that will bring his family directly toward Esau, lest Esau feel that Jacob is purposely avoiding him. In order to achieve this, Jacob brings his family across the ford of the Jabbok River at night – a rather hazardous procedure. Having successfully crossed the river, and while still anticipating the unavoidable meeting with Esau, Jacob is surprised by an “angel” who wrestles with him. On the next day, a surprisingly amicable reunion takes place with Esau. Relieved, Jacob heads for the north of Israel, settling for a time in Shekhem. It is there that Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a young local man, and two of her brothers exact revenge from the community, to Jacob’s great dismay. Jacob then undertakes a pilgrimage to Beth El to express his gratitude to God at the very spot where he had prayed for divine protection twenty years earlier, when he had been fleeing from Esau. This is apparently an opportunity for a religious rededication on the part of Jacob’s entire household. As they are moving south from Beth El, Rachel dies in childbirth. Before her passing, she is aware that a healthy baby boy (Benjamin) has been born. Isaac dies at a ripe old age. He is buried by Esau and Jacob, who are apparently coexisting amicably. Curiously, the Torah provides no information about the passing of Rebecca. God renames Jacob with the new name Israel. The balance of the parashah occupies itself with the genealogy of Jacob’s descendants and then with the genealogy of Esau’s descendants. Issue #1: Anticipating a Confrontation with Esau Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed. (Genesis 32:8) The apparent redundancy within this text caught the eye of Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, who lived in second-century Palestine under Roman rule. Rabbi Judah looked at each component separately (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 76):
“Was greatly afraid” – lest he be killed. “Was distressed” – lest he kill. What tactics did Jacob adopt to protect himself and his family from these twin perils? Why was the second, “lest he kill,” significant? Issue #2: Jacob in Wrong Place Much has been written about Jacob wrestling with the “angel.” It has been debated whether this is an account of an actual episode in the patriarch’s life or, perhaps, an account of a significant dream of Jacob’s. For the moment, let us back up a step or two to see how it came about that Jacob was alone and physically vulnerable. The text of the Torah spells out (Genesis 32:23-24) that after Jacob had brought all the members of his family safely across the ford of Jabbok, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was then left alone. It was at this point in the procedure that the conflict with the stranger took place, resulting in the wrestling episode. There is a puzzlement embedded in this text. If Jacob already had seen to the transferring of all his possessions across the river, then what business could possibly have brought him back across the river, away from his family, especially at this time, when protecting his loved ones was clearly Jacob’s top priority? A comment in the Talmud (Hullin 91a) suggests that Jacob remembered some small vessels that had not been brought across, and he returned to retrieve them. It is suggested that Jacob focused his attention on “small vessels” rather than on the big picture. Was Jacob motivated, perhaps, by nostalgia? In our own lives, how do we attempt to strike a balance between careful attention to small details on the one hand, and seeing the big picture on the other hand?
PARASHAT VAYESHEV - BIRKAT HAHODESH FIRST DAY HANUKKAH - SECOND HANUKKAH CANDLE
December 16, 2006 – 25 Kislev 5767 Annual: Genesis 37:1-40:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 226; Hertz p. 141) Triennial Cycle: Genesis 39:1-40:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 238; Hertz p. 147) Maftir: Numbers 7:1-7:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 805; Hertz p. 596) Haftarah: Zehariah 2:14-4:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 1270; Hertz p. 987) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah The story line of our Torah portion is quite familiar, thanks in part to the lively Broadway musical Joseph and the Amazing Technical Dreamcoat. Joseph, the favored son, inspires the envy of his brothers. Jacob, his father, had surely had good intentions when he gave Joseph a coat of many colors, but those good intentions clearly backfired. To make matters worse, Joseph naively shared with his brothers dreams that indicated that he seemed destined to rule over them. Eventually the brothers sought to rid themselves of this nuisance. They almost killed Joseph, but cooler heads prevailed. Joseph was sold into slavery and transported to Egypt. Since we in North America live in a world that is far removed from slavery, it is natural for us to assume that all slaves were equally at the bottom rung of society. Upon reflection, though, we should understand that there were varying levels of status for slaves, based on their perceived trustworthiness and diligence, as well as their talents, which might be profitable or convenient to their masters. To make a long story short, Joseph rose within the hierarchy of slaves, until one day he was unexpectedly framed by the wife of his master Potiphar and was abruptly imprisoned. Even within the jail Joseph’s talents asserted themselves, and he eventually was given an administrative position inside the prison. When two of the Pharaoh’s leading servants, who also had been jailed, experienced disturbing dreams, Joseph was able to interpret these dreams to their satisfaction. Yet at the conclusion of the parashah, Joseph is still in prison. He hopes that Pharaoh’s newly freed cupbearer will put in a good word for him, but there are no guarantees. Issue #1: Ancient and Modern Interpretation of Dreams Sigmund Freud’s theory, which strongly influences the understanding of dreams within our present-day culture, suggests that dreams reflect what is going on within the mind of the dreamer. Using this theory, which is just over a century
old, dreams would be a potentially useful tool for learning about the dreamer and his inner turmoil. The prevalent theory of dreams in the biblical world, which is clearly reflected in our Torah portion, is that dreams are a means through which the divine will is revealed to human beings. Thus Joseph is not being boastful or brash when he says to the cupbearer and to the baker, both of whom were distraught because of their inability to understand the meaning of their dreams, “Surely interpretations belong to God. Tell me” (Genesis 40:8) – and perhaps God will reveal to me the meaning of your dreams. (A similar perspective is expressed in Genesis 41:16.) In their world, dreams were viewed as a tool for understanding what plans God had for the future of the dreamer or even of the nation. What were the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer? What were his baker’s dreams? What clues did Joseph find within these dreams to indicate what lay in store for these executive servants? Issue #2: In Search of a Ticket out of Jail Joseph understood that the baker would be executed shortly, and that the cupbearer would be freed. Lacking other means to facilitate his quest for freedom, he asked the cupbearer, who had just been the beneficiary of Joseph’s unusual insight, to plead his case when he was released, and so to assist in ending Joseph’s imprisonment. In the closing verse of our parashah we are told: “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), commenting on this apparently repetitious verse, suggests that the cupbearer not only did not mention Joseph to Pharaoh, he also did not think of him. In other words, not only did he not recall Joseph to others; he actively suppressed the memory of Joseph in his own thinking. There were at least two strong reasons why the cupbearer might behave this way. Can you articulate these reasons? (Hint: One reason has to do with putting memories of an unpleasant experience behind him, while the other relates to safeguarding his status within Pharaoh’s court.) It would take strong pressure to force the cupbearer-in-chief to recall Joseph to others. Fortunately, just such a situation arises in next week’s parashah. A Note on the Maftir The special reading for Hanukkah is relegated to the second Torah scroll, a less-than-featured position. In our highlight-conscious society, we are conditioned to expect that anything that is special or out-of-the-ordinary should have a featured status. Jewish tradition teaches otherwise. It is a wellestablished principle in Jewish law that a regular, recurrent activity takes precedence over a sporadic or one-time activity. We are encouraged to maintain our ongoing pursuits, and to add our periodic special events to them.
Colorful activities are a wonderful supplement to our everyday commitments but not a replacement for them.
December 23, 2006 – 2 Tevet 5767 Annual: Genesis Genesis 41:1-44:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 250; Hertz p. 155) Triennial Cycle: Genesis 43:16-44:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 265; Hertz p. 163) Maftir: Numbers 7:54 – 8:4 (Etz Hayim, p. 809; Hertz p. 599) Haftarah: I Kings >7:40 – 50 (Etz Hayim, p. 1274; Hertz p. 990) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Joseph, the lowly Canaanite/Hebrew slave, has been languishing in an Egyptian prison for two more years after he successfully interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer. His incarceration might have continued indefinitely, except that Pharaoh has a pair of troubling dreams. When no interpretation from his usual advisors satisfies Pharaoh, the butler reluctantly recounts the tale of his own imprisonment, culminating in a glowing recommendation for Joseph as an interpreter of dreams. Joseph is immediately summoned from prison, tidied up, and brought before Pharaoh. Upon hearing the content of Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph conveys an interpretation that foretells seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. But Joseph also goes beyond his mandate to interpret the dreams; he recommends a plan of action to Pharaoh that would use the bumper crops of the first seven years to cushion Egypt against the ravages of the famine that is to follow. Pharaoh, impressed with Joseph’s insight and initiative, appoints him as viceroy with broad powers to implement the plan. The plan works successfully. As the famine eventually spreads to neighboring countries, Jacob and his 11 remaining sons in Canaan run short of food. Jacob deputizes 10 of the sons to go to Egypt to procure food for their extended family. Benjamin alone is to remain with Jacob. The brothers gain an audience with the Egyptian viceroy Zaphenath-paneah (who, unbeknownst to them, is actually their brother Joseph). The viceroy accuses them of being spies and grills them with questions, eliciting a mention of their brother Benjamin. Expressing skepticism that Benjamin really exists, he stuns the brothers by imprisoning Simeon. Joseph sends the brothers back to Canaan with ample provisions. However, he warns them that he will refuse to see them again unless they bring Benjamin with them. There is a dual incentive for them to return to Egypt: a. Although Joseph has given them all the food they could carry, they would eventually need to return for more. b. Simeon is still a prisoner, and the brothers should want to regain his freedom. When they return to Canaan, Jacob is pleased to have food for his household. But he is displeased that Simeon is not free, and he is still reluctant to consider
letting Benjamin out of his sight. After all, Jacob had lost his beloved wife Rachel, as well as her older son, Joseph. Only Rachel’s younger son, Benjamin, remains. Reuben fails to change Jacob’s mind. Eventually, as food supplies begin to run low, Judah gets Jacob to relent. The brothers meet with Joseph in Egypt. Joseph is pleased to see Benjamin; Simeon is set free. Joseph sees to it that the brothers are supplied with plenty of food, but then he directs his servants to frame Benjamin for theft. The brothers are intercepted on their way back to Canaan and Benjamin is imprisoned. Issue #1: Jacob's Protectiveness of Benjamin Why does Jacob refuse Reuben’s request (42:37) but gives in to Judah’s plea (43:8-10) to let Benjamin travel to Egypt? This is a multilayered question. The primary answer has to do with the content of Judah’s message compared to Reuben’s. You may wish to examine the substance and tone of their words. A secondary answer has more to do with empathy and shared experience. (Hint: Judah has lost two adult sons. The details, related in Chapter 38, verses 7 and 10, are not expressly related to our story. But our knowledge of information from previous chapters legitimately may be assumed by the Bible.) Why is Jacob predisposed to listen to Judah about the dangers that may threaten an adult son? Issue #2: Joseph's Manipulation of his Brothers It is no exaggeration to say that as viceroy, Joseph repeatedly sought to manipulate his brothers. Quite conceivably, we may not agree with his tactics. And we also may suspect that the desire for revenge may have played a role. Setting aside our reservations about his tactics and about revenge for a moment, we should address the following questions: a. What information and memories did Joseph hope to elicit from his brothers? b. What thoughts/reflections/realizations did he seek to lead them toward? c. What did he hope that they would express? Looking ahead within the biblical narrative, did Joseph achieve these goals? A Note about the Maftir People often wonder why the Torah portion designated for the eighth day of Hanukkah is longer than average. Keep in mind that all the Hanukkah readings are borrowed from the story of the dedication of the mishkan – the portable sanctuary – because of the parallel to Hanukkah’s theme of rededication. When the mishkan was dedicated, representatives of 12 tribes brought offerings on successive days. For the first seven days of Hanukkah, we can quote from the
first seven days of the dedication ceremony, one offering per day. But, because Hanukkah is only eight days long, we have five tribes’ offerings to deal with on our eighth day, plus a summary of the 12 original days’ offerings. It should be noted that this longer-than-average maftir happens to be paired with a shorterthan-average haftara.
December 30, 2006 – 9 Tevet 5767 Annual: Genesis 44:18-47:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 274; Hertz p. 169) Triennial Cycle: Genesis 46:28-47:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 283; Hertz p. 174) Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15 – 28 (Etz Hayim, p. 291; Hertz p. 178) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Benjamin has been framed, and he appears destined to be a slave to the viceroy of Egypt. Judah knows that such a development will be utterly devastating to Jacob, his father, so he approaches the viceroy and retells the tale of Jacob’s personal losses and of his own personal guarantee to Jacob of Benjamin’s safety. The viceroy – Joseph – is deeply moved by Judah’s words, and he blurts out that he is indeed their brother Joseph. Joseph takes the sting out of this surprise by explaining that he views his own presence in Egypt as part of a divine plan to preserve life during the famine. He then urges the brothers to bring Jacob to Egypt without delay. Joseph plans to take care of the whole extended family. Upon hearing that Joseph is alive and in control of affairs in Egypt, Jacob’s heart skips a beat. He is eager to see Joseph again, although he is somewhat reluctant to leave Canaan. God reassures him that traveling to Egypt is the right course of action. Once they get settled in Egypt, Joseph arranges to introduce some of his brothers, as well as his father, to the Pharaoh in a favorable context. Meanwhile Joseph, as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, arranges to buy vast farmlands in Egypt on behalf of the monarchy, in exchange for food and seed. Many Egyptian farmers become sharecroppers as a result. Meanwhile, the Israelites seem to be off to a good start in Egypt. Issue #1: Hesitation About Leaving the Promised Land In Israel, Beersheva has always been the gateway to the south. As Chapter 46 opens, Jacob has begun his journey to Egypt by traveling to Beersheva. He pauses, perhaps reluctant to leave the Promised Land again. His father, Isaac, had never left it. God reassures Jacob: Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes [when you die]. Where else had Jacob lived, besides the land of Canaan? Had life been pleasant for him outside the Promised Land?
In what ways might God’s words have been comforting or encouraging to Jacob? Issue #2: Judah's New Task [Jacob] had sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to point the way before him to Goshen. (Genesis 46:28) This verse is puzzling for two reasons. First of all, it seems to arise in a vacuum. The story line was interrupted in Genesis 46:8 by Jacob’s genealogy; the text lists the 70 members of his family. Sending Judah to Joseph must be understood as the resumption of the narrative. Secondly, we wonder why Judah – or for that matter anyone else – might have to point the way to Goshen. After all, we know that all of Joseph’s brothers already have made the trip successfully. In fact, nine of the brothers have done it twice. (Benjamin and Simon have each completed one round trip.) There seems to be little need for a navigator. Two views of Judah’s task are worthy of mention. The first is that Judah was the family’s advance man, coordinating logistical arrangements to allow them all to settle smoothly in the assigned district of Goshen. The second view, drawn from the midrash, is concerned with preparations for their spiritual life: Rabbi Nehemiah said: [“to point the way” means] to establish a house of study, which will teach Torah there, so that the tribes shall read the Torah therein. (B’reisheit Rabbah 95:3) Note: The Hebrew word that has been translated “to point the way” is l’horot, which comes from the same root as moreh (teacher), horim (parents), and Torah. In modern Hebrew, a tour guide is called a moreh-derekh. We may wonder about the content of the “Torah” that was available to the tribes to study then. But this comment arguably tells us more about the times and perceptions of Rabbi Nehemiah than it does about the plain meaning of this particular verse. Rabbi Nehemiah, who lived in the second century C.E., was one of the few students of Rabbi Akiva to survive the Hadrianic persecutions. He devoted his life to reestablishing venues for the study of Judaism and to restoring the vitality of Jewish life in Israel under radically changed circumstances. We can well imagine the heartfelt commitment that Rabbi Nehemiah was expressing to the Jews of his time through that midrashic comment. In what ways might this comment speak to us, given that we live free of persecution? What would Rabbi Nehemiah tell us today about communal and institutional priorities?
PARASHAT VAYEHI - HAZAK SHABBAT
January 6, 2007 – 16 Tevet 5767 Annual: Genesis 47:28-50:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 293; Hertz p. 180) Triennial Cycle: Genesis 49:27-50:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 305; Hertz p. 187) Haftarah: I Kings 2:1 – 12 (Etz Hayim, p. 313; Hertz p. 191) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah In his final days, Jacob extracts an oath from Joseph to bury him in his ancestral burial place in Canaan. When Joseph brings his two sons to visit their ailing grandfather, Jacob blesses them both, although not in the order that Joseph expects. Jacob addresses personalized parting comments to each of his sons, recapitulating some of the salient points of their lives and anticipating what the future may hold for them and their descendants. After Joseph and his brothers bury Jacob in Canaan, Joseph builds upon his earlier remarks (Genesis 45:5-8) to the effect that sending him involuntarily to Egypt had been part of a greater divine plan to save many lives. He has rationalized that his ascendancy to a position of leadership in Egypt had facilitated the survival for Jacob and all his extended family in a time of famine. Before his death, Joseph obtains a commitment from his kin to eventually rebury him in Canaan when they or their descendants eventually leave Egypt. Issue #1: Residence in Egypt vs. Destiny in the Promised Land After Jacob’s death, his sons dutifully escort his body to Canaan and bury him in the family burial space. There is no surprise here; in Genesis 47:29-31 Joseph had sworn to his father that he would do exactly that. In fact, Joseph referred to that very oath as he requested permission to journey to Canaan to attend to Jacob’s burial from Pharaoh (Genesis 50:4-6). It is also not surprising that Joseph returned to Egypt after burying his father. After all, he had lived in Egypt virtually all his adult life. His wife was certainly of Egyptian origin, and his sons had been born and raised in Egypt. Moreover, in case Joseph might succumb to a hankering for the Old Country, we are told that he was accompanied by a significant Egyptian entourage, which would be an obstacle to bailing out of his expected return to continue working for Pharaoh (Genesis 50:7-9). But what are we to make of Joseph’s brothers’ voluntary return to Egypt? Hadn’t they just come to Egypt temporarily to wait out the famine that had afflicted Canaan? Jacob had lived in Egypt for 17 years, as specified in Genesis 47:28, and so had his sons. We can understand that moving Jacob back to Canaan
during his final years probably was not practical. But why would Joseph’s brothers not plan to remain in Canaan after journeying there to bury their father? The text of the Torah does not even hint at this question. If we are to explore this question, we must use our own intuition and life experience. Could we say that there is a parallel between this issue and the oft-asked question about why Jews continue to live in North America, when no one is actively preventing them from moving to Israel? Is the issue different for the brothers who had just recently left Canaan and Joseph who had lived so long away? Issue #2: The Pardoning of Joseph's Brothers After Jacob’s burial, in Genesis 50:15-17 Joseph’s brothers assert that during his lifetime Jacob had directed that Joseph pardon his brothers for having sold him into slavery. However, unlike the oath cited above, which Joseph quoted to Pharaoh, this is a directive that we are now learning of for the first time. If no such utterance is recorded, we are tempted to wonder whether the brothers are faithfully transmitting Jacob’s words or simply fabricating them. If we suspect a fabrication on the part of the brothers, we are in good company. Rashi (1040-1105) cites a Talmudic discussion (Yevamot 65b) of this issue suggesting that the brothers invented Jacob’s directive. His logic is echoed in the Etz Hayim commentary on the Torah: We have no reason to believe that Jacob ever learned the truth about how Joseph came to Egypt. If he had, would he not have rebuked them for what they did, as he rebuked Reuben, Simeon, and Levi? Obviously, if Jacob did not know that Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery, he would have had no reason to issue a directive to Joseph to forgive his brothers. What justification, if any, can be given for the brothers’ fabrication of their father’s words?
PARASHAT SHEMOT - BIRKAT HAHODESH
January 13, 2007 – 23 Tevet 5767 Annual: Exodus 1:1-6:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 317; Hertz p. 206) Triennial Cycle: Exodus 4:18-6:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 335; Hertz p. 220) Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23 (Etz Hayim, p. 343, 347; Hertz p. 225, 228) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah As we begin Sefer Shemot, the second book of the Torah, we take a moment to recall a verse from Beresheit. Joseph and his brothers have died; but before Joseph’s death he exhorts his brothers, saying: God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Genesis 50:24) The Israelites still living in Egypt, now more numerous than before, encounter a changed reality – a new Pharaoh clearly feels threatened by their burgeoning population in the midst of Egypt. To complicate matters, the Israelites no longer have Joseph as viceroy, able to put in a good word for them with the ruler. The new Pharaoh attempts to initiate measures to control the demographic explosion of the Israelites. In the midst of this turbulent period, Moses is born. Through a fortuitous series of events, he comes to be adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. In early adulthood, apparently aware of his Israelite ancestry, he exhibits compassion for an oppressed Israelite. Very soon he finds himself fleeing Egypt and settling in Midian, where he meets his wife-to-be. Working as a shepherd, Moses encounters a vision of God in a burning bush. God informs Moses that He has observed the suffering of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians, and that He is ready to redeem them from their enslavement. Echoing the above-cited verse (and expanding upon its theme), God says to Moses: Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: the Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me and said, “I have taken notice of you and what is being done to you in Egypt, and I have declared: I will take you out of the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:16-17) God arms Moses with signs and wonders, which will be discussed below.
Issue #1: Convincing Moses The encounter with God at the burning bush should have been enough to convince Moses of the importance of his mission. However, Moses expresses concern over the people’s possible reaction to his unusual message. We are not entirely certain whether Moses really meant that the people would have doubts, or whether this was his indirect way of telling God that Moses himself still had doubts. In the opening section of Chapter 4 (verses 1-9), God provides Moses with some signs that would be hard to ignore. Commenting on this section, W. Gunther Plaut, a Reform rabbi who was born in 1912, offers the following analysis: The signs, then, were of secondary importance in convincing Israel and of no significance in convincing Pharaoh. Perhaps the primary impact was on Moses himself. It is he who in a moment of great anxiety and upheaval needs some reassurance. The signs help him to gain confidence and to overcome his latest objection. They are a temporary device, of psychological import for him, and of ceremonial meaning to the people. In neither case are they of the essence. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, page 404) Do you agree with Plaut’s analysis? Is Moses indeed strengthened by the repertoire of signs that God supplies for him? Do the signs appear to allay his concerns? If not, how do you suppose he felt when his rod turned into a snake, or when his hand became encrusted? Might there have been some other purpose to these signs, besides convincing Moses? Issue #2: Convincing the Israelites At the close of Chapter 4, we read the following: Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. Aaron repeated all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people. The people were convinced; they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites and that He had seen their plight, and they bowed low in homage. (Exodus 4:29-31) Moses’ apprehensions seem to have been exaggerated. The people, evidently inspired by his mission, embrace it wholeheartedly. What convinced the Israelites to support Moses and Aaron in their endeavor? Later on, we see that the Israelites wavered in their support of Moses’ campaign. Why do you suppose that they could be shaken so easily from supporting Moses and Aaron? Could it be that the easily convinced are also the easily unconvinced? In what ways can Moses’ experience speak to us in our lives? When we approach a new task, what tricks do we need to increase our comfort level? As we plan for presentations, how do we prepare ourselves to help make our case
to our audience? Are there ways (leaving aside God’s active presence in the situation) that parallel Moses’ arguments to God?
PARASHAT VAERA - ROSH HODESH
January 20, 2007 – 1 Shevat 5767 Annual: Ex. 6:2 – 9:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 351; Hertz p. 232) Triennial Cycle: Ex. 8:16-9:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 362; Hertz p. 240) Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1 – 24, :66:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 1220 Hertz p. 944) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah God renews the promise of redemption to Moses and the Israelites. The first seven of the ten plagues occur in this parashah. Pharaoh is stubborn, refusing to accede to Moses’ requests. (He seems to regard the plagues as magic, magic, moreover, that his own magicians sometimes can match.) Under the duress of a plague, he does appear to go along with Moses and claims to be ready to free the people, but after the crisis passes he changes his mind. Issue #1: Who's in Charge: Pharaoh, Moses, or God? From time to time, we all have seen situations in which a toddler’s petulant behavior may dictate the behavior of the adults in the room. Through stubbornness or impulsiveness, the child finds a way to control the actions of those who ought to be in charge. Sometimes, however, parents may have made a conscious decision to avoid bickering with the child, and they allow the child to think that he/she can decide what happens next, while in fact they have carefully limited the range of possible outcomes. In the unfolding drama of this week’s parashah, Pharaoh behaves in a petulant, almost infantile, manner. While we can understand that a monarch may have a need to demonstrate control over his surroundings – especially a monarch who seeks to project an aura of divinity – we sense that Pharaoh has gone overboard. Meanwhile, Moses is assisting God in demonstrating that Pharaoh is a mere mortal, powerless to counteract divinely ordained plagues. Time and again, Pharaoh appears to surrender under pressure. However, once the crisis of the moment has passed, Pharaoh reasserts his kingly prerogatives. Pharaoh seems to be accustomed to using people to extract from them the results that serve his purposes. In Pharaoh’s mind, Moses is a useful instrument for communicating with the God of the Israelites, particularly for bringing an end to the plague of the moment. This attitude may reflect the close intertwining of magic and religion in ancient Egypt. Moses surely is aware that this pigeonholing is not a compliment to Moses, and certainly not to God. It is no surprise that Moses, who does not have the power to dictate every detail of Pharaoh’s behavior, sometimes humors Pharaoh by allowing him the illusion of control. At the end of the second plague, we read the following dialogue:
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Plead with the Lord to remove the frogs from me and from my people, and I will let the [Israelite] people go to sacrifice to the Lord.” And Moses said to Pharaoh, “You may have this triumph over me: for what time shall I plead in behalf of you and your courtiers and your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses, to remain only in the Nile?” “For tomorrow,” he replied. And [Moses] said, as you say – that you may know that there is none like the Lord our God; the frogs shall retreat from you and your courtiers and your people; they shall remain only in the Nile.” But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he became stubborn and would not heed them, as the Lord had spoken. (Exodus 8:4-12) In connection with which other plagues did Pharaoh make promises and then change his mind? This assumes that the decisions Pharaoh made were totally under his control. There is a tradition in Midrash Rabbah that suggests that Pharaoh didn’t have the choice to choose: When God perceived that he did not relent after the first five plagues, He decided that even if Pharaoh now wished to repent, He would harden his heart in order to exact the whole punishment from him. As the Lord had spoken to Moses – for so it is written: “And I will harden Pharaoh's heart.” How does that rabbinic understanding influence the way we might perceive the drama taking place between Moses and Pharaoh? If Pharaoh did not have the ability to keep his promises, could they really be promises? What of today’s politicians, who make what seem to be promises knowing that they cannot keep them? Issue #2: Punishment A just God wishes to avoid collective punishment of all the people of Egypt. This is not easily accomplished, because the behavior of their intransigent monarch must be changed. The seventh plague, hail, was designed in such a way that free Egyptians who heeded God’s warnings were able to escape harm. Those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared the Lord’s word brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety; but those who paid no regard to the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the open. (Exodus 9:20-21) The rabbis, in Midrash Rabbah, wondered why God would “punish” the land of Egypt: Why did He bring hail upon them? Because they had made the Israelites planters of their vineyards, gardens, orchards, and trees; on this account did He bring upon them hail which destroyed all these plantations. Why would that be an important question to address? Is there a lesson we can learn when the rabbis make the point that even the land was to be punished for mistreating the Israelites?
Yet, ultimately it was not just the land, but some of the Egyptian people as well who suffered from the plague. Midrash Rabbah notes: “Upon men and upon beast.” When God saw that they heeded not His warning: “bring in the cattle,” He said, “They deserve that the hail should descend upon all things.” Can we understand this issue of punishment in the context of the area of choice noted above? If there were Egyptians who chose to follow God’s directive, were they treated differently than their neighbors who did not? Could this have been away of lessening the impact on the Egyptians for Pharaoh’s decisions? Many of the plagues distinguished in their impact between the Israelites and the Egyptian population. Note the differential impact of the plagues, as narrated in the following passages: Exodus 8:18-20, Exodus 9:6, and Exodus 10:23. For each of those plagues, are there ways of understanding why the difference in impact between the Egyptians and the Israelites?
January 27, 2007 – 8 Shevat 5767 Annual: Ex. 10:1 – 13:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 374; Hertz p. 248) Triennial Cycle: Ex. 12:29 – 13:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 387; Hertz p. 258) Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13 – 28 (Etz Hayim, p. 395; Hertz p. 263) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah As the parashah begins the plagues continue, growing in intensity. Pharaoh remains intransigent in the face of locusts, and then of darkness. Moses warns him about the impending plague of the first-born. Through Moses, God commands the Israelites to sacrifice lambs in Egypt, a practice that ran against the grain of Egyptian society and religion. Moses also directs the Israelites to prepare to leave Egypt promptly on what is likely to be short notice. In fact, they depart so hastily that their bread dough has no time to rise. The Israelites are told to perpetuate the memory of their departure from Egypt by retelling the story to their children throughout the generations. Issue #1: Recurrent Consciousness of the Exodus from Egypt The exodus from Egypt holds an important place in the consciousness of the Jewish people. Many commandments carry the rationale that the mitzvah is to be followed because it serves as “zeikher liytziat Mitzrayim” – because it “recalls the Exodus from Egypt.” A partial list of such practices would include:
• • • •
The Sabbath -- slaves could not observe it -- Deuteronomy 5:15 Passover 1. the seder: positive commandment to retell the story to the next generation 2. the commandment to refrain from eating leavened foods Shavuot 1. first of the Ten Commandments 2. rejoicing on festivals, along with those less fortunate (Deuteronomy 16:12) Sukkot - Commandment to dwell in a sukkah (Leviticus 23:42-43) Tefillin (so-called phylacteries) Tzitzit (fringes on a tallit) Daily liturgy 1. The bracha following the Sh’ma 2. The second bracha of Birkat Ha-Mazon (grace after meals) Commandment to act with compassion toward the stranger in our midst Commandment to leave surplus of the harvest for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow (Deuteronomy 24:19-22)
Commandment to release Hebrew slaves in the seventh year, with gifts (Deuteronomy 15:15)
Reviewing this list, we can note that the link between some of them and the Israelites’ departure from Egypt is obvious. With others, the connection is less direct, if not completely obscure. Review the list and take some time to identify what ties each mitzvah to the Exodus. For the items for which the connection is less than obvious, what are the ways by which the connection could be understood? Consider as well, in what way does the connection to the exodus enrich the reasoning for keeping the mitzvah? Among those mitzvot, are there some for which such a tie to the exodus does not add to the meaning of observance? Issue #2: Tefillin: A Daily Reminder of Our History as Slaves As symbols, tefillin are not widely understood. The Greeks called them “phylacteries” – amulets – because they perceived them to be charms designed to protect Jews’ spiritual cleanliness. In modern times, many Jews seem to feel uneasy about tefillin because their symbolic value does not translate smoothly into American culture. Moreover, tefillin are not worn on Shabbat or on festival days, which is when the largest number of Jews gather for prayer. Many Jews do not often see tefillin in use. Inside the tefillin’s small black leather box, the one which is worn on the arm, there is a piece of parchment with four Torah passages written on it. The four passages are:
• • • •
Exodus 13:1-10 Exodus 13:11-16 Deuteronomy 6:4-9 Deuteronomy 11:13-21
As you can see, this morning’s parashah is the only one that contains more than one of these tefillin passages. It is not easy to pinpoint why Jews are commanded to wear tefillin. However, if someone had set out to invent a physical reminder of slavery, it is hard to imagine a more effective one than tefillin. A slave’s strength and the work of his hands belong to his master. (The leather straps of the tefillin are wrapped around the arm and the hand.) The products of the slave’s creativity and thought likewise are the property of his master. (Tefillin also are placed on the head.) We who have been freed from slavery accept the opportunity to envision ourselves as former slaves every day, and to remind ourselves that our freedom must have a higher purpose. If Jews wear tefillin to remind ourselves that God freed us from slavery in Egypt, it would be nice to know that God, too, views this relationship as a special one. In an imaginative passage in the Talmud, it is suggested that God has tefillin of His own. Since God was neither a slave in Egypt nor the descendant of a slave,
the content of His “personal” tefillin would be different from the content of ours. According to this passage in Brachot 6a, the text inside God’s tefillin reads: “And who is like Your people Israel, unique throughout the world?” (This passage, borrowed from II Samuel 7:23, is recited weekly in our liturgy for Shabbat afternoons.) When the tefillin are wound around the fingers, the following verses are said: And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, And with goodness and mercy, And I will espouse you with faithfulness; Then you shall be devoted to the Lord. (Hosea 2:21-22) Is there a reason why the rabbis might have chosen a verse with the word “espousal” for the act of winding the tefillin on your fingers? Is there a relationship between those words and the idea of tefillin as a sign of commitment to God when we take the few moments each weekday to bind God’s word to us? For an exploration of the early history of tefillin, see the notable essay on “T’fillin and M’zuzot” by Jeffrey H. Tigay in Etz Hayim, pages 1464-1467. This essay may also be found in the smaller volume Etz Hayim: Study Companion.
PARASHAT BESHALLAH - TU B’SHEVAT SHABBAT SHIRAH
February 3, 2007 – 15 Shevat 5767 Annual: Ex. 13:17 – 17:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 399; Hertz p. 265) Triennial Cycle: Ex. 14:26 – 17:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 405; Hertz p. 269) Haftarah: Judges 4:4 – 5:31 (Etz Hayim, p. 424; Hertz p. 281) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Following the tenth plague, the Israelites left Egypt promptly. It did not take long for Pharaoh to change his mind about allowing them to leave and to send his army, complete with chariots, in hot pursuit of the former slaves. The army threatened to overtake the Israelites at the Reed Sea (known to some as the Red Sea. Scholars disagree as to the exact location of this body of water). The miraculous crossing of the parted sea by the Israelites is a miracle about which we take note in our prayer services every day, as we quote from it. We say “mikomokhah,” at both Shaharit and Arvit services. Chapter 15 of Exodus, which we read this morning, contains a celebration of the crossing of the sea in lyric song. Not long after they crossed the sea, the Israelites complained to Moses about their lack of food, and then of their lack of fresh water. Both these problems were resolved, although not without friction and testing. The Israelite camp is attacked by the warriors of Amalek. Under Moses’ leadership, the attack is successfully repelled. God directs Moses to record this event. Issue #1: Trapped by the Egyptian Army As the Israelites were being chased by Pharaoh’s army, their only escape route was blocked by the Sea of Reeds. Limited options were available. Some of the recently freed slaves chose to express themselves through protest: Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying: Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness! (Exodus 14:11-12) Moses preferred to pray; but God said to him in response: Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward! (Exodus 14:15)
Clearly this was a time for definitive action. Although the text of the Torah does not specify exactly who seized the initiative, a midrash related in the Talmud, aptly enough in the name of Rabbi Judah, seeks to fill in this gap. This tribe said: “I will not descend first into the sea,” and that tribe said: “I will not descend first into the sea.” Nahshon ben Aminadav (of the tribe of Judah) sprang forward and descended into the sea. (Sotah 37a) Nahson’s leadership apparently was rewarded later, when he was selected to be the first of the tribal representatives to bring an offering at the ceremony of commemoration of the mishkan – the portable sanctuary – in the desert (Numbers 7:12). When is reliance on quick action mandated? When is a slower approach a better one? Is it possible to devise guidelines as to when a problem needs to be studied and contemplated, and when definitive action should be undertaken? Can one create guidelines which are universally applicable? Or, could it be this is an example of what must be situationally decided? Issue #2: Manna and Sabbath Observance Chapter 16 is devoted to the sustenance of the Israelites, both physically and spiritually. First we read the complaint of the people that they lack the ready availability of foods that they had in Egypt. God responds by telling Moses: I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion – that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not. But on the sixth day, when they prepare what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather each day. (Exodus 16:4-5) Later, there is more instruction about the observance of the Shabbat, still using the manna as a context for teaching. On a Friday, the people were told: Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy Sabbath of the Lord. Bake what you would bake and cook what you would cook; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning. To this day, many Jews place two loaves of challah on the Shabbat table to honor the Sabbath and to recall the gift of manna in the desert. This practice of placing a double portion on the table is referred to as lechem mishneh, a phrase borrowed directly from verse 22 of this chapter. It is many people’s custom to have two loaves of challah not only on Friday evening, but for Shabbat lunch as well. The Shulkhan Arukh, a basic code of law from the medieval period, mandates: “The ‘great kiddush’ is said with two loaves, just as in the evening.” (Laws of Shabbat, Oreh Hayim 289)
Why has the custom of having two loaves at each meal, not just on Friday night, remain strong? Should we spend some time each week explaining this custom? Are there other such customs for Shabbat and Holy Days that might benefit from regular review and discussion? As you reread Chapter 16, what other incidents about manna do you find? Notice the guidelines given to the people about how to collect and eat the manna. How did those who sought to test the limits learn that these rules were more than mere suggestions?
February 10, 2007 – 22 Shevat 5767 Annual: Ex. 18:1 – 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 432; Hertz p. 288) Triennial: Ex. 19:1 – 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 436; Hertz p. 290) Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6:9:5-6 (Etz Hayim, p. 452; Hertz p. 302) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Parashat Yitro features two sources of wisdom. The first source is Jethro – in Hebrew, Yitro – Moses’ father-in-law. The second source, showcased within our parashah, is the Almighty, giving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Not long after the exodus from Egypt, Yitro visits Moses, bringing along Moses’ wife, Tziporah, and their two sons, who apparently had been staying with Yitro during the trying times of the plagues. Yitro observes Moses at work on a typical day. He notes that Moses spends his entire day on judicial and political matters, without delegating any of these tasks. Yitro tells his son-in-law that he will surely wear himself out by continuing in this manner, and that obviously will be harmful to Moses and ultimately not helpful to the Israelites. He makes specific recommendations about how Moses can delegate certain tasks, while still retaining the authority to do that which he is uniquely qualified to do. Moses adopts these recommendations. At the start of Sivan, the third month since the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites entered the wilderness of Sinai. Now, in their seventh week since gaining freedom, they have yet to be imbued with a divinely ordained sense of purpose. God challenges the Israelites to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Moses directs the elders to prepare the people, over a period of three days, to receive the word of God. When the appointed day arrives, God appears amidst thunder and lightning, and Moses is called upon to ascend Mount Sinai. God enunciates the Ten Commandments. The people, overwhelmed by this divine revelation, beseech Moses to mediate between them and God. The closing verses of our parashah impart some specifications for the altar that is to be constructed for divine worship. Issue #1: The Centrality of the Ten Commandments Most Jews recognize that the Ten Commandments have constituted one of the essential foundations of Judaism throughout the generations. Even in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, when Judaism was long on sacrifices and short on liturgy, the Ten Commandments were recited daily by the kohanim in the Temple. The superintendent said to them [the kohanim], pronounce one blessing [one of the blessings before the Shema] and they did so: they then recited the Ten
Commandments, and the first, second and third sections of the Shema… (Mishnah: Tamid 5:1) That section likely sounds familiar; after the destruction of the Temple, the sparse liturgy of the Temple became the core around which our subsequent liturgy was built. Yet it did not take long before the Ten Commandments were removed from the daily prayer service. It is even possible that this occurred while the Temple was still functioning – in other words, it is possible that the Ten Commandments could be recited only in the Temple, where ritual and its context were welldefined, not in outside locations, where a different spin might be applied to them. The Talmud provides a list of the prayers that made up the liturgy of the morning service inside the Temple proper, as recited by the kohanim. As noted in Berakhot 12a, they recited the Ten Commandments, the declaration that is the Shema’s first paragraph, and the two other sections of the Shema that follow it, which begin “And it shall come to pass if ye diligently hearken” and “And the Lord said.” They continued with “True and firm,” the paragraph that follows the Shema; the Avodah, or sacrificial liturgy; and the priestly benediction, or birkat kohanim. The Talmud continues with this note: Rab Judah said in the name of Samuel: Outside the Temple also people wanted to do the same, but they were stopped on account of the insinuations of the Minim [the sectarians]. Similarly it has been taught: R. Nathan says, They sought to do the same outside the Temple, but it had long been abolished on account of the insinuations of the Minim. Rabbah b. Bar Hanah had an idea of instituting this in Sura, but R. Hisda said to him, It had long been abolished on account of the insinuations of the Minim. Amemar had an idea of instituting it in Nehardea, but R. Ashi said to him, It had long been abolished on account of the insinuations of the Minim.” This restriction on reciting the Ten Commandments was “due to the twisting of the sectarians.” It would appear that the sectarians – early Christians who after all were a group breaking away from mainstream Judaism – sought to portray the Ten Commandments as essential principles, to the exclusion of hundreds of other commandments. Requests to revive the Ten Commandments as part of the daily liturgy resurfaced periodically, even as late as the middle ages, from earnest Jews loyal to tradition. A compromise response was that the Ten Commandments could be read, especially privately, as an introduction or a postscript to the service, but not as a central section of the service. In those synagogues that follow a twentieth-century triennial cycle of Torah readings, an effort has been made to have the Ten Commandments read as part of Parashat Yitro more often than once every three years.
The Ten Commandments certainly are a central part of much legal discussion in our day. From classroom to courtroom, these few verses, or perhaps the parallel version in Deuteronomy, have been seen as representing the core of the American Judeo-Christian traditions. Yet it is fair to say that within the Jewish tradition, we do not give that kind of focus to the Ten Commandments. Do you think that we should give even more prominence to the Ten Commandments within our synagogues and/or homes? Bearing in mind the historical reasons for our reluctance to showcase the Ten Commandments, what might be some appropriate ways to call attention to the commitments embodied within them? With a great deal of secular society paying so much attention to the Ten Commandments, what kind of focus should we put on the study of the Ten Commandments? Is there a problem with the widespread display of biblical texts that we, too, hold sacred? Issue #2: What Were They Thinking Ever since the days when large numbers of Jews lived in Babylonia, there has been a system for reading through all five books of the Torah, congregationally, in a single year. We also know that there was an ancient three-year cycle among Jews living in Israel. In the twentieth century, Jews in America, knowing that tradition, began to experiment with a modified triennial cycle. We are also aware that Christians sometimes look at our Bible in a different way than we do. Even so, it is a bit surprising that a major English-language commentary on the Bible, Doubleday’s Anchor Bible, divided the book of Exodus into two volumes. The division point was in the middle of parashat Yitro. The first volume covers chapters 1 through 18, while the second volume covers chapters 19 through 40. Because the two systems divide the book differently, it is only fair to ask of each system what internal logic motivated its choice: 1. Why did the rabbis of ancient Babylonia choose to group Chapter 18 with Chapters 19 and 20, rather than connecting it to the previous chapters? 2. Let us assume that the division of the volumes in the Anchor Bible was based on a philosophical rather than a book-binding decision. Why did the editors see Chapter 18 as belonging with the previous chapters, rather than as an introduction to Chapters 19 and 20?
PARASHAT MISHPATIM - BIRKAT HAHODESH SHABBAT SHEKALIM
February 17, 2007 – 29 Shevat 5767 Annual: Ex. 21:1 – 24:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 456; Hertz p. 306) Triennial: Ex. 23:20 – 24:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 474; Hertz p. 319) Maftir: Ex. 30:11 – 16 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 352) Haftarah: II Kings 12:1 – 17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1276; Hertz p. 992) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Once they had received the Ten Commandments, the people still had to be given many legal details in order to have enough information to establish their community. While the Ten Commandments dealt with headline-worthy issues, our material for this morning is quite detail-oriented. Today’s Torah portion contains 53 of the 613 mitzvot, according to one of the widely accepted tabulations of the Torah’s commandments. The material covers a broad range of legal topics, from civil legislation to offenses against property to moral offenses. Within its verses, we find the groundwork for a Torah-based society, a groundwork expanded upon by the rabbis in the generations that followed. Near the end of our parashah, there is a ceremony for the ratification of the covenant, which is preceded by an exhortation about the Promised Land. Issue #1: An Eye for an Eye A person who injures another person is required to do a great deal more than simply say “I’m sorry.” In the words of the Torah portion: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21: 24-25) On a surface level, this text appears to mandate a vengeful form of justice in which the penalty for injuring another person is that the injurer must suffer an identical injury. We are not the first readers to ask ourselves whether a second injury in punishment serves any productive purpose. The rabbis of the Talmud – and virtually all of our traditional Jewish commentators – understand this passage to mean monetary compensation. Thus we may paraphrase the rabbinic interpretation of this verse to mean that the punishment for harming someone’s eye is to be financially responsible for the consequences of the damage. This scenario may be more complex than it first seems. Other ancient civilizations had monetary restitution as part of their law codes. Unfortunately, in those civilizations the fine sometimes was a remedy available to the wealthy, who could pay money and be excused, but not for the poor, who had no money, and therefore were punished in harsher ways. The Torah may have been
responding to inequity of this kind by stipulating a universal punishment for all offenders. But the rabbis found such a prescription to be nearly barbaric. They interpreted the statute in what they considered a more humane manner. More information on the history of such statutes may be found in the article “Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law” by Moshe Greenberg. This monograph, originally published in 1960 in a book that long has been out of print, may be read in the volume Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought, published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1995. Consider both the text of the Torah and the way in which it has been interpreted. Does one seem more just than the other? Does one system seem easier to mete out than the other? What issues could arise from doing exactly as the Torah says? Are all arms and legs of the same value? (If someone was a dancer or pianist, might that mean their arms or legs are more valuable than others?) Could this be a key to understanding the rabbis’ system? Issue #2: Deferred Gratification Following the distinctly legal material in parashat Mishpatim, we read the reassuring words of the covenant restated. God is telling the Israelites that He intends to bring them to the land of Canaan and to give it to them, sending away the peoples who had previously inhabited the land. However, this transition would not take place all at once. We are given a rationale for the gradual conquest of the land by the Israelites: I will not drive them out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts of the field multiply to your detriment. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you have increased and [can] possess the land. (Exodus 23: 29-30) Historically speaking, we tend to associate the conquest of Canaan with Joshua, shortly after the death of Moses. But it is clear in the opening chapters of the book of Judges that this was not the whole story. Chapter one of Judges paints a post-Joshua picture of Israelite life that hardly could be called peaceful. It may have taken a century or more before the Israelites solidly possessed the Promised Land in its entirety. Clearly the gradual pattern of conquest must have been a disappointment to some of the Israelites. In what way does our text, chapter 23 verses 29-30, portray an advantage to this gradualism? Is there a relationship between this section and the decision to set the people Israel on a long path to the Promised Land, rather than a more direct one? When undertaking a major project, what are the benefits of moving quickly to completion? When might it be expedient to move more slowly through the process? Issue #3: Fundraising The special Maftir portion that is read this morning stipulates a universal contribution that was to be given by rich and poor alike:
The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel. (Exodus 30:15) When should people of means be given the opportunity to give special gifts for communal projects, and when should people at all levels of wealth be treated as equals? In Deuteronomy 16:16-17, we find the following commandment regarding observance of the holidays: Three times a year — on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths — all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you. How can these two different approaches be reconciled? Do these verses offer advice on setting fees for synagogue membership or programs? Is one approach to be preferred over the other?
February 24, 2007 – 6 Adar 5767 Annual: Ex. 25:1 – 27:19 (Etz Hayim p 485; Hertz p. 326) Triennial: Ex. 26:31 – 27:19 (Etz Hayim p 491; Hertz p. 330) Haftarah: I Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 500; Hertz p. 336) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah God commands Moses to direct the Israelites to contribute materials for the construction and outfitting of a mishkan – a wilderness sanctuary – which should be a symbolic dwelling place for the divine presence within the camp of the wandering Israelites. The mishkan is to be outfitted with an ark, which will hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments, certain curtained-off holy spaces, and an altar for burnt offerings. Obviously, the Torah does not provide us with graphic illustrations of these items, although there are artist’s conceptions found in Humash Etz Hayim. Issue #1: Specifications without Illustrations One of the challenges in reading and understanding the material in these next few chapters of the book of Exodus is visualizing the mishkan and its parts. We are presented verbally with the design specifications for the mishkan and its accessories, but (not surprisingly) the Torah presents us no visual aids to assist us in picturing what the sanctuary and its vessels might have looked like. Several books have been published in recent decades to assist our imagination, in addition to the diagrams in Etz Hayim previously noted. Why did this problem not appear to be a source of frustration to Moses? Consider the following verses, drawn from various points within parashat Terumah. Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it. (Exodus 25:9) Note well, and follow the patterns for them that are being shown to you on the mountain. (Exodus 25:40) Then set up the mishkan according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain. (Exodus 26:30) Make it... as you were shown on the mountain; so shall they be made. (Exodus 27:8) In light of the above verses, we are not really surprised to read the following interpretation in the Talmud:
Rabbi Yose the son of Rabbi Judah says: [The image of] an ark of fire and a table of fire and a candelabrum of fire descended from the heavens, and Moses saw [them] and made [these items] like them. (Menahot 29a) Ordinarily, the rationalists in our midst might bristle at such a fanciful interpretation. However, the four biblical verses quoted above make it obvious that Moses had the benefit of a visual component to round out the verbal specifications of the mishkan. Is the lack of pictures of the mishkan and its accessories a hindrance as we build new or remodel sanctuaries? Would it be better for us to have a set style required for floor plans or design of arks, cups or other items? If we were taken with the photos and models that have been built of late, should we adopt or adapt them for modern use? Issue #2: Chronology in the Latter Portion of the Book of Exodus The timeline of events from this point to the end of the second book of the Torah is elusive. As presented in the text, we read the commandment to the Israelites regarding the construction of the mishkan and its vessels, followed by the incident of the golden calf, later followed by the implementation of the mishkan project. The incident of the golden calf is unsettling enough. When we consider it within the context of the letdown that followed the peak experience of revelation at Sinai, there could be a glimmer of understanding of the people Israel in the desert. We can understand that Moses, who had been the sole mediator of the divine message to the Israelites, was absent (spending an additional 40 days on Mount Sinai), and that the people lacked spiritual direction in his absence. Yet it is hard to understand how the Israelites could have felt such a pressing need for a physical representation of their contact with the divine if they were in the midst of the project of constructing the mishkan. If you are disturbed by this contradiction, you are not alone. Rashi (1040-1105), the pre-eminent traditional commentator on the Torah, felt this problem as well. In analyzing Exodus 31:18, he says: There is not a strict chronology in the Torah. The incident of the [golden] calf preceded the commandment of the construction of the Mishkan by many days. Rashi did not invent the idea that the Torah sometimes departs from a strict timeline. He is quoting a principle from the Talmud: Said R. Menasia b. Tahlifa in Rab’s name: This proves that there is no chronological order in the Torah. (Pesahim 6b) This principle does not imply disrespect for the Torah, it simply acknowledges that the Torah was designed as a book that teaches values, not as a history book. Moreover, it does not assert that the Torah is an utter mishmash of chronology. The assumption is that the paragraphs of the Torah have internal
timeline consistency, but the larger sections might not be presented in chronological order. As we have seen above, Rashi is convinced that the directive to construct the Mishkan was not enunciated until after the golden calf episode. Others, notably Ramban (1194-1270), adhere to a strict chronological view of these chapters within the Torah. Since both views are considered legitimate, it is fair to ask: How do you view the sequence of events discussed above? As we consider the commitment of the people Israel to God, is there a difference between the two views? Does it make a difference in how we understand the ways the Israelites believed if the commandment to build the Mishkan came before or after the Golden Calf?
PARASHAT TETZAVEH - SHABBAT ZAKHOR
March 3, 2007 – 13 Adar 5767 Annual: Ex. 27:20 – 30:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 503; Hertz p. 339) Triennial: Ex. 29:19 – 30 (Etz Hayim p. 513; Hertz p. 346) Maftir: Deuteronomy 25:17 – 19 (Etz Hayim p. 1135; Hertz p. 856) Haftarah: I Samuel 15:2 – 34 (Etz Hayim, p. 1280; Hertz p. 995) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah This week’s Torah-portion opens with the commandment to use pure olive oil in the rituals of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. Next we read detailed specifications for the vestments that Aaron and his sons are to wear when functioning in a ritual capacity. Instructions are then given for a ritual to consecrate the kohanim in order to give a formal beginning to their priestly status and ritual positions. Finally, we are told about the daily sacrifices of incense that the kohanim were to offer in the mishkan. Issue #1: The Mishkan as a Divine Abode Last week, in parashat Terumah, we read of God’s offer to the Israelites: Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8) This week, as the project unfolds, we read: There I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence. I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve Me as priests. I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I the Lord am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them; I am the Lord their God. (Exodus 29:43-46) How might the Israelites extend themselves to enable God to recognize that He is a welcome guest in their midst? What might we do today, in the twenty-first century, to project our welcoming of God into our synagogue community? In our homes and congregations we observe many formal rituals of welcome, among them: ushpizin (welcoming guests to a sukkah), Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming Shabbat), welcoming mourners as they come to the synagogue on the Friday evening of shivah. Can these acts of welcoming people be a part of welcoming God as well? In what ways are these two kinds of welcoming related?
Issue #2: Where is Moses? Curiously, the name of Moses is not mentioned in all of parashat Tetzaveh. It is the only parashah in the last four books of the Torah in which Moses is not mentioned by name. This glaring omission has sparked the imagination of many students of the Torah. Moses does receive commands from God, but the language is always phrased as “you” shall do this or that. One interpretation that has been offered is that Moses has receded in order to allow Aaron to occupy center stage, as it were, because the content of this week’s Torah-portion deals with the vestments of Aaron and his sons in their role as kohanim. A more straightforward explanation might be that Moses was on Mount Sinai for a follow-up visit, and so he was not among the Israelites at that time. A third explanation recognizes the boldness that Moses demonstrated toward God in arguing for the survival of Israel as a people. When God proposed to destroy the people of Israel as punishment for the sin of the golden calf, which would have left Moses as the lone survivor through whom God could still fulfill His covenant with the patriarchs, Moses boldly told God that if He will forgive the people’s sin, fine, but if not, erase me from Your book which You have written. (Exodus 32:32) No one can expect God to ignore such defiant words completely. According to this interpretation, God gave Moses a token punishment: He erased the name of Moses from this week’s parashah. All these suggestions are fanciful. Of them, which fits best with the traditional understanding of Moses’ personality? Is the ability to step back from the limelight as positive trait for a leader? Does the suggestion that God might punish Moses for taking a deeply felt stand seem uncomfortable? What is the vision we have of a proper leader – one who simply accepts orders or one who raises questions about orders that might not be appropriate? Did God expect Moses simply to be a yes-man? Issue #3: Amalek In anticipation of Purim, we read a special Maftir dealing with the attack of the Amalekites upon the Israelites shortly after the exodus from Egypt. You may recall this narrative, which we read just four weeks ago. Today we read a more terse treatment of this incident from Deuteronomy, rather than Exodus: Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall
blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) Reread the Amalek narrative in Exodus 17:8-16 that we read four weeks ago as part of the weekly Torah portion. What strategic element does the Deuteronomy passage add to the familiar Exodus passage? There is no text in the Torah dealing with the threat to the Jewish community in the Persian empire, because the Torah had long since been completed at the time the Purim story took place. The closest analogy available was the story of Amalek’s unprovoked attack on our people. Some interpretations suggest that Haman may have been a genealogical descendant of Amalek. Whether or not we take these interpretations seriously, we should recognize that Haman was indeed a spiritual descendant of Amalek. Many of us tend to associate Purim with merriment and even reckless abandon, almost a Jewish alternative to Halloween. However, that is only part of the story. When we ignore mortal threats to the Jewish people past, present, or future, we do so at our own peril. How can we remember hurtful events in ways that have a positive outcome? Is there a method to remembering that helps us grow? A way of remembering that is less than positive?
PARASHAT KI TISSA - SHABBAT PARAH
March 10, 2007 – 20 Adar 5767 Annual: Ex. 30:11 – 34:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 350) Triennial: Ex. 33:12 – 34:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 538; Hertz p. 362) Maftir: Numbers 19:1 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652) Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16 – 38 (Etz Hayim, p. 1286; Hertz p. 999) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Our Torah portion opens with a census, which is taken by collecting a halfshekel from each Israelite. Next, Moses receives more instructions about the work on the Mishkan – the portable sanctuary – and on how to observe the Sabbath. The time has come for Moses to bring the tablets of the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, where, after the revelation of God to all the people of Israel, he has just spent 40 days alone with God. Lamentably, a golden calf has been fashioned in the camp of the Israelites at the very end of that 40-day period. The Israelite camp is alive with what appears to be a celebration of a pagan deity. This event causes a radical change in Moses’ agenda. The rest of his summer is to be spent repairing this new rift between God and the Israelites. Issue #1: Forgiveness as a Process Following the incident of the golden calf, Moses sought divine forgiveness on behalf of the Israelites. This was not an instantaneous event. After all, Moses had climbed the mountain and spent 40 days in God’s presence before the sin of the golden calf. It was now necessary to re-establish the relationship between God and Israel. After this healing had been achieved, it was appropriate to repeat the process of Moses’ initial 40 days on the mountain. An additional layer of significance may be realized by overlaying these three 40day periods upon the months of the Jewish calendar. Tradition teaches that the revelation at Sinai took place on the sixth day of Sivan. Forty days later – the episode of the golden calf – brings us to the 17 of Tammuz, which has been a fast day since the destruction of the first Temple. Rashi summarizes the rest of the chronology, paraphrasing Moses: On the second ascent, I stayed [on Mount Sinai] for 40 days, which concluded on the 29 of Av – since he had ascended on the 18 of Tammuz. On that day, He pardoned Israel, and He said to Moses: “Carve yourself two tablets.” (Exodus 34:1) He (Moses) remained for another 40 days, thus concluding on Yom Kippur. On that very day, the Holy Blessed One forgave Israel joyfully, and He said to Moses: “I pardon, as you have asked.” (Numbers 14:20) Therefore [Yom
Kippur] was set aside for pardon and forgiveness. (Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 9:18) This comment builds upon the connotations already present in the relationship of Jews to our calendar. The third ascent would begin on the first day of the month of Elul. In what ways do we express an intensifying of our penitential spirit during the month of Elul? Are there ways in which we can understand the actions of the Israelites back at the base of the mountain? Is there a limit to people’s ability to wait, in contrast to God’s? Is there a limit even to God’s ability to wait? Issue #2: The Covenant of Compassion In the wake of the incident of the golden calf, God and Moses become closer than ever. Moses asks (33:18) to see the Divine Presence. God reminds him (33:20) that a human being may not look upon God and survive. Instead, God lets Moses see the Divine Presence indirectly (33:21-23). A few verses later (34:6-7), God shares with Moses the thirteen attributes – that is, the 13 qualities unique to God. After some rabbinic editing, these attributes eventually became a key component of the services of our Day of Atonement and part of the Torah service on Yom Tov as well. Their role in the biblical narrative inspired the following fanciful interpretation: Rabbi Yohanan said: If it had not been stated in the Torah, we could not say this [because we know that God does not have a body like humans]: the Holy Blessed One wrapped Himself in a tallit like a hazzan, showed Moses the order of prayer [of these thirteen attributes] and said to him: Whenever the people of Israel sin, let them recite this same order of prayer and I shall forgive them. (Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 17b) Writing in 1972, Rabbi Jules Harlow summarized this bond as follows: Thus a covenant was established between God and the people Israel. This covenant of compassion is referred to [throughout] the Yom Kippur service... The thirteen attributes are at the core of each service on Yom Kippur... We feel uncertainty and despair when confronted by our own and the world’s imperfections. Yet our faith in the power of compassion gives us confidence for the future. (Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, p. 328) The passage quoted above from the Talmud contains obvious exaggeration. We all know that merely reciting a list of God’s qualities does not really bring automatic forgiveness. Why, then, did Rabbi Yohanan indulge in this bold figure of speech? How does knowing the history of the section affect our understanding of this section of the liturgy?
PARASHAT VA’YAKHEL-PEKUDEI - BIRKAT HAHODESH - SHABBAT HAHODESH
March 17, 2007 – 27 Adar 5767 Annual: Ex. 35:1 – 40:38 (Etz Hayim, p. 552; Hertz p. 373) Triennial Cycle: Ex. 39:22 – 40:38 (Etz Hayim p.567; Hertz p. 387) Maftir: Ex. 12:1-20 (Etz Hayim, p. 380; Hertz p. 253) Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 1290; Hertz p. 1001) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Vayakhel-Pekudei, a double parashah, tells primarily of the execution of the plans for the construction and outfitting of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary, in the desert. These detailed plans were laid out in previous weeks’ Torah readings, parshiot Terumah and Tetzaveh. The opening verses of Vayakhel underscore the sanctity of the Sabbath, implying that the work of constructing the mishkan was to be confined to six days each week, regardless of the level of the artisans’ enthusiasm for the project. In the latter part of Pekudei, Moses is presented with the completed components of the mishkan. It is his responsibility to assemble these pieces in a coherent and appropriate manner. Issue #1: An Impressive Capital Campaign Moses had sent the word out among the Israelites that materials were needed for the construction of the mishkan; his wish list is given in Exodus 35:4-9. Anyone who ever has been involved in a capital campaign knows the importance of soliciting major gifts in advance, to inspire others to give as well. Somehow, this campaign followed a different set of rules; it was a grassroots campaign. The results speak for themselves: All the artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the mishkan came, each for the task in which he was engaged, and said to Moses: “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.” Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the mishkan!” So the people stopped bringing; their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done. (Exodus 36:4-7) The massive response to the request for material was overwhelming. Yet there was a need even for someone as trusted as Moses to be able to account for all that was given: This is the sum of the things of the tabernacle, of the tabernacle of Testimony, as it was counted, according to the commandment of Moses, for the service of the Levites, by the hand of Ithamar, son to Aaron the priest. (Exodus 38:21)
There is nothing known to us in Moses’ background that suggests that he had any skill or experience in inspiring donations. What factors contributed to the success of this campaign? Can you envision a set of circumstances under which a fund-raising campaign in our time might approach the level of success of Moses’ capital campaign for the mishkan? Governmental agencies and public interest groups have gone to great lengths to create a system for checking and double checking to ensure that charitable groups use the monies given them appropriately. Why are such safeguards needed? Is it, perhaps, a waste of the money given to a charity to have to spend a rather sizeable amount proving that the money was spent appropriately? A textual aside: In Exodus 38:21, the word “the tabernacle” is repeated. Grammatically and contextually the repetition is unnecessary. Rashi, the medieval commentator, suggested (ad loc) that the repetition was an allusion to the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, something that had not yet happened when the Torah text was written. What can we modern readers learn from this kind of sensitivity to the Torah text? Issue #2: Prophecy Outside the Holy Land Today’s maftir portion (the final aliyah), specially selected in anticipation of the start of the month of Nisan, opens with the following verse: The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: (Exodus 12:1) This seemingly innocuous verse challenges a working theory of religion that was widely accepted in the ancient world. The regnant theory was that each land had its own god (or gods) who held sway in that location. Most ancient peoples could not conceive of a divine being whose power encompassed more than one locality. A classic example of this thinking may be found in the story of the foreign population that the king of Assyria had transported to Samaria, in the northern part of the Holy Land, in the second half of the eighth century B.C.E.. They were meant to take the place of the Israelites whom he had exiled. A report came back to the king, complaining of a singularly poor absorption experience for the new population: “The nations which you deported and resettled in the towns of Samaria do not know the rules of the God of the land; therefore He has let lions loose against them which are killing them – for they do not know the rules of the God of the land.” The king of Assyria gave an order: “Send there one of the priests whom you have deported, let them go and dwell there, and let him teach them the practices of the God of the land.” (II Kings 17:26-27)
From the Assyrian king’s point of view (which was typical of religious thinking in the ancient world), it was obvious that the problem was that the new population was unfamiliar with the requirements for worshipping (or for pacifying) the local divinity. Since God’s earliest communications with Moses had taken place at the burning bush in the wilderness, some might have inferred that the God of Israel had power in the religious vacuum of the desert as well as the land of Israel, but not in Egypt. In our maftir portion, God clearly has no difficulty communicating with Moses and Aaron while they are in Egypt. Moreover, the content of God’ message involved the large-scale sacrifice of lambs, a practice that was repugnant to the Egyptians and their religion. In recent years, we have heard that “America is a Christian country.” Is there any similarity between this slogan and the above-mentioned theory of local gods? HAZAK HAZAK v’NITHAZEK - BE STRONG, BE STRONG, AND LET US BE STRENGTHENED
March 24, 2007 – 5 Nisan 5767 Annual: Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 585; Hertz p. 410) Triennial: Leviticus 4:27 – 5:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 599; Hertz p. 419) Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21-44:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 607; Hertz p. 424) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Vayikra – the book of Leviticus – begins with the assumption that there will be a system of sacrifice as a means of religious expression, and it proceeds to outline the particulars of that system. The third book of the Torah does not invite us to discuss the pros and cons of using sacrifice to worship. This set of assumptions requires some mental adjustments on our part as we approach the text. The following categories of sacrifices are outlined in this week’s parashah: a. A person may bring an olah (burnt-offering) voluntarily to atone for personal neglect of one or more positive commandments. This sacrifice could involve a bull, a sheep, a goat, two turtledoves, or two pigeons. b. The minhah was a meal-offering. It was brought individually by someone who lacked the means to bring an animal as a sacrifice. There were also communal minhah offerings. c. The korban sh’lamim essentially was a sacred meal, since the donor of this sacrifice had the opportunity to eat some of it. A significant portion also was given to the kohanim to consume; the rest was burned on the altar. d. The hattat (sin-offering) was brought in search of atonement for sins committed accidentally or unknowingly. e. The asham (guilt-offering) was a ram sacrificed to make amends for denial of wrongdoing, or to seek forgiveness for an ambiguous offense. Issue #1: Participation at Varying Economic Levels It is readily apparent that different sacrifices were available to be offered by people of different economic means. The variety ofoptions from cattle, which were rather pricey, to less costly birds, to still less expensive grains demonstrates that sacrifices were not reserved so only the wealthy could express themselves religiously. Rather, people at every rung of the economic ladder should have the opportunity to develop a relationship with God. In parashat Ki Tissa we read the following directive: Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord’s offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering as expiation for your persons. (Exodus 30:14-15)
What lessons can we learn for our congregations, today, based on these directives and the clear accommodation within the sacrificial system for all people, regardless of how much money they might have? How can we encourage participation by Jews at all economic levels in the programming at our synagogues today? We often speak, colloquially, of a person “making a sacrifice” through activities and donation of time to a cause. What are some of the things that a synagogue can do to involve both the wealthy and the not-sowealthy? Issue #2: Penitence and Forgiveness Consider the following passage from Maimonides (Laws Concerning Repentance, 7:4): Let not the penitent suppose that he is kept far away from the degree attained by the righteous because of the iniquities and sins that he has committed. This is not so. He is beloved by the Creator, desired by Him, as if he had never sinned. Moreover, his reward is great; since, though having tasted sin, he renounced it and overcame his evil passion. The sages say, “Where penitents stand, the completely righteous cannot stand.” This means that the degree attained by penitents is higher than that of those who had never sinned, the reason being that the former have had to put forth a greater effort to subdue their passions than the latter. We tend to have long memories for the sins of others. Maimonides clearly wants us to understand that a reformed now-former sinner is to be viewed with the utmost respect. In keeping with this teaching, what are some of the habits that we as a society ought to reconsider in order to avoid typecasting people unfairly? And, because the habits of society are unlikely to change overnight, what can we as individuals do to further these worthy aims? The political season is already heating up; does Maimonides’ position provide us with a better lens to look at the personal background of those running for office? Are their past actions so grievous that they should not be forgiven? Issue #3: Expressions of Thanks As we will see more clearly in next week’s parashah, one form of the korban sh’lamim was a sacrifice of thanksgiving. (See Leviticus 7:11.) What avenues are available today for Jews to express their thanksgiving within the Jewish community? Are these comparable to the offering of a sacrifice?
PARASHAT TZAV - SHABBAT HAGADOL
March 31, 2007 – 12 Nisan 5767 Annual: Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36 (Etz Hayim, p. 613; Hertz p. 429) Triennial: Leviticus 8:1 – 8:36 (Etz Hayim, p. 621; Hertz p. 435) Haftarah: Malakhi 3:4 – 24; 3:23 (Etz Hayim, p.1296; Hertz p. 1005) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Parashat Tzav assumes that the reader fully understands and agrees with the rationale for the sacrifices (a great stretch for some of us in 5767 / 2007), and proceeds directly to the specifics of how to offer up the various kinds of sacrifices. The olah is an animal sacrifice to be consumed by flame. Symbolically speaking, it ascends to heaven as it burns throughout the night. The ashes that remain are removed by a kohen the next morning. The minhah is a grain-offering enhanced by fragrant spices. A portion of it is burned and a portion given to the kohanim; it is made into unleavened cakes and the kohamin eat it inside their own sacred space. The hattat is a purification offering; its underlying details were discussed in last week’s parashah. The kohanim eat some of it inside their own sacred space and some of it is burned. The burned part is considered to be a gift to heaven. The asham, a reparation sacrifice, is offered in the same way as the hattat. The sh’lamim sacrifice is divided into three parts. One portion is burned as a gift to heaven, another is given to a kohen, and the third is eaten by the Israelite sponsoring the sacrifice. Some have suggested that this is the source of the name sh’lamim: this sacrifice makes shalom – peace – between these three groups by giving a share to each. With these categories demarcated, the time has come to initiate the sacrificial system. Aaron and his sons are secluded for seven days of purification. They are anointed with oil, as is the mishkan – the portable sanctuary – and its vessels. Moses carries out the details of the sacrifices personally during this week, and then he ordains Aaron and his sons to carry them on. Issue #1: Hametz The Shabbat before Passover is known as Shabbat HaGadol. At this time of year, much of our thought and action as we prepare for the holiday revolves around removing hametz from our homes. Interestingly enough, there were parts of the mishkan, and later of the Temple, that were hametz-free zones throughout the year. Leavened food was not to be burned upon the altar (Leviticus 2:11, 6:10, and 7:13).
In a remarkable passage in the Talmud (B’rakhot 17a), Rabbi Alexandri is said to have concluded his own prayers with the words: Master of the universe, it is abundantly clear before You that it is our desire to carry out Your will. And what holds us back? The leavening in the dough and our subjugation by stronger nations. May it be Your will to save us from their hands, that we may devote ourselves to fulfill Your desired ordinances wholeheartedly. Most Jews today live in places where subjugation by stronger nations does not affect our ability to do the right thing. This leaves only “the leavening in the dough.” The phrase “the leavening in the dough” is a puzzling one. The consensus is that this is a reference to the evil inclination that occasionally asserts itself within human behavior. While fermentation can add quality to some products, it often ruins others. What is it about the evil inclination that might cause someone to compare it to fermenting dough? Is there a relationship between the process of leavening and what is often called “being full of hot air”? Are there ways in which we can rid ourselves of some of this spiritual leavening of the dough as Passover approaches? Issue #2: Focus on Aaron Much of the Torah describes Moses’ life and his leadership qualities. Aaron, who also played a significant role, spends most of his time in the background. Since Aaron and his sons are installed in the priesthood in our parashah, it may be appropriate for us to review some key themes in Aaron’s life. a. b. c. d. e. f. g. h. Mouthpiece of Moses (Exodus 4:14-16) Initiated several of the Ten Plagues Supported Moses in battle with Amalek (Exodus 17:11-12) Role in the golden calf incident (Exodus 32) Installed as Kohen Gadol (high priest) Lost two sons (Leviticus 10:1-7) Consecrated the Levites (Numbers 8:5-22) Prohibited from entering the Promised Land (Numbers 20:12-13)
In what ways was Aaron an above-average leader? In what ways did his leadership leave room for improvement? Was he called upon to be more versatile than we can reasonably expect one person to be? Many post-biblical sources view Aaron in a highly positive light. Consider the following mishnah: Hillel taught: Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and attracting them to the study of Torah. (Avot 1:12)
Obviously, these dimensions of Aaron’s personality are not always evident in the biblical text. Which of the themes noted above might be used to explain the rabbis’ view of Aaron as described in Pirke Avot? Do we see ourselves in similar kinds of situations, where our personal priorities sometimes are overshadowed byevents that swirl around us? How might we enable those things that are important to us to occupy center stage in our lives?
SHABBAT HOL HAMOED PESAH
April 7, 2007 – 19 Nisan 5767 Annual: Exodus 33:12 – 34:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 538; Hertz p. 362) Maftir: Numbers 28:19 – 25 (Etz Hayim, p.932; Hertz p. 695) Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:1 – 14 (Etz Hayim, p. 1308; Hertz p. 1015) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Torah Reading Throughout the year, Jews follow a cycle of Torah readings that moves forward, every Shabbat, through the five books of the Torah. On festivals, we set aside the regular cycle and read material that is chosen for its thematic connection to the holy day. Our reading from the first Torah-scroll today (which should be familiar from four weeks ago, when we read it as part of the regular cycle of weekly Torah readings) deals with the aftermath of the incident of the golden calf. Moses now has two main tasks. His immediate job is to repair the rift that has developed in the people’s relationship with God as a result of their disregard for the covenant. In addition, Moses wishes to draw nearer to God and to know His qualities and characteristics. (We presume that this has been a long-time wish of Moses’. However, it gains further urgency in the wake of the near-severing of relations between God and the people Israel.) God reminds Moses that no human being can look directly at God and survive. Instead He suggests to Moses a way for Moses to gaze indirectly at God. As a result of this encounter, Moses learns thirteen attributes of God. In a covenant of compassion, God seems to reassure Moses that He will be especially receptive to the Israelites and their descendants whenever they invoke these thirteen attributes in sincere devotion (as we do quite often on Yom Kippur). Ironically, our liturgy calls for us to invoke these thirteen divine attributes (as part of the service for taking out the Torah) on all festival days except Shabbat. However, on the Shabbat that falls during Hol Ha-Mo’ed, we read this particular passage from the Torah, thereby “smuggling” the covenant of compassion back into our service. Since we are in a reflective festival mode, it is highly appropriate for us to take this opportunity to reflect on the nature of the divine and upon our relationship with our God. Our reading from the second Torah scroll enumerates sacrifices that were brought annually on Passover as an ancient expression of devotion to the relationship between God and the people Israel. Shir Ha-Shirim: The Song of Songs The festival service is marked by the Torah readings outlined above, as well as a Haftarah reading. All this is preceded by the recitation of Hallel, a group of poems (Psalms 113-118) that are sung congregationally. In addition, some
congregations chant all or part of Shir Ha-Shirim, a cluster of love poems found in our Bible as one of the Five Megillot. (Other congregations, following the custom established by Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, do not chant Shir HaShirim at all. The same variation in practice occurs regarding the chanting of the Scroll of Ruth on Shavuot, and Kohellet/Ecclesiastes on Sukkot.) The Five Megillot are not printed in the Humashim available in most of our synagogues. (This fact may be chalked up to the economics of publishing, coupled with the custom that three of these books are not chanted at all in some synagogues.) In an attempt to address this omission, the Siddur Sim Shalom prints excerpts. (The Song of Songs appears on pages 788-790 in the classic Sim Shalom, on pages 377-378 in Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Holidays.) One may well ask the question: What is a cluster of love poems doing in the Bible, and why might they be chanted at a festival service? In fact, Shir HaShirim was nearly excluded from the canon of our Bible. Rabbi Akiva (d.135 C.E.) endorsed the inclusion of this book, resourcefully arguing: There was no worthwhile day in the history of the world like the day on which Shir Ha-Shirim was given to Israel, for all scriptures are holy, but Shir Ha-shirim is the holy of holies. (Mishmah Yadayim 3:5) This obvious exaggeration flowed from Rabbi Akiva’s sympathy for the viewpoint that endorses an allegorical interpretation of this love poetry. The late Rabbi Isaac Klein summarized this school of thought in his 1979 volume, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice: According to rabbinic tradition Shir Ha-Shirim is a love song, with God the beloved and the children of Israel as the bride. Since Pesah marks the beginning of this courtship (its culmination was Matan Torah [at Sinai]), the reading of the Song of Songs during Pesah is most appropriate. The Song of Songs is also a song to spring (2:11-13). Pesah is a spring festival both literally and figuratively. Spring means hope and happiness. In this case, hope lies in freedom, and happiness in the attachment to the law of God. (page 38) Nonetheless, Rabbi Akiva warned elsewhere (Tosefta Sanhedrin 12:5) against chanting this material in a frivolous context. Clearly he felt that a delicate balance must be maintained when love themes are introduced into religious literature.
PARASHAT SHEMINI - BIRKAT HAHODESH
April 14, 2007 – 26 Nisan 5767 Annual: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47 (Etz Hayim, p. 630; Hertz p. 443) Triennial: Leviticus 11:1 – 11:47 (Etz Hayim, p. 636; Hertz p. 449) Haftarah: II Samuel 6:1 – 7:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 645; Hertz p. 454) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Parashat Shemini opens with the culmination of the process of inaugurating the portable sanctuary, the mishkan. Under Moses’ tutelage, Aaron and his sons complete the initial sacrifices, and a miraculous fire consumes the sacrifices. At this auspicious moment, something goes terribly wrong. Another divine fire appears, killing Aaron’s two eldest sons. Aaron is stunned and silent. God commands him and his two younger sons to avoid all alcoholic beverages when they perform their ritual duties. (We are left to wonder whether this is a hint as to why two kohanim were just struck down, or whether this is simply a general instruction aimed at differentiating the Israelite pattern of worship from those of the neighboring religions.) Moses and Aaron discuss the hesitation that Aaron and his remaining sons feel about continuing wholeheartedly with their ritual activities at this juncture in their lives. The final chapter of this week’s parashah focuses on describing the species of animals that may be eaten within the framework of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. Mammals must chew their cud and have a split hoof. (The examples are of animals that meet one of these criteria but not both, reinforcing the point that both are required.) Fish must have both fins and scales. Rather than enumerating for us the criteria for determining which birds may be eaten, the Torah simply lists those species of birds that are prohibited. Issue #1: Mourning Laws and Customs The Torah does not command us to mourn in a particular fashion after losing a family member. However, there are certain assumptions about mourning practices that lie just beneath the surface of the Torah’s text. After the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the bereaved family would want to mourn, but outward expressions of grief would be highly problematic in the middle of the ceremony inaugurating the mishkan and initiating the Kohanim. There is a tension between the personal needs of the bereaved and the needs of the community. Thus we can understand the need for the following injunction: Moses said to Aaron and to his sons, El’azar and Itamar, “Do not dishevel your hair and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole
community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought.” (Leviticus 10:6) Over time, many mourning rituals have become part of Jewish tradition. The observance of the shiva period is an example of the mourning family and the comforting community coming together. Shiva lasts seven days. The day of the funeral is the first day and one hour of the seventh day counts as a full day. Shivah is suspended at 1 o’clock Friday afternoon and is resumed after Shabbat is over. If a major holiday, such as Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur falls during the shiva period, shiva ends at 1 o’clock on the eve of the festival. Speak to your rabbi for further details. The shivah period begins after the funeral with a simple meal, the seudat havra’ah, the meal of consolation. People often rinse their hands with water before entering the house for the meal. This meal, traditionally provided by family and friends for the mourners, is not meant as a social occasion; neither meat nor wine, two symbols of joy, should be served. Because it is a time to rest and reflect on the day’s events, only family and the closest friends should attend. A party-like atmosphere should not be allowed to develop. In its wisdom, our tradition recognizes that when someone undergoes a major life change, he or she must step out of everyday activity for a while. Your rabbi can get in touch with an employer to explain the practice and make arrangements to allow the mourner to miss work. There are a number of practices associated with observing shiva. We cover mirrors in the home, to show that we reduce the importance normally placed on personal vanity. Mourners are encouraged not to wear shoes and to sit on low stools. This shows that we change the way we live during this time. People pay shiva calls to fulfill the mitzvah of nihum avelim, comforting the mourners. These visits demonstrate community concern at the time of loss. The visits help the mourners with their feelings of isolation or desertion, which are natural after the death of a loved one. Even if many people have gathered, those present should be sure that the gathering does not feel like a party. Conversation should center around the life of the dead person; it is appropriate to share memories. Mourners are not obligated to have food or drink available for visitors. Selected from Death and Mourning Customs, by Rabbi Paul Drazen) One of the visible signs of Jewish mourning is the rending (tearing) of clothing by the mourner. [In some communities, where this practice is not observed literally, the mourner will tear a black ribbon and wear it during shivah.] Another theme of Jewish mourning is the lack of concern for personal appearance, represented in the Biblical passage above by disheveled hair. What other traditional mourning practices can be learned from a reading of the command to Aaron and his family?
In the passage above, since Aaron and his sons were unable to express their mourning fully at that specific time (due to other divine commandments that had been directed to them specifically), the rest of the community was called upon to mourn on behalf of the bereaved. What role does the community ordinarily play vis-à-vis those who are sitting shivah? In what ways can community members provide support for the mourners? Issue #2: Kashrut and Holiness Judaism would agree that feelings and beliefs are essential to holiness, but it would assert that the struggle for holiness on the part of a human being does not begin there (nor should it end there for that matter). Judaism is not a oneday-a-week religion, nor does it concern itself only with prayer or Synagogue or ritual, nor does it limit itself to catechisms. On the contrary, its great claim, as expressed throughout the entire range of its literature from the Torah to the latest responsum, is that it must encompass the entirety of a man's being; that it is, in fact, a way of life, affecting all of one's days or none of them, relevant to one's total manner of living or to none of it, just as concerned with the seeming trivialities as with the exalted aspects of one's existence. Indeed, it would assert that it is precisely with these seeming trivialities, these common, everyday actions of ours which are matter-of-fact and habitual and apparently inconsequential that we must commence, in order to create the holy man. And what is more common, more ordinary, more seemingly trivial and inconsequential than the process of eating?... Attitudes often derive from activities. Now we can better understand what the mitzvah of Kashrut is attempting to achieve and can see it in its proper context. We are commanded to be a holy people. "Thou shalt be holy for I the Lord thy God am holy." "Thou shalt be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Israel is commanded to be holy; again and again commanded to be holy. But how do we become holy? We become holy by making holy, by hallowing. (Rabbi Samuel Dresner in The Jewish Dietary Laws, pp. 17-18 (Available from USCJ’s Book Service) For those who are not vegetarians, one of the central rules of Kashrut is the manner in which the animal is slaughtered. (We are aware that slaughterhouses are not always as humane as they should be, and we encourage attempts to heighten sensitivity to the pain of animals about to be slaughtered, and to keep that pain to a minimum. But that is not the focus of this question.) The rules for kosher slaughtering are derived from the manner in which animals were to be slaughtered as sacrifices in the Mishkan, and later in the Temple. Is it surprising that a set of rules derived from religious worship (Remember: sacrifices were once a form of worship!) came to be required for a seemingly secular activity (the supplying of food for our meals)? What does this tell us about the expectations that Judaism has for the way that we take care of the mundane aspects of our daily lives?
Issue #3: Kashrut and Health We have often heard people say that the Jewish dietary laws were instituted for health reasons. Reread Chapter 11, which outlines these regulations. (Optional: read Deuteronomy, Chapter 14, too.) What information, if any, does this material communicate about health aspects of Kashrut? If we accept the understanding of kashrut and holiness noted above, should any health claims (or lack of them) impact a decision about keeping kosher?
April 21, 2007 – 3 Iyar 5767 Annual: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33 (Etz Hayim, p. 649; Hertz p. 460) Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 14:33 – 15:33 (Etz Hayim p. 663; Hertz p. 473) Haftarah: II Kings 7:3 - 20 (Etz Hayim p. 676; Hertz p. 477) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashiot Most of our reading this week deals with the human body. Although the human body is familiar to us, the approach to the body reflected in these chapters may be foreign to the twenty-first-century mind. The Torah tells us that a woman is to undergo a period of ritual impurity after childbirth. Surprisingly, the prescribed period differs depending on whether a boy or a girl was born. A great deal of attention is paid to tzara’at, a leprosy-like skin disease. Specific procedures are set forth for diagnosis and for quarantine. A sacrifice is to be offered upon remission. We learn that tzara’at may afflict not only people but also garments and even houses. The Torah also directs our attention to the discharge of body fluids, those from males, those from females, and some from either. There are rituals of purification available for such circumstances. Issue #1: Illness and Privacy As for the person with a leprous affliction, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46) The leper is required to call out to warn others of his own illness. We assume that this is done because of a concern that the disease may be communicable, thus threatening others. The community clearly has a legitimate need to know that overrides our possible concern for the leper’s privacy. We often face a different situation in our synagogues, as well as in our personal lives nowadays. When we learn that a neighbor or friend is in the hospital (or being treatedat home), we would like to tell others about this illness, not as an exercise in gossip, but as an opportunity for peers to extend a helping hand or a word of encouragement to the sick person. Yet it is quite possible that the person who is ill is not yet ready to share the private fact of being sick with the world at large.
How should we balance the community’s natural desire to know against the individual’s legitimate right to privacy? This is not simply an intellectual exercise. Any one of us is likely at some time or another to find ourselves in either or both of those positions. Rabbis and physicians, especially, are caught in the middle. Most people understand that medical ethics prevent a doctor from discussing the details of a patient’s illness with others. But rabbis are often expected to extend get-well wishes from the pulpit. Often, because the rabbi has wished a r’fuah sh’leimah (thorough recovery) to someone from the pulpit, after the service well-meaning congregants ask the rabbi for personal information about the sick person. This information may have been given to the rabbi confidentially by the patient or by a family member. As more and more communities take the opportunity for a congregational well wishing during the service, more people will hear other people’s names, and see their family and friends pray publicly for healing. If you have recited that prayer, how can you respond truthfully and sociably without violating a confidence, and without making others reluctant to seek prayer and counsel in the future? How can you offer support and help without seeming pushy? Extensive medical privacy laws are widespread throughout the United States; clearly the legal community has found the right to privacy of greater value than a community’s need to know in order to provide support and help for patient and caregivers. How should our congregational communities deal with this tension? Issue #2: Perspective in Diagnosis A person may look at (i.e. evaluate) all afflictions, except his own afflictions. (Mishnah, N’ga-im 2:5) This rule implies that when someone is too close to a problem, he or she may not be able to see it in a proper perspective. Although this rule was designed for the diagnosis of skin diseases, might it not have broader applicability in areas other than medicine? a. On the political or legal scene, there is often a sense that a person might have a conflict of interest in a case or situation. Following the mishnah’s logic, who should best determine if that person should pull back or recuse him- or herself from a case or negotiation? How do we determine whether or not a particular situation poses a conflict of interest for a public official? b. How should a corporation assure itself (and others) that it is acting in a way that pays due regard to the public interest? c. Why do people find it useful to bring their personal problems to counselors or advisers, even if the counselor is no more intelligent than the person seeking advice?
PARASHIOT AHAREY MOT-KEDOSHIM ANNIVERSARY WARSAW GHETTO UPRISING
April 28, 2007 – 10 Iyar 5767 Annual: Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 679; Hertz p. 480) Triennial: Leviticus 19:15 – 20 -:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 696; Hertz p. 500) Haftarah: Amos 9:7 – 15 (Etz Hayim, p. 706; Hertz p. 509) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of This Week's Parashiot Following a brief passing reference to the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, which was reported in more detail in an earlier parashah, the Torah details the procedures to be carefully followed in the sacrificial rituals of Yom Kippur. These rituals are performed only by the high priest, the kohen gadol; as he does so the people are to practice self-denial, including fasting. In reference to sacrifices, we are reminded not to consume the blood of any animal. (This prohibition also extends to meat that is consumed outside the sacrificial framework; it is a matter of sensitivity to life.) Similarly, we are prohibited from eating the meat of an animal that has died of natural causes or has been torn apart. In dealing with further aspects of holiness, the Torah defines which sexual relationships are permissible and which are forbidden. The level of detail in this section is matched by the meticulous detail of the social legislation that follows. While gathering the harvest, we are to leave the corners and the gleanings for the poor. We are not to steal or lie or take God’s name in vain. We are to pay wages in a timely fashion and to show sensitivity to those who cannot hear or see. We are to judge justly and refrain from gossip. We should be forgiving, yet offer constructive criticism. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to honor the old. We are to respect the stranger, keeping in mind that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We must maintain just weights and measures. We are prohibited from following many of the practices of the peoples who preceded us in the Promised Land. Our behavior must be worthy of the gift we will receive, a land flowing with milk and honey. Topic #1: Mandatory Charity Our society is accustomed to thinking of charity as a voluntary activity. However, the Torah portrays certain forms of charity as commandments. (Following this pattern, Judaism came to refer to charity as tzedakah, which is derived from the Hebrew word for justice, tzedek.) Chapter 19 of Leviticus acknowledges no distinction between the charity that is required of a farmer (verses 9-10) and the requirement for just weights and measures (verses 35-36).
Would either of these acts be considered “charity” as we use the word today? How would we describe such actions? What message can we learn from the fact that the Torah seems to equate these two kinds of actions by listing them in such close proximity? In what ways do both of these clusters of commandments promote well-being for all levels of society? Topic #2: Varieties of Tzedakah Maimonides deals with various forms of charity in Book VII of his code of Jewish law. (This volume is called Seeds. Keep in mind that several forms of required tzedakah, as outlined in today’s Torah reading, involve aspects of the harvest, since the Torah reflects an agrarian society.) Maimonides saw the various forms of tzedakah as forming a hierarchy. The following are excerpts from his synthesis in Chapter 10 of “Gifts to the Poor,” a section from Seeds. a. The highest degree … is that of the person who assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid. b. A step below this stands the one who gives alms to the needy in such a manner that the giver knows not to whom he gives and the recipient knows not from whom it is that he takes. c. One step lower is that in which the giver knows to whom he gives but the poor person knows not from whom he receives. d. A step lower is that in which the poor person knows from whom he is taking but the giver knows not to whom he is giving. e. The next degree lower is that of him who, with his own hand, bestows a gift before the poor person asks. f. The next degree lower is that of him who gives only after the poor person asks. g. The next degree lower is that of him who gives less than is fitting but gives with a gracious mien. h. The next degree lower is that of him who gives morosely. Questions for Discussion: 1. What psychological concerns appear to contribute to Maimonides’ hierarchy of levels of tzedakah? 2. Maimonides uses the terms “poor” and “recipient” interchangeably. He seems never to refer to the donor as “rich,” though. Why do you suppose he does that? 3. Within Maimonides’ hierarchy of tzedakah, can you identify any underlying rationales that he may have extracted from this week’s Torah reading?
May 5, 2007 – 17 Iyar 5767 Annual: Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 717; Hertz p. 513) Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 23:23 – 24:23 (Etz Hayim p. 727; Hertz p. 522) Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15 – 31 (Etz Hayim p. 735; Hertz p. 528) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah This week’s parashah opens with the rules governing the kohanim, the priests. Kohanim generally are prohibited from contact with dead bodies – the exception, a significant one, is when a member of the kohen’s family dies. (Note the sharp contrast with other ancient peoples, notably the Egyptians, whose holy people were very involved with the dead.) Next, we are told whom the kohanim may or may not marry. Because much of a kohen’s food is taken from the sacrifice, and because if a kohen were to eat any food found to be ritually impure he would temporarily be unable to eat any more of it, the rules governing sacrifices are far more than an abstraction. The parasha give guidelines that determine when a kohen has become impure and how to remedy that situation. Sacrifices must be brought from the best animals and produce that we have to offer. An animal with an injury or blemish is ineligible for sacrifice. Details of ineligibility are spelled out. Laws concerning Shabbat and other major holidays are enumerated. Next come guidelines about the ner tamid – the eternal light -- and the showbread, the twelve loaves on display in the mishkan. An incident of blasphemy takes place. Punishment is meted out, and laws relating to blasphemy are delineated. Other laws involving major penalties are reviewed. Issue #1: A Matter of Context Between the Torah’s outline of the sacrifices for Shavuot and its treatment of Rosh HaShanah, we encounter the following verse: And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 23:22) The placement of this verse is somewhat puzzling to us, since we are conditioned to view the festivals (as well as their corresponding sacrifices) within the category of “ritual.” We are not in the habit of viewing the corners of the field or the gleanings of the harvest as matters of divine concern. Yet we
have no basis for assuming that this verse was plunked down accidentally here. What can we learn from the Torah’s apparently deliberate placement of this public policy mandate in the midst of a series of religious requirements? This question is hardly a new one. The classic commentator Rashi addresses this issue: …Why is this section placed in the middle of the section on holidays? The placement teaches: One who leaves corners and gleanings for the poor as appropriate, it is as if he built the Temple and offered sacrifices there. (Rashi, ad loc) How did Rashi address this editorial dilemma? Was his answer similar to one we have given? Does this emphasis suggest that the mitzvah was likely to be observed? Issue #2: Why Does Sukkot Take Place in the Fall? We are accustomed to Sukkot falling after the summer has ended. (In Israel, Sukkot takes place at the end of the hot, dry season.) We may ask, however, how the message of Sukkot might have been different if it had been established as a springtime holiday. This question is especially legitimate in light of the passage that outlines the rationale for the sukkah: You shall live in sukkot for seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I caused the Israelite people to live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt … (Leviticus 23:4243) A procedure designed to remind us of living conditions after the exodus from Egypt (which, no one disputes, occurred in the spring) logically should be observed at the start of the dry season, not at the end of the summer. This question was addressed by Rabbi Ya’akov ben Moshe Ha-Levi (d. 1427), known as the MaHaRIL, who lived in Germany. In his book Minhagim (customs), as he transitions from Yom Kippur to Sukkot, he writes: … the Holy Blessed One therefore commanded to make sukkot during Tishri (in the fall), and not during Nisan (in the spring), even though it is written “when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” For if they were to do it in Nisan, the [fulfillment of the] commandment would not be so evident, since someone who sees him living in a sukkah at that time would say, “The [shade of the] sukkah is pleasing to him, as the days of [oppressive] sunlight are getting underway.” However in Tishri, when the rainy season is beginning and everyone is going into their [permanent] homes, yet [the people of] Israel are establishing their residence in a sukkah, [everyone can understand that] surely it is their intention to do the will of their Father in heaven. Why does the MaHaRIL find Sukkot’s placement in the fall to be appropriate? Do you agree with his reasoning? If not, do you have a different theory about
why the sukkah is appropriate for that time of year? For those who live in a climate where it is not necessarily pleasant to live outside in the fall, how does where we live affect our understanding of the commandment? Issue #3: What Do We Hope to Accomplish Through Dwelling in a Sukkah? Writing in fourteenth-century Spain, Rabbi Isaac Aboab put forth the following analysis of the sukkah’s value: The sukkah is designed to warn us that man is not to put his trust in the size or strength or beauty of his home, though it be filled with all precious things; nor must he rely upon the help of any human being, however powerful. But let him put his trust in the great God, Whose word called the universe into being, for He alone is mighty, and His promises alone are sure. (M’norat Ha-Ma’or III 4:6) Is this message more valuable for Jews in fourteenth-century Spain or for Jews in twenty-first-century North America?
PARASHAT BEHAR-BEHUKOTAI - BIRKAT HAHODESH
May 12, 2007 – 24 Iyar 5767 Annual: Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34 (Etz Hayim, p. 738; Hertz p. 531) Triennial: Leviticus 27:1 – 27:34 (Etz Hayim, p. 753; Hertz p. 547) Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14 (Etz Hayim, p. 763; Hertz p. 551) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of This Week's Parashiot The opening section of this week’s Torah reading prescribes a seven-year farming cycle in the Promised Land. Farmers are expected to work the land for six years and to let all the land lie fallow throughout the seventh year, which is known as the year of Shmitah. The fiftieth year, which comes after seven such cycles, has the special status of Yovel -- Jubilee year. A key aspect of the yovel was that any land that had been sold during the previous 49 years would return to its original owners. The obvious intent of this rule was to give a fresh start to people who may have suffered economic reversals. A farmer could be separated from his land temporarily, but that separation could not be permanent. Under this system, the Torah explicitly recognizes (Leviticus 25:15-16) that what appears to be a sale of land in reality is only a sale of the use of the land until the Jubilee year. The price, of course, would change constantly, dropping as the yovel drew ever closer. One especially familiar passage in this week’s Torah reading is the verse excerpted and inscribed on the Liberty Bell: In the language of the eighteenth century, Leviticus 25:10 was translated: Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. The underlying assumption of the above system, as outlined in Leviticus 25, is that the land belongs to God, who lets us use it. We are to serve as stewards of the land, taking good care of it under a divine mandate. When Israel lives up to the expectations expressed in God’s covenant, then all will be harmonious. When Israel reneges on the covenant, the consequences may be disastrous, as articulated in Chapter 26. Chapter 27 concludes the book of Leviticus with a discussion of vows that may be made for sacrifices or other gifts within the system of ancient worship. (This mirrors the book’s opening chapters.) Vows are to be taken with the utmost seriousness. Exchanging (when permissible) for something that was promised by vow can only be done upon payment of an additional one-fifth of the value of the vowed item.
Issue #1: Understanding the Sabbatical Year of the Land Farmers develop a special relationship with the land. The world around them usually pushes them to squeeze as much production as possible fromtheir land, year after year. (Nowadays this yield might be measured in bushels per acre.) All of this encourages the farmer to take from the land. The shmitah, the land’s sabbatical year, encourages the farmer to appreciate the land at the same time that the land is given an opportunity to renew itself. Just as the farmer depended on the land for sustenance, so do most of us depend on our own work to sustain us economically. Many employers, especially in the academic and nonprofit worlds, allow their staffs to take sabbatical leaves. Why would institutions encourage such leaves? Are there ways that the commercial sector could benefit from giving employees some time off? Should we, like the ancient farmers of Israel, take periodic opportunities to look at the world from a different perspective? Why or why not? How might a person go about implementing such a plan? What kinds of goals, personal and for an employer, might be part of a sabbatical leave plan? Issue #2: Are There Limits to Charitable Generosity? Sometimes a person can get carried away with enthusiasm for supporting a worthwhile cause. Maimonides warns against such a scenario in the following passage: A person should never consecrate or devote all of his possessions. He who does so acts contrary to the intention of the Torah, for it says “of all that he has” (Leviticus 27: 28), not “all that he has,” as our sages made clear. Such an act is not piety but folly, since he forfeits all his valuables and makes himself dependent on other people, and no one will take pity upon him. Of such, and those like him, the sages have said, “The pious fool is one of those who cause the world to perish.” Rather, whoever wishes to expend his money in good deeds, should disburse no more than one-fifth, in order that he might be, as the prophets have advised, “one that orders his affairs righteously” (Psalms 112:5), be it in matters of Torah or in the business of the world. Even in respect to the sacrifices which a person is obligated to offer, the Torah is sparing of his money, for it says that he may bring an offering in accordance with his means. All the more so in respect to those things for which he is not liable except in consequence of his own vow, should he vow only what is within his means, for the Torah says, “Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God, which he has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:17). (Mishne Torah, Book Six, 8:13) What else could a person do to support a worthwhile cause, besides utterly impoverishing himself? In a day when many people have assets which are more than adequate for personal needs (indeed some people have assets as great as some countries!), does Maimonides’ advice still ring true? Might there be a way to reinterpret his directives to prevent poverty when there is little chance of impoverishing a person who gives up 20% of his assets?
May 19, 2007 – 2 Sivan 5767 Annual: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 769; Hertz p. 568) Triennial: Numbers 3:14 – 4:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 779; Hertz p.576) Haftarah: Hosea 2:1 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 787; Hertz p. 582) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah God directs Moses and Aaron to take a census of the male Israelites of military age, 20 years old and older. The census, which yields population figures for each tribe, totals 603,550. The Levites are to be counted separately, for a nonmilitary purpose. Chapter 2 focuses on the organization, order, and physical layout of the Israelites’ camp, and of their travels in the desert. Chapter 3 deals with the substitution of the tribe of Levi for the first-borns of all the tribes in the role of religious functionaries. In Chapter 4, a census of the Levites is undertaken, clan by clan, in order to verify the manpower needed to perform the Levites’ various tasks during the period of wilderness wandering. The specific tasks assigned to the Kohathite clan are specified in the closing verses of our parashah, while the tasks of two other clans within the tribe of Levi are spelled out in the opening verses of next week’s Parashat Naso. Topic #1: Creating a Hospitable Environment for Religion This week’s parashah contains no long-term mitzvot, no commandments intended to endure beyond the wilderness generation. This may not be very surprising, because most people assume the wilderness/desert to be Godforsaken. On the other hand, the religious patterns of the Israelites were only partially formed, and this desert period was an opportunity for the collective religious identity of the Israelites to take shape. The desert experience was never intended to delay the religious growth of the people; to the contrary, it was a unique religious opportunity. The revelation at Mount Sinai was an important beginning, but a people will not be molded by a single momentary experience, no matter how lofty, without ongoing follow-up. Until their experience at Mount Sinai, the Israelites had looked to God more for emancipation than for religious direction. Once they had received the Ten Commandments, they began to understand that life after Pharaoh would require them to take some responsibility. The construction of the Mishkan (portable sanctuary) supplies one focal point for religious expression. Further commandments were then given, fleshing out the details of a system whose headlines were the Ten Commandments. Indeed, in this week before Shavuot, we may view Passover as a symbol of emancipation, while Shavuot, the
anniversary of the revelation at Mount Sinai, symbolizes a commitment to discerning God’s will and acting upon it. Chapter 2 describes the pattern in which the Israelites encamped in the desert. This was also the pattern in which they traveled. One reason for this configuration was the need to provide for defending the camp against attackers. (The encounter with Amalek, narrated in Exodus 17:8-13 and Deuteronomy 25:17-18, makes it quite clear what can happen when defense is relegated to a back burner.) The order of march served a purpose beyond national defense. There was a positive religious motivation reflected in the format of the encampment. How did the pattern of the camp hope to reinforce the religious commitment that was intended to be a focal point for the people of Israel? Within our modern synagogues, what design features are intended to draw our attention to important aspects of our commitment to Judaism? When something is said to be central to our lives, how do we demonstrate that? As we think about synagogue design, how does the footprint, program and order of the building reflect our stated values? If our young people are important to us, does the building reflect that commitment? Could a newcomer determine the congregation’s values by the way the building is designed and maintained? Topic #2: The Hazardous Work of Transporting the Mishkan We have already established that the ritual work of the Mishkan was potentially hazardous for the Kohanim (see Leviticus 10:1-2). The Levites were also at risk, particularly during the desert years, because they were charged with the responsibility of transporting the Mishkan and its sacred contents. The dire consequences of touching the Ark are clearly illustrated in the following incident, drawn from the time of King David (obviously post-desert): They loaded the Ark of God into a new cart and conveyed it from the home of Avinadav which was on the hill; and Avinadav’s sons, Uzzah and Ahio, guided the new cart. They conveyed it from Avinadav’s house on the hill, [Uzzah walking] alongside the Ark of God and Ahio walking in front of the Ark…. But when they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. The Lord was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God. (II Samuel 6:3-7) In light of these hazards, the tasks and responsibilities for work in these sacred areas had to be delineated clearly. Chapter 4 of Numbers provides just such a delineation. a. What tasks were assigned to the Kohathites (4:1-20)? What tasks did the Kohanim have to complete before the Kohathites could do their job? b. What tasks were assigned to the Gershonites (4:21-28)? c. What tasks were assigned to the Merarites (4:29-33)?
What would make a person be willing to take on such potentially dangerous duty? Are there still times today when the status or importance of a position makes the risks worthwhile?
May 26, 2007 – 9 Sivan 5767 Annual: Numbers 4:21 – 7:89 (Etz Hayim, p. 791; Hertz p. 586) Triennial: Numbers 7:1 – 7:89 (Etz Hayim, p. 805; Hertz p. 596) Haftarah: Judges 13:2 – 25 (Etz Hayim, p. 813; Hertz p. 602) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah This week’s Torah-portion begins with a census of the Levites; it is a logical continuation of the census recounted in last week’s parashah. Next we encounter a short list of ritually impure people who must take up residence outside the Israelites’ encampment. This list is followed by the laws of theft and restitution. In a passage particularly foreign to 21st- century readers, we encounter a series of rules delineating a procedure for dealing with suspected marital infidelity. Chapter 6 outlines laws pertaining to a nazir, a person who has taken a vow to accept extra restrictions upon himself, including abstinence from alcoholic beverages, refraining from shaving or cutting his hair, and other extra restrictions in the area of ritual purity. Although the Torah, despite its general aversion to asceticism, accepts such a framework, it requires the nazir to bring a sin-offering at the conclusion of the term of his vow. This concludes with the ancient and meticulously-formulated Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, which was to be recited by the Kohanim as conveyors of God’s blessings to the Jewish people. Chapter 7 describes the offerings that were brought by the n’si’im (chieftains) of the 12 tribes in conjunction with the dedication of the Mishkan (wilderness tabernacle). Topic #1: The Framework of the Chieftains' Offerings Each of the n’si’im (chieftains) of the 12 tribes brought an identical offering as the Mishkan was initiated. The offering brought by each tribal leader was: one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice oil mixed in, for a meal offering; one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; one bull of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs. Note that the shekel originally was a measure of weight. Eventually, when the minting of coins became routine, the word “shekel” came to refer to a particular value of coin, corresponding to a value of precious metal that formerly would have been weighed.
Each tribal leader had his own day, designated in sequence, for bringing his offering. It is not entirely clear whether the primary function of these offerings was to give each tribe the opportunity to endorse the centralized national sanctuary, or whether this simply was an administrative procedure for sharing the responsibility to stock the Mishkan with material to sacrifice and with appropriate utensils. Based on your reading of Chapter 7, which function do you think was the primary motivation for these offerings? Each tribe brought exactly the same items for the ceremony. One of the challenges we confront today is adding a personal face on what is, so often, just another identical item. Is there a lesson we can learn from the way the ceremony of inauguration was established? Topic #2: The Chronology of the Chieftains' Offerings A second topic that is treated in the text of Chapter 7 as if it were self-evident is the timing of these offerings on the calendar. Were the offerings brought on 12 consecutive days, or were there breaks within the pattern (e.g. for Shabbat)? We know that there was a seven-day initiation ritual for the Kohanim and for the new sanctuary. The date of the completion of the Mishkan is specifically listed as the first of Nisan (see Exodus 40:17). Are we to believe that the chieftains of the tribes brought their offerings on 12 consecutive days, beginning on the eighth of Nisan and concluding on the nineteenth (which we know as the fifth day of Passover)? Professor Jacob Milgrom deals with these questions in meticulous detail. After sharing Talmudic sources that suggest that the initiation may have started a week earlier than we might have supposed, Milgrom makes the case for a different, less literal, understanding of the calendar dates mentioned. He further suggests that the offerings of the n’si’im were not used on the very day they were brought. Referring to Numbers 7:87-88, he notes: In fact, that the animals are summed up at the end of this Tabernacle document can only mean that they were not sacrificed the very day they were contributed but were transferred (like the silver and gold vessels) to the charge of the sanctuary priests to be offered up … whenever needed. (The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Excursus 14)) Milgrom also addresses another problem: that of potential spoilage: However, the theory that the chieftains’ sacrificial donations were not offered up on the day of their contribution runs into the difficulty that the choice flour they brought was mixed with oil; since, ostensibly, it would quickly spoil, this sacrifice could not have been delayed. This objection was tested. Since the relative proportions of oil to flour are given (Num. 15:1-10), it became possible for my doctoral student, Susan Rattray, to make up a batch and test its durability. Her sample was made on April 13, 1982. It was sealed in an ordinary plastic container, placed in a cupboard, and never refrigerated. As of the date of this writing, October 15, 1985 – three and a half years later – it is perfectly edible, with no trace of spoilage.
Let us assume that the sacrifices were not offered immediately, but were queued up for later use. Is there a lesson for us in how we budget in our congregations? Should this be a mandate towards establishing funds to maintain the congregation through savings and endowments?
June 2, 2007 – 16 Sivan 5767 Annual: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 816; Hertz p. 605) Triennial: Numbers 10:35 – 12:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 826; Hertz p. 613) Haftarah: Zekhariah 2:14 – 4:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 837; Hertz p. 620) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah As our parashah opens, Aaron is commanded about the placement of the seven-branched menorah in the sanctuary. The balance of Chapter 8 is devoted to the purification of the Levites and their initiation into serving in and around the sanctuary. The Israelites are told that each year, on the anniversary of the first Passover, they are to bring a sacrifice similar to the one brought in Egypt. A question arises about people who find themselves ritually impure – for example, from touching a corpse – and therefore precluded from participation in the ritual of this sacrifice; an alternate procedure for them is outlined. The Israelites in the desert are to be guided in their travels by a cloud by day; by night a pillar of fire will hover above their encampment. An auditory system for communicating with large numbers of people using trumpets is developed. We read an example of the Israelites’ travel in concert with the cloud. The sanctuary and the ark are always at the center of the camp, whether the Israelites are traveling or at rest. Of special interest are verses 10:35-36, to be proclaimed when the ark was transported. These verses have become a regular part of our liturgy in the Torah processions before and after we read from the Torah. The Israelites complain about the monotony of their diet of manna; they want meat, and Moses is bitterly disturbed by their constant complaining. God asks Moses to gather 70 elders from among the people, who can help Moses shoulder the load of leadership. These 70 people are endowed with a measure of the divine spirit. Miriam and Aaron slander Moses in private and a divine punishment ensues. This episode is explored in further detail in Topic #2 below. Topic #1: Access to the Divine When Moses found the burdens of solitary leadership difficult to bear, God directed him to gather 70 elders from among the Israelites. These people had a divine experience of some kind, at a location slightly removed from the people at large. However, two of them, Eldad and Medad, had such a contact in close proximity to the people.
Moses was asked about this seemingly scandalous behavior. (Ecstatic religious experience was not expected to take place in the midst of the camp. Moreover, some perceived that this behavior implied that Moses was not uniquely qualified to relate to God in special ways.) Moses responded calmly: Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them! (Numbers 11:29) The Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) says that Eldad and Medad were allowed the gift of prophecy because of their modesty. “‘We are not worthy of such greatness.’ God responds, ‘Because of your humility, I shall increase your greatness.’” In what ways should religious experience be reserved for the select few? In what ways should intensive religious experience be available to all? Are there any prerequisites that might reasonably need to be fulfilled before people can expect to participate in peak religious experiences? Are there qualifications necessary for someone to become a prophet? In this day of websites and instant video, should we be more leery of people who claim to be prophets? Should a high level of modesty be a requirement of prophecy? Topic #2: An Incident of Slander The incident of Miriam and Aaron slandering Moses (12:1-16) is as complex as it is troubling. Although the Torah does not say exactly what was said or the exact nature of the slander (and should we really be so curious to repeat its substance?), nonetheless it is clear that the Torah is not prepared to gloss over this incident. Although the personal dimension of their slander is not clear to us, we do know that Aaron and Miriam were upset that Moses, their younger brother, became known as an outstanding prophet, while they seem barely to merit a footnote. They said: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12:2) (Note the contrast with Moses’ position on widespread prophesy, quoted in Topic #1 above.) God then addresses Aaron and Miriam directly, making it abundantly clear that his relationship with Moses is far more extensive than anything that they had ever experienced themselves. The divinely administered punishment for slander was understood to be tzara’at, a skin disease. (Although tzara’at is often translated as leprosy, many scholars today think that a different skin disease is involved.) In the midst of other crises that had befallen the priesthood, it might have been a crushing blow to the institution if Aaron, the high priest, had been stricken with such a disease. While Miriam indeed was stricken, it appears that Aaron’s punishment was that he had to stand by ineffectually and watch his older sister’s suffering. Could it be that with a touch of irony, it was Moses’ concise prayer that brought healing for Miriam, not any action or words by the high priest?
We tend to look at the Torah as a series of self-contained weekly readings. But if we view a larger slice of text, we realize that Chapter 12 (the incident of slander discussed here) is followed immediately by Chapter 13 (which involves the slandering of the Promised Land by 10 of the 12 scouts / spies). We are tempted to ask: Did anyone learn a lesson in Chapter 12? If so, how could the events of Chapter 13 have taken place? (Hint: how might the scouts have rationalized to allow themselves to believe that their slander against the Promised Land bore no resemblance to the slander against Moses?)
PARASHAT SHELAH-LEKHA - BIRKAT HAHODESH
June 9, 2007 – 23 Sivan 5766 Annual: Numbers 13:1 – 15:41 (Etz Hayim, p. 840; Hertz p. 623) Triennial: Numbers 15:8 – 15:41 (Etz Hayim, p. 851; Hertz p. 631) Haftarah: Joshua 2:1 – 24 (Etz Hayim, p. 857; Hertz p. 635) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Moses sends scouts to look at the Promised Land on behalf of the Israelites. Twelve scouts are sent, one from each tribe. (It seems the confederation of tribes had not yet been sufficiently firmed up, so each tribe needed its own representative.) The scouts spend 40 days checking things out, and then they return with a less-than-unanimous evaluation. While the land was acknowledged to be flowing with milk and honey (13:27), and the scouts brought back fine examples of its produce, 10 of the 12 scouts are pessimistic about the feasibility of conquering it. Out of the 12 scouts, only Joshua and Caleb assert that the task of conquering the land surely could be accomplished. The people hear the executive summary and note that 10 scouts were reporting negatively, while only two were reporting positively. (How often do we count heads, without examining the substance of the case that has been put forth?) The people react to the scouts’ reports by rebelling openly against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. By implication, they are also questioning the value of their allegiance to God. Joshua and Caleb are quick to grasp this implication (14:8-9). God takes note of the disloyal spirit among the Israelites, including their complaint (14:3) that women and children were being placed at risk. He responds by decreeing that all of this rebellious generation except Joshua and Caleb will be excluded from the Promised Land, while their children -- whom they had said were being placed at risk (14:31) – would inherit the land. Briefly put, the Israelites would wander in the desert for 40 years, corresponding to the 40 days of the scouts’ exploration of the Promised Land 14:34). Failing to grasp the significance of the withdrawal of God’s supporting Presence from their midst, the next morning a group of Israelites seeks to sally forth to take immediate possession of the Promised Land. Moses warns them that without divine support such a campaign was doomed to failure. When the group persists in their plan, they are roundly defeated (14:40-45). The balance of our parashah deals with a variety of topics. First, we are given some laws about the sacrifices to be observed when the Israelites finally take possession of the Promised Land. Included in this section is the practice of setting aside a portion of the dough used for baking bread for the kohen. There is also a discussion of sacrifices for atonement, both communal and individual.
Next, an incident of Sabbath desecration is recounted, along with the punishment meted out for this offense. Finally, in 15:37-41, we read the commandment to tie fringes on the corners of our four-cornered garments. (This passage is familiar to us because it is also used as the third paragraph of the Sh’ma.) Topic #1: Slandering the Promised Land The 10 scouts’ negative reports include some positive comments, highlights that acknowledge the land’s beauty and its desirability. The clear drift of their remarks, however, was that the goal of taking possession of the land was unattainable. Upon hearing this report, most Israelites were disheartened. Whether or not the 10 scouts intended to undermine the people’s resolve, the result of their report was to harm the Israelites’ determination to take possession of the Promised Land. It is possible to argue that in slandering the Promised Land, they were slandering the promise, and even the Source of the promise. Before we can form an opinion on this issue, we must examine the scouts’ mandate. Moses assigns tasks to the scouts in the following passage: When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them: “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” (Numbers 13:17-20) What were the elements of the mission that Moses assigned to the scouts? Compare the scouts’ report to their original mission as Moses outlined it. In what ways did the scouts exceed their mission? In what ways did they fall short of fulfilling their mission? Topic #2: Verses of Forgiveness Several verses from this week’s Torah-reading are classic passages that have found their way into our communal prayers. Both of the following passages have become part of our liturgy for the High Holy Days. 14:19-20 - [Moses said,] “Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.” And the Lord said, “I pardon, as You have asked.” 15:26 - The whole Israelite community and the stranger residing among them shall be forgiven, for it happened to the entire people through error. Jewish liturgy often seeks to cite models of divine forgiveness from the Torah as a vehicle for obtaining divine forgiveness, especially on a communal level, in
later times. Why not simply ask to be pardoned based on the depth of our own sincerity? Does citing a biblical passage enhance the effectiveness of our plea? How (and why) did the framers of our liturgy think this works?
PARASHAT KORAH - ROSH HODESH TAMMUZ
June 16, 2007 – 30 Sivan 5767 Annual: Numbers 16:1 – 18:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 860; Hertz p. 639) Triennial: Numbers 17:25 – 18:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 869; Hertz p. 648) Maftir: Numbers 28:9 – 15 (Etz Hayim, p. 869; Hertz p. 695) Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1 – 24, 66:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 1219; Hertz p. 944) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Korah, a cousin of Moses, challenged Moses’ and Aaron’s authority to lead the Israelites. Gathering around himself a growing group of followers, he sounds a populist theme aimed at placing himself and his followers in top leadership positions. Moses proposes a test in which Korah and his followers would offer incense to God in their own firepans, while Moses and Aaron would do the same. In the midst of this challenge, the earth swallows up Korah, his followers, and all their households. A fire then consumes 250 Levites who had supported Korah. Korah’s fire pan, along with those of his followers, were still in the sanctuary. Although their incense had not been accepted by God, these pans still had been sanctified, so they could not simply be discarded. A creative solution was found to this problem. Further murmurings against Moses and Aaron triggered a plague among the people. In a second test, involving Aaron and the leaders of the other tribes, Aaron’s wooden staff sprouts and the others do not. This confirms the divine selection of the tribe of Levi. The final chapter of our parashah deals with the manner in which the Levites and the Kohanim were to be compensated for their ritual services. Tithes and other gifts were to serve as the source of sustenance for these religious functionaries. Topic #1: Were Aaron and Miriam Prophets? In our Torah reading two weeks ago, Miriam and Aaron grumbled about Moses: Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well? (Numbers 12:2) While this controversy was likely fueled by jealousy and sibling rivalry, neither Miriam nor Aaron could have credibly put forth such a claim without there being at least a grain of truth. While we do not wish to venture into the philosophical
quicksand of debating what exactly constitutes prophecy, we remain on firm ground if we accept the Torah’s nomenclature at face value. We can state with confidence that Miriam was gifted with prophecy, because, according to the Torah, after the Israelites safely crossed the Sea of Reeds, Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. (Exodus 15:20) Although Aaron is not specifically labeled a prophet, he is the recipient of divine communication on several occasions. a. After the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, God addresses Aaron directly, warning about priests’ use of wine and other intoxicants (Leviticus 10: 8-11). b. In this week’s parashah, God speaks directly to Aaron three times in the aftermath of the rebellion of Korah, in verses 1, 8, and 20. It appears that God is vindicating Aaron as a spiritual leader by addressing him directly. Although these interactions with Aaron are characterized by the downloading of instructions, rather than spiritual or theological visions, it is clear from the Torah text that Aaron too experienced a personal taste of God’s word. This is a far cry from Korah, the cousin of Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, who never was reported to have received any divine communication, but who wished to replace Moses and Aaron as the spiritual and political leader of the Israelites. What effect would direct contact with God have on a person’s ability to be a leader of the Israelites? Today we do not give credence to a person who claims to be a prophet. The Talmud, however, does speak about prophets and prophecy: Rab Judah said in Rab's name: Whoever is boastful, if he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him. [Pesachim 66b] Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to the wise. [Bava Batra 12a] What do these observations tell us about how the rabbis felt about prophets and prophecy? What leadership qualities do we find are necessary in a prophet? Topic #2: How (and Why) are Religious Functionaries Paid? In our parashah and elsewhere, the Torah outlines that compensation and perquisites that routinely were due to the Levites in general, and especially to the Kohanim, Aaron’s descendants, in particular. While the members of all other tribes were to be given extensive areas to farm within the Promised Land, the tribe of Levi was to be scattered among the other tribes and given minimal land to live on. And, as we have noted earlier in the book of Numbers, their work in
the sanctuary involved some serious hazards. In the post-desert years, after the Promised Land had been settled, it appears that the Levites served a pedagogic function among the tribes, as well as assisting the Kohanim in the Temple service. This dual role is celebrated in Moses’ parting words about the tribe of Levi: They shall teach Your norms to Jacob And Your instructions to Israel, They shall offer You incense to savor And whole-offerings upon Your altar. (Deuteronomy 33:10) In the centuries following the destruction of the second Temple, Torah scholars assumed the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people. They were reluctant to accept payment for teaching Jews about Judaism. In fact, many of the rabbis in the Talmud supported themselves through “regular” jobs, such as shoemaker, woodcutter, or farmer. The advantage of such a system was that these rabbis experienced many of the same fiscal ups and downs that anyone else might experience, and thus might have been well-suited to understanding the concerns of the people. The disadvantage was that their time as teachers and as scholars was used inefficiently, which was advantageous neither to them nor to the community. Eventually, the idea that a rabbi should be compensated for the time that he would have spent on secular, revenue-producing activity, but instead spent contributing to the spiritual growth of the Jewish community was born. In this way, the community began to fund its own spiritual human resources.
June 23, 2007 – 7 Tammuz 5767 Annual: Numbers: 19:1 – 22:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652) Triennial: Numbers: 20:22 – 22:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 887; Hertz p. 658) Haftarah: Judges: 11:1 – 33 (Etz Hayim, p. 910; Hertz p. 664) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Chapter 19 is devoted to the ritual of the red heifer, a purification rite for people who have come into contact with a corpse. It should be noted that a preoccupation with the dead was an ever-present part not only of ancient Egyptian theology but also of daily life in ancient Egypt. The ritual presented in this parashah appears to be designed to distance people from excessive involvement with the dead. The first half of Chapter 20 deals with the incident of Moses striking the rock, and the consequences of this action. (The nature of Moses’ and Aaron’s infraction is explored below.) In the second half of the chapter, the Israelites seek permission to pass peacefully through the territory of Edom on their way to the Promised Land. When Edom denies them that permission the Israelites are constrained to lengthen their journey, because the Edomites were descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau and they are reluctant to become embroiled in a dispute with a relative. Chapter 20 concludes with the death of Aaron. Chapter 21 opens with a brief skirmish with the Canaanites, and then tells us of a plague of poisonous snakes (see below). Next come encounters with the peoples on the eastern side of the Jordan, including a successful military conquest and some ancient poetic passages. The parashah concludes with the Israelites encamped on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho. Topic #1: Moses and Aaron Were Mere Human Beings The source for the well-known story of Moses and Aaron striking the rock lies within our parashah (20:1-13). As a result of their behavior in this crisis, God denies these two leaders the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. There are several theories seeking to explain why Moses’ and Aaron’s behavior in this matter was judged so harshly. Three leading theories, in a nutshell, are as follows: a. Rashi (1040-1105) - They sinned in striking the rock, rather than speaking to it as they had been commanded.
b. Maimonides (RaMBaM, 1135-1204) - Moses’ whole sin lay in erring on the side of anger and deviating from the mean of patience when he used the expression, “Hear now, you rebels.” God then censured him for this, that a man of his stature should give vent to anger when anger was not called for. c. Nachmanides (RaMBaN, 1194-1270) - Cites Rabbeinu Hanan’el, who suggested that Moses made the critical mistake of saying “Shall we bring forth water?” instead of “Shall God bring forth water?” The people might have been misled into thinking that Moses and Aaron had extracted water for them by their own skills. Thus they failed “to sanctify Me in the midst of the people.” Each of these theories takes Moses’ and Aaron’s actions, as narrated in Chapter 20, into account, along with the divine rebuke in the same chapter that alludes to the reasoning for denying them admission to the Promised Land. What was the most critical part of their mission, shepherding the people in safety or promoting belief in God? Was their responsibility to fulfill the goal or to follow each detail fully? Regardless of your own assessment of the harshness of the decree, which of these theories do you think best accounts for the divine disapproval of Moses’ and Aaron’s actions? Do you prefer another theory altogether? Topic #2: The Copper Serpent a. Following a round of grumbling by the Israelites, an infestation of seraphim (poisonous snakes) afflicted the people. In the words of our parashah (21:6-9): They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord to take away the serpents from us!” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.” Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover. What is troubling about this solution to the snake problem? b. The copper snake mentioned above evidently was preserved, so that later generations could learn of the miraculous cure effected in the desert. Centuries later, King Hezekiah had to deal with a different problem relating to that very same copper snake.
He also broke into pieces the bronze serpent which Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan. (II Kings 18:4) How had Moses’ original purpose in fashioning the serpent been perverted? c. The potential for a symbol to be misused is a hazard of religious life. Can you think of any religious symbols that are misused today? Are there any ways that we can safeguard symbols so that they will be less likely to be misused? d. The rabbis of the Mishnaic period were concerned about the apparent voodoo surrounding Moses’ copper serpent, as narrated in our parashah. They voiced their concern in a straightforward question, for which they proposed a novel answer: Can a [copper] snake cause someone to die or to live? Rather [we can learn from this incident that] whenever the Israelites look upwards and subjugate their hearts to their heavenly Father, they are healed; otherwise, they pine away. (Mishnah, Rosh HaShanah 3:8) How did the rabbis of the Mishnah understand the purpose of the copper snake? Are there times now when people confuse a symbol with what the symbol represents?
June 30, 2007 – 14 Tammuz 5767 Annual: Numbers: 22:2 – 25:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652) Triennial: Numbers: 22:39 – 25:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 899; Hertz p. 673) Haftarah: Micah: 5:6 – 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 915; Hertz p. 682) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah This week’s Parashah is named for Balak, king of Moab. Balak hires Bil’am (also known in English as Balaam), a gentile prophet, to curse the Israelites, hoping to weaken them and thereby mitigate the potential threat they pose as they travel en masse close to the border of Moab. Balak evidently wishes to hire the best available prophet in order to counteract the strength of Moses, whose skill as a prophet seemed to play a key role in the recent successes of these former slaves. Bil’am initially is reluctant to accept Balak’s invitation. Balak takes this reluctance as a bargaining tactic and so tries to enhance the job’s prestige, as well as its remuneration. Bil’am finally accepts, subject to the stipulation that he will only utter the words that God puts in his mouth. On his way to perform the agreed-upon task, Bil’am finds himself in a position where he is less perceptive than his donkey. Not only that, but his donkey remarkably develops the power of clear verbal expression. It can talk. The exchange between Bil’am and his donkey, told in exquisite detail, leaves us wondering which of these two characters is indeed the ass in this story. Bil’am meets with Balak, and sets out to perform his appointed task. To Balak’s chagrin, Bil’am repeatedly prophesies in a way that compliments the Israelites and celebrates their collective strengths. Bil’am departs, but not before articulating further prophesies that Balak did not want to hear. After this high drama, the parashah ends on a low note, retelling a lapse in the Israelites’ behavior. Topic #1: The Strengths of Israel As Bil’am looked up, and he saw Israel camped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. (Numbers 24:2) This verse is followed by poetic prophecy from Bil’am. Clearly the visual image that greeted Bil’am’s eye was a stimulus to the content of this prophecy. What could Bil’am have seen that left him no choice but to praise the Israelites? If we wish to identify the stimulus, we could begin by looking at the poetry that resulted from this inspiration. Our focus will be upon the well-known verse:
How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel. (Numbers 24:5) One tradition draws conclusions from this verse about religious institutions and communal norms. a. Religious institutions - In the Hertz commentary on the Pentateuch (p.678), we see “tents” interpreted to mean “tents of Torah,” or schoolhouses, while “dwellings” are equated with synagogues. Following a long line of interpreters and translators, Hertz underscores that our religious institutions have contributed to our people’s staying power. These institutions, Hertz concludes in a microsermon, always have been the source and spirit of Israel’s strength. b. Communal norms: modesty, privacy - Another source views the tents and dwellings as a reference to the Israelites’ domestic arrangements. Their respect for the privacy of others, and their modesty in maintaining their own privacy, may have differentiated the Israelites from other ancient peoples. Many centuries later, the Talmud referred back to the precedent ascribed to the ancient Israelites. In legislating building codes, the Mishnah dictates: One may not build, in a courtyard, a door directly opposite the door of a neighbor, or install a window in line with a neighbor’s window. In a discussion of that instruction, we read: Rabbi Yohanan said: Since a Scriptural verse says, “Bil’am looked up, and he saw Israel camped tribe by tribe.” What did he see? He noticed that the openings of their tents were not directed toward each other. He said: these people are worthy that the Divine Presence should dwell upon them. (Talmud: Bava Batra 60a) Bil’am recognized that a society that prizes modesty, privacy, and mutual respect is one that God may grace with divine favor. Which of the two interpretations above do you find more appealing? Is holiness properly centered in the synagogue, or in the home? Does our tradition make that differentiation? Is there room for both approaches? Is there a lesson in this rabbinic interpretation which could be applied in ways to design and build dwellings and offices? Topic #2: The Weakness of Israel After the story of Bil’am’s prophecy about the destiny of the people Israel, in chapter 25 we read a sordid tale of the Israelites’ involvement in cultic prostitution with Moabite and/or Midianite women. This impulsive and irresponsible behavior represents a serious departure from the standards of
behavior for which the Israelites just have been praised. Logic dictates that Israel must somehow have been lured into this behavior. Who might have hatched such a plan for corrupting the Israelites? If Bil’am was the one who had recognized Israel’s strength of character, it is possible that in his frustration at having been unable to pin an effective verbal curse upon them he sought to undermine the very strength that he had identified in the Israelites. A verse in next week’s Torah reading, in Numbers 31:16, points to such involvement on Bil’am’s part. It is a sad irony that the very area in which the Israelites’ behavior had been so exemplary was the focus of this attempt to undo the people Israel. This episode suggests some interesting questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the Jewish people today. Understanding the difficulty in stereotyping, consider: 1. What are the positive qualities for which Jews are known today? 2. What would we like to be known for? 3. If there is a gap between our reputation and our goals, what should we do about that disparity?
July 7, 2007 – 21 Tammuz 5767 Annual: Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 918; Hertz p. 686) Triennial: Numbers 28:16 – 30:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 924; Hertz p. 695) Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 968; Hertz p. 710) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Following the incident related at the end of last week’s parashah, God commends Pinhas and designates his descendants for divine service. To this day, the memory of Pinhas is invoked within the liturgy recited at a brit milah, the covenant of Jewish circumcision. We are now near the end of the 40 years of traveling through the desert. In anticipation of taking possession of the Promised Land, a second census is to be taken. Evidently, the size of each tribe’s territory is to be determined by the size of its population, while the location assigned to each tribe is to be determined by lot. The tribe of Levi, dispersed among the other tribes, is an exception. A special problem is raised by the five daughters of Zelophehad, a member of the tribe of Menasheh. Zelophehad had died without leaving any sons and his daughters wish to inherit his portion of land. (The generally accepted practice at that time was for sons to inherit land and for a daughter to become a part of her husband’s tribe upon her marriage.) After Moses had an opportunity for divine consultation, the daughters’ petition was granted. (When this caused problems for the tribe, however, some modifications were stipulated. See Numbers, chapter 36.) God spells out to Moses that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Moses raises concerns about continuity of leadership (see below), and these concerns are addressed. The balance of this week’s parashah is an outline of the sacrifices prescribed to be brought daily and on special occasions. Topic #1: Treansition of Leadership After God tells Moses that his life is near its end, and that he will die without the opportunity to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, Moses responds by expressing a concern for the continuity of leadership. He accepts the decree that he will not personally complete the journey with the Israelites, but he needs to know that a successor will be in place, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd. (27:17)
Moses’ selfless concern for the needs of his people is indeed striking. God responds by designating Joshua as Moses’ successor. Moses is further directed: Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey. (27:20) In turn, according to Midrash Rabbah, Moses made this request of God regarding the appointment of a new leader: The request which Moses made of the Holy One, blessed be He, in the hour of his death: He says to Him: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! The mind of every individual is revealed and known to You. The minds of Your children are not like unto one another. Now that I am taking leave of them, appoint over them, I pray You, a leader who shall bear with each one of them as his temperament requires. (Numbers Rabbah XXI:2) Did Moses have to explain this need to God? We assume not. Why then did the midrash include this request? What does it tell us about how a leader should lead? In our day, we choose leaders for our congregations, schools and community institutions. In what ways is the process outlined in the Torah reading similar to the process of assuring continuity of spiritual leadership in our congregations? In what ways does it differ? Have we improved upon this model? Is there anything that we can learn from the process outlined in our parashah? Topic #2: Are Sacrifices Barbaric? Chapters 28 and 29 are devoted entirely to outlining the sacrifices to be brought at the central place of worship on ordinary days and on the various holy days. We are far removed from the sacrificial system, since there have been no authorized animal sacrifices in Judaism for more than 19 centuries. Because we have moved on to other forms of worship, we are tempted to dismiss the sacrificial system as primitive. In light of the content of this week’s Torah reading, it may be appropriate for us to attempt to understand the sacrificial system on its own terms, without letting our twenty-first century values exercise an automatic veto upon the religious activities of our ancestors. Consider the following passage, written by W. Gunther Plaut, a contemporary Reform rabbi and scholar: What do moderns consider “primitive” about such rituals? Doubtless, the prebiblical origins of sacrifice go back to beliefs that the gods desired the food for their consumption. But the Torah itself no longer gives any warrant for the continuation of such beliefs, and Ps. 50:8 ff. expressly disavows them. Most likely it is the public nature of the ancient slaughtering process that is repellent to current tastes. We prefer to hide the procedure behind the walls of abattoirs where the animals are killed in a fashion no less bloody, but without making it necessary for the consumer to witness the life-and-death cycle which goes into
his pleasurable nourishment. Moreover, even when we share with others in the eating process, we do not generally experience any of the genuinely worthy emotions which were usually engendered by the sacrifices of old. In the root meaning of the English word, we do not “sacrifice” (i.e., render holy) anything we eat. This does not mean that our age ought to be ready for any reconsideration of cultic sacrifice. It does suggest that when seen in its own context the biblical order of animal offerings was a genuine form of worship that cannot be quickly dismissed with prejudicial contemporary judgments. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1218) What did people in ancient times seek to express through the offering of a sacrifice? Why was it considered important that the sacrifice represent the finest quality specimen that a person or a community had to offer? It has been said that in our era prayer is designed to take the place of sacrifice. Do we offer enough of ourselves, in praying, to make this happen? How might we seek to heighten the devotional component of our prayer services?
PARASHAT MATTOT- MASEY - BIRKAT HAHODESH
July 14, 2007 – 28 Tammuz 5767 Annual: Numbers 30:2 – 36:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 941; Hertz p. 702) Triennial: Numbers 33:50 – 36:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 957; Hertz p. 716) Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 3:4 (Etz Hayim, p. 973; Hertz p. 725) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah The beginning of this week’s double Torah portion gives guidelines about vows and their annulment. The following chapter deals with an all-out war against the Midianites. Unlike many other wars in the ancient world, this one was fought not to acquire spoils but to remove the rather effective threat that the Midianites posed to the religious standards to which the Israelites aspired. In the wake of conquests made on the eastern side of the Jordan River, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and some of the tribe of Manasseh petition Moses for the pasture lands in these areas. Moses, concerned that the Israelites’ unity and morale might be undermined if these tribes settle down early, before the other tribes had had a chance to conquer the Promised Land on the west side of the Jordan, extracts a promise that they would not retire from their military role before the other tribes’ lands had also been conquered. Looking backward at the Israelites’ travels of 40 years in the desert, we are given an itinerary of the places in which they had camped. Looking ahead, the Israelites are warned to uproot idol-worship from the Promised Land. Guidelines for dividing up the Promised Land among the tribes are given. Interspersed throughout the tribes’ lands are to be cities of Levites, surrounded by fields. In this way, the Levites could be physically close to all the tribes. This would tend to make it easier for the Levites to perform their religious and educational duties. Guidelines for the treatment of a person who commits involuntary manslaughter are given as well. Unlike a premeditated murderer, who was subject to the death penalty, the involuntary manslayer was to be exiled to one of six cities of refuge that were spread throughout the land. (These cities happened to be cities of the Levites. Perhaps some rehabilitation of the manslayer was implied.) The manslayer was to remain in this internal exile until the death of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest.
The book of Numbers closes with a postscript to the problem of the daughters of Zelophehad. The members of their tribe worried that now that the daughters could inherit land, the geographic territory of their tribe could be eroded if these women married men from another tribe. This potential problem was resolved, to the apparent satisfaction of all concerned. Topic #1: How Nomadic Were Our Ancestors? In Chapter 33, we read the itinerary of the Israelites’ wanderings. Many of us are in the habit of thinking of the Israelites as nomads who knew no rest in their 40 years in the desert. Some of us approach this reading with as much patience as we would bring to a dramatic reading of someone else’s travel directions from MapQuest. Admittedly, this list of wilderness encampment locations might not make for the most riveting chapter in the Torah. Yet there is valuable information here, including the raw material for an illuminating perspective on the frequency of the wanderings. In commenting on Numbers 33:1, Rashi (1040-1105) cites an analysis of the itinerary by an exegete ironically named Rabbi Moshe: There are only 42 journeys here. Subtract 14 from this total, since all of these were during the first year…. Also, subtract eight journeys that took place after the death of Aaron … in the fortieth year. It turns out that in all the (middle) 38 years, they only journeyed 20 times. If we have been picturing our ancestors breaking camp and moving weekly, or even monthly, these numbers should cause us to re-evaluate this impression. Our revised perspective would show a semi-nomadic group that may have migrated from one oasis to the next, remaining in place (other than the first and the last of the 40 years) for almost two years, on average, at each stop. Why, then, would later prophets cite the wanderings in the desert as a sign of loving devotion and growing loyalty to God on the part of the Israelites? Consider, for example, the following passage from Jeremiah (2:2-3): Thus said the Lord: I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride – how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of His harvest... What was so praiseworthy about the Israelites’ following a divinely dictated series of journeys in the wilderness? Hint # 1: They were not told the itinerary in advance. The Israelites were being asked to show a great deal of trust. Hint # 2: Even though they stayed in most locations for many months, as outlined above, they had to be prepared to break camp and travel at a moment’s notice. (See, for example, Numbers 9:16-23.)
Topic #2: Why is the Exile of the Involuntary Manslayer Measured by the Lifespan of the Kohen Gadol? It is puzzling that the Torah prescribes that a person who commits involuntary manslaughter should be exiled to a city of refuge “until the death of the high priest” (Numbers 35:25). The rationale for this indefinite (and seemingly arbitrary) period of exile is elusive. To some, it appears that the death of the Kohen Gadol somehow brings expiation for any carelessness that may have contributed to the involuntary manslaughter. This seemingly would imply that on a metaphysical level, the world is out of balance until the death of either the Kohen Gadol or the involuntary manslayer. This situation cries out for further explanation. One viewpoint says that the Kohen Gadol, as a spiritual leader, is responsible for any damaging acts that occur on his watch. Another perspective sees the death of a beloved national spiritual leader as a calamity felt so deeply by all Israelites that their private pain, including the pain of the person bereaved in an accidental manslaughter pales by comparison. A third point of view sees a certain symmetry within these guidelines: The deliberate murderer is deliberately put to death, while the involuntary manslayer, who took someone’s life by chance, must wait for the chance death of the Kohen Gadol before he can gain the opportunity to rejoin his community. (Arnold B. Ehrlich, Mikra Ki-Pheshutto, as paraphrased by Jacob Milgrom in The JPS Commentary, Numbers, Excursus 76, page 510) Does one of these rationales appeal to you, or can you propose a more compelling reason why the exile of the involuntary manslayer ends with the death of the Kohen Gadol?
PARASHAT DEVARIM - SHABBAT HAZON
July 21, 2007 – 6 Av 5767 Annual: Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 981; Hertz p. 736) Triennial: Deuteronomy 2:31 – 3:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 994; Hertz p. 746) Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1 – 27 (Etz Hayim, p. 1000; Hertz p. 750) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah With this parashah we begin the last of the books of the Torah. Moses undertakes to give guidance to the Israelites in a series of speeches during their fortieth year in the desert. He reviews several key events that occurred during the desert wanderings: a. the establishment of a judicial system. b. the sending of scouts to check out the Promised Land. c. the people’s complaints, upon hearing and believing the majority’s negative report. d. the barring of a generation from entering the Promised Land. e. the bold, but unsuccessful, attempt to enter the Promised Land despite this decree. God directs Moses and the Israelites to refrain from attacking the peoples of Ammon, Moav, and Edom. Taking a detour, the Israelites ask to pass through the territory of the Amorites of Heshbon. Sihon, king of Heshbon, responds by attacking them. The Israelites conquer Sihon and his kingdom, with God’s help. God also helps them to conquer the kingdom of Og, king of Bashan. The choice pasturelands thus conquered, which lie on the eastern side of the Jordan River, were pre-assigned to Israelite tribes on condition that they defer settling them until after they had helped their brethren to conquer the Promised Land itself (i.e. the western side of the Jordan). Moses charges Joshua, who already had been designated as his successor, not to fear the remaining nations in the Promised Land, because God will be with him. Topic #1: Which Mountain is Mount Sinai? In the opening verses of Deuteronomy, Moses shares some geographic information that seems designed to help us to picture the time and (especially) the place where his remarks were delivered. Although each of the place names has a familiar ring to it, there is no question we are somewhat frustrated because the format of the Torah scroll did not lend itself to transmitting a map (from the days of Moses) as an appendix. However, we are aware that mapmaking was, at best, in its infancy in that distant time and place. There is a consensus among scholars about where some of the venues to which Moses refers actually were. This is no small feat, because clues are
obscured with each military conquest and with each major event in seismology or meteorology. An illuminating summary by Jeffrey H. Tigay may be found in the Deuteronomy volume of the JPS Torah Commentary (Excursus 1: The Historical Geography of Deuteronomy). For the past century, more and more people have been wondering which mountain is Mount Sinai (or, in the language of Deuteronomy, Horev). Curiosity intensified in the years following the Six-Day War, when the Sinai peninsula became accessible to Jews coming in through Israel for the first time in a generation. While we might like to think we can review the details with certainty, the fact is that we do not know – most likely we cannot know – exactly which route the Israelites took when they left Egypt. Therefore, we also cannot say with reasonable certainty which mountain is Mount Sinai. Lack of certainty has not prevented people from claiming to know the location of Mount Sinai. The residents of the Santa Katherina monastery are proud that they live at Mount Sinai (or so they are convinced). Local Arabs cite a tradition that Jabal Musa (which means Mount Moses) is the place. And scholars continue to propound their own theories. Though theories abound, no one knows for sure. Why do we care where Mount Sinai is? Ideally, we would like to be able to visualize the revelation that was pivotal to our religion in its early development. The better we can picture the surroundings of that revelation, the closer we might feel to our Israelite ancestors – and of course to God. But since we cannot locate Mount Sinai, let us look over a few of the possibilities listed in Professor Tigay’s summary. a. Some scholars believe that the route of the exodus brought the Israelites to the southern part of the Sinai peninsula, making Mount Musa a leading candidate, “although there is no evidence that it was so identified any earlier than the fourth century C.E.” b. Those scholars who think that the exodus route led across the center of the peninsula have their own suggestions about which mountain was Sinai; so do those scholars who envision a northerly exodus route. Further theories, in Tigay’s words: a. Some deny that Mount Sinai is in the Sinai Peninsula and locate it instead in the Negev, or even as far as Midian in northern Arabia. The exact location of the mountain may already have been forgotten in biblical times; apart from Elijah’s mysterious journey there (I Kings 19), the Bible offers no indication that it was ever visited. The name Horeb … indicating dryness, is too vague to offer any guidance. By now it should be clear that we might never learn exactly where Mount Sinai was. Because we are stuck with this reality, we might find it more productive to try to gain some insight into the significance of the various possible locations.
1. Most of us have never contemplated the possibility that Mount Sinai might not be located within the Sinai peninsula. How would a location in Midian add another layer of connection to the biography of Moses? (Hint: in the book of Exodus, see 2:16-21, 3:1-5, and especially 3:12. However, 18:27 mitigates against this theory.) 2. If Mount Sinai might be in the Negev, should that affect the behavior of those who tour in the mountainous sections of the Negev? What about those who live there? 3. For those of us who live at least 6,000 miles away from Mount Sinai – whatever its precise location might be – why does an incident that has been reported to us from 33 centuries ago continue to exercise an influence in our lives? Would knowing with certainty impact our belief? Topic #2: Rivals and Relatives In chapters 2 and 3, the Israelites are given guidance about how to deal with the various peoples who were in their path to the Promised Land. God restricts the Israelites from attacking the Moabites and the Ammonites, who were descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot, as well as the Edomites, descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau. They were given no such restrictions about the Amorites and the residents of the Bashan, who were promptly and successfully dislodged by the Israelites. Why were the Israelites required to be so scrupulous in dealing with their bythen-distant relatives, while they could attack non-relatives without restrictions? Is there a lesson for us today in this requirement? If our relationships with relatives is less than ideal, do we have an obligation to correct them? Is there a statute of limitations for holding onto sour memories?
PARASHAT VA’ETHANAN - SHABBAT NAHAMU
July 28, 2007 – 13 Av 5767 Annual: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 1005; Hertz p. 755) Triennial: Deuteronomy 5:1 - 7:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 1015; Hertz p. 765) Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1 – 26 (Etz Hayim, p. 1033; Hertz p. 776) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah The parashah continues Moses’ review of the history of the Israelites. Speaking on a personal note, Moses tells the people that his pleas to God that God relent and permit him to enter the Promised Land are to no avail. Beginning to anticipate his taking his leave of the people, Moses suggests that they remember well their experiences in Egypt and at Horev (Sinai). He urges them to keep in mind that these remarkable occurrences point to a single God, who has a special relationship with Israel. Moses cautions the people to avoid the idol-worship that is so widespread among the peoples who live in the Promised Land. If the Israelites fail to keep their covenant with God that failure will result in exile, although God will not abandon the people of Israel even then. Moses recapitulates the Ten Commandments, with some minor variations from the version found in Exodus. The passage that we use as the opening paragraph of the Sh’ma is drawn from this parashah. This paragraph stresses the need to love God and to remember God’s commandments. It describes rituals whose likely purpose is to remind us of our relationship with God and of our broader obligation to observe many commandments. The mandate for living a life imbued with Jewish consciousness, as well as communicating our Jewish heritage to the next generation, is spelled out within this familiar passage. Not only are the Israelites instructed to remember their shared experiences of God’s protection, they also are expected to communicate to their children, at an appropriate time, the significance of their shared history. (Several verses from this section are quoted in the Passover seder.) The Israelites are to avoid the religious practices of the local polytheists and to remember that God’s relationship with Israel is not based on their impressive population numbers, but rather on their loyalty to God’s covenant. Topic #1: Lifelong Education One passage contained within this week’s Torah portion is very familiar to us because it is used in Jewish liturgy every day of the year. The opening paragraph of the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) concerns itself with keeping our relationship with God current, and with transmitting our religion from one generation to the next.
A medieval analysis of the 613 commandments (Sefer Ha-Hinukh, composed in 13th-century Spain) finds that this brief passage contains seven commandments. You may wish to examine this text of the Sh’ma and to try to identify the seven specific commandments contained within this paragraph from the Torah. For our purposes, however, we shall focus on one particular commandment: You shall teach them diligently to your children. (6:7) It is worth noting that although most parents in our age delegate the teaching of Judaism to those who possess technical expertise, this mitzvah gives the responsibility to parents. Here are a few points to consider about how we must teach Judaism diligently to our children: 1. Based on this phrase from the Sh’ma, who is commanded to study Judaism? a. rabbis and rabbinical students? b. religious-school teachers? c. children under the age of 13? d. all Kohanim? e. all Jews? 2. Is it possible for people to pass the mitzvah of teaching on to others? Maimonides suggests that the mitzvah of teaching “your children” falls to professionals as well. “It is incumbent on scholars to teach all students, even if not his child… students are called ‘your children.’” (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:2) Are we doing the right thing for ourselves or for our children by giving others full responsibility for our children’s Jewish education? Is there a message to children when parents are just lightly involved or uninvolved with religious teaching? 3. A few centuries ago, a witty man counseled “Do as I say, not as I do.” Is this position compatible with the commandment to teach transcendent ideas diligently to your children? 4. The Midrash Sifrei (a halakhic Midrash) says “make the mitzvot the central part of your life, not the secondary. Your discussions should focus on them.” In what way is that a method of teaching children? 5. An elderly professor of Judaica, addressing a group of graduate students, opened his remarks with the words “Fellow students.” The students, who were about five decades younger than the professor, were surprised at his seeming absent-mindedness. The professor then reminded them that everyone in the room was a student of Jewish texts; it just so happened that some students were older and others were younger. How can this perspective be applied to intergenerational study (a) within the family? (b) within the congregation?
Topic #2: Do You Mind If I Smoke? It often happens in the modern world that changing circumstances lead different streams of Judaism to reach differing conclusions about the boundaries of permissible behavior. However, one area in which a remarkable unanimity has developed among the Jewish streams is the question of smoking tobacco. In the Conservative movement, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards took the lead in a 1986 responsum by the late Rabbi Seymour Siegel. Against the backdrop of the reports (1964 and subsequent) of the United States surgeon general, Rabbi Siegel drew guidance from a mandate in this week’s parashah. He read the passage “For your own sake, therefore, be most careful” (4:15) to mean “Take good care of your lives.” Rabbi Siegel articulates the implication of this verse: Life is a gift, a privilege given to us by the Creator. Broadening the discussion to include other areas of risk to our health, Rabbi Siegel makes the following points: 1. Life is precious. It is given to us as a trust. Therefore, we may not do anything that possibly could impair our health, shorten our lives, or cause us harm and pain. 2. As we may not do this to ourselves, so, of course, we may not do harm to others. All human lives are precious in God’s sight. 3. The responsibility to avoid danger to ourselves or others applies even when it is not certain that harm will ensue. We are forbidden even to take the risk. 4. The harm is to be avoided even if the bad effects are not immediately evident, but will show up in the long run. A parallel effort was made about five years later by the Masorti movement, our sister stream in Israel. The most recent treatment of this issue is a 2006 responsum published by the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox body. For the writers of this responsum, the guiding verse was Leviticus 18:5, as classically interpreted by Shmuel in the Talmud (Yoma 85b): “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live” – and not die on account of them. This responsum devotes significant attention to the question of whether nicotine addiction is a valid excuse for continuing to smoke. (In the writers’ view, it is not.) Younger readers of Torah Sparks may be surprised to learn that only a few decades ago, the polite question for a smoker to ask was, “Do you mind if I smoke?” The only polite response (by the standards of that time) was, “Go right ahead.” The health consciousness of our society has progressed, and Jewish law has kept pace.
August 4, 2007 – 20 Av 5767 Annual: Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 1037; Hertz p. 780) Triennial: Deuteronomy 10:12 – 11:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 1048; Hertz p. 789) Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 1056; Hertz p. 794) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah As he nears the end of his stewardship, Moses continues to address the Israelites. He cautions them that if they wish to reap the promised rewards of divine protection and the defeat of their enemies as they take possession of the Promised Land, they must abide by their covenantal commitment to God. If they worship other gods, or commit other lapses as defined by the covenant, it may lead to exile and/or destruction. It also would be a mistake to assume that personal or national success indicates that God always will support the Israelites, no matter how badly the nation behaves. Likewise, it would be arrogant to deduce that Israelite success attests to our own power. The Israelites’ behavior has made God angry many times, most notably in the incident of the golden calf, which resulted in the destruction of the original tablets of the Ten Commandments. After much supplication, God invited Moses to fashion a second set of tablets. Moses reviews this slice of history and others with an eye toward helping the Israelites to focus on their commitment to obey the divine commandments. Israel is to maintain a special relationship with God. The gift of the Promised Land is contingent on Israel’s continued faithfulness under the covenant. Topic #1: Not By Bread Alone In this week’s Torah-portion we are told: Man does not live on bread alone; rather, man may live on anything the Lord decrees. (Deuteronomy 8:3) It is well known that Judaism expects us to recite blessings before and after we eat. The underlying rationale appears to be that we should cultivate an inner spirit of thankfulness for the divine gifts from which we benefit. Food is deemed to be one of those gifts to us, for our enjoyment and sustenance. The Torah is specific about the requirement to express thanks to God after we consume the earth’s bounty: When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you. (Deuteronomy 8:10)
This verse from our parashah is quoted within the birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals), where it serves as a statement of purpose for this prayer. But what blessings do we say before a meal is eaten? In the Talmud (Berakhot 48b) we find this answer: Our rabbis taught: Where is the saying of grace intimated in the Torah? In the verse, And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless: this signifies the benediction of ‘Who feeds’… ‘The Lord your God’: this signifies the benediction of zimmun. ‘For the land’: this signifies the blessing for the land. ‘The good’: this signifies ‘Who builds Jerusalem’; and similarly it says ‘This good mountain and Lebanon.’ ‘Which he has given you’: this signifies the blessing of ‘Who is good and bestows good’. This accounts for the grace after [meals]; how can we prove that there should be a blessing before [food]? — You have an argument a fortiori; if when one is full he says a grace, how much more so should he do so, when he is hungry! It is easy simply to begin a meal when you are hungry, easy to run to the water fountain at the end of Tisha B’Av or Yom Kippur and drink before acknowledging God’s goodness for having the drink at hand for us. With that in mind, does the claim of the rabbis, noted above, hold water? Does it not make more sense to observe God’s goodness when we are sated, rather than waiting another moment when we are hungry or thirsty? A close look at the familiar language of the ha-motzi blessing reminds us that it makes use of a rather sweeping metaphor. We acknowledge God’s role in our sustenance by saying that God “brings forth bread from the earth,” even though we certainly recognize that this blessing is not literally true. This is an abbreviated way of making two points: 1. God plays a role in growing wheat and other potentially nutritious produce from the earth, 2. God has given to humans the wisdom and the capability to grind wheat into flour and to execute all the further steps that enable the wheat to be transformed into bread. These gifts, executed by humans, are nonetheless divine gifts. One reason why Jewish liturgy calls for us to telescope this whole thought process into one short sentence is the awareness that a hungry person must be given the opportunity to eat immediately. (Reflection can come later.) Can you think of any other reasons why this blessing relies so heavily on metaphor? What other examples of metaphor can you think of within our various prayers? Why do prayers often make use of figures of speech, rather than simply saying what they mean?
Topic #2: The Nature of the Promised Land Speaking to the Israelites near the end of their 40-year trek in the desert, Moses paints a verbal picture of the cycle of agriculture that may be anticipated in the Promised Land. He contrasts this cycle with the norms of agriculture in Egypt: For the land which you are about to possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God keeps his eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end. (Deuteronomy 11:1012) By its very nature, this comment is difficult to understand. Those who were in the desert at this time were not those who had lived in Egypt. These people had spent most if not all of their lives being cared for by God in the desert. How could they be expected to know the main source of water for crops in Egypt? But clearly that generation had heard from their families about life in Egypt. In what ways might the Israelites hope that farming would be easier in the Promised Land? The passage quoted above assumes that divine supervision will keep the agricultural cycle in balance. The next passage in the Torah, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (familiar to us as the second paragraph of the Sh’ma), contemplates what might happen if God no longer has a reason to look out for the well-being of the Jewish people. What behavior might cause such problems, and what behavior might bring about harmony and longevity for the Jewish people in the Promised Land, according to verses 13-21? Nowadays, most people understand droughts and other disruptions in the weather cycle differently than the viewpoint of Deuteronomy 11. What value, if any, can we still derive from Deuteronomy 11 despite the conflicting claims of modern meteorology? Can we look beyond the literal language of the section and find in it a way to understand it?
PARASHAT RE’EH - BIRKAT HAHODESH
August 11, 2007 – 27 Av 5767 Annual: Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1061; Hertz p. 799) Triennial: Deuteronomy 15:1 – 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1076; Hertz p. 811) Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5 (Etz Hayim, p. 1085; Hertz p. 818) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah In this week’s Torah portion, Moses moves from words of encouragement and a historical summary to a review of legal material, including some new commandments. Our parashah opens with Moses prescribing a ritual ceremony to be enacted as the people enter the Promised Land. They are to stand on one mountain and pronounce the blessing that God set before them; on another mountain, Eval, they will repeat the curse. This procedure seeks to highlight the choices that we are regularly called upon to make in our lives. Further anticipating entry into the Promised Land, the Israelites are told to destroy all pagan shrines and to centralize worship at a single place, which God will choose for them. Until then the Israelites were able to eat meat only in conjunction with a sacrifice. It was necessary, therefore, for the Torah to designate a mechanism that would allow people living far away from the centralized temple to eat meat. The prohibition against consuming blood is repeated, because it applies both to animals sacrificed in the temple and to animals that are slaughtered outside the sacrificial system to provide the Israelites with kosher meat. An additional warning against conforming to Canaanite religious practices follows, as do laws concerning a false prophet, a person who entices others to worship false gods, and a city whose residents behave badly. Next we have a thorough review of the laws of kashrut, including the criteria that make mammals, fish, and fowl kosher. We are prohibited from eating an animal that has died a natural death, as well as one that has been torn apart. Finally, we are forbidden to eat milk and meat together. The next few sections deal with the intersection between social equity and ritual. This is followed by rules relating to sh’mitah, the sabbatical year. In its discussion of sh’mitah, Leviticus 25 emphasizes the return of land to its original owners, but here the text ordains that loans should be cancelled in the seventh year. This appears to be intended as an opportunity for destitute farmers, who may have been weighed down by the loans they had to take out in order to survive, to begin again with a clean slate. These laws are followed by exhortations to be sensitive to the needs of the poor.
The concluding section of our parashah contains laws about first-born animals, which were to be dedicated to God, as well as guidelines on how to observe the three pilgrimage festivals. Topic #1: Kashrut and Its Social Dimension Many of us remember Colonel Ilan Ramon (1954-2003), the Israeli astronaut who died along with six colleagues when the space shuttle Columbia burned up when it re-entered earth’s atmosphere. Before the flight, Ilan Ramon knew quite well that the privilege of his having been selected as an astronaut was a tribute to his roots as an Israeli and as a Jew, over and above his own considerable personal merit. In his private life, Ilan Ramon was a secular Israeli, but he had the vision to see beyond the boundaries of the religious/secular divide. Commenting on the symbolic value of his mission, he said, “I thought it would be nice to represent all kinds of Jews, including religious ones.” Accordingly he requested that on the shuttle mission his food should be kosher. His rationale, succinctly stated: “I think it is very, very important to preserve our historical and religious traditions.” More about Ilan Ramon and his life can be read in many places, including here. Ilan Ramon’s behavior raises several questions: 1. Are there times when a Jew should try to blend in? Are there times when it is appropriate for a Jew’s actions to highlight the differences between Jews and their neighbors? 2. Do you think that it was hypocritical for a secular Jew, who did not restrict himself to kosher foods consistently in his personal life, to request kosher food when serving as a representative of all Israelis and all Jews? 3. Many organizations and companies can make kosher meals available. Should someone who normally does not keep kosher make that request? Is there a benefit to the kosher-observant community in his or her doing so? 4. We have virtually no information about why NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which oversees the space shuttle) decided to grant Ilan Ramon’s request for kosher food. What do you suppose NASA managers said and thought as they discussed the request? Topic #2: In Search of a Safety Net The Torah prescribes measures to prevent the development of a permanent underclass within society. Debts are to be cancelled every seventh year. We do not know, historically speaking, how scrupulously this commandment was observed. However, we do have some narrative evidence of at least one instance of adherence to this principle.
In the years following the return of Judean exiles from Babylonia, Nehemiah addresses the upper class, exhorting them to be mindful of the needs of less fortunate Jews, even at the expense of their own property rights. Are you pressing claims on loans made to your brothers? … We have not done our best to buy back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; will you now sell your brothers so that they must be sold [back] to us? … What you are doing is not right. You ought to act in a God-fearing way so as not to give our enemies, the nations, room to reproach us. I, my brothers, and my servants also have claims of money and grain against them; let us now abandon those claims! Give back at once their fields, their vineyards, their olive trees, and their homes, and [abandon] the claims for the hundred pieces of silver, the grain, the wine, and the oil that you have been pressing against them! (Nehemiah 5:7-12) In the following verse, the nobles agreed to abide by Nehemiah’s proposal. A few chapters later, we read of Jews rededicating themselves to the observance of sh’mitah (the sabbatical year), as outlined in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15: We will forego [the produce of] the seventh year, and every outstanding debt. (Nehemiah 10:32) 1. What practical problem might develop as an unintended consequence of the cancellation of debts every seventh year? (Hint: see Deuteronomy 15:9-10.) 2. What can we learn about the obligations we have to help the poor today based on this mitzvah? Does the work that Bono has been doing in the international banking world reflect the parashah’s intention? Note that this problem, which grows out of legislation aimed at protecting the poor, may cause many of the sources of funding for the poor to dry up. At times during the talmudic period people took out loans for ambitious commercial projects. It became necessary to revise the framework through which the loans were given, instituting a bold new procedure that permitted the debt to be carried during the seventh year and beyond while still conforming to the letter of the biblical restrictions. Information is widely available on the web by searching for the word prosbul or prozbul. In modern times, a procedure known as heter iska is widely used in banking institutions in Israel for similar reasons.
August 18, 2007 – 4 Elul 5767 Annual: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1088; Hertz p. 820) Triennial: Deuteronomy 19:14 – 21:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1099; Hertz p. 829) Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12 (Etz Hayim, p. 1108; Hertz p. 835) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Moses continues to review the laws for the Israelites in anticipation of their entry into the Promised Land. Our parashah opens with the mandate to create a judicial system charged with the responsibility of interpreting the codified laws as actual cases arise. By extension, this mandate also authorizes the development of legislation that builds on the existing body of laws. Elaborating on the subject of leadership, Moses discusses the possibility of the people being ruled by such a monarch. An Israelite king is expected to abide by the Torah and to live with some limitations upon his regal style. Touching on another aspect of leadership, we read of the lack of a contiguous land inheritance for the kohanim and the Levites, as well as a summary of the tithes and other gifts that were designated to provide for their sustenance. We read prohibitions against sorcerers and diviners, as well as rules concerning true and false prophets. Moses elaborates upon the command to establish cities of refuge for people who kill other people accidentally. At the end of our parashah, we read the procedure for dealing with a corpse found in a field if the people who find the body don’t know how death happened. Both of these scenarios reflect a societal reverence for life, coupled with a concern for fairness. Other aspects of fairness are underscored in the requirement to respect the property boundaries of others’ land and the demand that a court must verify testimony that would make an unfair judgment more likely. As we might expect from instructions to a people on the verge of entering the Promised Land, we read several important guidelines about how warfare should be conducted. After the Israelites are exhorted not to fear their rivals, several classes of people are excused from military service. There is also a prohibition against destroying fruit trees during battle and siege. Topic #1: Human Ability to Rationalize An Israelite king’s power, as outlined in the latter part of Chapter 17, is not entirely unfettered. The king has several positive commandments to live up to, as well as a variety of restrictions. Among the restrictions are: Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, “You must not go back that way
again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray. (Deuteronomy 17:16-17) But the Bible indicates that King David’s son did not follow the letter of the law: Solomon had 40,000 stalls of horses for the chariotry and 12,000 horsemen. (I Kings 5:6) He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines. (I Kings 11:3) King Solomon, widely noted for his wisdom, seems to have shown remarkably poor judgment! We are not the first to note that this king seemed to ignore the Torah’s rules for a monarch. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yitzhak wonders how King Solomon might have sought to justify behaving contrary to the Torah’s specific instructions. Rabbi Yitzhak further said: Why were the reasons for [the commandments in] the Torah not revealed? Because in two passages where the Bible revealed reasons, the greatest [intellect] in the world stumbled [over fulfilling those commandments]. It is written: “He shall not have many wives.” Solomon reasoned: “I will have many and not go astray.” But [the result] is written: And it came to pass, as Solomon reached advanced age, his wives turned away his heart. (I Kings 11:4) (Rabbi Yitzhak continues:) It is written: “He shall not keep many horses.” Solomon reasoned: “I will have many and not send people back [to Egypt].” But [the result] is written: Solomon’s horses were procured from Egypt and Kue. The king’s dealers would buy them from Egypt at a fixed price. A chariot imported from Egypt cost 600 shekels of silver… (I Kings 10:28-29) (Sanhedrin 21b) In the extended passage above, Rabbi Yitzhak suggested that perhaps it is not such a good idea for the Torah to specify the reasons for the commandments, since this seems to invite enterprising people to figure out why and how these reasons do not apply to their own situation. On the other hand, we certainly feel that slavish execution of divine commandments is inferior to the fulfillment of mitzvot with focused intent. (See, for example, Mindful Jewish Living, by Jonathan P. Slater.) How important is it to have an understanding of the purpose of a given mitzvah, instead of simply saying “it is a mitzvah”? Should we seek to satisfy our legitimate curiosity about the purposes and goals of the commandments? If we do that, how do we guard against the tendency to rationalize away any practice that is inconvenient in our own lives?
Topic #2: Human Dignity In the closing passage of this week’s parashah (21:1-9) we read of a disheartening situation, coupled with a positive communal response. Because respect for human dignity demands that an unsolved murder is not to be ignored, the Torah prescribes a procedure through which the community sensitizes itself to the value of human life. Curiously, the unspecified role played by the kohanim in this ceremony (21:5) does not begin until after an animal has been ritually slaughtered. Kohanim generally are required to avoid contact with the dead, as outlined in Leviticus 21. The Torah grants exceptions when members of the kohen’s immediate family die. These exceptions do not undermine the basic framework, which calls for kohanim to be involved with life, rather than preoccupied with death. A category analogous to the unsolved murder scenario in our parashah is the metmitzvah, an unattended dead body of a friendless person. Rather than leave such a body to await the unanticipated appearance of an unknown relative or friend, during Roman times the rabbis ruled that attending to such a corpse becomes the responsibility of every Jew. Surprisingly, even though a kohen is strictly limited in his contact with the dead, the rabbis mandated that attending to a met mitzvah preempts these limitations, even for the kohen gadol, the high priest! (The source is the legally oriented midrash known as Sifra, in a comment to Leviticus 21:1 that is cited on page 513 of Hertz’s commentary in The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (sic).) What message do we think the rabbis were sending by allowing a kohen to disregard an explicit Torah commandment to take care of a met mitzvah? How did the rabbis deal with a conflict between two positive values (in this case, the kohen’s need to maintain his bodily purity vs. the recognition that the met mitzvah was created in God’s image, just as everyone else is)? A conflict between right and wrong should not require much intellectual struggle. How do we, in the twenty-first century, deal with two right values that collide with each other?
PARASHAT KI TETZE
August 25, 2007 – 11 Elul 5767 Annual: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1112; Hertz p. 840) Triennial: Deuteronomy 24:14 – 25:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1130; Hertz p. 852) Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 10 (Etz Hayim, p. 1138; Hertz p. 857) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah There are weeks when the parashah is virtually all narrative; this is particularly true in the early books of the Torah. This week’s parashah is predominantly legal in nature. Some laws are reviewed in anticipation of entering the Promised Land, while other laws are set forth for the first time. We read this week about marriage, divorce, and family laws; anti-poverty legislation; laws concerning corporal punishment; requirements for fair business practices; legislation concerning safety and accident-prevention; marital and sexual misconduct; forbidden relationships; and even laws concerning criminals who already have been executed. An underlying current in this week’s parashah is the need to provide protection for the most helpless members of society. Our parashah closes with a commandment to remember the behavior of Amalek, who attacked the Israelite camp when the Israelites were helpless, shortly after they left Egypt. Topic #1: Ma'akeh When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt upon your house if anyone should fall from it. (Deuteronomy 22:8) A parapet, or ma’akeh in Hebrew, is a low protective wall. The commandment from Deuteronomy about the need to build one has been understood broadly through the centuries. In the Talmud, Rabbi Natan teaches that the principle of protecting against foreseeable accidents implied in this verse has obvious applications in other everyday situations: that a person should not raise a vicious dog within his house, and that he should not erect an unstable ladder within his house. (Bava Kamma 46a) Some modern phrases about similar hazards are “an accident waiting to happen” or “an attractive nuisance.” What are areas in modern life where the principle of the ma’akeh could be applied? Are the laws that apply to building swimming pools or balconies and terraces on buildings examples of that? What of laws in many communities about keeping pit bull terriers or animals that rarely are kept as pets? In your opinion, would the reasoning underlying the commandment of ma’akeh be applicable to the requirement to wear seat belts when riding in a vehicle? What of wearing a helmet when riding a cycle of any kind? Can you think of any other situations in which the safety-conscious
reasoning of ma’akeh would apply, without stretching the reasoning excessively? Are there differences in situations where a person is personally put at risk by a choice versus a situation where other people are put at risk by another’s decision? What other principle(s) within the Torah are consistent with or underlie the mandate to take reasonable measures to protect human life? Topic #2: The Quest for a Just Society You [the merchant] shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your home alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have completely just weights and completely just measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 25:13-15) The word just (a variant of justice), as it appears in this passage, is a translation of the Hebrew word tzedek. Clearly the Torah considers fraud in weights and measures to be a breach of justice as opposed to a trivial administrative matter. The implication is that such fraud could undermine the fabric of society. Other examples in our parashah of the striving to achieve a just society include the rules against humiliating a borrower (24:10-13) and the requirement to pay a day-laborer in a timely fashion (24:14-15). In post biblical times, the word tzedakah came to be used as the standard Hebrew (and Yiddish) term for charity. However, there is a significant nuance of difference between the Hebrew and the English terms. Charity comes from a Greek root meaning gift, which implies that a charitable contribution takes place only if the potential giver is in the mood. Tzedakah (from the Hebrew root meaning justice) reflects a sense that the donation restores or preserves a sense of justice in the world, and that the act of giving is required, not optional. In the past year or two, media reports have drawn our attention to the conditions in kosher slaughterhouses, including the treatment of the rank-and-file workers of these factory-like facilities. The owners of one large facility have gone to great lengths to help the public see their management style in a more positive light and have noted that non-kosher plants are no better. In the meantime, the kosher supervision authorities, who are predominantly Orthodox, have defined the scope of their hekhsher, or supervision, narrowly, in terms of the technicalities of the kosher slaughter process. A commission jointly sponsored by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, both Conservative, has expressed concern about food that is technically kosher but clearly the end product of a socially unjust system. This commission has been developing recommendations for a second certification, which would be prominently displayed in addition to (not instead of) the traditional kashrut certification, by those facilities that meet specific standards for the treatment of their workers. This additional certification, is tentatively being called Hekhsher Tzedek.
Why do you suppose kosher purveyors and supervisors have been reluctant to address social and humanitarian concerns in the kosher food-production process? Why do you imagine that the Conservative joint commission was attracted to the name Hekhsher Tzedek? Do you think that the Hekhsher Tzedek is necessary? Might it be an example of over-regulation? Imagine that you are in a store to buy kosher meat, and you find that you must choose between two products. They cost the same and have the same traditional kashrut certification, but Product A also displays the Heckhsher Tzedek and Product B does not. Which would you be more likely to buy? If the product displaying the Hekhsher Tzedek costs 5 percent more, would that affect your decision?
PARASHAT KI TAVO
September 1, 2007 – 18 Elul 5767 Annual: Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1140; Hertz p. 859) Triennial: Deuteronomy 27:11 – 29:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1150; Hertz p. 864) Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 1161; Hertz p. 874) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Much of the book of Deuteronomy consists of speeches by Moses. The Israelites’ role, it would seem, is to listen passively. In this week’s Parashah we see a way for the people to actively reaffirm their loyalty to the covenant as a nation, and also in retelling our shared history in the context of a formal family declaration. Moses instructs the Israelites to bring first fruits (after having entered the Promised Land and cultivated it) and to declare the special connection between God, the people Israel, and the land of Israel. The people are also directed to keep up-to-date in their tithing, and to clear out any backlog of tithes triennially. A ritual was prescribed for all the tribes to array themselves on two mountains, G’rizim and Eval, upon entering the Promised Land. There was to be a reaffirmation of the covenant and a stern warning to those who would transgress basic commandments. The balance of the parashah is occupied with a brief outline of the benefits of adhering faithfully to the covenant, followed by a graphic and lengthy narration of the consequences of violating the covenant. This latter section, called the Tokhehah, is customarily chanted in a hushed (and sometimes hurried) tone. Ending the parashah on a positive note, we read a reminder of the miracles which God had performed for the people Israel, coupled with an exhortation to observe God’s commandments. Topic #1: Aramee Oved Avee My ancestor was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:5-9) The above passage, which appears near the opening of Parashat Ki-Tavo, was originally to be recited in conjunction with bringing bikurim, first fruits, to the central temple on the Shavuot festival. Oddly enough, many of us associate this
passage with Pesah, since it is quoted (with a radically different interpretation) in the Haggadah. We know that the ancient rabbis occasionally indulged in fanciful interpretations of biblical texts, but this particular interpretation strains credibility: The Aramean (Laban) wanted to destroy my ancestor; but my ancestor went down to Egypt and he sojourned there; (his household was) meager in numbers, but there he became a great and very populous nation. Note what liberties have been taken with the biblical text: An alternative interpretation of this verse construes the adjective oved (wandering) as the verb ibbed (would have destroyed). This reading identifies Laban (Jacob’s uncle) as the Aramean in question, and terms him more injurious than Pharaoh. For while the latter plotted to kill [only] the sons, Laban aimed at the extinction of all the Israelites. (Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom, edited by Rachel Anne Rabinowicz, p.44) These liberties are best understood within the historical context of the large Jewish community that thrived in Alexandria following the death of Alexander the Great. (This is the same Jewish community which produced the Septuagint, a translation of the Torah’s five books into Greek.) It seems strange that Laban should be regarded as a greater menace to Israel than Pharaoh. A modern scholar maintains that this interpretation was given in the third century B.C.E., when Syria (Aram), typified by Laban, and Egypt, typified by Pharaoh, were rivals for the control of Palestine, then ruled by the Egyptian Ptolemies. Since the Haggadah is not favorable to Egypt, this Midrash was introduced as a gesture of good will towards the Egyptians, with whom the Jews... desired to live on friendly terms. (Passover Haggadah, compiled and edited by Rabbi Morris Silverman, p. 16) [Note: The modern scholar referred to was Professor Louis Finkelstein, who later became chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Finkelstein developed this thesis in a series of monographs published in the Harvard Theological Review in the 1930’s.] The question of “dual loyalty” has a long history. A few decades ago, Jews in the United States were sensitive to the charge that their loyalty to the Jewish people might exceed their loyalty to the United States. What possible responses can be given to such a challenge? Would your response mirror that of the Alexandrian Jews, or would you choose a different direction? Is there a point where Jews living in the Diaspora would have to make a choice between their home country and their religious heritage? What might prompt the need to make such a choice? Are there any clear-cut ways to approach that question?
Topic #2: Miracles of the 40 Years in the Desert According to the biblical narrative, several unusual things happened to the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert. We know about the manna which they ate and about the cloud (by day) and fire (by night) that showed our ancestors when to travel and when to camp. In the same category, consider the following passage: I led you through the wilderness forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet. (Deuteronomy 29:4) There is more than one way to understand this passage (and a parallel one in Deuteronomy 8:4): a. Rashi (1040-1105), quoting a Midrash, suggests that the clothing of the Israelites grew as the wearers grew. (Keep in mind that those who eventually entered the Promised Land at the end of the 40 years had not yet reached adulthood at the beginning of the 40 years.) b. Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), consistently a rationalist, suggests that the Israelites must have taken a great deal of clothing with them upon their departure from Egypt. (This hypothesis makes it possible to understand the statement about clothing without assuming that the laws of nature were somehow circumvented.) Which of these interpretations appeals to you? Why? Or, if neither is appealing, why not? Is there yet another way to understand this verse which you find to be more compelling? What is the purpose of the statement? God demonstrating personal greatness? Telling the Israelites they need to be grateful for what they have?
PARASHAT NITZAVIM-VAYELEKH - SELIHOT
September 8, 2007 – 25 Elul 5767 Annual: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1165; Hertz p. 878) Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 31:7 – 31:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1174; Hertz p. 888) Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1180; Hertz p. 883) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah This week’s brief double-parashah opens with advice about significant choices. The Israelites, called upon formally to rededicate themselves to the covenant with God, are reminded that God knows each person’s innermost thoughts. Failure to fulfill the covenant inevitably will lead to disaster. The people always will have the opportunity to repent, to return to God, and to be redeemed from punishment and exile. The people are exhorted to choose life over death and good over evil by choosing to love God and to follow the proper path by fulfilling God’s laws and statutes. Moses, while telling the people that he is nearing the end of his life, announces that Joshua will lead them into the Promised Land to conquer it from the peoples living there. He commands Joshua and the people to be strong and resilient in adhering to God’s word. Procedures are set in place for writing down the Teaching and for making the people aware of its content at regular intervals. The reading concludes with reference to a poem outlining the cycle of behavior that will follow the death of Moses, in which the people will turn astray from the covenant. This poem is to serve as a witness against the Israelites, or perhaps as a warning to them against disloyalty. Topic #1: Universal Access to the Torah Moses is quite clear in saying that religious study and observance are within the reach of all Jews. Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) Far from being a secretive, arcane, or mysterious document, the Torah is intended to be available to the people as a whole, not just to the select few. In the words of a contemporary Reform rabbi and scholar, W. Gunther Plaut:
The Torah belongs to, and therefore is the responsibility of, all the people. Clearly, the words of Deuteronomy 30:11-14 emphasize this principle and at the same time reject the notion that Torah is secret lore, accessible to a chosen few. Israel had its priests, but, unlike those of Egypt’s temples or of Greece’s oracle places, their knowledge of God’s law was not exclusive. Because of their training, knowledge, and position, their decisions had superior weight (as did those of the Rabbis in post-biblical history). However, Israel’s priests dealt at all times with a law and a tradition available to all. This is the obvious meaning of verse 12: “(The Torah) is not in the heavens that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’” The text provides its own affirmation: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (verse 14). In the religious traditions of antiquity such a commitment to universal accessibility was unique, and it had an even more profound effect on the Jewish people as the centuries passed. The study of Torah became the supreme preoccupation of the Jew; none was too humble to be excluded from the mitzvah of learning and none was too prominent to be excused from it. It was a command, averred the Mishnah, that outweighed all others, for everything flowed from it. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1542) How was spiritual knowledge imparted within other ancient religions? It has been said that Rashi’s popular commentary on the Torah, written in the eleventh century, served to democratize the study of the Torah by placing it within the reach of many more Jews. Do you agree? In what ways do we continue the concept of Torah being open to all? Do you have any suggestions for the further democratization of Torah study in the twenty-first century? Does the idea of democratization mean that all comments should be equally accepted or studied? Are there measures that can be applied to keep the standards high? Topic #2: Hak-Hel: Passing on Torah to the Next Generation On the verge of the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land, as part of his own leave-taking, Moses directs the people to read the Teaching aloud, publicly, at regular intervals. The Hebrew word for the command to gather the people is “hak-hel,” related to the more familiar nouns “kahal” (congregation) and “kehilah” (community). And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather (hak-hel) the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land which you are about to cross the Jordan to possess it. (Deuteronomy 31:10-13)
The term “Teaching” in this passage is an English translation of the Hebrew word “torah.” However, because Hebrew does not use capital letters, we cannot know whether this passage is telling us to read the entire Torah (Five Books) aloud, or simply to read a particular Teaching that is a subset of the Torah. In any case, it is clear that the perpetuation of Judaism depends upon each generation receiving our shared traditions anew. Moreover, we must study as adults as well, lest our Judaism be nothing more than a child-like understanding of how to face life’s complex issues. Ezra, who lived in the fifth century B.C.E., seems to have understood this need on two levels. First, he held a public reading as outlined above. (See Nehemiah, Chapter 8.) Second (as understood in the Talmud, Bava Kamma 82a), he instituted weekly readings from the Torah. To this day, Jews around the world read the Torah every Shabbat, in a cycle that completes the entire Torah on a regular basis (in one or three years). Ezra is also thought to have played an important role in establishing brief Torah readings on Shabbat afternoon, Monday morning, and Thursday morning. What advantage(s) do you see in reading the Torah to the people in a formal ceremony once every seven years? Do you see any educational disadvantages? What is the best way to keep the messages of the Torah fresh in our minds? Are there advantages in subdividing the Torah into weekly installments? Note that we publicly underscore our connection to the Torah in at least two ways: 1. We read from the Torah every Shabbat morning, in the middle of the service. 2. We sing and dance in celebration on Simhat Torah, as we prepare to undertake once again our commitment to another cycle of Torah reading. 3. Many of us dramatize our receptivity to the study of Torah by taking part in special all-night study sessions on Shavuot.
PARASHAT HA’AZINU - SHABBAT SHUVAH
September 15, 2007 – 3 Tishrei 5768 Annual: Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 1185; Hertz p. 896) Triennial: Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 1185; Hertz p. 896) Haftarah: Hosea 14:2 – 10; Joel 2:15 – 27; Micah 7:18 – 20 (Etz Hayim, p. 1235; Hertz p. 891) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Parashah Moses is aware that his life is nearing its end. Joshua has already been designated as his successor. The Israelites have been wandering for 40 years, and Moses knows well that the 40-year sentence of wandering has been served. Having given several prose speeches, Moses couches his final farewell as a poem. As the Israelites’ leader for two generations, he has more to say than “You’re all wonderful; goodbye.” He has some stern warnings to convey about the pitfalls of complacency. He therefore wants to designate enduring witnesses to his words, so that no one can credibly say after his death that Moses had not put the Israelites on notice. This may be what he has in mind when he opens with the words: Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter! (Deuteronomy 32:1) It is hard to imagine witnesses that are more enduring than heaven and earth. Moses’ farewell poem fills most of this week’s parashah. The poem is followed by a brief paragraph that says, in essence, ”Pay attention to the above.” Then, in the concluding paragraph of our parashah, God directs Moses regarding his impending death. Topic #1: Material Wealth and Religion So Jeshurun (Israel) grew fat and kicked – You grew fat and gross and coarse – He forsook the God who made him And spurned the Rock of his support. (Deuteronomy 31:15) Moses fears that material wealth and personal comfort may undermine religious loyalty. Is there necessarily a negative correlation between a person becoming wealthy and a lack of religious loyalty? Can only poor people be religiously devout? We all have seen people of limited means who pour out their hearts in straightforward sincerity. Such people’s pure and unadorned acts of religious devotion speak for themselves.
There is another, contrary, viewpoint that posits that only people who are affluent have the opportunity to devote time to religion. The theory assumes that poor people, who must spend every waking moment assuring their own survival, could not possibly have time to cultivate the inner life of the spirit, while those who have wealth also have the leisure time for such pursuits. (Some faiths require those who are involved at the most serious level to take vows of poverty, to avoid this very issue.) What do you think? We are aware that some aspects of religious participation/education/celebration require that people spend money. Is there a difference between having money to pay for participation and being religious? If, indeed, there are doors closed to people of modest means in our congregations or community organizations, what can we do to make communal Judaism more available to them? At the same time, we are concerned, as Moses seems to be, that wealth may breed complacency. Is there anything that we can/should do to make Judaism a more compelling force in the lives of those with greater material resources? Topic #2: As Your Brother Aaron Died That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Ascend these heights of Avarim to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites as an inheritance. You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin. (Deuteronomy 31:48-50) It is not entirely clear whether these words were intended gently or harshly. When viewed together with the two verses that follow, this paragraph initially appears to be a merciless punishment. Moses must pay, just as Aaron had paid, for the sin that they had committed jointly. On the other hand, Moses was well aware of how dignified and gentle Aaron’s death had been, because he witnessed it himself. (See Numbers 20:23-29.) Assuming that no human being can live forever, Aaron’s departure from this world was as benign as possible. This is summarized in rabbinic shorthand by the statement that Aaron died by a divine kiss (Bava Batra 17a). With that in mind, do you think that the reference in this week’s parashah to Aaron’s death was intended harshly or gently?
YOM KIPPUR READING
September 22, 2007 – 10 Tishrei 5768 Annual: Leviticus 16:1 – 34 (Etz Hayim, p. 679; Hertz p. 480) Maftir: Numbers 29:7 – 11 (Etz Hayim, p. 933; Hertz p. 696) Haftarah: Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14 (Etz Hayim, p. 1241; Hertz p. 960) At Minhah: Leviticus 18:1 – 30 (Etz Hayim, p. 688; Hertz p. 488) Haftarah: Yona 1:1 – 4:11 Micha 7:18 -- 20 (Etz Hayim, p. 1247; Hertz p. 964) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Some considerations for the study of the Book of Jonah The prayer books for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have sound, informative translations and summaries of the day’s Torah readings. Rather than repeat material readily available in these machzorim, in this week’s Torah Sparks we will focus upon the Yom Kippur afternoon haftarah, which is the book of Jonah. Both the Hebrew text and the English translation of Jonah are readily available in most machzorim, but generally without extensive commentary. This brief but significant book is read at a time of the day when many Jews who have been in the synagogue that day have left. Our objective is to focus attention on the book of Jonah, in the hope that its message, so often overlooked, will enrich the lives of those who concentrate upon it. Our understanding of the book will be enhanced if we can transcend certain engrained assumptions: A. While the large fish (sometimes characterized as a whale, although the text does not call it that) plays an important role in the early part of the book, this book is not simply a tall tale about a fish. B. Although Jonah was a prophet, he was not blindly obedient to God. Like many of us, he occasionally questioned God’s orders. He even rebelled against God’s directives on more than one occasion. The book of Jonah consists of four short chapters. There is no substitute for reading it in its entirety. However, a brief summary may help us to think about several themes that otherwise might elude us: Chapter I 1-3: God commands Jonah to deliver a prophetic message to Nineveh. Jonah then boards a ship headed in the opposite direction. 4-16: God brings a storm that threatens the survival of Jonah’s ship. Even after it becomes known that Jonah is the cause of this danger, the gentile sailors seek to find a way to save not only the ship but Jonah as well. When all else fails, they succumb to Jonah’s request to throw him overboard. The sea then becomes calm.
Chapter II 1a: God is clearly not finished with Jonah. The Lord sends a large fish to swallow him. 1b-9: During three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah is prayerful and reflective. (However, he does not recommit himself to his prophetic mission.) 10: At the Lord’s behest, the fish expels Jonah onto dry land. Chapter III 1-3a: God repeats his command that Jonah go to Nineveh. 3b-10: Jonah obeys. The people of Nineveh are remarkably receptive to the prophetic message. They repent, and God retracts his decree against the city. Chapter IV 1-5: Jonah complains to God about the futility of his mission. His mood is worse than grumpy. 6-11: God teaches Jonah a lesson by means of a shade plant. A masterful treatment of this book and its message can be found in the JPS Bible Commentary: Jonah (1999). In this commentary, Professor Uriel Simon calls our attention to several basic questions that must be dealt with in any serious treatment of Jonah: 1. Why was Jonah unwilling to prophesy against Nineveh? 2. What did the Lord teach his prophet by means of... a. the tempest? b. the fish? c. the gourd? 3. What are readers supposed to learn from the book as a whole? Try to keep these questions in mind as you read through the full text of the book of Jonah. (Now might be a good time to read it.) A further conundrum was pointed out several decades ago by Professor Bezalel Porten. As we try to understand Jonah’s petulant avoidance of prophesying publicly against Nineveh, we may wish to take note of the fact that the Hebrew name for that city is an anagram of Jonah’s Hebrew name. (In other words, the letters of the prophet’s name – with one letter repeated – make up the name of the city to be castigated.) Since many scholars assume that the book of Jonah is an allegorical tale, rather than a historical one, what might be the message behind the author’s choice of name for the city targeted for divine punishment? It has been pointed out that Jonah yearned for consistency, favoring strict justice over divine compassion. On a personal level, the prophet is not entirely comfortable with God’s mercy and compassion – even at the end of the book.
Yet one of the lessons of this book may well be that the world survives only by the triumph of divine mercy over divine justice. In his commentary, Professor Uriel Simon points out a subtle but profound shift that the ancient rabbis introduced to our understanding of the life-lesson of the impatient Jonah: The halakhic sages... expressed the same exegetical view by appending to the Book of Jonah, when read as the haftarah of the Afternoon Service on the Day of Atonement, the last three verses of the Book of Micah (7:18-20), through which Jonah, as it were, recants his condemnation of the attributes of compassion and grace (Jon. 4:1) by reciting the praises of God, who desires to be gracious to His creatures and lighten the burden of their sins and transgressions: Who is a God like You, forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression; who has not maintained His wrath forever against the remnant of His own people, because He loves graciousness. He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will keep faith with Jacob, loyalty to Abraham, as You promised on oath to our fathers in days gone by. Professor Simon also quotes a fragment of midrash that conveys the ancient rabbis’ ideas about divine receptivity to repentance. (Please note that King David was assumed to be the author of the psalms. Also, we have revised one phrase to render it gender-neutral. Other than that revision, this passage is quoted verbatim from Simon’s work, on page xiii of his Introduction.) They asked of the Torah: “How is the sinner to be punished?” It replied, “Let him bring a sacrifice and he will be pardoned.” They asked prophecy: “How is the sinner to be punished?” It replied, “The person who sins,… he shall die.” (Ezek. 18:4). They asked David: “How is the sinner to be punished?” He replied: “May sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked be no more.” (Ps. 104:35). They asked Wisdom: “How is the sinner to be punished?” It replied, “Misfortune pursues sinners.” (Prov. 13:21). They asked the Holy Blessed One: “How is the sinner to be punished?” The reply: “Let him do repentance, and I will accept it, as it is written: ‘Good and upright is the Lord [; therefore He shows sinners the way]’ (Ps. 25:8).”
READING FOR SHABBAT HOL HAMOED SUKKOT
September 29, 2007 – 17 Tishrei 5768 Annual: Exodus 33:12 – 34:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 538; Hertz p. 362) Maftir: Numbers 29:17 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 935; Hertz p. 697) Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 1260; Hertz p. 979) Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen Summary of the Torah Readings On the opening days of Sukkot, we read guidelines for the festivals from Leviticus, chapters 22 and 23. The passages about the sukkah and the four species --lulav (palm branch), etrog (citron), hadassim (myrtle), and aravot (willows) – are particularly interesting. Today’s reading focuses on the Covenant of Compassion, in which God provides Moses with a list of 13 divine attributes to be invoked through prayer when the people Israel are in special need. We are familiar with these 13 attributes because they form a recurrent theme within the penitential prayers of the High Holy Days. I. Hosha'not: A Prayer Agenda for Sukkot Sukkot, which comes at the conclusion of our penitential season, provides a final opportunity for us to pray for the well-being of the Jewish people and for the land of Israel. This opportunity forms the backdrop for the Hosha’not, prayers for divine assistance that Jews chant as they walk in a procession around the synagogue, carrying a lulav and an etrog. A different poetic prayer is chanted on each day of Sukkot. The agenda of things to pray for reflected in these Hosha’not suggest a premodern agricultural society. Among the themes encapsulated within the Hosha’not are: a. God must be mindful of the obligations implied by His covenant -- power, greatness and mercy. b. God must remember the Temple in Jerusalem, a vision of perfection and a focal location for the expression of mutual love between God and the Jewish people. c. We plaintively seek divine forgiveness for our inevitable transgressions. d. Throughout the centuries, Jews have endured suffering due to their loyalty to God. This deserves recognition and merits divine intervention on their behalf. e. Jews yearn for salvation. They study the Torah and observe the sacred seasons. We await the fulfillment of God’s promises, reflected in prophecies.
f. Jews place their hope in God. May God provide water for every shrub, making the earth fertile and not withholding the blessing of rain. The concern about rain, which is specified in one theme and implied in others, reflects the statement in the Mishnah: On the Festival (Sukkot) the world is judged concerning water. (Rosh Hashanah 1:2) This concern is specifically focused on the agricultural needs of the land of Israel. Where else in our prayers do we focus on Israel and its agricultural needs? Why is the well-being of Israel so important to Jews, even those who live thousands of miles away from Israel? II. Where Did the Hosha'not Come From? The following information is excerpted from a marginal comment in Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals (page 200): A major feature of each day’s [ancient] Temple ceremony during Sukkot was a procession in which the Kohanim would walk around the altar holding lulavim and willows, chanting phrases calling upon God to save and deliver them (Sukkah 4:5). It is possible that the people joined in the procession. If not, they joined in the singing that accompanied it. The songs chanted during the procession came to be known as Hoshanot, from the words hosha na, save us. Our synagogue service derives from this ancient celebration. We too form a procession with the lulav and etrog and walk around the synagogue chanting special Hoshanot prayers. Most of the Hoshanot are very ancient. If they are not those composed to accompany the Temple procession, they were composed not long thereafter following an ancient pattern. Some of them were written by early liturgical poets who also followed the simple pattern of the early hymns. All of them are litanies – brief, simple, repetitive, alphabetical songs that enable the congregation to join in a chorus. III. The Content of the Hosha'not Designated for Shabbat The piyyut (liturgical poem) that we recite on the Shabbat that falls during Sukkot focuses on the Jewish people and on their worthiness of divine attention and help due to their faithfulness to the Torah in general and to the Shabbat in particular. The choreography of the Hosha’not procession is different on Shabbat than on all the other days of Sukkot, because we do not use the lulav on Shabbat. This fact further redirects attention toward the Shabbat aspect of this particular day of the festival. Our time might be well-spent examining this poem to see what were deemed, in an earlier generation, to be especially virtuous points of the people Israel. Even if the profile might not fit well today, it is important to know our collective origin, and to explore the possibility of reclaiming significant aspects of our heritage.
The nature of this liturgical poetry is that it is rich in allusion and not easily translated. It also reflects a stylized structure in which the poet accepts the restriction that each item must begin with a particular letter, working consecutively through the Hebrew alphabet. There are several reasons why this structure, the alphabetical acrostic, was adopted. Two reasons that readily come to mind that make the verses easy to remember (especially important before the days of the printing press) and the intuitive sense of the pervasiveness of the virtues being referred to (wherever one may look in the alphabet, these qualities can always be found). Most prayer books do not translate the Hosha’not, for space reasons as well as those alluded to above. When the Conservative movement first published Siddur Sim Shalom in 1985, brief English summaries were included. In 1998, with the publication of the Sabbath and Festivals edition, this treatment was expanded to include more complete translations. A partial list of the distinguishing characteristics of the Jewish people (referred to within the Hosha’not for Shabbat) includes the following: 1. they fulfill the twin commandments to “remember” the Sabbath and to “observe” the day. 2. they provide for the needs of the Sabbath from the six days of their workweek. 3. they change into fresh clothes for Shabbat. 4. they honor the Shabbat by serving tasty, special cuisine. 5. they recite blessings over two loaves of bread for Shabbat. 6. they observe the [rabbinic] commandment to light candles to welcome the Sabbath. 7. they recite Kiddush to sanctify the Sabbath. 8. they call seven people for the reading of the Torah on Shabbat. The items on this list obviously do not appear in chronological order, within the timetable of the Shabbat. This is because the poet is working under the constraints of the alphabetical acrostic, which evidently have made it difficult to reflect a conventional timeline. Which of the items on the above list do you find to be most significant? Which items do you think are the most challenging to incorporate into the lifestyle of a Jew in the twenty-first century? If you have access to a translation of this piyyut (e.g. page 202 of the abovecited siddur), take a look at the larger list, which should have 22 items (some of which are fused together by the translator). Asher Ginsburg (1856-1927), the Jewish thinker known by his pen-name of Ah.ad Ha’am, quipped: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” Which items from the larger list of 22 have contributed to the cohesiveness of the Jewish community? What forces of the
modern world have undermined that cohesiveness? Is there anything (other than wringing our hands) that we can do about these problems?
Death and Mourning Customs
A Publication of H.E.L.P. Home Education Library Program Beth El Synagogue 14506 California Street Omaha, NE 68154-1951 402-492-8550
H.E.L.P. Home Education Library P rogram Publications include: A Guide to Minha / Ma-ariv Transliteration Guide for Worship Services Naming a Baby Planning a Wedding Taking an Aliyah Synagogue Choreography
H.E.L.P. publications are prepared by Rabbi Paul Drazen.
© Copyright 1986, 1992, 1999 by Rabbi Paul Drazen. All rights reserved. Reproduction by any means without permission of the publisher is prohibited.
Because we love, when a loved one dies we feel sorrow and grief. These reactions are both normal and healthy. When death takes a loved one, life seems empty and the future dark. Jews have guidance at sad times in our lives, because tradition has outlined ways to deal with death and its grief. Modern psychology has recognized the therapeutic value of the Jewish rituals and practices which help us to express our grief rather than repress it, to talk about our loss with friends and to move step by step from inactivity to normal living. This booklet was written to provide an understanding of customs as observed at Beth El. It is offered to guide our members and explain our traditions.
Death and Mourning Customs
Call the Jewish Funeral Home to arrange for proper care of the deceased. If a death occurs in a hospital, their staff can make this call for you. If a loved one dies out of town, call a Jewish funeral facility. Contact Rabbi Drazen to assist you and to help arrange the funeral. If funeral prearrangements have not been made, you can ease the strain of planning the funeral by having someone, perhaps a close friend or family member, help you make decisions.
What To Do When a Death Occurs
Set time and place of the funeral with Rabbi Drazen and the Funeral home. Although our tradition prefers having the funeral as soon as possible after death occurs, there are times when a delay is proper. The service can be held at graveside or the Synagogue. Telephone immediate family, close friends and employer or business colleagues. Once the funeral time has been set, prepare the obituary. Items to consider including are: age, place of birth, cause of death, occupation, college degrees, memberships in organizations, military service or noteworthy achievements. List survivors in the immediate family. Give the time and place of the funeral. Suggest where memorial contributions may be made. Choose the pallbearers. Pallbearers are necessary when a funeral is held at the Synagogue; they are optional for a graveside service. Six people who can carry the casket are needed. It is customary not to choose immediate family members. You may choose as many others as you wish to serve as honorary pallbearers. You will need to discuss the eulogy with the officiating Rabbi. Be open and give as much personal insight as possible. Avoid false or exaggerated praise. Tell the good things enthusiastically; remember to mention what might be best left unsaid. It is wise to arrange for a house sitter during the funeral. Criminals often use obituaries to determine a time to break into homes.
Before the Funeral
The period of time between death and burial is called anninut and the bereaved is called an onen. The prime responsibility of the onen is to arrange the funeral. During this time, an onen is exempt from positive religious obligations. As such, prayer is not obligatory at this time. However, an onen who finds it helpful to express feelings through prayers may do so. Only relatives or very close friends should visit during this time, primarily to help make arrangements for the funeral and shivah. After the funeral, a mourner is known as an avel. One is a mourner by obligation for parents, children, siblings or spouse. However, anyone is allowed to observe the mourning rites.
Our tradition has long stood for simplicity in funerals and mourning. A simple wooden casket is preferred. An ornate all-wood casket, though ritually acceptable, is not in the spirit of the law. Cremation is not in keeping with Jewish tradition. Before the met, the deceased, is dressed for burial, we observe the ritual of tahara, of ritual washing, done by the hevra kadisha, the Holy Society. We dress the body only in traditional burial shrouds, -4-
Preparation for Burial
takhrikhin, which are simple white garments. It is customary to bury a man in a tallit which he used during his lifetime, with one of the tzitzit removed. The tallit should be brought to the funeral home. No other objects are buried with the dead.
As a general rule, Jewish tradition does not allow autopsies. However, there are times when an autopsy might be required by law or is needed for other reasons. Each case must be reviewed independently. Speak to Rabbi Drazen for further information.
Jewish tradition frowns on embalming. In rare circumstances it might be required by law. Rabbi Drazen or the Funeral Director can help determine if embalming is required.
Flowers are not part of Jewish mourning practice. In the spirit of honoring the memory of the dead by helping the living, suggest in the obituary that in lieu of flowers, donations be directed to an appropriate charity. If flowers are sent, share them with the living by giving them to the Blumkin Home, hospital or other institution where they could give some joy to others.
A few minutes before the funeral begins, the first formal act of mourning, kriah, the tearing of one's garment or a ribbon, takes place. Kriah is a centuriesold symbol of inner grief and mourning. Mourners stand as they perform it, showing we face grief directly and that we will survive, even without our beloved departed. Before the cut is made, mourners say the words of Job, "The Lord has given and the Lord has taken, blessed be the Name of the Lord," and recite a brakha which is a reaffirmation of faith and the value of life, "Barukh ata adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam, dayan ha-emet." An initial cut is made and then the mourner takes the edges and tears it some. The torn garment or ribbon is worn for shivah, except on Shabbat. For parents, the ribbon is worn or the cut is made on the left side. For all others, the kriah is on the right side.
A funeral can be held at graveside or the Synagogue. A service held only at graveside includes the same elements as those begun at another location. It is shorter because certain elements are repeated when a service is held in two locations. A graveside funeral is no less dignified nor less giving of -5-
The Funeral Service
honor to the deceased than any other service. The funeral service is brief. Selections are read from Psalms and a eulogy, depicting the life of the deceased as a guide for the living, is presented. El maleh rahamim, which expresses our faith in the immortality of the soul, is recited on most days. Once at graveside, the service consists of recitation of tziduk ha-din, a prayer which expresses our acceptance of God's decisions, followed by the recitation of kaddish and el maleh. After the funeral, those attending form two lines to let the mourners pass between them. As they do, traditional words of comfort are said, "Ha-makom yinakhem et-khem betokh she-ar aveilei tziyon veyerushalayim, May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."
After the casket is fully in the grave, the interment is begun by shoveling some earth into the grave. This old tradition, long neglected, is once again finding favor. This mitzvah, is known as hesed shel emet, true lovingkindness. This mitzvah demonstrates our continuing concern for the deceased as we make sure the final journey of the met is completed. Participating in this mitzvah has been shown to be of great psychological benefit for mourners since it serves as an important action of finality and closure. Because some people feel observing this custom would be more traumatic than helpful, they may return to their cars before it is begun.
Should children attend a funeral? There is no hard and fast rule that applies. If a child is old enough to understand the purpose of the funeral and to know that people will be upset, then generally that child should come to the funeral. The child should sit with an adult he or she knows during the service. Remember that children need the opportunity to say "good-bye" to a loved one as do adults. It is not good to deprive a child who is old enough to understand of an opportunity to say farewell and to begin to grieve.
Children at a Funeral
After the Funeral
Shivah lasts seven days. The day of the funeral is the first day and one hour of the seventh day counts as a full day. Shivah is suspended at 1:00 Friday afternoon and is resumed after Shabbat is over. If a major holiday, such as Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanna or Yom Kippur falls during the shivah period, shivah is concluded at 1:00 on the eve of the festival. Speak -6-
to Rabbi Drazen for further details. The shivah period begins after the interment with a simple meal, the seudat havra'ah, the meal of consolation. There is a custom to rinse one's hands with water before entering the house for the meal. This meal, traditionally provided by family and friends for the mourners, is not meant to serve as a social following the funeral. Since it is a time to rest and contemplate the day's events, only family and closest of friends should attend. A party-like atmosphere should not be allowed to develop. The menu for this meal traditionally includes hard-boiled eggs, a symbol of life, and round food, such as lentils, which symbolize the turning of the wheel of life, with its ups and downs. Neither meat nor wine, two symbols of joy, should be served at this meal.
Mourners should try to stay together at the place where shivah is observed. If they cannot, they may sleep in their own homes and return to the shivah house in the morning. Mourners should not go to work during this time. In its wisdom, our tradition recognizes that when a major change in life has taken place, the survivor needs to step out of everyday activity for a while. Rabbi Drazen can contact an employer to explain the practice and make arrangements for someone to miss work. If it is imperative for a person to go back to work, one may return after three full days. However, this does not end shivah. After the work day is over, one should return home and resume shivah observance. There are a number of practices associated with observing shivah. A sevenday candle (provided by Beth El in the case siddurim) is lit upon returning from the cemetery. (It should be placed in a fire-proof holder, such as a bowl or pie plate, before lighting.) Mourners refrain from sexual relations and avoid forms of entertainment, such as television, during the week. There is also a custom to cover mirrors in the home, to show that we reduce the importance normally placed on personal vanity. Mourners are encouraged to observe the customs of not wearing shoes and sitting on low stools during shivah, which show that we change the way we live during this time.
People pay "shivah calls" to fulfill the mitzvah of nihum avelim, comforting the mourners. These visits demonstrate community concern at the time of loss. The visits help the mourners over the feelings of isolation or desertion, both of which are natural feelings after the death of a loved one. Even if many people have gathered, those present should be sure a party-like atmosphere does not develop. Conversation should center on the life and memories of the departed. Contrary to popular belief, talking about the deceased is helpful to -7-
the mourner. Such conversation helps mourners to begin the process of getting over their grief. If you have been through a time of personal grief and the mourner asks you how you felt or how you managed, share your own experience. Mourners often take comfort in knowing that others have experienced similar feelings. Mourners are not obligated to have food or drink available for those who come to visit.
It is traditional to hold services at a house of shivah. Beth El provides a case of siddurim with kipot for use in homes. Family members or friends can lead the service. Service times are set with Rabbi Drazen. If a family does not have morning and evening services in the home during the week of shivah, it is proper to attend services at the Synagogue and then return home. During shivah, mourners attend Shabbat services at the Synagogue: Friday evening, Saturday morning and evening.
The length of the mourning period varies with on the mourner's relation to the deceased. For all but parents, avelut, the mourning period, ends with shloshim, thirty days after the funeral. For parents, the mourning period lasts a full Hebrew year. Shloshim, a thirty day period, is the second stage of mourning. Mourners may return to their regular activities in business and home. However, it is appropriate for mourners to refrain from festive activities such as going to the movies, theater, dances or parties. During the remainder of the mourning period, what may be considered appropriate activities depend largely on the sensibilities of each mourner. If one has, in the past, gone out to dinner and movie on a regular basis, resuming such activity would be reasonable. However, it would be inappropriate to begin activities of that type during this time.
Anyone who feels close to the deceased may elect to say kaddish. However, children are obligated to say kaddish, as are parents who lose a child. Saying kaddish is especially helpful to surviving spouses since it offers both regularity in life and social contact with others at a disconcerting time. When the mourning period is a year, kaddish is recited for eleven months and a day. One can choose, and it is appropriate to do so, to say kaddish for the full year, even if the obligation is only for thirty days. At Beth El, both sons and daughters share the obligation to recite kaddish, which can be said morning and evening at our daily services. If it is not possible to attend services twice daily, efforts should be made to say kaddish on a regular basis, -8-
once a day or at least on Shabbat. The obligation to say kaddish cannot be transferred to another person. A parent may tell children that it is not "necessary" to say kaddish or a child may feel that a parent "wouldn't have wanted me to say it." However, a parent cannot relieve a child of the obligation to say kaddish. We do not believe saying kaddish is a mystical redemption of the soul. It is a way for survivors to reestablish their ties with the Jewish community and to see that they are not alone in grief. For those reasons, recitation of kaddish is important.
The dedication of a grave marker is not mandatory. If a dedication is desired, it can be led by the Rabbi or a member of the family. The usual dedication ceremony consists of reading selections from Psalms, a prayer, the el maleh and kaddish, if there is a minyan. The usual custom is to wait a year before having the ceremony. For more information about a dedication service, or to get a copy of our booklet with appropriate prayers and readings for an unveiling, scontact Rabbi Drazen.
Unveiling / Dedication of a Grave Marker
Yahrzeit is observed each year on the date of death according to the Hebrew calendar. Therefore, the timing of Yahrzeit on the secular calendar will vary from year to year. The Synagogue notifies members of the secular date if the Yahrzeit records are on file. The names of the deceased are read at the appropriate evening service and at the Friday evening service the week before the Yahrzeit, if those who observe Yahrzeit are present and request it. The Yahrzeit observance lasts a full day and it is customary to attend services on the evening Yahrzeit begins as well as the morning and afternoon of the next day. Those who come to observe Yahrzeit recite kaddish as part of the daily service and may lead portions of the service. It is traditional to make contributions to charity on Yahrzeit. The Synagogue notification form may be used in order to make such a contribution. Perhaps the best known custom for observing Yahrzeit is lighting of a candle made to burn for at least 24 hours. The candle is lit the evening Yahrzeit begins. If Yahrzeit falls on Shabbat or Yom Tov, the candle is lit before the Shabbat or holiday candles. Although there is no formal blessing when lighting the candle, a meditation such as the one which follows may be said. It is appropriate, of course, to use your own words and thoughts in addition or in place of this meditation: -9-
Dear God, I light this candle on this the Yahrzeit of my dear ___. May I be inspired to deeds of charity and kindness to honor his/her memory. May the light of this candle be a reminder to me of the light my dear ____ brought to my life. May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life. Amen.
Yizkor, the memorial service, is recited four times a year: on Yom Kippur, Shmini Atzeret and the last days of Pesach and Shavuot, during the morning service. Our tradition wisely included this service on these days since it recognized that holiday times bring with them reminders of loved ones no longer with us. It is most appropriate to come to the Synagogue on those mornings and join with the congregation in reciting Yizkor.
At Beth El, families have the opportunity to establish a Named Endowment Fund in memory of the deceased. Once the fund reaches a minimum balance, the principal is held in perpetuity as an ongoing memorial. The family may suggest areas for which the income of the fund may be used. Our Executive Director or Rabbi Drazen can provide you with further details.
The Synagogue has Yahrzeit tablets with plaques recording the Hebrew and English name of the deceased and the Hebrew date of death. For further information about Yahrzeit plaques, contact our Executive Director.
Every person has different reactions to situations of stress, grief and loss. It is not unusual for a mourner to feel depressed one day and happy another or for periods of depression to come and go for a long period of time after the death of a loved one. These ups and downs are part of the process of returning to normal living. Our tradition understands that life will never be the same again after the death of a loved one, however it is important to try to regain a sense of normalcy as one goes through the mourning period. In cases of extreme depression or long-lasting grief, mourners are urged to speak with Rabbi Drazen or another counselor to help get through this most difficult time. All the resources of the Synagogue are ready to be of help to those who are in need.
Dealing with Grief
- 10 -
This booklet is intended to provide some basic information for mourners, not to be an exhaustive description of traditional customs or to explain customs as they may be observed in other Synagogues. As always our entire staff are ready to serve you.
Anninut: The period of time between death and the funeral. See page 4. Avel: The Hebrew term for a mourner after the funeral. Before burial the term onen is used. See page 4. Hevra Kadisha: Literally, The Holy Society. A group of individuals who prepare a body for burial. See page 5. Kriah: Tearing of a garment or ribbon as a sign of mourning. See page 5. Met: Literally, the dead one. The Hebrew term for the deceased. Nihum Avelim: The mitzvah of consoling the mourners. See page 8. Onen: Hebrew term for a survivor between the time of death and the funeral. See page 4. Shivah: Literally, seven. The name given to the first stage of mourning which begins after the funeral. See page 7. Shloshim: Literally, thirty. The second stage of mourning which lasts for thirty days after the funeral. See page 8. Tahara: Literally, cleansing. The Ritual washing of the body, performed by the Hevra Kadisha. See page 5. Takhrikhin: Shrouds. The traditional burial garments. See page 5. Yahrzeit: The anniversary of the date of death according to the Hebrew calendar. See page 9 for details. Yizkor: The Memorial service. See page 10 for details.
- 11 -
A Publication of H.E.L.P. Home Education Library P rogram
Beth El Synagogue 14506 California Street Omaha, NE 68154-1951 402-492-8550 H.E.L.P. publications are prepared by Rabbi Paul Drazen.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.