Drash (Weekly Torah Portion Commentary)

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of October 13, 2018

 

Parashat Noach

 

The Tower of Babel, alliteration built into the name of the story. It is after the Flood. The earth once again has become populated, but the memory of the evil that precipitated the Flood lives in God’s memory and the impulse of men that led to the evil has not disappeared from the face of the earth. And though humans have reproduced enough to be nations, as we learned from the preceding chapter, yet do they strive to become one. One language and one speech, as it says in the Torah, and they congregated in the plain of Shinar and sought to build not only a city, but also a tower that reached unto the heavens. Then we shall have a name, they told themselves. But the Lord saw what they were up to and took fright, for He saw that men had it in them to want to dominate the world and occupy His place. And so He told His minions that they should go down and confound the people by confounding their language, dividing them into different groups by virtue of the different languages they speak. Then, unable to speak one language, they shall have difficulty building their tower. And so it was. The Lord confounded their speech and men left off building their city and scattered across the earth. And the name of the city, like the name of the tower, was known as Babel, a name with a double consonant – babel – because the Lord there confounded their speech, the verb for confounded in Hebrew – balal – also having a double consonant, and both words containing the same letters.

 

The story is short, but exquisitely told. Every word reverberates with its own echo in Hebrew. Let us brick the bricks and burn the burnt, for we have the bricks for stone and the material for mortar. Humans suffer from difference. They want union. Even the one language they speak reflects this. But God knows that when He created the world he brought difference into existence, and the humans he made in His image have to learn to live with that difference, hard though it may be. Indeed, that is the source of their trouble, both as individuals and as nations. The desire to become one is a form of the will to power, a feint to hide behind the longing to unite the desire to dominate. So it is in love; so it is in politics. In the end the will to power becomes the desire to occupy the place of God Himself, symbolized in this story by the tower men would build as high as the heavens. But the story of Genesis is the story of that impossibility. Men and women were created in God’s image, but they are not God. Without that inaccessible place above and different from them there is nothing to restrain human passions from going berserk. Hence the reversal of biology in the story of the creation of man and woman. Man is born of woman, but men and women are both born of God. Hence God’s question to Adam in the Garden: where are you? Do not try to occupy My place, God is telling him, but learn to occupy yours, in truth and dignity for you and the others you share this earth with. For those who are still mindful of the horrors of totalitarianism the twentieth century witnessed, this story of the Tower of Babel is easily understandable. For those who are not, it remains a parable to be unraveled and a lesson to be heeded. And these days it seems the latter is more needed than ever.

 

The telling of the story is brief in the extreme, but its power remains contained in the language itself, as is typical of the stories of the Torah. This power is evident in the original Hebrew with the constant alliteration. Not only in verse 3 with the bricks and the burning and mortar, but also in verse 5, with the phrase which the children of men builded, a phrase which the Hebrew transliteration would read: asher banu benei adam. And in the following verse we find echoes of God’s work in Genesis with the words referring to beginning and to doing. And in the ninth and final verse, as already mentioned, we have the juxtaposition yet repetition of Babel and balal, as if to say: you change a consonant and you destroy a tower and bring difference back into the world. Alliteration as subversion, repetition as contradiction, the Torah’s tricks of the trade whose text so succinct always invites interpretation, weaving into the language itself the moral tale of difference, asking the reader to find for himself or herself the place where truth does lie and on what side of the tale he or she stands. Where are you? all over again. In short, language itself becomes the stepping stone to interpretation, just as misunderstanding leads to conversation, no short cuts allowed. Not even a tower reaching unto the heavens.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of October 6, 2018

 

Parashat Bereshit

 

Where are you? That is the great question God asks Adam after he has eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The question is so ironical the reader can do naught but laugh. Is not God omnipresent? Does He need x-ray glasses to know where Adam is? And does He not know how lame the response to His question shall be? For Adam does not say: here I am. Instead he already offers excuses. I heard Your voice, Adam says, but I was afraid because I was naked, and so I hid in the garden. And the Lord then asks him rhetorically if he had eaten of the fruit of the tree He has forbidden him to eat. And again Adam answers evasively. Not yes, I ate it, but the woman you gave to me as a helpmeet gave it to me, fobbing responsibility off onto her. And when God asks her what she has done, she sloughs responsibility off onto the snake, who, cunning though he was, was also bored out of his tree and so set something different rolling as God had done when there was nothing but a formless void in the world.

 

God asks Adam the question: where are you? because that is the question every man and woman must ask themselves. The punishments that come down upon the man, the woman and the snake are exactly what would have happened anyway in the course of human evolution. Nor are the man and woman chastised for frolicking in the garden naked as the day they were born, for sex between humans is as natural as the air they breathe and the sun that shines in the garden that incites it, just as the Lord Himself is wont to walk in the garden He created in the cool of the day, as the Torah says. No, the key to the whole story is precisely the question God puts to Adam: where are you? It is the same question He will put to Cain in the following chapter, this time in the form of where is Abel your brother? And again the question is one to which God already knows the answer, but He is asking Cain, as He asks Adam, to think about what he has done, to think, as the sages put it, before whom he stands, to consider his place in the world and how he will occupy it. And it is the same question Moses will put to the children of Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy when he reminds them their choice is always between life and death, blessing and curse, and cautions them to choose wisely.

 

Where are you is also what are you doing and how will you lead your life. And the setup in what others have called the fall from grace is only the stage setting for what happens to every man and woman once they are born and come into consciousness of the world and their lonely place within it: how will you react to the bewilderment you discover when you find out your apartness from the world and other human beings? How will you react in the face of the pleasures and disappointments of life as you walk thought its storms, of which sexual congress is emblematic because it is the most explosive, the most intense, the most volatile of such encounters? Will you run to cover the nakedness of your passions with fig leaves? Will you fob responsibility for your actions off onto the nearest figure convenient at hand, man onto wife, child onto parent or sibling, humans onto any snake in the grass that will do? Or will you open your eyes and reflect back onto your experience, learn from it, and assume responsibility for what you have done so that your desires, your passions, your convictions will produce something approximating the Garden of Eden rather than hell on earth? This is the great message running throughout the Torah, a question before it is an answer, a story with its offer of a law, a tree of life for us humans in place of the tree of life that stands in Eden protected by the flaming sword of the cherubim from the presumption of an unreflecting life.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for Simchat Torah of October 2, 2018

 

Parashat Vezot Habracha

 

Moses commanded us a law, An inheritance for the congregation of Jacob. At the very outset of this Torah reading Moses and Jacob are linked, as are the blessings which each one gave his descendants at the end of his life. Jacob’s blessing is still the thundering of the wayward father at his wayward sons, hoping in spite of all that transpired that the blessing inherited from his father will work its way down to his sons and the sons of his sons unto the end of time. Five centuries later Moses picks up the mantle and issues a blessing of his own, this time not to a family rent by sibling rivalries, but to a nation in the making formed out of the tribes of families the sons of Jacob have become.

 

And how is this nation to be formed? How move from a kinship-based society to a national one? No easy task, Moses well knew, as forty years of wandering in the desert painfully taught him. The challenges to his leadership were rooted in the sibling rivalries of a tribal grouping, cousins challenging cousins for leadership and honor. Instead Moses offered them a brilliant innovation. I will take the congregation of Israel, this tribal confederacy of Jacob’s descendants, and weld them into a nation by teaching them a law that shall rule their lives in the land that is destined for them, promised to their forefathers by God Himself. Thus does the Torah say Moses commanded us a law, An inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.

 

And though the next verse states there was a king in Jeshurun when the tribes of Israel gathered together, even the kings were subordinate to the law, as Moses had reminded them in a previous discourse. When you come into the land you shall read the law, every seven years you shall read it, and the kings shall carry a copy of it with them always and read it, that the compact between ruler and ruled shall be bound by the law which is above all. How important then that this law became a written document, one that could be copied and read by any literate, and whose statutes could serve as the basis for challenging the ruler when he strayed. Thus did Nathan the prophet challenge David the king. Thus millennia later did Martin Luther challenge the Pope. Thus still do people challenge the cruel and capricious ways of rulers who ride roughshod over the elementary rules of right and wrong bequeathed to humanity by this text. As for the Jews, thus did Moses weld the congregation of Jacob into the nation of Israel.

 

But did the attempt succeed? Have the Jews not balked at making the move, even with all the trappings of a state now reconstituted in modern Israel? How much of that country still operates along the lines of family, with an electoral system that encourages political horse-trading between tiny single-interest parties reminiscent of family gatherings at Hannukah? Do not Jews world-wide set up communities run like congregations, proud of the fact that we are all members of the tribe, bound by all the good and the bad of family ties? And does not the mentality of a family still reign in the conduct of Jewish public affairs, as if Korach and Moses were still arguing about who is more honorable, more worthy of admiration, and who merits beings cast out and vilified? From synagogue politics to Israeli television the long arm of the family still exerts its influence, such that one can legitimately wonder if the Jews have ever left the Book of Genesis, let alone Egypt.

 

That is the secret link between Moses and Jacob, Deuteronomy and Genesis, encapsulated in that tiny phrase: Moses commanded us a law, An inheritance of the congregation of Jacob. The phrase is also a wish and a hope, that the Jews may move from tribe to nation, from passions to law, and the blessing that Moses conferred upon his assembled Israelites in this, his last address to them. May the congregation become a nation, may the nation live in its sovereign land, and may the nation in its land be ruled by law and not by wounded honor. As for those who refuse the blessing and seek to liquidate the nation, its people and the law it received as an inheritance, may the Jews deal with them with all the severity that Moses warned they would have to exercise to keep the covenant and inherit the blessing. And may the Jews understand that in the exercise of their national sovereignty they have nothing to apologize for, but everything to be proud of: this book, this land, which is their book and their land, one they have been bequeathed as a blessing and which they have bequeathed to any who can read as a blessing in turn. 

 

Chag sameach!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 22, 2018

 

Parashat Haazinu

 

Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; And let the earth hear the words of my mouth. Moses is no longer addressing the children of Israel, at least not directly. He is speaking to God, to the wind, to the heavens and the earth in God’s name, bereft of hope that the Israelites will listen to his warnings and teachings. What more can I do, he thinks, but announce the word of the Lord to the eternal witness of His Being, for did He not say that as long as heat and cold and summer and winter abide on the earth He shall not rain destruction down upon it? And yet of destruction does he speak, when the Israelites break faith and their land is consumed by their enemies and even their enemies are consumed by the wrath and judgment of the Lord. Thus speaks the prophet at his wits’ end. Thus speaks the prophet who would impress upon his audience the gravity and import of the matters at hand.

 

The secret things belong to the Lord, Moses told his audience a short time ago. But now he is pushing the boundaries of the unrevealed, turning political wisdom into prophecy, legal teachings into warnings, tapping into the terrible and majestic power of biblical poetry, as all great literary characters have done when they have to speak the unspeakable. How else, he thinks at the end of his life and his discourse, can I impress upon my beloved Israelites the need to heed the law I have taught them for so long? For the Torah is your life, he tells them, and its observance shall prolong your lives upon the land where you go to possess it.

 

And what shall one do today to impress upon the Israelites the necessity to clean up their land, to rid it of the baseless lies and actions of the no-people Palestinians who slander and attack it, all the while begging the indulgence of the world which by and large grants it? Shall one again address the heavens and the earth like Lear on the heath? Shall one rail like a preacher out of a Faulkner novel against the sin and folly of too many people who ought to know better? Or shall one laugh at the same heavens and earth, as if laughter will rouse the Lord and His people from their slumber as it bounces off the firmaments above and below like the firestorm at Sinai? But there is this text, so why not read it? Why not have rabbis read it from pulpits and teachers from lecterns and politicians from the rostrums of parliaments, that the people who think all things are relative and Jews are disposable may see where such thinking leads.  And that the Jews may awake from their backsliding before it is too late. And that their days upon the land be prolonged as long as the land shall be, and the Lord be sanctified in their midst upon it.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 15, 2018

 

Parashat Vayeilech

 

And Moses went, the parasha opens. He went and spoke these words to all of Israel, these words being more of what he had already told them many times before. But this time the words were words of assurance: God will go with you when you cross over the Jordan and He will be with you when you dispossess the nations who inhabit the land and drive them out. Therefore, be strong and of good cheer, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will not fail you nor forsake you.

 

Moses knew something about walking with God. Surely he remembered that time when God threatened not to walk with the children of Israel, but send an angel in His stead, when the Israelites had thumbed their noses at the Lord and substituted a molten calf as their god. But Moses knew that even if God was so angry He did not want to accompany the Israelites on their trek home, Moses was not ready to walk without Him and laid it on the line. If You go not with us, Moses told the Lord, I am not going with them. There are some things in life that need to be done yet are so great that we cannot do them alone. We need God at our side when we undertake them, to strengthen us and make us be of good cheer.

 

Moses knew that to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land was no picnic. Nor was leading them for forty years through the desert an easy task. Nor would their conquest and settlement of the land and adherence to the covenant be an undertaking to which they and their offspring would easily hold fast. Yet Moses did not lose faith, did not abandon God, nor did he let God abandon him and his charges. That is the trick with God, Moses knew. Against overwhelming odds that would plunge you into discouragement if not despair, he says, talk to God, walk with God, share your burden with Him. Then in the face of opposition and doubts you will prevail. You may not win, but you shall prevail; and then you shall be a man, as the poet put it. And what is a man if not a man created in God’s image? And what is a man created in God’s image if not a being who strives to see and distinguish light from darkness, holy from profane, Israel from the nations; and who has no shame reading and writing the text that bids him be so?

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 8, 2018

 

Parashat Nitzavim

 

You are standing this day before God, the parasha begins, and the writing of this declaration ensures that the you mentioned in this summons applies to the reader as well. And so in simple yet poetic language Moses lays bare the contract: we have made it this far but there is more to do. When you come into the land take care not to backslide into idol worship. If you do, the Lord shall desert you and make your land as desolate as the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. And in case the evocation of their names is not enough to impress upon us the seriousness of what Moses here says, the text adds a few words to remind us of their fate: fire and brimstone and salt that devoured their land so that neither seed nor grass does grow. A nuclear wasteland, we would say today, we who are standing before God as well and think perhaps: is that where it will end, this never-ending call from Israel’s Muslim neighbors to liquidate the Jewish state and kill its Jews, whom they libel with their lies with which they indoctrinate their children to blood lust?

 

There is and will be no peace between Israel and the people who claim they are Palestinians. There is also no peace between Israel and the Muslim states that are its neighbors and tolerate it on sufferance. Things would be different if Israel made it clear that respect is due the Jewish state or no cooperation will be forthcoming. Things would be different if Israel told the so-called Palestinians that the jig is up, that the next time a Jewish citizen is killed by a Palestinian teenager or a Jewish field is burned by a Palestinian balloon the army will be sent in and the Palestinians will be evacuated once and for all from the land that was never theirs. Things would be different if Israel did not delude itself into thinking that the current situation could be managed indefinitely until one day the so-called Palestinians will sue for peace and the Muslim states will recognize Israel without reservations. But Israel does delude itself and the Jews continue to think that the idol worshippers can continue to live in their midst without causing undue trouble.

 

They ignore the warning signs. The debate inside Israel when a soldier is punished for killing a terrorist because he did not follow army protocol. The Israeli Arabs in high positions who refuse to sing the national anthem or salute the flag. The emigration of Jews from their Jewish homeland, weary of the constant onslaught. The yearly list of terrorist victims, whose numbers are tolerated because relatively small, but which one day will prove to be the list of one too many. And then what? By that time will the gangsters who run Gaza and the Palestinian Authority send waves of children across the border with torches and inflammable gas instead of balloons? Will hordes of women and youths descend on Jerusalem to protect a mosque Palestinian Muslim propaganda again falsely claims is under attack? Will Israel call its army out and if so, will it finally be told to eradicate the Palestinian presence in Judea, Samaria and Gaza? Will Hizbollah join in and unleash its 100,000 rockets? Will Israel, its back to the wall, finally unleash its nuclear arsenal and turn not only the Jordan valley but the Arab Muslim hinterland into a furnace? Imagine a nuclear attack on Mecca or Teheran as payback for Muslim incendiary attacks, both verbal and physical, on the Jewish state and its right to exist. Or perhaps a simple firebombing of Gaza City or Ramallah to bring Sodom and Gomorrah back to life?

 

Better the Jews take matters in hand before they get totally out of hand. Things can always get worse, though politicians do not run on that slogan, even if they should. And so before things do indeed get worse, the Jews should remember Moses’s admonition and take his words to heart, for they apply to them today every bit as much as they applied to their forefathers on the eastern bank of the Jordan. The elimination of the Palestinian claim to Gaza, Judea and Samaria will go a long way to preparing a better future for the Middle East and ensuring Israeli survival in peace. And the elimination of that claim requires the expulsion of those who espouse it from the land before the wrath of the Lord is kindled against it once again. Remember: ye are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of September 1, 2018

 

Parashat Ki Tavo

 

When you come into the land. Is there a lovelier phrase in the entire Torah? Is there a lovelier phrase than when you come into? Ki tavo, a basketful of promises, like childhood, indeed childhood itself. The phrase is full of song, announces Shavuot, our baskets on our shoulders, our future our joy. Carousel.

 

And when you come into the land that is what you feel. Little wonder Yehuda Halevi bent down to kiss the soil. Little wonder you ask, where is Beit El? Where do I build my altar? Where do I bring my meat to give as a gift and to partake of its roasting? When you come into the land. When you come into the market. Olives. Tomatoes. Strawberries. Pita and challah. Eggplant and hummus. When you come into the land, where is my lover? Where is my beloved waiting at the window? Where is the window where I wait for my beloved? And what has happened to the dreams of my childhood?

 

When you come into the land, you come already bearing the gift of its language, the land itself a text, bearing gifts. And so when you come into the land you shall lift up your voice and speak, recite how the Lord brought you out of Egypt to this land of milk and honey, though often in your wanderings you claimed the opposite. Egypt, said the rebels to Moses on countless occasions, is the real land of milk and honey, the delicatessen of our childhood from which you uprooted us. Did the Jews of eastern Europe say that to Jabotinsky when he pleaded with them to liquidate the diaspora before the diaspora liquidated them? Do we not say that still when we continue to live in the lands of Jewish exile rather than go up and come into the land, there to sing in our national tongue? Is this not the lure of childhood, the eternal promised land even when it is not, because every child deserves as happy a childhood as possible? Only thus can we understand the lure of Egypt to the Hebrews who escaped their bondage there. And only thus do we understand the eternal Egyptian complex of the Jewish people, the longing for the playgrounds of their childhood.

 

In reality, though, Egypt was anything but that, as Moses reminds them in the curses that shall descend upon them should they abandon the covenant and leave the idol worshippers in the land. In this very parasha he warns them, how the Lord will bring upon them all the plagues of Egypt which they dreaded and will even bring them back to Egypt in ships. And even when we come into the land, as so many of us have, do we still not harbor the millennial ambiguity about the covenant Moses enjoined us to follow, still refusing to throw out the idol worshippers, still willing to accept Jewish sacrifices for the no-people who would destroy us and who every day egg on their young to murder us for living in the land to which we have come?

 

When you come into the land. The phrase conjures up the sweetness of youth, young girls and boys dancing with baskets on their shoulders, laughter on their faces, joy in their eyes, for all is right with the world in this eternal moment of happiness. And so it should be when you have come into the land and worked it and built it up and sang of it to the heavens, free of worry for the safety of those who live there. So may the Jews learn to sing one day in this land that is their land from the Jordan to the sea and from the desert in the south to the rivers of the north. For this land is bound up with the law and the text that wrote it, one scroll under heaven like one nation under God, a blessing unto the generations. Observe therefore the words of this covenant, Moses ends his peroration to his Israelite children at the end of this parasha, and do them, that ye may make all that ye do to prosper. From his mouth to God’s ears and to ours.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 25, 2018

 

Parashat Ki Teztze

 

The mysterious doctrine of shaatnez. Thou shall not sow thy vineyard with two kinds of seed. Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass together. Thou shall not wear wool and linen together. Neither shall you cross-dress, not man in woman’s garb nor woman in man’s clothing. What a hodge-podge, the reader may think, and an odd hodge-podge at that. Does the Torah know something about agriculture, fashion and cabaret that we do not? Or does the logic of these strictures lie elsewhere, in the difference with which God started the ball rolling and which we celebrate at twilight every Shabbat? Blessed art Thou Our God King of the Universe Who has distinguished the sacred from the profane, light from darkness, Israel from the nations. Blessed too is the difference without which we would stumble through life blind to what must be seen, not least the crooked timber of humanity, as the philosopher put it. And what is society if not the house of crooked timber, it too indebted to difference in a way we do not usually see. 

 

Unlike what most people think, society is not made up of people. Nor is it people in groups. Society is a way of organizing difference. Throughout history there have not been very many ways of doing that. There have been societies organized around the difference of kinship. There have been societies organized around the difference of rank. And there have been societies organized around the difference of function. Each has produced its own structures of expectation, ways of living considered normal to the people who live in them. And though people may everywhere be the same biologically or psychologically, they differ remarkably in what they consider to be normal when they live in different societies.

 

In kinship societies blood is the main tie that binds, but also differentiates groups one from another. The groups, clans and tribes, are more or less on an equal footing, run by a chief or patriarch. Alliances shift depending on the closeness of family ties, insults to family honor quickly lead to violent clashes between clans and tribes, rigid adherence to social norms, sexual and otherwise, is strictly enforced. Hierarchical societies, which emerge with the rise of monarchies, structure and divide societies according to class. An aristocracy and priesthood dominate at the top, from which the rest, artisans and peasants for the most part, remain excluded. Society is, to all intents and purposes, the aristocratic orders. Societies organized according to the difference of function burst asunder the rigidities of class. Instead, each social sphere runs on its own rules, more and more people have access to the different social spheres, the dignity and freedom of each individual becomes operationally effective throughout the society. 

 

These different societies are not compatible. When they meet they clash. Either the old order prevails or the new way of organizing difference wins out. Historically, royalty has replaced kinship societies, and democracies have replaced royalty. Ancient Israel was a remarkable experiment in that respect. It emerged from a kinship based society and challenged the royal powers of the day, of which Egypt was exemplary. It sought to replace both with a law-based society more typical of modern democracies, but could not escape the route of kingship and class. The Torah, however, remains a proto-modern text, beseeching the Israelites to move from family to nation and establish a society with the separation of religious and temporal functions, organized on the basis of the rule of law. Shaatnez, you might say, is the beginning of functional differentiation, with much pertinence for the thorny issue of multiculturalism in our day.

 

The Torah recognized that the experiment of ancient Israel was incompatible with the surrounding societies. Hence the constant admonition to throw out the idol-worshippers lest they contaminate the new society the Hebrews were to found. Yes, there was one law for all, for the stranger and sojourner in their midst, but for that to apply even the stranger and sojourner had to accept to function according to the rules and laws of the Hebrew confederacy and leave their strange ways behind. Those who did not, the Moloch worshippers who sacrificed their children to their gods – a practice emblematic of the surrounding kinship and even imperial societies – had to be expelled. And so it is today. People who emigrate to modern societies from kinship societies cannot be digested unless they come because they embrace the expectations of modern democracies: tolerance, pluralism, compromise, peaceful resolution of conflict through mediation and the courts. If they do not, they will simply wreak havoc, as the current Muslim immigration to European countries amply testifies.

 

And for much the same reason, Israel cannot hope to integrate a misnamed Palestinian population within its boundaries. Palestinian society, to the extent one can even use that name, is socially organized child abuse, imbued from top to bottom with genocidal Jew hatred. That is why its leaders never miss a chance to miss a chance for peace, as the late Abba Eban put it. They have no interest in the peaceful resolution of conflict typical of modern functionally differentiated societies, of which Israel is indeed one. Neither do the Muslim societies that surround it. At heart they are still kinship societies with an overlay of Islam and authoritarian rulers, that, given their structure of expectations, allow no place for a Jewish state in their midst. Which is what makes Israel’s conflict with her neighbors unresolvable except through military victory and, in the case of the Palestinians, expulsion. Shaatnez again, come to remind us of what we can mix and not mix.

 

Shabbat shalom! 

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 18, 2018

 

Parashat Shoftim

 

This week’s Torah reading, chock full as usual, raises the vexing question of prophecy. Ye are not to hearken unto soothsayers and diviners, Moses tells the children of Israel; that is what the nations you shall dispossess do. Instead, God shall send you prophets like me, who shall speak unto you His words, and you shall follow the advice he gives you. But, Moses adds, if the prophet speaks presumptuously, meaning he speaks not in God’s name but in the name of other gods, then hearken not unto him, for he shall die. And how do you know, Moses asks, if the prophet indeed speaks the word of God? And Moses answers his own question: When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken; the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously, thou shalt not be afraid of him.

 

In one sense, this warning is sagacious, for it bears within it a caution against magical thinking. Science versus witchcraft, one might say. For diviners and soothsayers will stick to their preachings even when they fly in the face of reality. Their claim to truth lies in their inner conviction, absolute in their faith that they know because they have a connection with the divine that stems from their own powers. Revelation as mysticism. Revelation as the occult. Little matter that rational observation cannot explain how the arrangement of stones or the disposition of entrails justifies human conduct. Against this, the Torah asserts, is something akin to historical method. If people advise a certain course of action, look at the results. If the action thus forewarned does in fact ensue, then the likelihood increases that the advice was sound. If the person who so cautioned claimed he was speaking in the name of the Lord, then so he was, you may say with a greater degree of certainty. That’s what comes from the monotheistic revolution: the belief in one God spawns rational thought. It is up to men, using their powers of observation, to discover the mind of God. Even the late Stephen Hawking spoke such language, as Spinoza did before him centuries earlier.

 

But of course things are not so simple. Even on the level playing field of rational observation and scientific method disagreements abound. If a course of prescribed action does not produce the result that was prophesized, does that mean the advice or theory was wrong? Perhaps other intervening factors explain why the foretold results did not occur. Are their countervailing theories or prophecies that would do a better job at explaining things? Do we ignore the observations that do not fit our theories and adjust the data accordingly, so that if the thing follows not, does not come to pass, we still insist that we are right? Or do we condemn the messenger as a false prophet and let him die, literally or figuratively? Is that what the history of science and politics teaches?

 

Moses himself fudges the issue. For in extolling divine prophecy over divination and soothsaying, he tells his assembled Israelites that the Lord will send them a prophet like him when he is no longer around. As He did at Horeb when the Israelites begged Moses to speak with God on their behalf, fearful they would die if they had to hear His voice and see His fire. And Moses added, as he related this story, that the Lord told him the Israelites had done well to speak thus, though the Torah says no such thing in Yitro. It is an ex post facto addition to bolster his admonition to them forty years later. The irony of the Torah speaks loud and clear once again, subverting the message about the truth proof of prophecy even as it is advanced. It may be a good thing to judge advice by the results it promises, but that alone is no confirmation of the prophet’s being a true one. Moses was a great man, the greatest leader we ever had, but was he a prophet, even if that description is often added to his name? And does he have to have been a prophet to have been a great man, though the curses he will outline in the weeks to come proved prophetic enough?

 

The dilemma of prophecy has not left us even today. Let us take an example closer to home. The Oslo Accords were hailed as the opening chapter of the New Middle East. But the Middle East turned out to be the same old one, and in many respects, even worse. Certainly they brought Israel much grief, but their architects have never disavowed their actions. Similarly with the disengagement from Gaza. The advocates of the Gaza withdrawal claimed it would force the Palestinian leaders to assume responsibility for good governance. Should the opposite prove the case and Israel be attacked, Israel could always go back in. Nothing the advocates of the retreat from Gaza predicted proved true. A genocidal theocracy took over in Gaza. Israel did not return to take control of the Strip. Yet the advocates of the initial policy continue to advocate that more concessions to relieve a humanitarian crisis manufactured by Hamas will produce peace. One could be charitable and say this is soothsaying of major proportions. Clearly, it is false prophecy. Even the champions of rational thought disembodied from its theological origins would have trouble arguing anything else, though it does not prevent them from persisting in their historically proven errors. That the prescriptions of the Torah in this chapter and throughout Deuteronomy about what to do with idol-worshippers turned out to be true is only salt to be rubbed in their wounds and grist for the long reach of the Torah’s irony once again. 

 

Those who would argue the lessons of recent failed policies are clear and it is time to rid the land of people who desire its destruction are clearly still vilified, still a minority. The appeal to observed facts persuades no one who needs to be persuaded. And should those who argue thus fall back on the words of Moses to justify their position, they would doubtlessly be accused of being false prophets, if not ridiculed for invoking the mantle of prophecy in the first place. Indeed, even the rabbis have long ago announced that the era of prophecy has ended. But has it? Is expertise in the affairs of men not prophecy? And if all else fails, does not the Torah with its penchant for ironic reflection have its place in guiding those same affairs? Perhaps it is not prediction which ought to be the litmus test of our advice and the actions that flow from it. Perhaps it is history, including the pages of this text which have known quite a long one; studied, mulled over, taken to the circumcised heart.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 11, 2018

 

Parashat Reeh

 

See, behold, we read again, Moses telling his people the land is theirs to conquer and to keep if they but keep to the covenant, whose statutes have been laid out for them these past forty years and written down in this holy book which all are enjoined to read and reread. Of course not all the statutes are gone over again, but significantly those that are mentioned refer to three pillars of this covenant: the worship of the One God, holiness with respect to the body, intelligent care of the unfortunate. But once again pride of place is given to the first pillar, for the worship of the One God Who brought them out of Egypt to give them this land cannot brook the simultaneous worship of other gods and the nefarious practices such worship inevitably entails. Hence, Moses stresses, make sure to demolish the heathen idols and places of worship and establish the Sanctuary where you will observe your fealty. And since we worship One God only, there will be one place only where you will accomplish such observances. One God. One Temple. One law for all. A stunning innovation in antiquity, the difference God vowed to establish when taking the Jews out of Egypt. It is also the difference with which God began the whole process back in the beginning, at the very start of Genesis. For in the face of the void and the unformed He created the very first difference, that of light and darkness, that He may see and we may see, and that it may be good.

 

But seeing, it seems, is not that easy, not for the cast of characters that inhabit the Book of Genesis and not for the Israelites with whom God tries for the third time to see if the difference He launches into history will take. Nor for that matter do contemporary Jews seem to see any more clearly. For like their compatriots of old, the inhabitants of the Jewish state have allowed the places of idolatry to flourish in their land and exercise their malevolent influence, especially there where the Sanctuary of the Lord once stood and should today now stand. But instead of the sound of pomegranate bells ringing across the flagstones on the Day of Atonement atop the Temple Mount, the filth of Muslim Jew hatred spews forth from the muzzein call to prayer. And because the Jews refuse to reclaim sovereignty over the one place which Moses long ago foresaw as the place where the Lord shall dwell, not only does the Sanctuary of the Lord stand desolate, but the land of its Jewish inhabitants is put to the torch and the knife, while the government makes deals with its enemies and restrains its soldiers from ridding the land of the Moloch worshippers. And no one rejoices before God and no one dwells in safety, because the Jews as usual break the covenant at its starting point.

 

Truly they do not see, do not see that the difference the Lord created three times over in the Torah is their inheritance; do not see that the difference they think they prize is not applicable to nations who worship murder, nurture resentment, sacrifice their children to their false gods of family honor and fake country. In three thousand years the Jews have learned nothing no matter how many times they have read the Torah, and so today, once again, they will not bring their sacrifices to the Lord in His seasons and theirs. And the Temple Mount shall lie desolate because they will not follow the advice that Moses gave them time and time again for the day when they come into the land and settle it: Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree. And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place. But not unto your God, Moses tells his people. On the contrary, unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there, even unto His habitation shall ye seek, and thither thou shalt come.

 

But the Jews will not come because the Jews do not see. And the Jews do not see because although they know how to read they do not see what they read. Not the Torah. Not history. Not even their own recent history. And for the sin of not seeing they pay and shall continue to pay a heavy price: betrayal of the past and of the future, betrayal of the land and of those who defend it, betrayal of all the good that was fought for and died for ever since the Lord created the difference between light and darkness and saw that it was good.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of August 4, 2018

 

Parashat Ekev

 

Love your God and keep His statutes, Moses tells the children of Israel over and over. All the statutes, especially the ones commanding them to throw the idol worshippers out of the land and to be kind to the less fortunate. Again Moses paints a wonderful picture to the Hebrew nation-in-waiting of the land they are about to invade, conquer and inherit, and the many bounties they will receive if they hearken to the Lord and all that he, Moses, has taught them during their many wanderings and in spite of their many backslidings. And to drive home the point Moses refers to this land as a land flowing with milk and honey, the very phrase the rebels threw in his face when they challenged his leadership, saying Egypt, not Canaan, was the land that so flowed. And this reminds all the malingerers who constantly wanted to return to Egypt – few of whom remained but their memory must certainly have persisted – that the promised land was not the land of their childhood, Goshen and environs, but the land that would house the Jewish nation in all its glory. And not just the malingerers, Moses thinks, but those who might be tempted to repeat the offence and weaken the drive to cross the Jordan and conquer the land, a worry that never leaves him. You see, Moses tells his flock, I was right all along. The promised land lies before us, not behind.

 

For the land whither thou goest in to possess it is not in the land of Egypt from whence ye came out, where thou didst sow thy seed and didst water it with thy foot, as a garden with herbs, but the land, whither ye go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water as the rains of heaven cometh down; a land which the Lord thy God cares for; the eyes of the Lord are always upon it, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year. The contrast which Moses draws between Egypt and Canaan highlights the difficulty the children of Israel, not to mention people everywhere, have in accepting to undergo hardships on behalf of a dream that lies in the future. Not for nothing did the Israelites clamor incessantly to return to Egypt, for it was, in a sense, their promised land because it was the land of their childhood, there where they sowed their seed. And everyone always wants to go back to the garden, the one they first knew and experienced and which holds their memory in thrall, even if the experience was fraught with pain. To break with the pain and move on requires courage and work. Moses himself had to do it with respect to his own childhood. But the confrontation and the overcoming gave him the strength to be the Israelites’ leader, and soldier on in the face of their desire to regress that always popped up. There is a lesson there for us all, for us as individuals and for us as a nation. The swirling promised land of childhood always beckons with its siren charms, and it often takes a lifetime to escape it and move on.

 

And how do we do that even with all the work, if not to walk with God and keep Him by our side for those moments when courage fails and we too wish to regress? That is what Moses tells the children of Israel when he retells the story of the debacle at Sinai, how he talked God out of abandoning them and then, with God at his side, Moses found the courage to strike out again and go forward to the promised land. The dreams we have require faith, faith not only in ourselves, for we falter and stumble on our way, but faith also in a force outside us, in light and truth that look on the world from the standpoint of eternity. And what is that if not to walk with God through the valley of life, to fear Him and love Him and serve Him with all our heart and all our soul, as Moses bids his compatriots to do in this parasha? How comforting it is, after all, to know there is a place and a viewpoint other than our own little needs and desires from which to draw sustenance and reflection on our life’s travails. Behold, unto the Lord thy God belongeth the heaven, and the heaven of heavens, the earth, with all that therein is, Moses tells his gathered flock, and the words drip like honey into their bruised souls and hopefully linger there as sustenance for the challenges that await them. And when Moses calls them to make that leap of faith, to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts, as he puts it, and put away their stiffnecked obduracy, he describes the God with Whom he would have them walk in glowing but compassionate and comforting terms, reminding one and all that the purpose for the conquest of the Promised Land was law and justice, not tyranny and imperium. God of Gods, Lord of Lords, Who cares for the downtrodden and the unfortunate – widows, orphans, strangers – and Who has done so many wonders for His people, whom He brought down to Egypt seventy in number and who now stand on the banks of the Jordan an armed multitude. Indeed, the reader would not be wrong in thinking he or she hears the music of Handel cascading down the sentences. He is thy glory. He is thy God. Walk with Him. Talk to Him. Then the promised land too shall be yours and you shall live long upon it. What else can stiffen the backs of the Jews and reconcile them to their inheritance?

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 28, 2018

 

Parashat Vaetchanan

 

Moses continues the thread of his story which is also their story and ours, the founding story of the Israelite nation. Again he retells that story with a difference, starting with his opening line: And I besought the Lord at that time; that time referring to the moment in time they had just reached, after their victories over Sihon and Og which had brought them to the banks of the Jordan. But though in Numbers Moses had not besought the Lord at all, here he tells the Israelites he had indeed asked Him to cross over into the Promised Land, that goodly land beyond the Jordan all the way to the Lebanon. But the Lord did not allow that, Moses tells them, and tells them again twenty-eight sentences later, doubling down on this version as he doubles down on everything else in this week’s reading, because of all things he wants to double down on is the message that they should obey the covenant and carry it close to their hearts. And if that is the case for the children of Israel assembled before him, how can it not be for us? For is it not said in that very same chapter what we hear every Monday and Thursday and Sabbath and Festival: And this is the law which Moses set before the children of Israel?

 

Further on in this parasha, after Moses recapitulates the Ten Commandments for his flock of next generation Israelites – and in this recapitulation too Moses alters somewhat the version recounted in Exodus – he then reminds them of how things transpired at Sinai. He recalls the fire that burned at the top of the mountain and the voice of the Lord that boomed out of the fire and the fear and awe that struck their parents to the point they begged Moses to speak to God on their behalf and then tell them what He has said that they may hear and do what the Lord commands them to do. For if they hear the voice of God any more they will die, Moses now has them saying, and adds these words ascribed to their parents: For who is there of all flesh that heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire as we have, and lived? But things did not transpire exactly like that. Nor did the Lord then tell Moses, as Moses now claims, that He was delighted with these words of the children of Israel and wished they had such a benign disposition toward Him always, to fear Him and keep all His commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children for ever.

 

In fact, if we reread the story of the Ten Commandments as told in the Book of Exodus, we will find no such delight on the part of the Lord. What we do read is the exact opposite. Even before He has uttered the Ten Commandments the Lord tells Moses to double check that the people have not broken through the bounds set about the mountain. And though the people are awe-stricken enough by God’s performance in giving them the Ten Commandments to ask of Moses afterwards that he no longer let them hear God’s voice, they do not follow up on their promise to do and listen to all that the Lord has spoken through him, which by then included all the ordinances of the parasha Mishpatim. For when Moses finally ascends the mountain to get the tablets of stone and tarries there, the people forget both their fear and their promise. Before Moses can make it down the Israelites transgress the first and second commandments from which the other eight flow, not to mention all the ordinances of Mishpatim ending with the injunction to drive the inhabitants from the land God will give them.

 

Why then, the reader may ask, does Moses twist events in this retelling of the major story of the Hebrew Bible? Did the writer leave out details when the story was first told in Exodus? Or does Moses now add this new twist precisely because he knows what transpired almost forty years earlier and did not want this next generation of Israelites to repeat the mistake? Instead of reminding them that their parents broke all their vows, acted out of fear first of God and then of being abandoned by God, Moses seeks to find the nugget of gold in the original story that will encourage the present generation to stick to the script, to go forth and conquer the land and establish God’s covenant therein. He therefore dwells on that part of the story that stresses the people’s embrace of the Lord that arose from their fear. The people experienced the terrible moment of Sinai and were shook to the core, for it was a momentous event. It still is. Not only in the pyrotechnics atop Sinai but in the legacy bequeathed to the world. How will the next generation avoid succumbing to what their parents did, Moses wonders, he who will not be accompanying them across the Jordan to see that they do? And so he impresses upon them the importance of the Ten Commandments he has just repeated for their ears.

 

The message is simple. The Ten Commandments were but the beginning from which all the other laws and ordinances I have taught you for forty years flow. Yes, they are awe-inspiring, as they were for your parents, so awe-inspiring that they could not bear to hear anything more from the Lord, but insisted they hear it through me. Nonetheless, their reaction pleased the Lord, for it showed they recognized the terrible difference He was attempting to institute with them. And so the Lord told them, Moses now recounts, to return to their tents while I remained with the Lord to receive the statutes which I have communicated to you that you may fulfill them in the land which He has given you. 

 

Continuing in that vein rather than dwell on the transgression which to the present generation may seem like a fading memory, Moses then hammers home the point by simplifying the message to its essence: Hear O Israel, The Lord Our God, The Lord Is One. And if you have doubts, Moses goes on, you have but to do the following: love thy God will all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy might. This simple message, Moses now hopes, will suffice where all the glory of the Exodus and Sinai did not. It will go forth even in his absence, if only the Israelites can integrate it into their lives as an abiding faith and reminder of all that started at Sinai. For if they remember and observe this first commandment, as he now enjoins them to both remember and observe the Sabbath, then the chances of establishing the Hebrew commonwealth ruled by law in the land of Israel are good.

 

And so it is today. Sinai yielded laws governing transactions and charity, war and peace, prayer and crime. It gave rise to the commandment to establish those laws in a country that lay between empires which had no such impetus. It founded that impetus in a monotheistic God whose power and glory, far beyond the manipulation of men, were nonetheless sufficient to launch that difference into history. It was the fortune of the ancient Hebrews to carry that impetus forward. Not because they were more in number than other nations, as Moses lays out for them in this parasha, but because the Lord loved them and would keep His promise to their forefathers to bring them out of the house of bondage. And as the Lord keeps His covenant, Moses explains, so will his people have to keep theirs. That is what it means to be the chosen people, a term that pops up in this parasha as well and precisely in this context. It is, of course, no easy task being so chosen, and no easy task holding up that covenant. The Israelites found that out at Sinai and so have their descendants down to this day. But without loving our God with all our hearts and all our souls and all our might, the task is well-nigh impossible. Those who cannot abide defining Israel as the Jewish state might want to think about that, especially if they cherish the covenant half as much as Moses did.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of July 21, 2018

 

Parashat Devarim

 

Moses says farewell to the children of Israel, but it is a long farewell for he has much to say, much to go over in their long journey to this point they have reached at the banks of the Jordan, in the Arava which runs down contemporary Israel’s desert east coast. He starts with the central event of that journey, the incident with the spies that led to their forty year sojourn in the desert, reminding them that they did not listen to him when he told them to dread not their enemies nor fear them, for God goes with them and before them.

 

And so they wandered. For forty years they wandered, skirting the lands of Seir rather than go to war with the Edomites, for they were descendants of Esau, son of the third patriarch, and so family. Similarly with the Moabites and Ammonites, for they were the descendants of the offspring of Lot, nephew of the first patriarch, and family as well. But not so with Sihon and Og, with whom the children of Israel went to battle and against whom they were victorious. But in recounting this part of the story Moses changes it somewhat. They went to war against Sihon, Moses says, because unlike the Edomites and Moabites, he would not grant them free passage through his land, though they offered to pay for whatever food and water they consumed. In Numbers, however, we were told that Edom would not grant the Israelites passage through their land, while Moab’s king had sought to curse them with the prophet Balaam and wound up going to war with them anyway.

 

Much of Deuteronomy changes the story slightly. One can chalk it up to declining memory in old age. One can chalk it up to the way events always appear different after the fact, the difference between the present and the pluperfect tenses of life. But in the difference lies food for thought for the contemporary present and pluperfect. In the version of events retold in this week’s Torah reading we learn a few new things. We learn that the Edomites and Moabites and Ammonites were no more indigenous to the lands they inhabit than were the Israelites to Canaan. Conquest by war was endemic to these societies, and in many respects still is. The frontiers of contemporary Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, not to mention Lebanon and Syria, were the result of internecine tribal warfare and great power politics. The Saudis ousted the Hashemites from the Arabian peninsula much as the Edomites of old ousted the Horites and the Ammonites in their day the Rephaim, and as, the Bible relates, the Caphtorim ousted the Avvim from Gaza. So much for the so-called Palestinian claim to being the original Canaanites and descendants of the Philistines of Gaza. So much also for the assertion that Israel has no claim to Judea and Samaria. That Israel captured territory from Jordan in the Six-Day War does not make its claim to Judea and Samaria any less legitimate. If anything, given the hostilities unleashed by Jordan against it, its claim is even stronger. Given also that war has always produced changes in sovereignty, the idea that it should not appears, in the light of history, ludicrous. The Torah reminds us of this basic fact, which only in the case of contemporary Israel does not seem to apply. That Jews buy into this historical warping is all the more shocking. But perhaps not so surprising, given what Moses had to say about the Edomites and Moabites and Ammonites as family.

 

How often do we not hear that the Arabs and Jews are cousins, descendants of the one patriarch Abraham, and because of that fact, the current enmity that exists between them is surely a needless and passing one? Yet even long ago, when the Israelites asked for free passage through the lands of their cousins, their request met with denial and hostility, much as their request for peace today does. Even Jordan, for whom Israel continues to have a soft spot, treats Israel with contempt whenever it can. Only recently a Jordanian columnist in a leading newspaper attributed recently felt earthquakes in the region to Israeli military testing, behind which lay Israeli designs – so he claimed – to carry out attacks against the Al-Aqsa mosque and Judaize Jerusalem, echoing thereby a charge often heard from Jordan’s ruler. Yet Israel continues to place sovereignty over the Temple Mount in the hands of the Jordanian Waqf and bars Jews from visiting their holiest of places.

 

Such policy reflects a strategic thinking that is as blinkered as it is old, as old as the Torah and as blinkered as Moses’ memory in this opening parasha of Devarim. Its roots lie in a misunderstanding of the nature of tribal society, in the tendency to think that bonds of kinship will prevail over the rage that kinship society also produces. Kinship societies make alliances always fragile. Blood ties shift with attacks on clan honor. And nations that are built on those shifting sands can turn on friends on a dime and slaughter whole populations with impunity. Moses himself tells of such events in this very parasha, even as he reminds the Israelites why God would not have them go to war against Edom, Moab and Ammon; for they are family. But family can do you in, as Shimon and Levi showed their sister and Joseph’s brothers showed him. As Egypt and Jordan show Israel today, even though they have signed peace treaties with her.

 

What then are we to conclude? What Moses told his assembled flock at the end of this parasha: go up and conquer the land which I have given to you; fear not the inhabitants that dwell therein, however strong the spies forty years ago told you they were; remember all that the Lord has done for you lo these many years and remember too that He shall go with you when you go forth; therefore fear not your enemies. Excellent advice then and now. Is anybody listening? Are the Jews?

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of July 14, 2018

 

Parashat Matot-Massei

 

The Israelites are camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho when Moses instructs them in the laws about the cities of sanctuary. The Levites are not to have a tribal land for they shall help the high priests in the work of the Sanctuary. Instead they are to be given forty-eight cities and some open land around them. But the Levites are to designate six of those cities as cities of refuge where killers who commit involuntary manslaughter may flee and remain there free from the vengeance of the victim’s kinsmen. However, Moses explains, should judicial inquiry reveal that the man who fled there actually committed voluntary manslaughter then he shall be put to death and no ransom accepted for him. So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are; for blood, it polluteth the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. And thou shalt not defile the land which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the children of Israel.

 

In these few sentences we have the condensed genius of the historical innovation of ancient Israel: a law-based society, the outlaw of murder as an appropriate response to outraged passions, the rooting of the law in a power beyond individuals. And all wrapped up in the idea of holiness, as Israel shifts from a tribal society rooted in kinship to a nation founded on the hierarchy of law. The theme runs throughout the Torah and echoes in the words themselves. It starts with Noah when God blessed him and his sons after the Flood and told them: Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, you shall not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require it; and at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man. And later in Leviticus, instructing the Israelites in the injunction against eating blood, Moses says: And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth blood, I will set My face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel: No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And later again in Deuteronomy, when laying down the law of what is to be done when a corpse is found in a field, Moses explains the injunction to have the elders of the closest city wring a heifer’s neck in the nearest valley this way: And they shall speak and say: ’Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Forgive, O Lord, Thy people Israel, whom Thou hast redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of Thy people Israel.’ And the blood shall be forgiven them. So shalt thou put away the innocent blood from the midst of thee, when thou shalt do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.

 

This is the Torah’s answer to Cain, to Shimon and Levi, to Joseph’s brothers, to all who would argue that blood vengeance is an acceptable way of doing business. This is what even today distinguishes Israel from its Arab neighbors, who think nothing of using murder to dispose of people outside the tribe and clan network, not to mention outside the religion of Islam. It is also what makes Israel’s search for peace so intractable, for the conflict with its neighbors is not only one of religion, but one of society; between a society that is based on the rule of law and a society that is based on blood ties; between, as Muslim clerics have put it, a society that values life and one that glorifies death. It is the text of ancient Israel, the Holy Bible, that forbade not only child sacrifice, but murder of any kind, murder premeditated and not premeditated, allowing only that in the latter case cities of refuge be established to halt the cycle of blood. For otherwise the entire society slides into violence and lawlessness, which makes life untenable for all. Murder is therefore the great no-no. Left to human passions murder would be rampant. It takes a force outside the individual and stronger than his passions to curb it; religion or law, courts and evntually the police.  Ancient Judaism was such a civilizing force, and in that respect the Jewish religion was an historical innovation of premier importance. In that respect too we can understand the repeated command the Lord issued to the Israelites through His servant Moses to be a holy people unto Him. For what is holy? To acknowledge that the land is God’s before it is man’s and that life is His before it is ours. That way we may be humble and restrained when our passions would urge us on to violence and murder, however strong our outrage. That way we may work to make our lives sufficiently secure that we and our neighbors can go about our business in safety. It is the first step toward holiness and to becoming a holy people. It is the sine qua non in signing onto the covenant. It is also the backbone to defending it and the land without which our holiness is not complete. Then ruthlessness is justified, as Moses amply demonstrated to his wayward Jews time and time again, all the way from their exodus out of Egypt to their encampment in the plains of Moab by the banks of the Jordan.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of July 7, 2018

 

Parashat Pinchas

 

See the literary genius of the Torah; see its rhythm at work. For weeks we have read drama galore. Even last week we were treated to poetry from on high, fornication and idolatry down below, which only the zealous action of Pinchas recapitulated at the outset of this Torah reading put an end to.  There follows a new census of the children of Israel, for we are forty years on now and the old generation has died out. The census leads to a question about the laws of inheritance when the father leaves no sons, for the daughters of one Zelophechad brought their case to Moses for judgment. But once judgment was rendered the Lord spoke to Moses and told him to climb the mountain of Avarim, there to behold the land he would not enter. Moses asks the Lord to appoint a replacement, and Joshua is brought before the priest Eleazar and all the people and is so anointed. And then, as if nothing had happened since last God spoke to Moses with instructions with respect to laws and statutes and ordinances – as if the Israelites had not balked at going forth to battle and conquer the land, as if Korach and company had not revolted, as if Aaron’s rod had not blossomed, as if the congregation had not mutinied and wailed and Moses had not struck the rock instead of speaking to it, as if no plague had broken out and been stayed, as if Aaron and Miriam had not died and the carcasses of the Exodus generation had not fallen from their bones – the Lord now speaks to Moses about the sacrifices that are due Him.  And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying: Command the children of Israel and say unto them: My food which is presented unto Me for offerings made by fire, of a sweet savour unto Me, shall ye observe to offer unto Me in its due season.

 

It is, we see, business as usual, the Book of Laws sandwiched between the Book of Stories so that the reader is not overwhelmed and led to forget. For surely it is easier to remember the details of the story of Moses forbidden to enter the Promised Land than it is to retain the prescriptions for the sacrifices on the New Moon. But a society of laws is the raison d’être of the exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land. There the children of Israel are to realize the covenant established between them and the Lord and become a holy people to Him. Keeping the sacrifices in their seasons is the round the year reminder that they are to do just that. Even the words used in the Lord’s admonishment to Moses remind us of that. The food which is to be a sweet savour unto the Lord harks back to the very first sweet savour He smelled when Noah sacrificed to Him after the Flood, and the Lord subsequently vowed never to destroy every living thing again. Moreover, even in the list of sacrifices there are differences that underline the promise of keeping the covenant and the likelihood of failure. For the daily burnt offering and for the Sabbath burnt offering no sin offering is added. But for the New Moon, for Passover and Shavuot, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and for all the days of Sukkot a sin offering is added to the sacrifices that are ordained: burnt offering, meal offering, drink offering thereof.

 

We have long ago substituted prayer for sacrifice. But now that we have a state again and Jerusalem is our capital and the Temple Mount atop Jerusalem is part of our sovereignty, the option is there to rebuild the Temple and reinstitute the traditional offers to the Lord in the appointed seasons, modern technology helping in the effort. Imagine a national synagogue of the Jewish people rebuilt with chapels for all, even for the secularists who nonetheless wish to celebrate bar-mitzvahs and weddings at the Temple of their people. Imagine the smell of lamb shwarma rising to the nostrils of the celebrants while they chant and chatter as Jews have habitually done for ages in their labors of prayer. Imagine the festivals observed in their seasons with hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims going up to Jerusalem as they were commanded to do of old. Then will we know we are truly a sovereign people in our land. Then will the return to Zion be complete and the sweet savour offered to the Lord in His appointed seasons and ours will confirm the promise made not only to Noah but to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all their descendants.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 30, 2018

 

Parashat Balak

 

Parashat Balak remains one of the literary and dramatic gems of the Torah. Reading it always leaves the reader perplexed, which is proof perfect of its success in that regard. Here we have a so-called prophet, or perhaps seer, self-defined as someone reputed to be a respected spinner of parables, yet knows himself to be much less than that, perhaps a bit of a fraud or huckster. He nonetheless knows enough about his trade to consider himself a man who, though he only dimly perceives what is going on, can have his eyes opened. Did not his ass after all see what he could not?

 

After three attempts to placate the Moabite king, who summoned him to curse the Israelites in the hope such black magic would protect him from their attack, Balaam has learned that the Lord wishes only good for this people; and in his third parable waxes so eloquent about Israel’s blessed place in the eyes of the Lord that Balak is thoroughly downcast and dismisses Balaam forthwith. But Balaam does not leave before venturing forth on his own to tell the Moabite king what shall befall him at the hands of the Israelites in the course of time. Before he does so, Balaam describes himself this time as a man who not only heareth the words of God but knoweth the knowledge of the Most High, then adding his usual introduction as someone who seeth the vision of the Almighty, fallen down, yet with opened eyes. Balaam then goes on to predict that Israel shall eventually conquer its neighbors, including Moab and even its kinsman Edom, while those enemies that constantly harass it shall themselves succumb to conquest, if not by Israel then by others who themselves shall wind up being destroyed.

 

All this Balaam foresees while gazing down upon the Israelites from the top of Peor, whence he could see the Israelites camped in the wilderness below. And what are the Israelites camped in the wilderness below doing? Why fornicating with the daughters of Moab, no less. Indeed, as soon as Balaam left off prophesying and went on his way home, the Torah shifts our attention to the Israelites camped in Shittim to tell us that this people but recently blessed by Balaam began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. Not only did they go a-whoring, but the whoring led to idol worship, the Midianite and Moabite women having lured the Israelites from sex to a frenzy of feasting and bowing to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor, no less, the Torah says, reinforcing the utter contradiction between the words of Balaam uttered from the top of Peor and the behavior of the Israelites below. So great was the wild abandon of the Israelites reminiscent of the orgy of the golden calf at Sinai that the Torah even takes time to singularize the event by recounting the incident of one of the Israelites, Zimri, a prince of the house of Shimon, who flaunted his copulation with a Midianite woman, Cozbi the daughter of Zur, in front of Moses and the entire congregation. The whole episode ends badly as usual: plague, regret and wailing among the Israelites followed by a war of revenge against the Midianites, not to mention the zealous action of Pinehas, grandson of Aaron the High Priest, who chased the lascivious couple to their bedchamber and ran them both through with a spear while they were fornicating.

 

The entire scene is a double of what has preceded, the latter having gone up on top of the mountain, this orgy of transgression going on below. On top of the mountain we were treated to the story of Balaam, a seer who could not see, could not divine that the Lord really did not want him to answer Balak’s summons, even if he would wind up blessing God’s chosen people. Yet having talked himself into believing that the Lord acquiesced in his decision, Balaam winds up uttering words of praise of the Hebrew camp that have gone down in history. Down below, however, the Israelites showed once again how little they deserved that praise, they too once again blind to the good fortune with which God has favored them, turning on Him and His covenant as they so often and so recently turned on Moses.

 

What are we to make of all this? For one, the Torah drives home the importance of perspective. If you cannot see yourself and cannot see what is important and what is not, you are doomed to misery. Balaam could not see himself from where he sat in his home, a minor prophet for hire. Only when he changed position and saw the Israelites of whom he had heard from the top of the mountains of Moab could he begin to see and understand their momentous importance and learn a lesson that made him a better seer. The Israelites camped below were as blind as Balaam, fallen and not even with eyes yet opened. They had less excuse than Balaam, for they had changed places countless times. They had been in Egypt and left it. Been at the Red Sea and crossed it. Stood at the foot of Sinai and witnessed the glory of God, heard the covenant, acquiesced and broke it, and survived to tell the tale. They wandered in the desert, clamored for food and water, reneged on the deal to go up and conquer the land, yet time and time again were pardoned by Moses’ intercession with God and now found themselves in the plains of Moab by the banks of the Jordan. Yet still they do not see, a fitting reflection of the pathetic figure called appropriately to bless them. One wants to weep. And when one thinks of subsequent Jewish history one does weep. Just as one weeps when thinking of the situation contemporary Israel finds itself in it, playing with fire as firebombs set the country ablaze and only Moshe Feiglin, like a modern-day Pinehas, reminding his people what they ought to be doing instead.

 

The low-life farce of this parasha turns out to be a literary and political tour de force, a tale of pathos and perspective that is an exemplary cautionary tale about the need to see adequately in order to assume one’s proper identity. Zehut is the word for identity in Hebrew. It is also the name of Moshe Feiglin’s new political party, a name that is more than fitting in the light of this week’s parasha. For unless Israel signs on to assuming its Jewish identity and proudly so, it risks singing into the abyss of its forefathers in the desert below the mountain top of Peor.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 23, 2018

 

Parashat Chukat

 

After the Korach rebellion had been suppressed and Aaron’s position as High Priest had been confirmed, Moses settled down to teach, but the teaching was more a repeat version of what the rebellion had contested: the separation of the Levites from the rest of Israel and the division of labor between Aaron and his sons, the future priestly class, and the rest of the tribe. First dealing with the matter at hand, then fixing the outcome in statute law, a law everlasting. That done, Moses could turn his energies to new matters: the red heifer and the laws concerning death and contact with the dead, especially the rituals to be observed in order to purify yourself from contact with the dead and anything that comes in contact with it. For whoever hath come into contact with the dead and purifies not himself has defiled the tabernacle of the Lord, a phrase that drives home the point that the business of the covenant is life, that life is holiness, and holiness is reached through the observance of the law in the land promised for that. Judaism has always been a life-affirming religion, in marked contrast to the death cultures of the empires from which it spawned, a nation carved out from another in a singular historical moment.

 

Here too the laws are interwoven with the stories and their place chosen because of that. Chapter 19 deals with the laws of death and purification. Chapter 20 opens with the death of Miriam and closes with the death of Aaron. The former is tersely told. The children of Israel came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month and camped in Kadesh, and Miriam died there and there was she buried. That is all we are told. The Torah’s silence on the matter is deafening. Where would we and Moses be without Miriam, the sister who ran after the baby in the basket floated down the Nile full of reeds and saw to it that the Egyptian princess who found it and drew it from the water would ask for the foundling’s mother to nurse it? Did not Miriam close the story of the Exodus when she and her maidens raised voice and timbrel in song that followed the song of her brother once they had crossed the Red Sea of reeds and left the Egyptians drowned behind them? And even though she got on her brother’s case for marrying a Cushite woman – the Torah says it was she and Aaron, but it is clear the initiative was hers, for she and not Aaron was punished – Moses had nothing but affection for her, understanding that her meddling was part of her long-standing role as surrogate mother in his life. Indeed, the Torah tells us at the end of Behaalotcha that Moses, informed of the leprosy God had visited upon her for speaking against him, cried out to the Lord to heal her. Heal her now, O God I beseech Thee, shrieked Moses, as the Israelites themselves had shrieked to God in Egypt asking for deliverance. God relented, but had Miriam shut up without the camp for seven days. Moses, however, would not move camp until his sister was brought back into the community.

 

All this the reader knows and remembers when the news that Miriam has died is so pithily conveyed at the beginning of the second chapter of Chukat. And if we the readers know and remember, we can imagine how much more Moses remembers, remembers and grieves, even as he purifies himself. But his flock spare him little time for grief and remembering. Instead, they too gather round him and Aaron and complain once again, wailing why have you brought us to this desert to die, this place where nothing grows, neither fig nor vine nor pomegranate, and where on top of it there is no water to drink? Again Moses and Aaron fall on their faces, but this time so great is their grief they have nothing to say, not to the people and not to the Lord Who takes matters in hand. Assemble the congregation, God tells the grieving brothers, and speak to the rock that water may flow from it; and shut this people up once and for all, we are wont to add. But Moses was too overcome with grief to pay much heed. He took the rod the Lord had told him to take and before the assembled congregation struck the rock with it, his grief turned to vexation and anger that came out as: Hear ye now, ye rebels, are we to bring water for you out of this rock? For doing this, the Lord then told Moses and Aaron, you too shall not enter the Promised Land, but die in the wilderness. Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, He tells them. And the Torah ends this little story as tersely as it does the story of Miriam’s death: These are the waters of Meribah, where the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was sanctified in them. Vayikadesh in Kadesh, one might say, for they soon left that place where Miriam died. Nonetheless the phrase is strange. He was sanctified in the waters of Kadesh, the Torah says, but was He? For Moses did not sanctify Him. Instead God had to get Moses’ back, pretend all was cool though Moses had disobeyed and diminished Him. Grief does that to you, and the children of Israel, who gave Moses no quarter, as usual repaid kindness with ingratitude.

 

Although Moses had not long ago outlined for the children of Israel the laws and ordinances for death and purification, it was as if nothing had registered. No indulgence was shown him when his sister died. Only business as usual, which for the Israelites meant grumbling and complaining, dissing the whole venture to the Promised Land and clamoring to return to Egypt. Once again the Egypt complex rears its ugly head, the national backsliding this time taking its toll on the leader who would make of them a nation. One cannot help thinking how long-lasting this complex endures. Even in our day the media in Israel ceaselessly attack the sitting Prime Minister for the cheapest of reasons, a Prime Minister who does their dirty work but receives no thanks in return. Ingratitude is surely one of the worst of sins, before God, before the duly elected government, before life itself. One purifies oneself in the face of death, the Torah just told us in the opening chapter of Chukat, because above all else one is still alive and the face of man and woman should be turned toward life, not death. Miriam died, but the children of Israel were worried about survival, to which they now turned with nary a word of gratitude for Miriam to Moses and Aaron. Life without gratitude is like grief without grieving. It detracts from all that is holy, leaving God to sanctify Himself, which is no sanctification at all.

 

Toward the end of the chapter, the Israelites having moved on from Kaseh to Hor Hahar, for the Edomites refused them safe passage through their land, Aaron now dies. But this time the children of Israel allow Moses to take time to grieve. Indeed, they grieve themselves as it is said: the whole congregation saw that Aaron was dead and they wept for Aaron for thirty days, the entire house of Israel.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 16, 2018

 

Parashat Korach

 

Words count. Especially in a text over a thousand pages long, where the themes keep repeating themselves, indeed the very stories, each time with a slightly different wrinkle to hold the reader’s interest and alert him or her to the fact that here we go again. They who forget history are condemned to repeat it, said the philosopher. Repetition compulsion is almost irresistible, said the psychiatrist. The heart of man, created in the image of God, is nonetheless evil from his youth, said the Lord.

 

We will not go up, said Korach’s henchmen. We will not go up, said the spies. We will not go up, said the children of Israel at the foot of Sinai. And when Moses lost it at this repeated refusal to carry out the covenant which he had nonetheless just finished preserving, he turns to God and says: do not turn Your face to their offering on the morrow; not one ass have I taken from them, nor have I wronged any of them. Fast forward to Samuel Book One. When Samuel had anointed Saul king of Israel, and the Ammonites threatened the people of Jabesh-Gilead, and Saul mustered the men of the kingdom of Israel to combat and victory, yet were there people who questioned his authority, as it is written: And the people said unto Samuel: ‘Who is he that said: Saul shall reign over us? Bring the men, that we may put them to death.’ But Samuel remonstrated with them, reminding them that he had counseled them against having a king, but they insisted and so they had one. As for him, he asked the crowd of murmurers, ‘whose ass have I taken? Whom have I oppressed?’ And Samuel also turned to God and asked Him for a sign, in this case thunder and rain as it was the time of the wheat harvest. And the Lord sent thunder and rain as He had caused the earth to swallow up Korach and his fellow mutineers, and the people were duly chastised and feared for their lives, as the children of Israel were at the end of this terrible chapter of the Great Revolt, crying: ‘Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone.’ 

 

But Moses reassured the people as Samuel would reassure them hundreds of years later. Yes, they sinned, both Moses and Samuel admonished the children of Israel, but the Lord will not forsake them for His great name’s sake, as Samuel said, and both men continued to instruct the children of Israel and pray for them. So promised Samuel to the cowering Israelites and so did Moses once Aaron had been confirmed as High Priest when his rod blossomed. 

 

Moses had already defended them even as they revolted against him. Once when the Lord had told Aaron and Moses to separate themselves from the congregation that had gathered when Korach and his kinsmen challenged Moses’ leadership, that He may consume them all lickety-split. Whereupon Moses and Aaron fell on their faces and answered the Lord as Abraham had questioned Him hundreds of years earlier on the matter of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. O God, they asked, God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and Thou be wroth with all the congregation? We read these words and recall the words of Abraham: Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Shall not the judge of all the earth do justly? But the question of Abraham was in vain, for there was not one just man in Sodom. And the words of Moses may have stayed the wrath of the Lord, but not because the Israelites were worth redeeming, any more than Samuel’s assembled band was. They stayed the wrath of the Lord for His name’s sake, as Moses had reminded the Lord when He was bent on wiping out the congregation with the incident of the spies, and as Samuel would explain to the children of Israel as well: For the Lord will not forsake His people for His great name’s sake; because it hath pleased the Lord to make you a people unto Himself.

 

The second time Moses and Aaron took action to save the Israelite malcontents from themselves occurred right after God had disposed of Korach and all his rebels. When they saw the earth swallow them up, the children of Israel fled in fear. But no sooner had Eleazar the priest taken the brazen fire-pans of the now dead rebels and beat them into a cover for the altar which would serve as a memorial for their sin and a reminder to the children of Israel that none but Aaron and his descendants shall approach the altar, than the children of Israel again gathered against Moses and Aaron and accused them of killing the people of the Lord. This time no words would suffice to appease the Lord’s anger. He at once sent a plague. Moses told Aaron to take his fire-pan, put incense from the altar in it and hold it aloft amidst the people that the plague may be stayed. Only then, the fear of God burned into the people, did the congregation of Israel calm down and cease their complaining, though they did continue to wonder and cry aloud, after Aaron’s claim to the priesthood was vindicated: everyone who comes near the tabernacle of the Lord shall die; have we ceased to perish?

 

Moses answers them by taking up his teaching. Tell the priests and tell the Levites, the Lord now tells Moses, that I have set them apart. They shall not have a lot in the land, but the priests shall enjoy everything that pertains to the altar, all the heave offerings, the holy things reserved from the fire, the first ripe-fruits, and all that is first from the womb, in kind or redeemed. And the Levites shall receive the tithes, though a tithe of the tithe shall be set aside for the priests. This is how it will be on pain of retribution as you have just witnessed, though the Lord put it thus: Aaron and his descendants will bear the iniquity of the sanctuary and the priesthood, and the Levites will bear the iniquity of service of the tent of meeting. A strange word that, iniquity, given their office, which is to serve in the holiness of God. But once again the Torah reminds us that the covenant is no cake-walk. Its promise has just been preserved at a tremendous price, and the perennial backsliding of the Israelites does not augur well for its future. Samuel himself will be repeating Moses’ words down the centuries: Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you and instruct you; only fear the Lord and serve Him in truth with all your heart. Circumcise your hearts, Moses will tell the children of Israel in Deuteronomy. All the way to his deathbed will he tell them thus, praying and instructing on their behalf and on behalf of us their descendants. Shall we listen? Shall we go up? Shall we conquer the land and preserve it and so preserve the covenant? Shall we bear the iniquity?

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 9, 2018

 

Parashat Shelach lecha

 

We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have spoken slander, we have counseled evil. Thus the great Yom Kippur prayer when Jews beat their breasts, crying aloud their sins, one of which – slander – starts in this week’s parasha with the spies who gave false report. A land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof, was how they described the Promised Land to their fellow Israelites, and so discouraged them from going up to conquer the land. So the Jews also told Herzl when he first proposed the Jewish state as his solution to the Jewish question. And so today do Jews in the diaspora still labor under this misconception, staying put in the lands that offer them plenty in exchange for denigration of the Jewish state from football pitches to university campuses.

 

Then too, back in the desert, the Jews not only refused to go up and fight for the land; they also wanted to kill Moses, give themselves another leader and go back to Egypt, goading the Lord to fury. How long, He asked Moses, will I have to bear this evil congregation that keeps murmuring against Me? And the Lord condemned the whole congregation to forty years wandering in the desert until their carcasses fell from their bones. As for the ringleaders, the spies who brought back evil counsel, He sent a plague and dispatched them straight off to their eternal reward.

 

Moses is surely crestfallen, but he shoulders his burden once again after sweet talking the Lord out of His desire to dispatch the entire lot of Israelites and start anew with him. And taking up his burden he takes up his teaching. When you come into the land of your habitations, he tells the people who are never going to get there, these are the ordinances of the offerings you shall bring in fulfillment of a vow as a sweet savour to the Lord. How ironic is this teaching, not only because he is talking to people condemned to die in the desert, but also because he is talking about the fulfillment of a vow when the children of Israel have just broken theirs. Surely this is how the Torah, without saying a word of commentary, turns the story into saving grace, takes an ordinance about sacrifice and turns it into a vow that God’s favor shall never perish from the face of his beloved Israelites, no matter how great their betrayals, all of Moses’ warnings to come in Deuteronomy notwithstanding. Indeed, Moses then goes on to detail the burnt-offerings that shall be brought when either the entire congregation or one member among them shall err unknowingly. The home-born or the stranger, it makes no difference; one law for all, even unto the entire congregation. And with the offering the congregation shall be forgiven. Atonement shall be dispensed, as we hope for on Yom Kippur when we say, forgive us our sins done knowingly and unknowingly. But he that errs willingly and knowingly, the Lord has Moses tell the children of Israel, his soul shall be cut off from among his people.

 

There follows the terrible story of a man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath. When the people found him they brought him before Moses, who had him put in a ward until he consulted the Lord over what to do with him. And the Lord told Moses the man shall be put to death and all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp. And so it was. The congregation brought the man outside the camp and stoned him to death. The reader reads this story and is horrified. Who among us has at some point or other not observed the Sabbath as halachic law has ordained? Is stoning to be our punishment? Is every man, possibly every man and woman and child among the Jewish community to gather and raise a stone to lob it against us? Do not the people who would run down the Torah and downplay the sacred tie of the Jews to Israel jump on this story to argue the retrograde character of all religion, making Judaism and the Jewish state morally equivalent to Israel’s enemies?

 

But however horrific this story, which Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery rewrites two thousand years later, its place in the saga of the Five Books of Moses speaks loudly as a cautionary tale, just as Shirley Jackson’s story does. But the cautionary tale is not what it seems. It is not that an individual Hebrew erred on the Sabbath and should be stoned to death. It is that this story follows on the heels of the entire congregation’s great betrayal of their covenant with God and then again on the teachings of Moses about sacrifice and atonement. Moses outlines three cases: transgression by individuals, transgression by the nation, in each case unknowingly, and transgression by individuals knowingly. But what about knowing transgression by the entire nation? It would seem there is no atonement for that, only retribution. As with the spies, when God sent a plague and condemned the rest to a slow death in the desert. Evil, true evil, is not what is done individually by people dealing with their desires and causing harm, but what is done by entire societies. Yes, people can cause real trouble, but evil unleashed on the world comes from the apex, from socially organized power, even from socially organized religion when turned into an instrument of coercion. Perhaps that is why the rabbis, so Jewish tradition had it, never pronounced a sentence of stoning. Excommunication or its threat sufficed. In the case of the spies, moreover, that is exactly what happened. Communal transgression led to national betrayal with calamitous consequences for the Jews, perpetuating once again the singular transgression at Sinai and weaving it into Jewish political DNA that haunts us to this day. The measure of this transgression can be seen in the fury of the Lord’s reaction.

 

How unfortunate then that this poor man gathering sticks on the Sabbath should have done it right in the wake of that episode with the spies. Here God had just dealt harshly with the transgressors. Then He had Moses explain the laws of sacrifice and atonement for the fulfillment of vows and sins committed in error, adding the ambiguous phrase for those who sinned knowingly; and their souls shall be cut off from among their people. And this man whose name remains forever a mystery, this no man who is also every man, gets caught by the Israelites breaking the Sabbath’s rules and dragged before Moses. It is as if the people are running to curry favor with Moses, saying: see, we sinned against God refusing to go up and conquer the land, we sinned again by fighting the Amalekites without His consent, but finally we have learned our lesson and shall be vigilant in heeding God’s rules. Here is a man we have found who has broken the Sabbath. And God Who has done everything to try and impress upon His people the importance of keeping the covenant has no choice but to condemn the man as He had spoken. And Moses, who challenged God twice when He had wanted to destroy all of Israel, does not raise his voice against the death sentence either. But God does not let the people off so easily. If you want to cut off the man’s soul, He lets them know, you will have to do it yourselves. I am not sending plague or fire. And so the people have to drag the man outside the camp, gather stones, raise them and hurl them, one by one, and kill him. One can only imagine their reaction, for it is not easy to kill someone like that. They must have felt disgust and loathing, then shame, then terrible regret. They must have then had some inkling of the terrible nature of their own transgression when they slandered the land and their leaders. There was no sacrifice to bring to atone for their horrible deed, only this story written down as a reminder of what not to do and of how national transgression can unleash evil onto the world, swallowing everyone up, even the innocent.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of June 2, 2018

 

Parashat Behaalotcha

 

This parasha starts with the words to Aaron: when thou lightest the lamps. It goes on to describe how the Israelites were to move when they broke camp and set forth on their journey, and ends that part of the story saying: And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said: ‘Rise up, O Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee.’ And when it rested, he said: ‘Return, O Lord, unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel.’ But immediately thereafter the story recounts how the children of Israel set to wailing once again. First, we are told, there was but murmuring, evil spoken in the ear of the Lord that drew forth his ire, and flames devoured the outer reaches of the camp, suggesting the grumbling was limited to a small section and promptly wiped out. But quickly thereafter the embers of revolt gathered in strength. For in the very next sentence we are told that the mixed multitude fell a lusting and the children of Israel were only too quick to join them. And so begins the terrible tale of the kivrot hataavah, of the graves of lusting.

 

The mixed multitude are a red herring. The self-righteous would blame them for everything retrograde in the behaviour of the Israelites once they left Egypt: the murmuring, the vacillation, the longing to return, even the monumental transgression of the golden calf. But the fact remains that the Israelites willingly joined in, and as my father used to tell us as children, if someone told you to jump off a bridge into the river, would you do it? No, we are all to blame for the good and the evil we do in life, and especially for the evil, knowingly and even unknowingly. And in the case of the Israelites, the murmuring was so constant and persistent it is difficult to blame it on anybody else. By the time of Korach’s rebellion two parashot hence, we shall see that the murmuring had become full-fledged and was home-grown indeed. The incident of the graves of lusting is but the prelude.

But what a prelude! And how wonderfully is the story told, the prototype for every dispute between children and parents ever since! The Israelites start the ball rolling with the exaggeration typical of children who are frustrated and angry. The issue at hand is the manna, with which they are fed up, having eaten it day and night for over a year now. But they do not limit themselves simply to that complaint. No, they jack up the stakes, turning Egypt into a veritable delicatessen, a land of plenty where they could get anything they wanted: cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic. They even remember the fish they could eat for nothing. Their outrageous statements are a far cry from the plight we read about in both the Torah and the Haggadah, where the Israelites were sorely tasked, their sons thrown into the river, their quotas doubled and tripled so that they cried to God to deliver them from their affliction. Free fish? Hardly. But what will children not say once they are on a roll of anger and rebellion? And of course they did have a point, for the Torah takes time out to tell us how the Israelites collected and prepared the manna, ending with the phrase: and the taste of it was as the taste of a cake baked with oil. The reader is invited to sympathize. Would you like to eat that as your only food day in and day out for a year? But the Torah’s overarching story also reminds the reader that the Jews had been wanting to return to Egypt as soon as they had left. How quickly we forget, once freed, how miserable our lives had been! How short is our memory, how quick our ingratitude, not only in politics!

 

And so what happens? The anger of the Lord was kindled, we are told, but it was Moses who was displeased and bust a gut. Moses heard the people weeping and turned on the Lord. How can you deal so ill with me? he asks God. What have I done wrong that You burden me with this bunch of ingrates? Was it my idea to have taken them out of Egypt? Like one spouse at his or her wits’ end talking to another, he too exaggerates, for all this complaining starts to become contagious. Did I conceive this people, he asks the Lord? Did I bring them out of Egypt so that You should tell me: carry them in my bosom, as a nursing-father carrieth the sucking child, unto the land which Thou didst swear unto their fathers? Whose idea was this to have these kids? the reader can hear Moses wailing to God like one parent to another, knowing full well that the idea was God’s, having read what transpired at the burning bush and remembering how Moses balked at God’s summons. But that too is a red herring every bit as much as the mixed multitude, for Moses signed on to the task and had his reasons for doing so. Nonetheless, one hears in his lament to God the exasperation of every parent at one point or another. Why did I have these kids? Why did I ever listen to you and agree to have another child? Even this one is more than a handful! So out of his tree is Moses that he tells the Lord he is no longer able to bear this people. Meat they want, and where do you think I am going to find meat for them all? They are driving me crazy and I am exhausted. If this is how You are going to deal with me, do me a favor and kill me right now; You will be doing me a favor. And Moses ends almost in tears, if not in tears themselves, when he says: and let me not look upon my wretchedness.

 

The reader is totally sympathetic, and so is God, the co-parent in this situation. And God, like the reader, responds with suggestions to lighten Moses’ load and take some of the pressure off him. Which ought to be a reminder to us that when parents are at their wits’ end, it does little good to start blaming them. What they need is to vent and feel the listener is on their side, even when the listener is the spouse. God as therapist, no less! And so God tells Moses to gather seventy men who have the confidence of the people, elders and officers, and He will come down and take some of the spirit which is upon Moses and put it upon them, that they may share his burden dealing with the people. What does the contemporary phrase say: it takes a village to raise a child? Imagine an entire nation! As for the people themselves, the Lord has other plans. If they want meat, He tells Moses, they shall have meat, for they have wept in the ears of the Lord – the phrase He uses is the same the Torah describes at the outset of this chapter: and the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the Lord – and what is worse, as far as God is concerned, is that they compounded their complaint, which might be understandable, with the lie that it was well with them in Egypt. Now it is God’s turn to be out of His tree. And once again we see the dynamic between children and parents spiralling out of control, which ought to be a lesson for children as well as parents not to exaggerate and push things too far.

 

Meat they want and meat they shall have, said the Lord, and not for one day or five or ten, but for a whole month, until literally it comes out of their ears, thought the phrase in the Torah is at your nostrils. And again the Lord explains why: because they wept and rejected Him saying: why did we come forth out of Egypt? The phrase is like a dagger through God’s heart, much like the phrase a child hurls at his parent: ‘why was I born? I did not choose that; you did.’ Even the Lord, it seems, has limits to His infinite mercy, and perhaps it is a good thing He does, or human beings would think they can get away with anything.

 

Moses now comforted turns to the Lord in wonder. I have six hundred thousand souls on my hand, he tells God. How on earth will I feed them for a day, let alone a whole month? But the Torah puts it poetically as usual: If flocks and herds be slain for them, will they suffice them? Or if all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, will they suffice them? And the Lord answers equally poetically: Is the Lord’s hand waxed short? What the Lord promised then transpired. Seventy elders gathered at the Tent of Meeting. The Lord descended and took of the spirit that was upon Moses and shared it with them. Then the Lord sent forth a wind and brought quails from the sea which He let fall upon the Israelite camp. There was so much quail that he that gathered the least gathered ten heaps of quail. But while the flesh was yet between their teeth and ere it was chewed, the Torah tells us, the people were stricken with a plague and many people died, hence the name the graves of lusting. And the Israelites buried the dead, so the chapter ends, and journeyed unto Hazeroth, where they abode for a while, where more trouble awaited Moses and more food for thought awaits the reader.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 26, 2018

 

Parashat Naso

 

In this numbering of the Levite clans and their duties, and in the numbering of the princes of the twelves tribes and their offerings for the dedication of the altar, one other category is also mentioned – the Nazirite – and the laws governing his conduct are elaborated. The Nazirite is a man who vows to consecrate himself to the Lord. He is part of the community and yet apart, distinct in that he has decided for a certain period of his life, perhaps even for his entire life, to devote himself to the service of the Lord in one form or another.

 

There are three rules governing a Nazirite’s conduct. He shall abstain from wine and strong drink. He shall let his hair grow and not take a razor to his locks. He shall not come into contact with the dead, not even when they are members of his own family. If by chance the latter happens he shall shave his head for seven days, and on the eighth bring two turtle doves or two young pigeons to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting as a sin-offering and a burnt-offering to atone for his defilement.  He may then renew his vow, but the preceding times do not count toward its fulfillment, for his consecration had been defiled. Moreover, when his term as a Nazirite has reached its end, he must also bring offerings to the Lord – burnt, sin and peace offerings – and then shave his head, the shorn hair subsequently placed under the sacrifice of the peace offerings. After that the priest shall take the shoulder of the ram brought for the peace offering, together with the unleavened cake and wafer, and put them upon the hands of the Nazirite. Then the priest shall wave them for a wave offering before the Lord and the Nazirite shall be released from his vow.

 

The most famous Nazirite in the Bible is Samson. But he himself did not utter his vow; his mother did it for him. And she did it because, it is said in Judges, an angel appeared to her and told her that though she was barren, she shall conceive, and when she does, her son shall be consecrated as a Nazirite unto God from the womb. Samson’s story was echoed in that of Samuel, the most famous judge in ancient Israel. His mother too was barren, but she prayed to the Lord when, accompanying her husband every year, she went up to the sanctuary in Shiloh. There she poured her heart out to God and promised Him that if He gave her a child, she would give him to the Lord all the days of his life. So bitterly did she cry unto God the priest thought she was drunk. Hannah answered him that she had drunk neither wine nor strong drink. Out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken, she told him, and the priest blessed her, hoping God would grant her wish. Hannah returned home and did conceive, and when her son was weaned she brought him to the house of the Lord and told the priest who had wished her well that she was keeping her promise. As long as he lives, she told the priest Eli, he shall be devoted to the Lord. And so he was, ruling Israel nearly all the days of his life, and saving them from the Philistines as Samson had done before him, though their means of doing so differed; and unlike Samson, Samuel’s locks, as far as we know, were never cut from his consecrated head.

 

But serving the Lord did not prove easy, not for Samson and not for Samuel. One may explain that in part by the fact that neither of them took the oath of the Nazirite. Their consecration to the Lord was the work of their mothers, who gave them in service to God in exchange for God’s blessing them with a child. Whereas in this parasha the text clearly starts off by saying: when either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to consecrate himself unto the Lord… Can a parent decide thus for a child when still in the womb? Is not dedicating oneself to the Lord, for a lifetime or even part of a lifetime, such a serious endeavour it ought only to be undertaken by the person who has to fulfill the vow? Or do not the stories of Samson and Samuel rather indicate how difficult consecrating oneself to God turns out to be, even with the best of intentions and even with the power of parental authority and maternal love and encouragement behind one? Not for nothing are the regulations that govern such decisions detailed in this parasha so strict, even if they appear simple. A Nazirite does not comport himself as others do. He does not give himself up to the simple pleasures of other men. He may not commiserate with the bereft as others are free to do in times of sorrow. He stands apart from the ordinary fellowship by his distinctive hairstyle. And if for some reason he succumbs, intentionally or not, to transgression, his vow is annulled and he must atone for it, even start all over again if he so wishes, as if all his previous sacrifice were in vain. 

 

Samson succumbed to his sexual desire for Delilah. Samuel succumbed to his desire to have his sons succeed him in the judgeship. And we too, each time we resolve to follow in the ways of the Lord, find we fail in our resolution, waylaid by the promptings of the heart that catch us awares and unawares. For it is difficult to devote oneself to the Lord and to follow in His ways. It is difficult to surmount the passions and dedicate oneself to a path we know in our minds to be of use and worth to others, albeit at the cost of our simple pleasures. It is difficult to rid ourselves of the well-worn shibboleths and stake out a position that goes against the grain, even if it keeps us holy. Look at the Jews, who have had trouble keeping to the covenant ever since they danced around the molten calf at Sinai; who even then opted for a two-state solution. And they are not alone, as God knows. As Spinoza knew. As we know when we bring our offerings of atonement over and over throughout a lifetime; and no one more than the Nazirite of sorts who would launch his or her compatriots on a path that demands the courage to sacrifice, freely, openly, with good cheer. A man like Moses, no less. 

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 19, 2018

 

Parashat Bemidbar

 

The teaching of the laws of Sinai had, for now, been concluded, so the Lord set Moses about some practical tasks, like numbering the males twenty years and older who were able to go to war, then organizing them by tribes in camp formation. But not the Levites, God told Moses, for they are Mine. Indeed, God explains, all the first-born of Israel are Mine, because as soon as I smote the first-born of Egypt, both man and beast, all the first-born of Israel became Mine. Mine they shall be; I am the Lord, He told Moses. Simple as that.

 

There was of course organizational method to this commandment to keep the Levites apart, for they were to serve Aaron and his priests in the work of the Sanctuary. As we shall see, moving upwards of six hundred thousand people and keeping them safe was no easy task, but neither was moving the Sanctuary with all its furniture, vessels and accoutrements. Reserving the Levites for this work which far exceeded what the priests could do on their own was therefore an astute move. But it was also more than that, for it reminded the entire body of the Hebrew nation in waiting what lay at its heart: holiness carved out of difference and holiness that sanctified it. Yes, there was the people, but within them the tribes organized for military formation, and within them the priestly class organized for temple service, separated out from the Levite tribe which assisted them. Thus was the difference with which God started the universe rolling reproduced in the social organization of the ancient Hebrews. And in case they missed the point, the Lord drove it home by reminding them that in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt, He once again was creating difference: one nation plucked out from amidst another to set history rolling in another direction. To drive the point home even further and more sharply, God reserved the Levites for Himself to remind the Israelites of that seminal moment, the Levites being but the stand-in for all the first-born Israelite males.

 

For all the-first born are Mine, the text says. And indeed they are, for the Lord has Moses number both the first-born of the Levites and the first-born of the entire congregation of Israel. It turns out there are two hundred and seventy-three more first-born Israelites than first-born Levites. Which means even while reserving the first-born of the Levites for service to the Lord, their number did not suffice to redeem all the first-born of the Israelites. Therefore, the Lord told Moses, you will have to collect a tax from the entire congregation amounting to five shekel a head for the first-born of the Israelites above and beyond the first-born of the Levites and bring it to Aaron and his sons. Redemption money, it was called, ensuring symbolically that every first-born male of the Israelites was counted as belonging to the Lord. And ensuring thereby that every Israelite family would remember that the Lord was their God Who brought them out of Egypt to be His people.

 

So successful was this policy innovation that it has lasted to this very day in the ritual of pidyon haben, the redemption of the first-born boy, with which Jews even in our time mark the arrival of their first-born son. It is a shame the Temple no longer exists and the Israeli government is reluctant to rebuild it. Were it standing, the Jews world over could give their five shekels to the Temple to mark the occasion instead of funneling the money to the charity of their choice. That way the Jews would once again be consecrating not only the birth of their sons, but also the birth of their nation, reminding themselves and reminding God that they are indeed His and celebrating the purpose for which long ago He brought them out of Egypt. 

 

Looked at from the other end, the ritual of pidyon haben, of redemption of the son, stands in our day as a reminder that we ought to rebuild the Temple; that it is a national disgrace that the holiest site in Judaism is given over to the Muslims who seek our destruction, those same Muslims who refuse us the right to ascend the Temple Mount and pray there while the Jewish government aids and abets them in their intolerance. Indeed, the obligation to redeem the first-born son reminds us of our obligation to assert our national sovereignty, to make Jerusalem the true and sole capital of Israel; and how can that be done if the Jewish Temple does not shine forth from its heart as the Sanctuary stood at the centre of the Israelite camp in the wilderness? Thus do the words of the Torah uttered so long ago in the desert still resound. For you are Mine, the Lord said. It is now up to us to see if we want to be counted and redeem the nation as the first-born were redeemed by the Lord.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 12, 2018

 

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

 

Ah, the curses! Who cannot fail to love them? Certainly Shakespeare did, for he used them as his palimpsest for the curses the dowager Queen Margaret spews forth on Richard the Third in the play of that name, showing once again how the Hebrew Bible has long served as the template of western literature.

 

If you walk in My statutes, the parasha begins, if you keep My commandments and do them, then will I give you rains in their seasons, the land shall be fruitful and you shall live there in peace and unafraid. But if you reject My statutes and follow not My commandments, then I shall do this unto you, the Lord proclaims to the children of Israel through his trusted servant Moses; and there follows a string of curses which takes away our breath but commands our literary admiration. 

 

For what does God say? I shall appoint terror over you, consumption and fever that will make your eyes fail and your soul languish. You will sow seed in vain for your enemies will eat it. Your enemies will dominate you and you will flee when none pursue you. Your heaven will be iron, your earth brass, and the land shall not yield her fruit. I will send the beasts of the field among you that shall rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you few in number. I will send the sword and pestilence against you and break the staff of your bread. Ten women shall bake bread in one oven and yet you shall go hungry. In short, your ways shall become desolate. And if none of the above suffice to get you to change your ways I will chastise you even more, seven times more for your sins. You will eat the flesh of your sons and daughters. I will destroy your idol-worshipping sanctuaries and cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of those same idols, for of course you will have broken your covenant with Me in that way which I find abhorrent. My souls shall abhor you, God forewarns. I will make your cities waste and bring the land into desolation and scatter you among the nations. Then finally shall the land know the sabbath which you denied it. While for the remnant of you that shall live in exile, terror shall fill your lives. Faint of heart will they be in the lands of their enemies. The sound of a leaf shall chase them and they shall flee when none pursueth. And they shall perish in the land of their enemies, while those that remain shall pine away in their iniquities and in the iniquities of their fathers.

 

But then perchance, God dangles the out before them, they may come to confess their iniquities and regret their treachery that caused me to walk contrary to them as they walked contrary to Me, and perchance their uncircumcised heart will be humbled as they undergo their punishment. Then shall I remember My covenant with Jacob and with Isaac and even with Abraham, and so I shall remember the land, and so in the land of their enemies I shall not reject them entirely, nor will I abhor them to destroy them utterly and break My covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God Who brought them out of Egypt; and for their sakes I shall remember the covenant with their ancestors.

 

And so it came to pass and so it was, over and over in Jewish history down to our day. For who can read these curses and not think of all the calamities that have befallen our people, and yet a remnant has always survived and eventually returned to the land, the land which God always remembers and has given in perpetuity to His people that they may become a nation, a holy nation, for which He brought them out of Egypt. And so at the end of time as in the beginning, God remembers His covenant as He told Moses when He revealed Himself to him at the burning bush before the great Exodus had occurred which was to fashion this nation and seal the covenant which would found it.

 

But not only God remembers; His people do too. They remember it in spite of all their backsliding, in spite of their double dealing that started at Sinai and continues to this day as they balk at signing on to being a nation, preferring to remain a tribe whose members delude themselves into thinking that alone will suffice to grant them respite and peace; yea even in the lands of their enemies. And the people remember, however small in number, because the Torah is handed down from one generation to the next where the next generation of Jews can read over and over the warnings and prophecies of Bechukotai that have come to pass and decide if they will now put an end to the waywardness of their people. Herzl remembered and discovered the Torah he had never learned in his youth. The Zionists remembered and returned to the land, worked it, cherished it, and reclaimed it as a Jewish state. And now today their descendants are faced with the same question that God posed to their forefathers in this parasha: will you walk in the ways of the Lord and adhere to the covenant or will you walk contrary to the Lord and lose the land yet again? Will you finally live up to that covenant at Sinai which made of the Jews a nation and the land of Israel the place where that nation will assume and defend its sovereignty – that covenant which has inspired so many other nations and so many other peoples and so many other literatures to cherish what is good and decent and lovely in the eyes of the law, and of God, and of the men and women created in His image?

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of May 5, 2018

 

Parashat Emor

 

Speak, the Lord says to Moses, speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron and tell them the host of injunctions they need to respect in order to maintain their holiness. And the Lord goes through the list: no contact with the dead, no cutting of their flesh, no marriage with other than virgins. Nor shall a priest who officiates before the Lord be blemished physically in any manner. Nor shall he be unclean in any manner proscribed by statute. Furthermore, care must be taken when giving of the holy food to members of his household: no common man, no daughter married to a common man, no stranger, no tenant, no hired servant may eat thereof. And when an Israelite brings a freewill offering to the Temple the animal too shall be free of any blemish. And you shall take care to eat the sacrifice within the prescribed time. There is more, of course, for there is always more, God being in the details. But always the same reasoning and justification: because I am the Lord, your Lord, Who brought you out of Egypt, Who hallowed you and continue to hallow you. And so you shall hallow Me.

 

And when God is finished with His instructions to the priests He proceeds to tell Moses to address the children of Israel and instruct them in the proper conduct of the festivals they are to observe. He starts with the Sabbath. Six days shall you work, but the seventh day is a day of solemn rest, a holy day unto the Lord. From there God goes on to list the major festivals with their rules and rituals: Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and then Sukkot, all appointed seasons of the Lord, holy convocations shall you proclaim them. And why, the reader may ask? At the end comes the answer, for Sukkot as for all the holidays, which are holidays because they are holy days: that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. And Moses, the Torah tells us, declared unto the children of Israel the appointed seasons of the Lord.

 

Here is the Jewish people wrapped up in a phrase. Moses declared unto the children of Israel the appointed seasons of the Lord and ever since then we have been observing them. Jews brought sacrifices to the Temple of old. When the last Temple was destroyed Jews observed the holy days in prayer, fasting and feasting. Down the generations they observed them, and their observance kept them holy, kept them a people, kept their purpose. Even today, even in the breach they observe them, lighting candles on Shabbat, blessing the wine and the bread, resting on the Sabbath if they do not do the above, sinning on the Sabbath when they see other Jews who keep it. And so it is with the other holy days, gathering around the Seder table at Passover, studying on the night of Shavuot, building booths at Sukkot or seeing the booths of neighbors and longing to sit in one, bless the wine in one, eat some cake in one. On the New Year they listen to the blowing of the shofar. On Yom Kippur they wish each other a good fast, even when they do not fast. For there are always Jews who observe the holidays to keep the other Jews holy, as the priests were obliged to a higher degree of holiness that the children of Israel may remain holy. And thus are we all bound up in the glory of the Lord everlasting. Thus do we maintain our peoplehood until once again we are gathered into our homeland, the Jewish state.

 

How silly then it is to argue about whether Israel is and should be a Jewish state. It is the Jewish state, the only one, and the religious observances which have bound the Jewish people for thousands of years are part and parcel of that state. Which is why any Jew who visits Israel on Shabbat comes quickly to understand how the entire country is also one big synagogue, a holy land enjoining holiness on those who walk it as one day long ago the patriarch Abraham once walked it. Secular or religious, strictly or loosely observant, a Jew in the Jewish land feels it, senses it, rejoices in it, bows his or her head in wonderment at how the appointed seasons of the Lord, which Moses long ago declared unto the people of Israel, have sustained us to this day.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of April 28, 2018

 

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

 

After the death of Aaron’s two sons, this parasha starts, the Lord spoke unto Moses and had him speak to Aaron with instructions about the yearly sacrifices of atonement for the entire congregation of Israel. But the Lord had already spoken to Moses at length since Aaron’s two sons had died, all about prescriptions he had to impart to Aaron about his role as physician as well as priest. No mention was made during the preceding two parashot of the death of Aaron’s two sons, but now suddenly they are recalled again. And what does the Torah say of them now? Not that they burned improper incense in a pan, but that they drew near before the Lord and died. Which allows Moses to segue into the time Aaron is permitted to draw near to the Lord. Not every day, Aaron is told, for the Lord appears in the cloud above the ark-cover. Only on the holiest of days is Aaron to come into the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark. And then follow the instructions for the sacrifices Aaron is to carry out on his behalf and on behalf of the children of Israel. Otherwise he is to keep his distance, that he die not from too close contact with the Lord.

 

Once again we see the importance of knowing one’s place. One wants to come close to the Lord, feel His presence, know that He walks among us. That way we too can say we walk with God. But walking with God is not the same as sharing His place. What God sees from His vantage point about us is precisely what we cannot see about us from ours. If we could, we would have no need of Him. That difference resounds in the first story of Genesis, when God ambled through the Garden of Eden looking for Adam after he and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. Where are you? God asked Adam. And Adam replied he was hiding because he was afraid. Of course, he was afraid, not only because he had transgressed, but because in transgressing he caught a glimpse of what God sees when He looks about upon the world. He had come closer to God and in the process gained knowledge that overwhelmed him. What did Stephen Hawking call mastering string theory, if not getting to understand the mind of God? Of course, Stephen Hawking meant by that understanding how the universe works, for he clearly misunderstood to the day he died the mind of God when it came to the existence of the State of Israel. His comment however, does shed some light on what drawing closer to God means. 

 

God is the place we cannot occupy. That is why His Place is called The Place, Hamakom. But as we draw near to Him we begin to see the need for a place we cannot occupy. As we draw near, we see the importance of difference, of the immeasurable gap between us and Him, but also of the need to be aware that when we observe ourselves and our conduct, we need to remember the point from which we observe. For from our observations come judgments, and from judgments decisions about what to do. Many people besides Stephen Hawking make judgments about Israel that are totally erroneous. They look at Israel’s predicament and make judgments about Israel and her neighbors that have nothing to do with what is going on in the Middle East, but everything to do with the way they think the world works, seen from the narcissism of their living rooms and studies in the western world. This leads to disastrous policies that can even be described as evil. Stephen Hawking, after all, boycotted an academic conference in Israel to support the Palestinian thugs in Judea and Samaria. He was doing what so many other otherwise intelligent people do: rooting for the underdog in his knee-jerk reaction on behalf of the seeming oppressed as described by his colleagues, so he said. The good academics of Cambridge, like the leaders of the western world, are clueless about the Muslim world, let alone the Jewish world, yet offer us a storyline to dictate how we should view it that is rooted in their own take on the world they cannot get beyond. It is a view that owes its overall framework to a picture that is now so outdated it is laughable, a cross between Downton Abbey and Karl Marx, however much they would protest it is not so. And so they wind up denigrating the only democracy in the Middle East, decry the deaths of hoodlums from Gaza who marched on Israel to attack the Jewish state with genocidal demands, molotov cocktail kites, and burning tires to use as smokescreens for infiltration into the country. The same western voices, along of course with their Palestinian proteges, were silent when it came to the Syrian regime and its allies’ massacre of thousands of Palestinians in their refugee camps. Of course they were silent, because, as my favorite sociologist Niklas Luhmann used to say, you can only see what you can see.

 

And so we come back to the importance of place, which entails knowing from whence you see. Aaron was not allowed to see what God sees, but he was allowed to get close enough to understand what God sees is not what he sees every day, and therefore ought to pay attention to what God says. It might, in fact, prove beneficial. Certainly, it is worth considering. And so every day Aaron got to get close to God, but not too close; got to sacrifice the daily offerings and meditate on their significance, but did not get burned in the process. We too learn this lesson from worship. Aaron does for the people what God does for Aaron. Sacrifice, prayer, becomes a meditation on the importance of difference, a reflection on the perspective from which you observe the world, and an understanding that one can even observe the different takes on things different actors have without assuming they are equivalent. There is no observational or moral equivalency between Israelis and Palestinians, the Jewish and Muslim worlds, certainly not when it comes to Israel’s survival, let alone legitimacy. Choosing wrongly leads to sin and death. But people choose wrongly all the time and do not know it.

 

Enter the Day of Atonement. Enter the two goats who are brought to the holy place where atonement is made for the sins not only of Aaron, who daily comes close to God, but also of the entire nation of Israel. Their sins may not even be known, but given the tendency of humans to overstep their boundaries, to dig in where they should be more ready to observe and change their minds, it is safe to say that sins have been committed. In the case of Israel, all those American Jews who voted twice for Obama and once for Clinton even as the two of them threw Israel under a bus and all those Israeli Jews who still delude themselves into thinking they are the cause of Palestinian anger are Jews who have committed the sin of faulty observation. Of confusing places that should not be confused. Of allowing a situation to continue where every year Jews mourn more Jews who died simply because they lived in the Jewish state. And so, it is written in the Torah, after all the sacrifices have been made, Aaron is to take the second goat, chosen by lot, and send it into the wilderness. Before he does so, however, he shall place his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over him all the sins of the children of Israel. Then the goat shall be sent away to a land that is cut off from where the Israelites live, bearing their sins with him, taking them away from that place which they had so much trouble seeing and enjoying as they ought to, as the Lord had warned them of time and time again throughout the Torah. With the goat goes the hope that last year’s mistakes will not be repeated. That Israelis will stop trying to bring the perspective of Gaza into their own land. And that people the world over will see the two perspectives are neither disagreements among pre-schoolers, nor the antinomies of oppressor and oppressed. But atonement is not enough without the attempt to change, and change only starts by drawing nearer to God.

 

It is worth getting closer to God if only to see what we cannot see. It is worth getting closer to Him in order to understand why He commands us to do what He does. Holiness is not our domain, but the domain of the Lord. In Kedoshim He commands us to be holy. In Acharei Mot He provides for our failure to do so. 

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of April 21, 2018

 

Parashat Tazria-Metzora

 

This double parasha is startling when you think of it. Nothing short of a medical treatise written in the middle of the Sinai desert, as if this was what the ancient Hebrews needed most. But it was, for even in the desert people get sick, contagion can run rampant, and one must know what to do. How prescient then the Torah is to explain the courses of treatment for different lesions and issues to which the body may suddenly give rise. And how wise to combine the power to diagnose illness with the power to heal the spirit in the person of the High Priest. For those who argue that to heal the body without healing the spirit is counter-productive, they would find willing agreement in these two parashot. And by interweaving medical prescription with ritual office the Torah ensured that for generations Jews would gravitate to the medical profession, an art and science that is as close to holiness as it gets. One might even assert that the notorious Jewish preoccupation with health and illness – Jews, after all, must have been the inventors of the second opinion – has its roots here in the Torah. If it is good enough for the High Priest, it is good enough for me, every Jew must reason, though it never hurts to get one more consultation.

 

Today we have that luxury. The Hebrews in the desert did not. Their journey was fraught with danger. Attack from without was always a threat. Grumbling from within was always possible. And disease could strike at any time. So once the priests were consecrated and their ritual duties carried out, Moses went on to assign them those of medical diagnostician and practitioner. For those who think there is too much ritual in the Book of Leviticus, they might give pause to the thought that it was not only sacrifices that required detail; so did medical ailments and prescriptions. Thus is there a line running through the last few chapters – laws of sacrifice, dietary laws of kashrut, laws of the body’s waywardness. And so even here, in Tazria and Metzora, there is preoccupation with difference: the difference between the holy and the profane, between the clean and unclean, between the healthy and the sick, reminding us once again how difference is so intimately related to function, enabling us to distinguish between what works and what does not, if only we have the eyes and the mind and the heart to see. The Torah, in its frankness, shows itself once again to be devoid of moralism and cant. It would be good if we could do as well.

 

And yet at the very beginning of this double parasha we read of the different prescriptions for women who give birth, depending on the sex of the child. If she gives birth to a boy, she is unclean for the first seven days following childbirth, and then shall continue in her purification rites for three and thirty days, unable during that time to come into contact with any hallowed thing or enter the sanctuary. If she gives birth to a girl, however, she is considered unclean for the first two weeks following childbirth and continues in her purification rights for sixty-six days, double the number of days in the case of a son. In either case, when her days of purification are fulfilled, she is to bring a burnt offering and a sin-offering to the priest, who will make atonement for her. Right away questions leap from the page. Why is a woman considered unclean for giving birth? It is not a sickness. Why must she make atonement after a waiting period of thirty-three or sixty-six days? Giving birth is neither a sin, nor a transgression. And why should the purification period be different according to the sex of the child?

 

There are no easy or ready answers to these questions. It may be that childbirth was considered such a risky business that imperilled the life of the mother – after all, so many women died from childbirth before the advent of modern surgical and medical knowledge – that it was necessary to ensure a woman rested up and restored her strength afterwards. Hence the proscribed extensive waiting period, where women were not to return at once to their daily rounds. Nothing short of declaring them unclean would enforce that rule. But all that is conjecture, and legitimation after the fact. The fact remains that she is considered impure, unclean, simply for bearing a child, and the length of time she is so considered varies with the sex of the child. On the face of it these laws make no sense. On the face of it, but below the surface much is stirring. The trauma of recent Pharaonic Egypt is still very much in the minds of the Israelites, where boys were ordered strangled and thrown into the river. Boys, it is generally accepted, are more fragile than girls. They may have more brawn, but for the rest they are usually outclassed at almost every stage of development. Sons need their mothers even more than daughters do, though the bonds between mothers and sons are not quite as complicated as the bonds between mothers and daughters. Perhaps the Torah is signifying to us that gender counts, and the way the different sexes relate to their parents, also differentiated by gender, count even more, which means we should pay attention. How it all works out differs by family situation, but how it works out affects quite a bit how we turn out. 

 

Who knew? we say after we have engendered children. Who knew how complicated it all would be, how difficult, how time-consuming and perplexing? Why are boys so stupid at adolescence and why are girls so complicated? And yet who would barter their children away for anything in the world? How marvelous, we also say, at the miracle of childbirth and years later at what has become of the children, so varied, so different, so strange and recognizable at once. We may even on occasion wonder if it all has been a mistake, but then we think of a world without children and know it is never a mistake. Perhaps that is why the woman must bring atonement: to atone for the mistake that is never a mistake, to forestall all the grief that the leap of faith into the unknown world of family can entail, to remind us that sacrifice goes into the making of happiness. And the woman does this because we are all of woman born, a messy business indeed.

 

But all this speculation does not offer satisfying answers to this text which disturbs. To which we can only say: it is good that the text disturbs. It makes us think. It forbids us to whitewash the text so that it conforms to contemporary orthodoxy. It also forbids us to legitimate prescriptions we find jolting by saying that’s how it was back in those days. The Torah is a package deal that speaks to us on many levels, even those which may remain for a time merely liminal. Which is why we read and reread it, year after year.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of April 14, 2018

 

Parashat Shemini

 

On the eighth day, so the story unfolds, after the week Aaron and his sons had spent following their consecration, Moses calls them over and has them now carry out the sacrifices for which they were anointed. And so, we read, Aaron and his sons duly officiated at their duties, slaughtering the animals, sprinkling the blood, smoking the innards and fat on the fire, waving the breast and the right thigh before the Lord. And when they were through Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, signifying that he was now the High Priest and able to relieve Moses of that duty. It was the beginning of the separation of religious and political leadership which was to be a hallmark of the Hebrew confederacy of ancient Israel, however much it was periodically ignored and subverted. Without it we would not have all those stories in Kings where prophets thundered at royal wrongdoing – Nathan to David, Elijah to Ahab, Isaiah and Jeremiah to a slew of monarchs – even if backsliding occurred, to which the hapless disintegration of the Hasmonean dynasty attests. In this respect too, Judaism acted as a leaven for what many, many centuries later came to be known as the rise of the West and the emergence of the rule of law, when sixteenth century Europe saw the beginnings of the separation of Church and State. Jean Bodin. Henry VIII. But way before them Moses and Aaron.

 

After Aaron and his sons had performed their duties, we read, Aaron and Moses went into the tent of meeting, came out and blessed the people, whereupon the glory of the Lord appeared unto the people. Fire flew out from the glory and consumed the burnt-offering and the fat, and the people were dumbfounded and humbled, which the Torah conveys by saying they fell on their faces. The image is startling and vivid. Fire as light, fire as white-hot anger, fire as the terrible power of God. The scene is reminiscent of Sinai where fire and smoke thundered atop the mountain from which the voice of the Lord spoke and the people trembled and shrank from the awesomeness they encountered. Once again the Torah repeats, calling to mind a seminal situation via the images and words to which the text frequently has recourse. There is something incandescent here, something impossible to fathom that can only be conveyed through metaphor: the immeasurable distance between God and man, the difference between the glory of the universe and the humble meanderings of human individuals. In short, the ineffable, translated here into what James Joyce once called the ineluctable modality of the visible.

 

As if to underline that point, the Torah then goes on to relate at once the terrible story of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who, we are told, offered strange fire before the Lord. In return the Lord sent forth fire that devoured them, and they died. Literally, they were consumed, perishing by tampering with the very element that signified God’s glory. Aaron and his sons had just completed their duties. There was no need to take more incense and light their pans. Indeed, they had finished their tasks and the people had seen the glory of the Lord at the conclusion of the ceremony. Nadav and Avihu were in effect playing with fire, crossing boundaries which are not to be crossed. That is the import of their death and that is the import of this story. It is not, as many people may suppose, a matter of a vengeful Lord taking out His anger on His subjects for a mere peccadillo. It was a case of two priests deliberately transgressing the ordained ritual right after they had carried it out, cheapening the moment, blending the moment of transcendence with individual caprice. It was as if they were saying: see, there is no gap between us humans and the Lord, the ineffable is simply a magic trick, anyone can put incense in a pan and set it alight. Why do you tremble and fall on your faces before the glory of the Lord? Indeed, why do you think there is anything more to life than what we do ourselves? At the heart of their action therefore lies the question: is not man the measure of all things?

 

This is a question of sociological and not simply metaphysical import. If people think there is nothing more than themselves by which to measure their actions, then all hell breaks loose. As a character in the film Wallenberg once said when asked if he believed in God: I fear for a world when men forgot they created a God Who created them in His image. Not for nothing is the Hebrew God also known as Hamakom, The Place. His Place is indeed a place men cannot occupy, and when they forget that, they forget that the world, society, community, is a place that exists over and above them, to which they owe a due. They may not be able to see it any more clearly than they can see God, but they feel it, experience it, carry it with them in their expectations about how the world functions, and every now and then they may even glimpse its glory. Woe to those who would obliterate this difference and efface the ineffable. 

 

This too is what God tells Aaron after he and his sons were forbidden to mourn for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, but ordered to stay within the tent of meeting, for they bore upon their bodies the holy oil of consecration. Furthermore, He tells them, you are not to drink wine or spirits when you go into the tent of meeting, that ye may put difference between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and thereby teach that lesson to the children of Israel.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of March 24, 2018

 

Parashat Tzav

 

How vivid is the description of Aaron’s investiture in this week’s Torah reading! In the middle of this desert of rocky mountain and wadi, the Sanctuary resplendent in gold, Moses clothes Aaron in his priestly finery, anoints him with oil, and takes the bullock of the sin offering and the ram of consecration which he duly slaughters and smokes upon the altar as a sweet savour to the Lord. Nor does he forget to take the right thigh and the breast of the ram and wave them as a wave offering before the Lord. Then mixing the anointing oil with the blood upon the altar, Moses sprinkles the ochre red liquid upon Aaron and his garments and upon Aaron’s sons and their garments. Whereupon Aaron and his sons boil the flesh to be eaten at the door of the tent of meeting and take as well the bread in the basket of consecration and eat it, burning that which remains with fire. Seven days and nights do they abide at the door of the tent of meeting until their consecration is fulfilled. For so am I commanded, Moses tells them at the end of this ceremony, that ye die not.

 

The reader cannot avoid seeing what transpires in his or her mind, so sharp and clear is the narration of this priestly consecration. It is all the more striking given the backdrop against which this all transpires. Gold and dust, the hallowed sanctification and the wilderness stretching to the horizon, the splendor of the ceremony and the recent history of sin and complaining of which we read throughout the book of Exodus. One marvels at it all, at the smoke rising from the altar, at the sweet savour mounting to the nostrils of the Lord which calls to mind previous such scenes: Cain and Abel, Noah after the Flood, the furnace of Sodom and Gomorrah, even Sinai itself. One imagines Moses holding aloft the thigh and the breast and waving it before the people, waving it to heaven, and one imagines how all that will look when the children of Israel have entered the land and conquered it, have established the Temple therein and gone up to worship the Lord three times a year. And if we can imagine that we can also imagine how this whole ceremony will look when once again the Temple is rebuilt in the heart of Jerusalem and Jews everywhere come up to celebrate the holy days of their calendar.

 

Of course, times have changed and so have practices of worship. Prayer replaced sacrifice a long time ago. Reform movements have entered the Jewish religious world, making religious Judaism anything but monolithic. Dynastic rivalries are not unknown even among Hasidic branches, and the collapse of the Hasmonean dynasty two millennia ago still stands as a reminder of the dangers of combining synagogue and state. Even those movements fiercely dedicated to rebuilding the Temple today need to think through the mechanisms by which it would be run. Who would own it? Who would finance it? Who would select those who officiate there? How long would their term of office be? This and so much more needs discussion before such a project would be seriously undertaken. Yet who would not be stirred to see smoke rise from spits in the courtyard of a rebuilt Temple, attend the consecration of those who would lead services there, smell the sweet savour offered once again to the Lord? Who can read of this splendid ceremony in the desert when Jews were still a band of refugees from Pharaonic Egypt, but ordered to dream of the Promised Land and the society of holiness they were to carve out there, who can read of it and not dream how once again we may witness this ceremony in the rebuilt Sanctuary of the Lord?

 

This is the law of the burnt offering, Moses told the children of Israel, and of the meal offering and of the sin offering. It is a law everlasting, unto all generations. And so it is, not only because Moses commanded it, but because Moses accomplished it and the Torah described it in all its details during this investiture of Aaron as High Priest. The report is not hearsay but on the spot description, no different from modern day news reports of royal and presidential ceremonies. Reading it in the Torah we can see it as if we were there, just as we are enjoined to read the Passover story and imagine it as if we were leaving Egypt that terrible night on the fourteenth of the first month. The writing brings it all alive and thus invests us with a longing for a new investiture. If the Jews could do it once in the desert and twice in their own land, the second time after they returned from the Babylonian exile, why should and would we not do it again now that we have returned from our second exile and reconquered the land? Why not rebuild the Temple and turn it into the national synagogue of the Jewish people, a focal point of the light and the law that goes forth from Zion? Why not say: and the Lord spoke unto us, saying: Command the people of Israel to rebuild the Temple and restore worship there, as He once said to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai? It is time for the Jewish people, the entire Congregation of Israel, to begin that conversation.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of March 17, 2018

 

Parashat Vayikrah

 

And God called unto Moses. So starts the Book of Leviticus. And He called unto Moses and the Lord spoke to him from the tent of meeting saying, speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them. What follows are the ordinances for the different offerings the children of Israel shall bring, offerings of atonement, offerings of gratitude, but this is only the beginning. For the year that follows this opening gambit Moses will be instructing the children of Israel and their priests not only in the laws of sacrifice and their attendant rituals, but also in the laws of purity, prescriptions for medical conditions, laws of sexual congress, moral laws for social cohesion, ordinances for observation of the festivals and injunctions to uphold the covenant on pain of dire consequences. Moses will be talking, but in fact he will be writing, writing it all down so the children of Israel will be able to read and remember these ordinances which are to be statutes throughout the generations, wherever they may dwell. How appropriate then that the Book of Leviticus starts thus, with a rarely used word to describe God’s address to Moses. And He called unto Moses, instead of the usual ‘and He said unto Moses’. In Hebrew the word to denote ‘and he called’ – vayikrah – also can mean ‘and he read’. The word announces the deep meaning of this book. Not for nothing is it book number three of five, the book that lies at the heart of this Book of Books, announcing not only the legal code at the heart of the historical innovation that ancient Israel represented, but also enshrining its permanence by turning it into a written book that can henceforth be read.

 

Many a reader expresses his or her dismay at the Book of Leviticus. I am not into sacrifices, he or she says, thinking the book is the most boring of the lot. But the book is far from boring when you get down to the details. Not only are there dramatic moments – the strange death of Aaron’s two sons being the most vivid one – but the minutiae of the various laws have both legal and literary import. Because the laws are so extensive, covering not only our relationship with God but also our relationship with each other, the codes are full of details, and the details call forth more jurisprudence, just as the stories of the Hebrew Bible call forth more stories. But unlike societies that function only on oral communication, where law becomes hearsay and stories become mixed up and transformed in the fog of memory, ancient Israel enshrined both the law and the stories that carried them in a written document. Writing them down, specifying the wrinkles that have to be considered in sacrifices, medical practices or manslaughter cases, both gives them permanence and makes future innovation possible. It also gives them the aura of justice, because unlike what transpires in societies where oral communication remains paramount, the writing down of legal codes, ritual ordinances, and even national stories, makes future debate and disagreement open to resolution that is not arbitrary. For there is always the text that has to be referred to, interpreted and re-interpreted, an indisputable reference point which all parties ultimately must invoke. Indeed, law stabilizes transgression, lays out the conditions and penalties for normative violations, and allows the society to proceed apace after restitution and atonement is made. It does so by giving everyone confidence that it is not personal status that runs the show, but the written legal text to which all are subservient.

 

After the fall of the Second Temple prayer replaced sacrifice as the synagogue became the focal point of Jewish religious life. But the function of sacrifice did not disappear, the very function laid out in this first parasha of Leviticus. One brings sacrifice to give thanks, to atone, to expiate sin or error, just as one goes to synagogue and prays to express one’s thanks or regrets for one’s blessings and failures. In certain cases, prayer, like sacrifice, is not enough. Restitution must be made as well, reminding us that for our prayers to reach heaven thought must be joined to action. As the end of this parasha points out, there is trespass against the Lord and there is dealing falsely with one’s neighbor. Both require atonement of some kind: a guilt offering to the priest and a twenty per cent fine to the victim. Some offenses, as we shall see at the end of this book, are so grievous they leave little room for atonement; lead instead to national disaster, for they go the heart of the covenant which the Book of Leviticus subsumes in all its multifarious details. Burnt offerings and peace offerings go hand in hand with leprosy and pledges, testimony and filial piety, all turned into the covenant which has sustained the Jewish people throughout their generations. How were we to maintain this covenant without this written document which any literate person could read, consult, meditate upon and take to heart? And which could also be copied, so that the words would not get lost and garbled in the haze of time?

 

And since this covenant has become our history, its stories too have worked themselves into our literary and national DNA. We are all called upon and we all read this text, read of the sweet savour we can offer the Lord and think of all we do so that this sweet savour never reaches His nostrils. Such is Leviticus. Such are the Five Books of Moses. And such is Jewish history.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Commentary on the Torah reading for the Sabbath of March 10, 2018

 

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei

 

A double parasha, doubling over the instructions for the building of the Sanctuary with the narration of its construction and dedication, at the end of which we read: So Moses finished the work. But of course the work was not finished. There were miles to go before Moses slept, and the miles turned into years, forty years to be precise, in which the Sanctuary was dismantled, carried onward and set up again as the Jews wandered in the wilderness for forty years, atoning for their refusal to go to war with the inhabitants of the Promised Land and their desire to return to Egypt instead, not to mention their readiness to ditch Moses as their leader.

 

But the Sanctuary survived all these vicissitudes, just as the instructions for its construction survived the vicissitudes of Jewish history because all was written down and laid out over and over, once, twice, thrice in this Book of Books which guaranteed the survival of the Jewish people. But the survival of the Jewish people was ensured at a tremendous price, and still is, as Jewish souls perish for the perfidy of the Jewish people, forgetting and ignoring the word of the Lord Who dwelled among them, and continues to dwell among them, in the Sanctuary He ordered and ordained. And though the Sanctuary today does not shine atop the Temple Mount because the Government of Israel very unwisely gave the Jordanian Waqf control of that holy site and continues to tolerate Muslim mayhem, mischief and murder and forbid Jewish worship at that Place, the plans for its eventual reconstruction in all their details still lie written in plain Hebrew in every ark of every synagogue in the world. And one day, when the Jewish people finally recognize their injunction to throw out the idol-worshippers from the land and ensconce God’s name in His dwelling place, the Sanctuary shall once again shine resplendent on the mountain top of the Lord. And the Torah shall indeed come forth again out of Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

 

Even in the desert three thousand years ago it was so. For we read at the end of this double parasha that once Moses finished the work the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord which suffused the cloud filled the tabernacle. As long as the cloud settled over the tabernacle the Jews stayed in their camp, but when the cloud lifted the Jews packed up and continued their journey. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. Thus does the Book of Exodus end, repeating at the end the image of the Exodus at the shores of the Sea of Reeds: a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night by which the presence of the Lord accompanied the children of Israel. And like everything told twice in the Bible, the twice-told telling reminds us, as Joseph told Pharaoh apropos his dreams, that indeed what is so told is true and shall come to pass.

 

How splendid therefore is the image, the cloud by day, the fire by night, in which the Lord accompanies His people on their journey toward the realization of the covenant He swore with them. It accompanied them in the depths of their despair