Time and Torah

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Among the everlasting puzzles of the Torah are its expressions of time. The Book of Numbers is a case in point: it is explicitly not in chronological order.

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt. (Numbers 1:1)

Then, in chapter 9, we read:

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt (Numbers 9:1)

There are other instances where the chronology is not so clearly out of order, but where a careful reader will say, “What? Didn’t that already happen?” Genesis has two completely different Creation stories – was the world created twice?

For this reason, our sages concluded long ago that “there is no earlier or later in the Torah.” (Pesachim 6b). In other words, while we may certainly seek insight from the arrangement of events in the Torah, we should not assume that the only way to arrange them in the order in which they appear.

Genesis chapter 5 is full of ages that drive readers crazy. Adam supposedly lived to be 930 years of age. (Genesis 5:4-5) “Did he really live that long?” students ask, and I always reply, “What do you think?”

It does not make any sense that a human being was able to be alive for 930 years. It is somewhat more believable (but still a stretch) that Moses lived to be 120. I think it is more likely that these extreme ages have symbolic meanings, which may or may not be available to us today. Adam’s age is 130 when he sires Seth, the third son who was born after Cain killed Abel. Then Adam lives 800 more years. I am not aware of particular significance of either 130 or 800 — but what if the text is telling us that Adam felt 130 after one son murdered the other? But then the birth of a third child gave him hope, and he was fortunate to live to see that third child grow up and have children of his own?

If you follow up by reading Genesis 5, you’ll see that the chronology of the story of Noah doesn’t really work, since Noah was supposedly 500 when he sired Shem, Ham, and Japeth, and the Flood was 100 years later….!

But remember, “there is no earlier or later in Torah.” So perhaps it makes more sense to say, Adam lived to a good old age and saw his grandchildren. Noah was no spring chicken when he built the ark. Moses was a grown man when he spoke with the burning bush and an old man when he looked out from Mt. Nebo to see the Promised Land.

While we like to think in chronological patterns, life itself is not that simple. Have you ever met a child who was an “old soul?” Met someone in their 80’s with a young heart? Needed to know how a story ended, before you could take in its beginning? Whether Torah is a blueprint of the world, or a mirror of the world, “it is not in the heavens” (Deut. 30:12) but here in our hands, to interpret today.

Image: Gero, “Time,” Some rights reserved under Creative Commons license.

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What is Shmita?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, introduces the concept of the sabbatical year. As it happens, 5775 will be a sabbatical year. So you may be wondering, what is shmita (shmee-TAH, the Sabbatical year)?

Shmita literally translates in English as “release.”

Leviticus 25: 1-7 states:

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:  Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce — you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.

The Torah here draws an analogy between the people and the land. Just as the Jewish people are commanded to rest every seventh day, and to allow our animals and servants to rest every seventh day, we are commanded to rest the land every seventh year.

Deuteronomy 15 adds additional regulations for the sabbatical year:

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 

That chapter goes on to specify that Jewish slaves belonging to Jews will also be released in that year.

Now in fact, we don’t know exactly how these rules were applied in ancient times. The Biblical text suggests that the sabbatical year wasn’t observed:

This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’[a] Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. (Jeremiah 34: 13-14)

In Nehemiah 10, the re-establishment of the sabbatical year is proclaimed, but again, we don’t hear how that actually played out.

The problem was and is that taking this law literally is extremely difficult. Imagine for a moment what it implies: all agriculture ceases for a year. All debts are cancelled. Slaves are let go. The richer you are, the more losses you take, but there are risks and losses for everyone.

The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud devised ways to make it work. (If you are interested in the details, check out prozbul, and otzar beit din.  To get an idea of what is involved in a traditional rabbinical observance of these rules, you can read “Shmittah Revisited” by Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff.)

But what if we take a more expansive approach to the interpretation of these verses? What if the real point is not in the details, but in the values that the shmita year teaches?

What are some of the values that shmita endorses?

  • Food security
  • Economic justice
  • Sustainable use of land
  • Human, animal, and land health
  • Freedom

Genesis 1:26 is often interpreted to mean that human beings may do with the earth what they like:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

The principles of the shmita year (as well as the prohibitions on unnecessary cruelty to animals) remind us that we are not the rulers of creation, free to do whatever we like regardless of consequences.

Economic expert Rabbi Meir Tamari has observed in his book The Challenge of Wealth that proponents of various political and economic ideologies have often tried to use Torah to argue that their particular system is God’s system. He points out that one can make such arguments for many conflicting systems: capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Torah is not an endorsement of any one economic or political system; rather it offers us a vision of a world of justice and peace. It is up to us and our human creativity to find ways to bring that world to fruition.

Perhaps the commandment for shmitah (remember, it is literally translated “release”) teaches us that we should regularly release our preconceived notions of economics in order to take a hard look at what is going on around us so that we may bring our world back into line with the values expressed in Torah:

  • Are there slaves? Release them!
  • Are there hungry people? Feed them!
  • Are resources being exhausted? Find better, sustainable ways to meet the need!

We are living in a time when many people are concerned with these problems. While we do not all agree on solutions, we can support one another in seeking many different solutions to slavery, workplace abuses, hunger, concerns about climate, and concerns about justice. We can release our insistences that our plans be the only plans.

Our times call for creativity, and now the shmita year is coming to call us to even higher creativity, and an even higher standard of justice.

Psalm 126 says that “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” Much is wrong in our world today. Let us make use of the shmita year, and shmita creativity, to work towards a new harvest, a harvest of joy.

 

 

Ableism in the Torah? Say it ain’t so!

Leadership and Disability: totally compatible!
Leadership and Disability: totally compatible!

 

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 1no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.’” – Leviticus 21: 16-23

These words from parashat Emor are troubling. This is a commandment given concerning the kohanim, the priests of the Temple. It seems to say that anyone blind, lame, disfigured, or deformed is not as good as a “whole” person. It seems to say, “We won’t starve you – you have a right to live! – but we ask that you keep out of sight. You are not good enough to serve in the Temple.”

And indeed, there is a long sad history of human beings saying exactly that to family and community members who were physically or mentally different. Stay out of sight – or at least keep your disability out of sight. This attitude has also taken the form of pretending that disabled people are invisible. And sadly, these verses from the Torah seem to support the notion that the best thing we disabled folk can do is to stay out of sight.

For years, I hid my own disability when it came time to lead services, despite the fact that standing for any length of time gave me excruciating pain. I got the idea from this Torah portion that a person who was leading services should be physically perfect, and that if I needed a cane or a wheelchair to function, then I was not fit to lead a service. As a result, I was not at my best on the bimah (the raised area from which services are led.) I was fuzzy minded, clouded with pain. I mispronounced words. I forgot things. I did not give the congregation the leadership it deserved. Eventually, I decided that I should not be a congregational rabbi, because of the disability I struggled to hide.

I have changed my mind about all of it. First of all, there can be strength and beauty in the prayers of a person who sits in a chair or holds a cane. I know, because I have seen it.

Secondly, I look at the historical context of this commandment. Other ancient cultures exposed (killed) infants who were deemed defective. Even Plato says that in an ideal community, infants with defects would not be allowed to live. So anyone with a congenital disability was deemed unworthy to live: compared to that attitude, saying, “You can eat the holy food, but don’t serve at the altar” seems like a big step forward.

Third, we can look at the interpretation of the tannaim, the earliest rabbis who actually recalled a time when the Temple was standing. In Mishnah Megillah 4.7, Rav Yehudah says that a kohen with stains on his hands also may not give the priestly blessing, “because people would be inclined to stare.” If in fact the reason for keeping the kohanim with visible “defects” from the Temple service was that “people will stare” then it suggests that the problem is not in the disability, but in the reactions of the public to disabilities. Later rabbis went even further: in the Gemara, Megillah 24b, they say that if the kohen is known locally, and “people are used to him,” then there is no impediment to his participating in the service.

This clearly locates the problem with the distraction of the congregation. The kohen may not serve publicly if his disability makes it impossible for the congregation to concentrate.

In this day and time, since we know that it is wrong to discriminate against those with disabilities, this is a red herring. If I am “distracted” by someone’s race, or accent, or the wheelchair they use, it is my task to “get over it” – or more accurately, to get over myself. It is not fair, it is downright wrong, for me to say to anyone, “Don’t lead services, your disability is distracting.”

So if the literal understanding of this verse does not hold up to scrutiny, if a physical disability should no longer prevent someone from serving, what “defects” should keep one from publicly leading a service? Further on in tractate Megillah 29a:

Bar Kappara gave the following exposition: What is the meaning of the verse, “Why look ye askance, ye mountains of peaks, at the mountain which God has desired for His abode?” (Psalm 68:17)  A heavenly voice went forth and said to them: “Why do you look askance at Sinai? Ye are all full of blemishes as compared with Sinai. It is written here “with peaks” and it is written elsewhere “hunchbacked or a dwarf.” (Leviticus 21:20) R. Ashi observed: You can learn from this that if a man is arrogant, this is a blemish in him.

The Psalmist asks why the greatest mountains, with beautiful peaks, look disapprovingly at little Mt. Sinai. The heavenly voice retorts, “Why are you criticizing Sinai? You are all full of blemishes!” Bar Kappara is drawing a parallel between the beautiful tall mountains looking down at Sinai, and the beautiful human beings looking down at a hunchback or a dwarf. Indeed, says Rav Ashi, the real blemish is arrogance.

Thus while this passage appears to reek of old prejudices – and in fact it may represent an old, bad solution to the problem of ableism – further study in the Oral Torah reveals it to be something quite different. If the real blemish is arrogance, then the arrogant may not lead services – but we’ll still feed them.

I can live with that.

Image: FDR in Wheelchair, public domain

A Lesson on Comfort (Parashat Shimini)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire (Matthäus Merian the Elder)
Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.  And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Eternal meant when by saying:

    Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
    And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent. -Leviticus 10:1-3

Aaron’s sons have improvised a ritual that resulted in catastrophe. Moses responds by “comforting” his brother Aaron with words that offer no comfort whatsoever.

There are pairs and parallels in the passage: two sets of brothers stand before God. Two sets of brothers mess up. Nadab and Abihu bring “strange fire” and are killed by another [strange] fire. Moses and Aaron confront the disaster. Moses, who described himself as “slow of tongue” gives a speech. Aaron, the man who is first mentioned in Exodus 3 as one who “speaks exceedingly well” is starkly silent.

It’s horrifying and unsatisfying, a passage that we will forever puzzle at, trying to plumb its depths.

On a human level, I am struck by Moses’ insensitivity. He responds to the horror by quoting and interpreting God in a particularly heartless way: “this is God’s plan!”  Moses is not comforting Aaron; he is comforting himself that this horrible event somehow makes sense.  Aaron is silent.

There is something in us human beings that wants to make sense of dreadful events. When we are caught in that impulse, we say terrible things such as:

  • “This is God’s plan!”
  • “He’s in a better place!”
  • “At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that the best way to comfort a mourner is to be quietly present. Sitting with a grieving person and being present to them is both difficult and easy. We have to let go of our need to explain, our need to make better, and instead simply be there. We have to sit with the mystery and the pain and endure, so that the mourner does not have to sit, like Aaron, silent and alone.

Moses was a great and good man, but even he had his off days. It is one of the beauties of Torah that those are not hidden from us: our greatest leaders had bad days, and we can learn even from those.

Image: Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) Public Domain

Vayakhel — O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz?

I love this! Best answer I have seen to the question: Why pray if I am not sure anyone is listening?

For readers on mobile devices, here is the link.

Godtalk

It seems that every time that I get a cold it goes straight for my voice. Instead of my usual mezzo-soprano, my voice has spent most of this week somewhere in the baritone range. My deepest gravelly voice, in fact, sounds a bit like Janis Joplin, which is precisely why I have one of her songs on my mind today:

O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz

I love that song! It’s just so direct about it.

But we all know, of course, that this kind of pleading does not work. We are all sadly familiar with the fact that God does not take special orders of this kind. It’s usually something we learn as kids: you can’t get a…

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Parshat Tetzaveh (5774)

A great post about Jewish headwear from a blogger from whom I always learn something interesting:

Hardcore Mesorah

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Jewish Tall Hats and Turbans

Today we are going to talk about hats. The hats we wear and the roles that hats play in society. We will be looking at the function that hats play in Jewish culture and ritual as well.

Even if you aren’t a hat wearer, we all take notice of hats. Some of us more than others. However hats and head dresses are something that are not just pervasive in our society, they are actually part of the uniform of many important people. From the earliest years most of us have looked to people’s hats as a symbol of who they are and the role they play in our world. We begin to identify the different notable people by their hats; police, firefighters, nurses, chefs, etc.

Hats can tell us a lot about a person. Be it a baseball cap, a sun…

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Within the Mess, There is Holiness

The Kohen Gadol
The Kohen Gadol

Parashat Tetzaveh begins with the pure olive oil for the Temple lamps, and continues with a detailed description of the priestly vestments and the ordination of Aaron and his sons as the first priests of Israel.

This is a Torah portion that lends itself to flights of fancy. The ancient rabbis and modern Hebrew school kids both love to visualize the vestments and imagine the exact appearance of the great candelabrum. The ordination is a bit grubbier, with its orders for dabs of blood here and there, and splashing of blood and stacking of gory sacrifices.

It is tempting to separate the two, to focus on the beautiful priestly garments, made from wool and flax, woven with many brilliant colors and studded with jewels. It is no accident that the two descriptions come together in the Torah: first the beautiful clothing and ornaments, then a description of what was to be done in those vestments.

The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, did not sit on a throne observing the action in the Temple. The work of a Cohen was the work of a holy butcher, calming the beasts, blessing them, then slipping a very sharp knife through skin and veins and cartilage. When the animal collapsed, then the priests had to work together to skin it, to cut it into the pieces the sacrifice demanded, and to stack it up on the altar to be burned. This is not delicate work, and it is certainly not clean work. By the end of a busy day at the Temple, the Cohanim must have looked ghastly. Even their ordination required them to be anointed with the blood of a sacrificial animal, underlining the work that they were to do.

In the 21st century, we often talk about “spirituality” as if it is something very beautiful and serene. And I imagine that the priestly garments, when new, were magnificent. But in the actual business of doing the holy work, something happened: everything got messy. Blood and tears and mess were smeared about, splashed about, and the beautiful garments got dirty with blood and soot and gore.

And folks, that is real life: the “perfect” Shabbat table gets messy with spilt wine. The most elegant Chanukah menorah will be covered with wax at the end of the holiday. Real, adorable babies wear diapers. And our real lives are not as we dream them: they are messy with frailties, bad habits, neuroses, and failings.

Our task is to learn to see the toddler under the spaghetti sauce, the human being in a sneering teenager, and the spark of the Divine in our own fallible selves and others. It is then that we have truly internalized the lesson of the Kohen Gadol in his magnificent, bloodied vestments: within the mess, there is holiness.

Image:  Andreas F. Borchert, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.