Archive for March, 2013

March 21, 2013 12:01 pm CDT

Tzav–Between Purim and Pesach, Part 1


[Moses] put the tunic on [Aaron], fastened the sash around him, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him. He then put the decorated band of the ephod around him, tying the ephod to him with it.   (Lev. 8:7)

This year (as in most years), Parshat Tzav is read between the holidays of Purim and Passover.  As I read the account of the ordination of Aaron, I found myself seeing points of contact with both observances.

I don’t think for a moment that the solemn description of the ordination of Aaron and his sons shares the comic, carnival atmosphere  of Purim.   But there is a connection in the clothes, in the costumes.   For centuries, Jews have worn masks and costumes on Purim.   Some dress up as figures in the Esther story, or from the surrounding culture, be it Jewish or Gentile, secular or religious.  Men dress up as women and women dress up as men.  The costume is liberating; it takes you outside yourself.

Thinking about Purim led me to ask the question, “what is Aaron dressed up as?”  To say he’s dressed up as a priest is, in this case, a tautology, and begs a further question: what is it about this attire that is priestly?

On the one hand, Aaron is dressed as Israel.  He wears a breastpiece (Lev. 8:8) to which 12 gem stones are attached, each one bearing the names of one of the tribes.   On the other hand, he is dressed as—the sanctuary itself.  The vestments for Aaron and his sons are made of the same materials as the most sacred parts of the mishkan (see Ex. 28:5 and compare with Ex. 26:26).    Aaron is not of the heavenly realm, but the costume allows him to “pass” in this surcharged, sacred environment.    And he is there not for himself, but for the whole nation.

During the kedusha prayer, which invokes the worship of God by the angels, we stand on tiptoe as if to join them.  The priestly vestments are an attempt to translate this idea into wardrobe.

March 21, 2013 11:54 am CDT

Tzav–Between Purim and Pesach, Part 2


Moses took the blood and with his finger put some on each of the horns of the altar, purifying  the altar; then he poured out the blood at the base of the  altar. Thus he consecrated it, to make atonement for it.  . . .  (Lev 8: 15)

Tzav shares with Pesach the protective use of sacrificial blood.  Recall that the blood of the Passover sacrifice was applied to the doorposts of the houses of the Israelites in Egypt.

In this week’s parsha, we not only have the anointing of the altar described above, but also a remarkable parallel application of blood to the priests themselves: “Moses took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear and on the thumb  of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot.  After Aaron’s sons were brought forward, Moses put some of the blood on the lobes of their right ears and on the  thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their  right feet.”  (8:23-4)  The application of the blood to the priests confirms the transfer to the sacred realm embodied in their clothes; the priest is a human counterpart of the altar.

While in the Passover narrative, the blood on the doorposts is a “sign,” in Leviticus it has the more common function of purification, since in this ritual context blood has what Jacob Milgrom calls a “detergent” effect.  In all three cases: (doorpost, altar horns, human extremities) it is applied to the edges, the boundaries, the point where the contact with the holy (in the case of the priest and altar) or the destructive/demonic (however we understand the “Destroyer” of Exodus 12:23) is most immediate and therefore most dangerous.

March 14, 2013 1:04 pm CDT

Vayikra—The Vegetarian Option

When anyone (lit., “when a soul,” nefesh)  presents a grain offering (mincha) to the LORD, the offering shall be of wheat flour.  Lev 2:1

There are so many animal sacrifices in Leviticus that it is easy to forget that for this strand of the Torah (the Priestly source) the original human diet was vegetarian (Gen. 1:29).  In contemplating this week’s parsha, I was drawn to this vegetarian (in fact, vegan) option among the offerings.    Wheat (along with barley) was the backbone of the average Israelite diet in the Iron Age.  In presenting mincha, one makes an offering from “the staff of life,” one’s most basic support.

The modern translations are doubtless correct in regarding “soul” in this verse as simply referring to an individual, and hence translating “anyone,” or “a person” here.   That did not prevent the ancient interpreters from being struck by the fact that the mincha was the only offering said to be brought by the “soul.”  In the Talmud, Rabbi Yitzhak ponders, “Why is the mincha distinct in that the expression soul is used in its case?  Because the Holy One said, ‘Whose habit is it to bring a meal offering?  It is the poor man’s*.  I consider it as if he had offered his very soul to me.'”

*The grain offering is the only offering incumbent upon the poor

March 14, 2013 1:01 pm CDT

Vayikra—Like Incense

After taking a handful of the wheat flour and oil, with all its frankincense, the priest shall turn this token portion into smoke on the  altar, an offering by fire of pleasing aroma to the LORD. Lev. 2:2

In Jewish tradition “mincha” has come to be used as the name for the afternoon prayer service.  This service corresponds to the daily afternoon sacrifice in the Torah during Temple times (Num 28:4).   The service may have acquired this name because grain offerings were common in evening rituals (though not unique to them).  Perhaps Psalm 141:2 excercised some influence as well: “May my prayer be like incense before you, the lifting up of my hands like the afternoon offering (minchat ‘erev).”

A lovely Yiddish poem called “Davenen Mincha” was brought to my attention by my friend Michael Getty.  The poem imagines the Hasidic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov giving a teaching on the mincha service to his scribe, Nathan, and assumes one is praying mincha towards the end of the time reserved for it, just before sunset..  Nachman tells Nathan,

The tune is sheer simplicity,
you’re just lending a helping hand
to the sinking day.
It’s a heavy responsibility.
You take a created day
and you slip it
into the archive of life
where all our lived-out days are lying together.
The day is departing with a quiet kiss.
It lies open at your feet
while you stand saying the blessings.
You can’t create anything yourself, but you
can lead the day to its end and see
clearly the smile of its going down.
See how whole it all is,
not diminished for a second,
how you age with the days
that keep dawning,
how you bring your lived-out day
as a gift to eternity.

by Jacob Glatstein, translated from Yiddish by Ruth Whitman

March 7, 2013 1:47 am CDT

Pekudei–No Room for Self

When Moses finished the work, the cloud covered the tent of meeting . . . . Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Yhwh filled the tabernacle.  40:33b-35

The images here are exuberant: God’s presence as a cloud (‘anan) and as luminosity (kavod, ” glory”).   The cloud settles (shachan) over the mishkan (“abode,” “tabernacle”); both words share the same root as Shekhinah, a favorite Jewish evocation of the presence of God.

So full, so expansive is this cloud that there is no room for anything or anyone else.  Even Moses can’t go in.   The Baal Shem Tov once said that there is no room for God in a person too full of self.  Here the converse applies, and there is no room for self in a place so full of God.

But of course, Moses does eventually enter, so we assume the cloud contracts.  Here, as in Jewish mysticism, God’s self-limitation is what makes room for the other, for creation, for relationships.  As we read two weeks ago, the midrash has God say that, out of love, “I will come down and confine my Shechinah within a square yard.”

That the cloud fills every corner of the mishkan is a reminder that, as the Yiddish phrase has it, “altz iz Gott,” all is God.  But not until God pulls back and makes room will the dialogue with Moses proceed and the narrative move forward.

March 7, 2013 1:44 am CDT

Pekudei–How to love the world

And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the LORD  had commanded, so had they done it. And Moses blessed them.  Exodus 39:43

If it wasn’t so late, I’d dive into a study of the parallels between the story of the building of the Tabernacle and the story of creation.   Buber made such a study, I could look it up.  But it’s after 1AM.

For example, doesn’t the verse quoted above sound like the end of the first creation story?  “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. . .  And God blessed the seventh day” (Gen 1:31, 2:3).  I’m sure Buber noticed that.

Or read the summary of Moses building the tabernacle that you find in Exodus 40:17-33 and see if it doesn’t feel to you like a creation account: “[Moses] laid its bases, . . . and raised up its pillars; and he spread the tent over the tabernacle, and put the covering of the tent over it” (40:18-19), etc.  Perhaps some of the parallels exist because we have imagined creation as a house.  But that still reinforces the connection between tabernacle and creation.

For Jewish tradition, the building of the Tabernacle has implications for all of human activity.  The Rabbis turned to the account of the mishkan story to find out what kinds of activity constituted “work” (and hence were encouraged six days a week, but forbidden on Shabbat).   Thus the Sefat Emet can say “The labor of the tabernacle redeemed every deed that exists in the world. . . . Thus “doing” as a whole was redeemed. . . . It is called “the tabernacle of witness” for by it Israel made it clear that all of Creation belongs to God.”

May our holy spaces, the environments we create to foster awareness of God, be not only places of refuge, but a witness to us that “the whole earth is full of [God’s] glory.”