Archive for April, 2013

April 25, 2013 12:08 am CDT

Emor–Horn Blasts and Remembrance

“In the seventh month, on the first day of  the month, you shall have a sabbath, a commemoration with horn blasts, a sacred convocation.”  (Lev. 23:24)

It is Rosh Hashanah we are talking about here, even though it says the seventh month; in Jewish reckoning the seventh month of the liturgical year is the first month of the calendar year.

A story:  On Rosh Hashanah 5763 (2002), I sat next to D., a white haired woman with an oxygen tank .   At the time, her doctors only gave her weeks to live.

D. has accepted this.  She tells me, matter-of-factly, that she is at peace, and I believe her; it shows.  But it is not a peace born of weariness or fatalism.  She loves her life.  If they found a “miracle pill” tomorrow that would cure her, she would take it.  But she knows that they won’t.  She is at peace.

We stood for the sounds of the shofar: the wake-up calls, the cries of brokenness and longing, and the last long blast that embraces the world.  I had my arm around D.  I noticed her tears.  I thought, “She is thinking that this is the last time she will hear the shofar sound.”   But neither of us said anything that day.

The next Sabbath she told me what that moment had meant to her.  “I thought of all the times that the shofar has sounded in the past.  And I thought of all the times that it will sound in the future.  And it seemed to me that all of those sounds converged into one sound in the present.”

D. passed away some 14 months later.  She taught me something about what it means to live in the present: not to detach myself from my past and future, but to hold them with me, to see the continuity of my own life and, in turn, its continuity of my life with the lives of others.

I always think of D. when I hear the shofar.  May it wake me up to what’s right under my nose.

April 24, 2013 11:46 pm CDT

Emor–Drawing Water with Joy

“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of a stately tree, fronds of palm trees, and a branch of a leafy tree, and willows of the brook, and  you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.”  (Lev. 23:40)

The joy that is enjoined on Sukkoth was underscored in Temple times by a ritual water libation that was performed every day except the first day of the festival and Shabbat.   The ritual became elaborated into a colorful, joyous, even riotous celebration called simchat beit ha-sho’eivah, “the rejoicing at the place of the water drawing.”  The Talmud describes the ceremony in detail (Sukkah 51a-b), including a portrait of venerable sages juggling lighted torches and performing somersaults as part of the celebration. The Talmud states, “he who has not seen the rejoicing of the place of the water drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life.”

The Temple Scroll (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) also establishes annual Festivals of New Wine, Fresh Oil, and Wood.  To be sure, we don’t know if the Temple Scroll had any authority when it came to actual Temple practice, or if any of these festivals were ever observed.  But these celebrations are consistent with the celebration of water described above, and suggest that Second Temple rituals cultivated a strong appreciation for the natural gifts that made life and worship possible.

April 18, 2013 11:58 pm CDT

Kedoshim– Imagination (Love your Neighbor)

“Love your neighbor as yourself ”  (Lev 19:18)

We often think of imagination as, at worst, a failure to deal with reality; at best, an artistic gift that some are blessed with.   This mitzvah suggests that imagination is an intrinsic part of the moral and spiritual life.  The mussar teacher Rav Simha describes the central task of moral education as the development of an “imaginative projection,” the ability to view the world through the needs of the other. Imagination allows us to clothe ourselves in our neighbor, to take a few steps in their shoes.

April 18, 2013 11:53 pm CDT

Kedoshim– Detox (Love your Neighbor)

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kinfolk; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.   You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:  I am the LORD.  (Lev 19:17-18)

It says “neighbor” because love isn’t abstract, but takes place in the context of a community—or rather communities, since we typically belong to several.  The strength of our love will be in proportion to the felt strength of those community ties.

It’s also not abstract because we are being asked to love someone whom we believe has hurt us.  We are admonished to forego vengeance but also—and this is harder for most of us—not to bear a grudge.  The idiom is instructive: we don’t “have” a grudge, we “bear” a grudge.  We deliberately choose to shlep the toxic little thing around with us everywhere we go, unwilling to extract vengeance, but also unable to let it go.   Kushner articulates the grudge mentality thus:  “You hurt me so much.  But I am a nice person so I won’t hurt you back.  Instead, in very small doses, I will just poison myself for the rest of my life.    I will carry around the injury you caused me as a special part of my psyche.  I will watch it and guard it.  But I’ll never tell you.”  (The Book of Words)

April 11, 2013 2:04 am CDT

Tazria-Metzora—Just Like Tzara’at

“Something like tzara’at has appeared on my house.” (Lev. 14:35)

The appearance of mildew or rot as green or red blotches on the wall of a house resembles the skin affliction described by the Hebrew word tzara’at.* Traditional interpretation often sought to find the cause of this eruption in some sin on the part of the owner of the house. But nowhere is it stated or implied that the infection comes as a punishment for sin. The owner of the house does nothing to or for himself. He does not bring sacrifices, a rite that surely would have been prescribed if he were suspected of having sinned.

I mention this not to score points over traditional interpreters, but rather to point out the difficulty of trying to derive moral teachings from these rituals. In reflecting on this passage this week, I find myself with very little to say. If this world was alien to the rabbinic commentators, for whom purity was a much more familiar concept, it is even more alien to me.

*while traditionally translated “leprosy,” tzara’at does not refer to the disease known as “leprosy” today.

April 11, 2013 2:01 am CDT


When any man has a discharge issuing from his member (lit, “flesh”), he is tamei. Lev. 15:2

The best I could do this week was try to wrap my mind a little more around what some of the  ritual concepts found in Leviticus meant in ancient Israel. Take, for example, the adjective tamei (usually translated “unclean” or “impure”) and the related noun tuma (Usually translated “uncleanness” or “impurity”). Fox writes that these terms are not well served by the usual negative translations: the Hebrew signifies a kind of “charged” state that must not come into contact with the sanctuary.

Indeed, this “charged” state is not a threat to the ordinary, only to the sacred—like kryptonite, it imperils not the human, but the superhuman.  That is why Milgrom can say, “In Israel, impurity was harmless. It retained potency only with regard to sanctums. Laypersons – but not priests – might contract impurity with impunity; they must not, however, delay their purificatory rites lest their impurity affect the sanctuary.”

Such an understanding of “impurity” depends in turn on a dynamic and localized understanding of “holiness” in the sanctuary.  Enough “impurity,” enough ritual and moral pollution, could contaminate the sanctuary beyond repair and force God to abandon it.  This concept underlies the original conception of the Day of Atonement, where the holy shrine was “decontaminated” every year.

April 3, 2013 10:33 pm CDT

Shemini–The Earth is the Lord’s

“Say to the people of Israel, These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals.”  (Lev. 11:2)

I was intrigued to read the following this week in Nehama Leibowitz’s New Studies in Vayikra (Leviticus).   She begins by quoting Rabbi Moshe Sofer  (1769-1832): “Scripture opens [in the verse quoted above] with the permitted foods and thus also concerning the fishes and grasshoppers, implying that in principle we ought not to eat any living being. Hence the introduction: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel saying, these are the living things which you may eat,’ which constitutes an innovation.”   Leibowitz continues, “Had not certain species been permitted, we would have had to abstain from all meat, for the world and its contents are not ours, to benefit from it at will.”  (155)

This conforms with the Priestly account of Creation, where God gives humankind and animals only vegetation for food (Gen. 1:30) .  It also strengthens the connection between sacrifice and eating meat.   In both priestly ideal and early Israelite practice, animals that were eaten were killed by means of a formal sacrifice on an altar.  As David Wolpe puts it, “Sacrifice induced awe. The full import of taking life was borne in upon the supplicant.  Nothing in God’s creation was mere commodity.”

April 3, 2013 10:31 pm CDT

The Halakha of Pulp Fiction

A low-sodium version of a debate on kashrut between the House of Winnfield and the House of Vega.

[VINCE]: You want some bacon?

[JULES]: No, man, I don’t eat pork.

[VINCE]: Are you Jewish ?

[JULES]: No, I ain’t Jewish, I just don’t dig on swine, that’s all.

[VINCE]: Why not?

[JULES]: Pigs are filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.

[VINCE]: But bacon tastes good, pork chops taste good…

[JULES]: Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat [them].  Pigs sleep and root in shit, that’s a filthy animal.   I don’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.

[VINCE]: How about a dog? A dog eats its own feces.

[JULES]: I don’t eat dog either.

[VINCE]: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?

[JULES]: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy, but it’s definitely dirty. But, a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.

[VINCE]: So by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?

[JULES]: We’ have to be talkin’ ’bout one charming . . . pig. I mean he’d have to be ten times more charming than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I’m sayin’?