Archive for May, 2013

May 30, 2013 1:06 pm CDT

Shelah Lekha –Holiness Domesticated

When you come into the land to which I am bringing you, and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to the LORD; from your first batch of dough you shall set aside a loaf (challah) as a gift.   (Num. 15:18-20)

When you come into the land . . .”  Chapter 15 consists of a miscellany of laws inserted after the failure of Israel to enter the land of Canaan.  This failure has condemned the adult generation to wander in the wilderness until it has died out.   Most of the laws begin, as this one does, “when you come into the land . . .”  Medieval commentators suggest that these laws provide a measure of forgiveness and reassurance that Israel will, after all, enter the land.

a loaf (challah)  According to Ezekiel 44:30, the loaf is set aside “so that a blessing may rest on your home.”  From the fact that the verse specifies “home” rather than “crop,”  Milgrom concludes that these verses are “directed to the nonfarmer, who, like the farmer, is also made to feel that his provender should be subjected to a ‘first fruits’ offering.”  This same word challah has come to designate the sweet bread we eat on the Sabbath.

May 30, 2013 1:01 pm CDT

Shelah Lekha–Fringe Benefits

They should make them a fringe (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach an indigo cord to the fringe at each corner . . . . Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them.   (Num. 15:38-39)

A fringe or tassel on the garment is not unusual in the Ancient Near East.  What is unusual here is the color and the intent.

The indigo color prescribed is made from a dye derived, not from a plant, but from a substance secreted by the murex snail.  The labor-intensive extraction and preparation of this dye made it quite costly. It was used for royal garments in many places in the Mediterranean region, as in Israel it was also used for priestly garments and for the cloth furnishings of the tabernacle.  The color matches the concept of Israel as a “kingdom of priests.”  Remnants of clothing found in the caves inhabited by Bar Kochba’s followers demonstrate that such indigo twists were still worn in the second century CE.  Eventually, issues of cost and accessibility forced the rabbis to drop this color requirement for tzitzit.

The intent of the tsitsit is to remind the wearer of God’s commanments, like a string around one’s finger.  This verse is part of the daily Shema, a ritual created during the Maccabean period (164-63 BC) to underscore exclusive allegiance to the One God and to reinforce the wearing of tefillin (sacred amulets) and tzitzit. 

In addition to the difficulty with the blue dye mentioned above, dress style has changed so that most garments do not have square corners, which the rabbis saw as necessary for attaching tzitzit. Tzitzit today are worn mostly as part of the Jewish prayer shawl, the tallis.  Orthodox men and boys also wear a tallit katan, a sleeveless piece of cloth with a neck hole and corners on which tzitzit are attached.

May 23, 2013 1:15 am CDT

Be-ha’alotkha—The Insecurity of Freedom

“We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the  melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all to look at but this manna .”  (The Israelite “rabble” in Num. 11:5-6)

“Man is free to act in freedom and free to forfeit freedom. In choosing evil he surrenders his attachment to the spirit and forgoes the opportunity to let freedom happen. Thus we may be free in employing or in ignoring freedom; we are not free in having freedom. We are free to choose between good and evil; we are not free in having to choose. We are in fact compelled to choose. Thus all freedom is a situation of God’s waiting for man to choose.”  Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Insecurity of Freedom”

May 23, 2013 1:09 am CDT

Be-ha’alotkha—Garbage Talk

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?  Has he not spoken through us also?”  (Num. 12:1-2)

Miriam, the deliverer of Moses (Ex. 2:4ff) here becomes Miriam, the belittler of Moses.  Her act and Aaron’s is characterized by the Jewish ethical tradition as lashon ha’ra (literally “evil speech,” though in many contexts it’s a synonym for “gossip”).  This subject has been parsed at length by Rabbis and teachers; here are three things that occurred to me in relation to this text.

Even if it’s true.  Of course, it’s wrong to tell lies about people.  But the text tells us that Moses had indeed married a Cushite woman. (Though it tells us little else.  Is this Zipporah?  Was she a Cushite?  What’s a Cushite [in this passage] anyway?)  True statements are still lashon ha’ra when they are personal and used to besmirch.

Ignorance.   The Torah’s silence about the Moses’ situation regarding his wife is instructive in this sense: lashon ha’ra often takes place in a vacuum of ignorance, with many pertinent facts unknown.  Despite our ignorance, we rush to judgment.  Or more often, instead of outright judgment, we rush to . . .

Innuendo.  So what if Moses married a Cushite?  They don’t say.  There’s simply an unspoken sneer, a silent hint, that this act is unseemly.  How else do we go from the personal to the public question of who has final (human) authority among the Israelites?

In commenting on this passage, Nehama Liebowitz talks feelingly of how envy is at the root of much gossip.  She notes the corrosive effect of envy on our aspirations and ideals, how it seeks to “minimize any symptom of human greatness.”

May 15, 2013 6:18 pm CDT


The leaders of Israel, heads of their ancestral houses, the leaders of the tribes, who were over those who were enrolled, made offerings.  (Num. 7:2)

According to the midrash, these leaders were none other the foremen over the Israelites who worked in Pharoah’s brickyard.  These foremen were beaten when the Israelites did you not make the required quota of bricks (Exodus 5:14).  They did not, however, pass the blame along to the rest of the people, but protested the treatment.   According to the midrash, “These officers were wont to say: it is better for us to be beaten rather than that the rest of the people should suffer.”  Presenting the offering on behalf of their tribes is construed by the midrash as their reward.

May 15, 2013 6:14 pm CDT

Naso—The Oracle Redeems

“When Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the LORD, he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat . . . “ (Num 7:89)

At 89 verses, Numbers 7 is by far the longest chapter in the Torah, three times longer than the average chapter, twenty verses longer than its nearest competitor.  No wonder, as the identical offering from each of the tribes is detailed twelve times:

. . . his offering was one silver plate weighing one hundred thirty shekels, one silver basin weighing seventy shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of choice  flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; one golden dish weighing ten shekels, full of incense;  one young bull, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; one male goat for a sin offering; and for the sacrifice of well-being, two oxen, five rams,  five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. (Num. 7:25-29, etc., etc.)

The chapter creaks under the weight of all the silver, gold and livestock.  As more and more stuff is amassed, I found myself looking for a vital pulse of worship beneath it all.   I found it, finally, in the last verse.  The oracle ensures that we have no mere spectacle or bloated oration, but a dialogue.

May 8, 2013 10:23 pm CDT

Bamidbar–The Place of the Word

YHWH spoke (vayyedabber) to Moses in the wilderness (midbar) of Sinai.  (Num. 3:14)

Puns abound as we begin the next scroll of the Torah, the book that is called “Numbers” in English, but “Bamidbar” (“in the wilderness”) in Hebrew.  Midbar seems to have the same root as dabar, which means “word” as a noun and “speak” as a verb.  While there is no etymological connection, the wordplay is suggestive, since, for Israel, the wilderness was the place of the word.  Its very sparseness seems conducive to an absence of distraction, to hearing what is really essential.

“When God gave the Torah, no bird sang or flew, no ox bellowed, the angels did not fly, the Seraphim ceased from saying ‘Holy Holy,’ the sea was calm, no creature spoke; the world was silent and still, and the divine voice said, ‘I am the LORD your God.’”  (Midrash, Exodus Rabbah)

May 8, 2013 10:08 pm CDT

Bamidbar–To Schlep and Protect

They [the Levites] shall perform guard duty for him [Aaron] and for the whole community outside the Tent of Meeting, doing the labor [avodah] of the Tabernacle.   (Num. 3:8)

In good ol’ Sesame Street fashion, this drush is brought to you by the letter M, for Milgrom, as in Jacob Milgrom, the contemporary master-scholar of the Priestly laws.  My translation reflects his thorough and detailed understanding of these texts.  (Compare the JPS rendering of the same verse, “They shall perform duties for him and for the whole community before the Tent of Meeting, doing the work of the Tabernacle”: a vague translation that simply tells you that the Levites are involved with sacred things.)

Milgrom shows that, in connection with the Tabernacle, mishmeret always means “guard duty,” referring to the Levitical cordon around the Tabernacle that guards it from incursion by unauthorized laity.  This is seen as an important benefit, since even an accidental trespass could elicit divine wrath.  The Levites—as opposed to the priests—are forbidden access to the inner shrine, and so “before the Tent of Meeting” needs to be taken literally: before, but not within.

The end of the verse is easy to misunderstand, since avodah in the post-exilic period is often a general term for the activity of worship, the sacrifices and liturgy of the Temple (e.g., in the beginning of Avot, avodah is said to be one of the three pillars on which the world stands).  But in Numbers, Levitical avodah has the specific meaning of physical labor—the packing, lifting and transporting of the Tabernacle itself and its sacred furnishings– which is why it, unlike guard duty, is reserved for those between 30 and 50 (cf. Num. 4:23ff)  Thus, this verse both summarizes the responsibility of the Levites with regard to the Tabernacle and underlines their subordination to the priests.

May 2, 2013 1:21 am CDT

Bekhukotai–How to Donate Yourself

“When a person vows the equivalent of a human being . . . ”  (Lev. 27:2)

Leviticus concludes in a grand manner at the end of chapter 26.  Chapter 27 constitutes an appendix on fundraising through the consecration of persons, animals, houses, land, etc.  The goal was “to secure silver for the sanctuary and its related needs, not, for the most part, to secure the actual commodities that were pledged or consecrated.” (Levine)

Using this system, one could vow to “give” oneself or a member of one’s household to the sanctuary, and fulfill the vow by paying a certain amount of silver.  This harkens back to the ancient custom of dedicating oneself, or one’s child, to temple service. In 1 Samuel 1 we read that Hannah vowed at the sanctuary of Shiloh that if God granted her a son she would bring him to Shiloh, where he would remain in service all his days. When Samuel was born to her, she, indeed, devoted him in this way. Pledging the equivalent of one’s life, according to a scale established by the priesthood, served two ends: the spirit of the ancient tradition was satisfied, and, in practical terms, the sanctuary received necessary funds.

May 2, 2013 1:18 am CDT

Bekhukotai–Worth Your Weight in Silver

” . . . the equivalent for a male shall be: from twenty to sixty years of age the equivalent shall be fifty shekels of silver  by the sanctuary shekel.   If the person is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels.”  (Lev. 27:3-4)

For purposes of this offering, Leviticus 27 sets a scale of valuation of persons irrespective of status, beauty or wealth (although the amount of the offering could be lowered for a poor person at the priest’s discretion).  In keeping with the practical tone of this chapter, the “value” of a person is reckoned solely in terms of productivity in the economy of ancient Israel.   Carol Meyers argues that the text reflects a social reality in ancient Israel where women bore nearly 40% of the workload; this was taken as a balanced division of labor, given the nature of the biological demands upon women in reproduction.

And if the person is sixty years old or over, then the equivalent for a male is fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels.   (Lev. 27:7)  I just turned 60 a few months back, and it was the first birthday that made me feel older.  Am I worth less now?  Or am I just being given a senior discount?