Coming Clean: Vayikra/Zakhor 5779

False oaths are an especially pernicious form of social crime because they cause serious harm to individuals while also imperiling an entire system. Oaths were administered using the divine name (and in rabbinic Judaism, while holding a Torah scroll or pair of tefillin), and so, false oaths were also viewed as a form of heresy. It is no wonder then that the Torah takes oaths seriously and views failure to fulfill one’s promise as a sin that requires special expiation.

Toward the end of our portion, (Lev. 5: 4-13) we read that a person who has neglected an oath (or one of the other private sins listed just prior) must confess his transgression and then bring a sacrifice. This is the only reference to confession in the portion despite the fact that chapters 4-5 are dominated by discussions of sin offerings. Perhaps because the transgression involves speech, the atonement must likewise begin with speech. The Etz Hayyim “pshat” commentary offers a convincing explanation: “Here we are dealing with private acts and the failure to act, which might never have come to light had the offender not come forward to confess.” Continue reading

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Clouds of Glory: Pekudei 5779

The snowy forest. Photo by Rabbi Nevins, February 2019.“What do you mean, Rabbi? The clouds are mysterious—it’s like being on Sinai!” This statement by a rabbinical student consoled me several years ago on the summit of Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks. Each fall I take a minyan or so of students hiking for the weekend, and on that day, we had spent many hours climbing this enormous peak. On the way up, we enjoyed stunning views—of an alpine lake called “the Giant’s Washbowl” and the Great Range looming across the valley to our south. But when we reached the top of Giant a thick cloud had parked itself on the summit and would not budge. Visibility was limited to about ten feet, and wisps of mist skimmed between us.

Just a few weeks earlier I had previewed the route, and on that sunny day we could see for miles and miles. Not today. I felt terrible for the students—so much effort, and then no vista for a reward. But they responded with delight to the glorious cloud cover. Deprivation of the senses allowed for an expansion of spirit. We knew that there was a substantial reality just beyond the clouds, but our inability to observe it directly made it that much more majestic. I relaxed and joined my students, my teachers, in gratitude and wonder.

I think often of that moment on Giant Mountain when I read the dramatic closing lines of Exodus. After all the effort to design, build, and assemble the Tabernacle, the divine glory enters the structure as a cloud, driving out Moses and obscuring the sacred precincts from view. In the priestly sections of the Torah, the divine glory (kavod) is enveloped by cloud cover, apparently to protect the people. Israel Knohl argues that these depictions also “serve to stress the impersonal aspect of divinity and to avoid anthropomorphic imagery” (Sanctuary of Silence, 130). Yet it could be that the clouds make divinity more approachable and give license to the imagination to find God in the mysterious mist. Divine presence will no longer be limited to the mountaintop but will be accessible to all, right in the center of the camp.

But not for long. After the incident of the golden calf, Moses moves the Tabernacle outside the camp—an apparent rebuke to the people for their insolence and “stiff necks.” Still, the Torah states that anyone who seeks God can step out of camp and approach the Tent of Meeting. Indeed, everyone could watch Moses doing just that, speaking face to face with God, who appeared in the guise of a cloud, (Exod. 33: 1–11). The divine glory has departed the camp, but not gone too far. All it takes is willingness to step outside to where the cloud and the glory await spiritual seekers.

Generations later Solomon will dedicate the Temple, saying, “The Lord has chosen to abide in a thick cloud” (I Kings 8:12; cf. II Chron. 6:1). This text, which is our haftarah for Shabbat Pekudei, demonstrates the persistence of the cloud as an Israelite metaphor for divine presence. The Midrash (Mekhilta Derabbi Yishmael, Pisha 12) asks: When did God choose to dwell in the cloud? It answers with another verse, Lev. 16:2, “For I appear in the cloud on the cover [of the Holy Ark].” What is interesting here is that the cloud of Leviticus refers not to a supernatural wonder, but to the smoke made by the High Priest: as we read in v.13, “He shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over the [Ark of the] Pact, lest he die.” God dwells also in clouds created by humans.

There is a progression at play from the remarkable and unrepeatable moment of revelation on Sinai to the ongoing experience of our ancestors in the Tabernacle and Temple. God dwells in thick cloud—but where can that cloud be found? We who have not had the direct experience of Sinai, nor witnessed the clouds of glory over the Tabernacle, nor even seen the priest enter the Temple to burn incense on our behalf—where can we experience the divine glory?

We have two access points, both necessary. We may not be high priests, and we may not burn the sacred incense, but we do have the power to pray. In Psalm 141:2, David says, “Take my prayer as an offering of incense.” The Rabbis cite this verse to prove that prayer can take the place of sacrifice (BT Berakhot 6b; Sifre Devarim 41). God dwells in the mystery of invisible energy when a person or a group of people create a metaphorical cloud of glory. I cannot explain the power of prayer, but I know that it is in worship that I come closest to experiencing the divine presence.

No, let me qualify that claim. It is not only in prayer that I feel the divine presence, but also in places of natural beauty. Recently I snowshoed deep into the woods on a cloudy day. Eventually I found myself beside a frozen stream, with water gurgling deep below the ice. Snow fell softly on my cheeks and tall pines dusted white witnessed the wonder of the moment. I felt the divine presence there in the woods, and again several hours later as we lit candles to start Shabbat. The cloud followed Moses down the mountain, entered the Tabernacle and remained accessible to the people, just outside the camp. So too did it follow me from the woods to the house, from the stream to the candlelit room where wisps of smoke circled and summoned the divine presence.

Solomon said that God chooses to dwell in a thick cloud. In other words, the divine presence is hidden, but the absence is only apparent. In truth we each have points of access, both inside and outside the camp, in nature and in culture, in solitude and in community. When we allow each mode to inform the other then we can experience the paradox of absence as presence. Doing so, we become something more than our ordinary selves, beckoning mystery to enter our lives, even as the divine presence entered the Tabernacle. With wonder we approach the cloud, our faces lit by God’s glory.

From Mishkan to the Mind of God: VaYakheil/Shekalim 5779

What are you thinking? That is an interesting question, but perhaps more important is, how are you thinking? Consciousness is one of the most mysterious aspects of our existence. We know that we have brains, and that they have mechanisms for receiving stimuli, but how does one go from mechanical information processing to consciousness? And, is consciousness merely a product of input, or is it also a form of control that can direct thought, reshaping our internal state and guiding behavior?

Such questions belong to an area of overlapping concern between scientists of cognition and religious thinkers. An organization called Sinai and Synapses has been bringing the discourses of science and religion into conversation. I’ve been reading the work of Princeton neurologist Michael Graziano, with whom I’ve been asked to appear at the Princeton Jewish Center in May to discuss consciousness. I’d like to take a few minutes to share the theory outlined in his book, Consciousness and the Social Brain (Oxford UP, 2013) before turning to Jewish texts connected to VaYakheil. Let’s see if they can inform one another. Continue reading

Missing Miriam: Ki Tissa 5779

I feel sympathy for Aaron. While his brother Moses is enjoying a one on One visit with God on top of Sinai, Aaron faces a restive crowd below, desperately trying to hold them off. As Rashi notes, Aaron’s suggestion that the people surrender their jewelry was a delaying tactic until Moses would return, but the people readily relinquished their gold. If you look at Rashi’s description of how the calf was made, you see an unusual amount of Aggadah—Aaron tossed the metal in the fire, but magicians came and used charms to fashion the form, or perhaps it was the prophet Micah who somehow had a divine Name with him, and used it to try to summon Joseph (“the ox” based on his blessing in Deut. 33:17) to rise from his coffin to save the day, but it backfired, and out came the calf. Continue reading

Pennies for Heaven: Terumah 5779

PushkeHow do you feel about fund-raising? For many people it is an unwelcome task, but pause to consider the expression, which refers to the elevation of money towards a higher purpose. That is the literal meaning of the word תרומה. Most Bible translations render it simply as “offering” or “donation,” but a few preserve the literal sense as in, “raised-contribution (Everett Fox), “elevation offering” (JPS, Robert Alter at Ex. 29:27), or my favorite, “heave offering” (KJV also at Ex 29:27, et al). These translations of תרומה preserve a sense of the physical act—a person takes an ordinary object and lifts it up both physically and symbolically, so that it can serve the needs of the altar, of poor people, of the community and ultimately of God.

Already in Deuteronomy (12:17) the word תרומה refers to general donations to the future Temple, not only to the original tabernacle, and this is how the rabbis came to understand the commandment. It was forbidden to eat crops until the תרומה had been separated for the priests, and tithes for the Levites and the poor. This practice of self-restraint, of giving to others before taking for oneself, is itself a form of elevation. Physical desires are made secondary to moral, communal and spiritual values. Judaism does not insist on an ideal of self-abasement here, but it does demand that all Jews expand their sense of responsibility to share resources for the sake of communal worship and social solidarity. As Proverbs says (14:34), “Righteousness (צדקה) exalts a nation.” Continue reading

From Mishpatim to MobileEye. Who is Responsible? 5779

Autonomous VehiclesIs a person liable for damage caused by their property? For example, if I direct an autonomous vehicle to drive me to the store, and the car runs over property or injures or even kills an animal or a person, is it my fault? Can it be partially my fault? How should we decide? Such questions are a focus of my new responsum on artificial intelligence, which is still in draft form.

As with all questions of technology, a starting point is to look for precedents, and it happens that most of them are linked to our portion, Parashat Mishpatim. This Torah portion is the basis of Hilkhot Nezikin, the laws of damage. In Jewish law, a distinction is made between damage a person causes with their own body (נזקי גופו), and damage that is caused by their property (נזקי ממונו). Our portion discusses some cases of direct damage, as when one person assaults another or steals their property. However it also considers cases when a person is not careful with their property. Perhaps they create a hazard such as a pit on their property or a roof that lacks a parapet. Maybe they set a fire that burned out of control and damaged a neighbor’s crops. Or perhaps they own animals which cause damage. How to determine liability? Continue reading

Sharing Sinai with all that lives: Yitro 5779

eagle in akWhat is the significance of Sinai for animals? This might sound like a strange question—the theophany was for people, right? If anything, we might say that animals were instruments in the form of sacrifices—those brought by Yitro at the start of the portion, and those described by God in the Decalogue postscript about earthen and stone altars. It is true that animal sacrifice is part of the covenant made between people and God, and yet I’d like to suggest that animals have a larger stake in Sinai.

Animals surround the great revelation on the mountain of the Lord. God states at the outset (19:4) that Israel was brought out of Egypt “on eagle’s wings.” The revelation itself was accompanied by the sound of a ram’s horn: “The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.” This conjures a mingling of divine, human and animal sounds during this revelation. Still, the audience of the revelation was human, right? Continue reading