Defective Priests and Animals; Dignity Demanded for All. Emor 5779

Last week in Parashat Kedoshim we read one of the most enlightened passages in the Torah. In verse 14 the Torah commands us not to curse the deaf, nor to trip the blind, but to fear the Lord your God. This verse is embedded within a glorious section about social solidarity, including concern for the elderly, the poor, the vulnerable worker. It climaxes with the centerpiece of the Torah, but love your neighbor as yourself, I am God. These verses are all important, but the command not to take advantage of people with physical disabilities is perhaps most notable and noble:

ויקרא פרק יט, יד

(יד) לֹא תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי ה’:

Savor that verse, because unfortunately, it is not all that Leviticus has to say about disability, as we heard today when we read the portion. Parashat Emor opens with regulations about the priesthood, their marriage partners and mandate to maintain ritual purity. Fair enough, but then in chapter 21 there is an extensive passage about physical blemishes that disqualify the priests from serving at the Temple altar. Let’s read this painful passage together:

ויקרא פרק כא, טז-כג

(טז) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: (יז) דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אִישׁ מִזַּרְעֲךָ לְדֹרֹתָם אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בוֹ מוּם לֹא יִקְרַב לְהַקְרִיב לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו: (יח) כִּי כָל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ מוּם לֹא יִקְרָב אִישׁ עִוֵּר אוֹ פִסֵּחַ אוֹ חָרֻם אוֹ שָׂרוּעַ: (יט) אוֹ אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בוֹ שֶׁבֶר רָגֶל אוֹ שֶׁבֶר יָד: (כ) אוֹ גִבֵּן אוֹ דַק אוֹ תְּבַלֻּל בְּעֵינוֹ אוֹ גָרָב אוֹ יַלֶּפֶת אוֹ מְרוֹחַ אָשֶׁךְ: (כא) כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ מוּם מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן לֹא יִגַּשׁ לְהַקְרִיב אֶת  אִשֵּׁי ה’ מוּם בּוֹ אֵת לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו לֹא יִגַּשׁ לְהַקְרִיב: (כב) לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו מִקָּדְשֵׁי הַקֳּדָשִׁים וּמִן הַקֳּדָשִׁים יֹאכֵל: (כג) אַךְ אֶל הַפָּרֹכֶת לֹא יָבֹא וְאֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא יִגַּשׁ כִּי מוּם בּוֹ וְלֹא יְחַלֵּל אֶת מִקְדָּשַׁי כִּי אֲנִי ה’ מְקַדְּשָׁם:

If you look closely at the passage, you’ll notice some interesting features. First, there are 12 blemishes listed. This is hardly an exhaustive list of things that can go wrong with our bodies, so either there is something very special about these conditions, or the list could be paradigmatic—just examples of the endless litany of injury and disease. Indeed, the rabbis counted 142 disqualifying blemishes in Mishnah Bekhorot, Chapter 7 (מומים אלו), including the deaf and the mute. So much for our progressive attitude. Continue reading


Silence Above and Below: Aharei Mot 5779

 Ze’ev Wilhelm Falk was a professor of law at Hebrew University who also served as rector and faculty at the Schechter institute in Jerusalem. Born in Breslau in 1923, he fled Germany alone at 16, arriving in Israel in 1939, and went on to study in the Hevron yeshivah and then at Hebrew University. He is best known as a scholar of religious law and ethics (I lived near his home on HaRav Berlin in 1991 and bought a copy of his book of this title from him), but he also wrote poetry and prayers. If you look at the Yom HaShoah section of the daily Siddur Sim Shalom (p.202), you will find a powerful prayer that he wrote called “Silence” (דומיה):

אבינו מלכינו שמא תפלתנו שלא לרצון? יאתה לשכולים ולך דומיה—מול דמי עוללים.

עמדת על דם בנך עבדך, התש כחך? תשה תפלתנו, הותשה תורתנו, שמע קול הדממה.

Avinu Malkenu—Is it possible that our prayer is not acceptable to You? Attend those who are bereft—You are silent in the presence of the blood of sucklings! You stood by as the blood of Your children was shed—has Your strength failed. Our prayer is diminished, our Torah has been compromised. Listen to the sound of our silence.

In this poem Falk juxtaposes the words דם (blood) and דום (silent) to great effect. Human prayer is voiced but unheard—it might as well be silence. Babies bleed and cry—but elicit no divine response. What became of the listening and responsive God who spoke to Cain, saying, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil” (Gen. 4:10, trans. Alter). What of Ezekiel’s image of Israel as a bloody baby taken up by God and told to live (Ez. 16:6)? What of the “still small voice” that greeted Elijah (1 Kg 19:12)? Rabbinic literature often states, “when X happened, the strength of Y failed (תשש כחו).”  But here it is God whose strength has failed (תש כחך), and as a result, so too have the prayers and Torah of Israel failed. Suffering, screams, and supplications—none of it matters, so it seems, to the silent God. In a bitter closing, the poet instructs God to listen to the sound of our silence. After the Shoah, we literally give God the silent treatment. Continue reading

Why is this Shabbat different from all others? Shabbat HaGadol 5779

I recently noticed a curious feature of the Passover prophetic cycle. On Shabbat HaGadol, the final Shabbat before Pesah, we read the final verses of the final prophet—Malakhi 3:4-24. The next haftarah, on the first day of Passover is from the first book of the prophets, Joshua, albeit not the first chapter (which is read on Simhat Torah). In the fall we emphasize the cycle of Torah, ending Deuteronomy and resuming Bereshit, but in the spring our emphasis is on the prophets, whose messages shift our gaze from past to present and on to the future. This is certainly the case with our haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol, which speaks of the dual failures of Israel following the building of the second Temple. On the one hand, they have perverted justice, taking advantage of the vulnerable in society; on the other hand, they have ruined rituals, making a mockery of the gifts of their restored national existence. Continue reading

Become a Mitzvah Agent: HaHodesh 5779

Our third Torah reading this Shabbat (Ex. 12:1-20) is the fourth and final special maftir related to Purim and Pesah. As with the entire complex of Passover rituals there is an intentional blending of individual and group identity. When each individual Israelite and then Jew participates in these rituals, they gently detach themselves from their particular personal context and attach themselves to the fate of a nation. Family by family, country by country, century by century, we weave together a polity that transcends time and space. In v. 6 we read of the Paschal lamb, You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight.

This is a powerful and poetic image, but the rabbis raise an obvious objection. It couldn’t be that every Israelite slaughtered a lamb—that would be far too much meat! Yet the verse says that “all” of the Israelites “shall slaughter it.” In Bavli Pesahim 78b, the sages take this to mean that even one paschal lamb would suffice for the entire nation of Israel, even if there wasn’t an olive’s bulk of meat for each person. In other words, everyone needs to participate in Pesah, but even in ancient times the main point was never to chew on the actual meat. Continue reading

Stupid Anger: Shmini/Parah 5779

Anger is often an understandable reaction, and yet it can be one of the most destructive and debilitating of emotions. It is hard to imagine how Moses feels when his two nephews Nadav and Avihu are struck dead in the middle of the inaugural service for the tabernacle. Guilty? Terrified? Shocked? All of these, I think. Mostly Moses seems eager to stanch the suffering, to make sure that every detail of the ritual is followed so that God will not strike again. This is why he examines the rituals of sacrifice so closely and is so quick to anger when something seems amiss.

The Torah (Lev. 10:16) says that Moses “studiously studied,” (דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ) or something like that—the sense is that he went looking to see what became of the purification offering (for the new moon, according to the Sages)—was the goat sacrificed? If not, then why not? If so, then why wasn’t its priestly portion eaten? This double verb has long attracted rabbinic attention, in part because it is the midpoint of the Torah in words, with inquiry (דָּרַשׁ) on both sides. Sweet. But although Moses is our greatest student and teacher of Torah, at this point his abilities to study and comprehend simply fail. He should have known that the priests were not allowed to eat sacrifices immediately after becoming bereaved, yet he criticized them all the same. Continue reading

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

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.

Continue reading