I had an epiphany the other day at Shaharit as I sat quietly in my tallit and tefillin during the reader’s repetition. Looking at the enormous menorot in our WLSS sanctuary, it occurred to me that the two shins on my head-tefillin, one with three branches and one with four, were somewhat like a 7-branched menorah flanking my head. Thinking further, the two boxes seemed reminiscent of the two chambers of the tabernacle, the Holy, and the Holy of Holies. The head box, tefillah shel rosh, has four cells—I thought of them as the screen (masakh), the table, the incense altar, and the parokhet, which were the four elements of the Kodesh aside from the Menorah. The hand box with its single cell became in my mind like the holy of holies, containing within it just one item, the “testimony of the covenant.” So too does the tefillah shel yad contain just one scroll, though it has four passages, reminiscent of the two sets of tablets, broken and whole, within the ark. What about the cherubim? Their dominant feature is the k’nafayim, four outstretched wings like the four-cornered (arba kanfot) tallit on my shoulders. There in a quiet moment of prayer, I realized that a mini-mishkan was wrapped around my body. Continue reading
Fridays are ideally reserved for two of my favorite activities—studying Torah and cooking for my family. On this day I follow leads from the Torah portion through centuries of rabbinic interpretation, seeking to deepen my understanding of the scope of Jewish wisdom. And in the back of my mind, I am keeping track of time, remembering when it is time to start a dish that needs hours of cooking so that when Shabbat arrives, spiritual and physical sustenance will combine to make Shabbat a day of delight.
The nexus between food and religious life becomes explicit this week in Parashat Mishpatim. Chapter 22 ends with the verse, “You shall be My holy people; do not eat meat found torn in the field, but rather toss it to the dogs.” Parts A and B of this verse appear to be a jarring non sequitur. The first half speaks of an exalted partnership between Israel and God; the second involves the repulsive image of feeding carrion meat to the dogs. And yet for the Torah, this is not a non sequitur. Again in Deuteronomy 14:21, Israel is warned not to eat non-kosher meat (here called neveilah, not basar tereifah), and also to avoid seething a kid in its mother’s milk (understood by the sages as a general prohibition on mixing meat and dairy)—in order to become a “holy people to the Lord your God.” Continue reading
The experience of watching my block engulfed in smoke and fire last Shabbat set the stage for Parshat Yitro in a unique fashion. The Decalogue is framed (at 19:18 and then 20:15) by descriptions of the fire on Mount Sinai, which seems to become a volcano before the terrified eyes of Israel. Classical midrashim compare the Torah to fire—it burns those who are too close, but warms those who are farther off; so too Torah study requires careful attention. A small fire ignites a larger one, and so too even a minor disciple can teach Torah to a great scholar. The commentary Or HaHayim understands the puzzling description that the people “saw the sounds” as a physical reality—as Mount Sinai burned, its stones were liquified, and the melting mountain made terrible sounds that terrified the people.
In the aftermath, the people stood back, afraid of the divine presence, but Moses entered the inferno, like the brave FDNY men whom I watched last Saturday climb up ladders and stand on the roof of a burning building while our neighborhood watched in dread from the street below. The Hasidic writer of Likkutei Maharil (R. Judah Leib, of the Rabbinic Court of Zakikob, not to be confused with Maharil, the fourteenth century German halakhist, Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Moellin), says that the people focused on the eternal reality of flames and smoke, while Moses alone was able to perceive the “ikkar,” the divine presence. He recounts a story of a great Zaddik who spent an hour of intense meditation one Sukkot before blessing the lulav. All the people were focused on the Zaddik’s meditation, but the writer realized that the main thing was to listen to his blessing at the end. The point is to look not at the external reality but the internal transformation that is masked from view. Continue reading