One winter night some years ago I crossed the parking lot of Providence Hospital in Southfield, MI. Looking up, I saw a great cloud of steam rising from the heat grates, dramatically lit by floodlights mounted on the hospital roof. This dynamic swirling above the hospital, combined perhaps with the heaviness I felt in visiting a dying patient, mixed also with the happy memory that my own son had recently been born in this very building, took me out of ordinary consciousness. I felt then that I was visiting not just a hospital but a transit hub, with souls entering and exiting the world, as some gave birth while others died within the walls of the building. The proximity of endings and beginnings all under one roof made me recall Jacob’s vision of the angels ascending and descending, and his statement upon awakening, “how awesome is this place; it is none other than a house of God and a portal to heaven.” Continue reading
Spring has arrived, and with it the smell of sacred BBQ. I don’t mean that literally, especially with so many vegetarians in our community, but the confluence of Parshat Shmini and Shabbat Parah means that there is a great deal of attention paid to the selection, slaughter, sacrifice and eating of animals. Chapter 11 of Leviticus contains one of the two major descriptions in the Torah of the types of animals that are considered pure (טהור) and fit for consumption (כשר). The chain of transmission in verse one is unusual—God tells Moses and Aaron to “tell them,” that is Israel, that “this is the animal that you may eat from all beasts upon the earth.” For two millennia our sages have scrutinized these words for additional meaning.
Whenever the Torah uses the word “this” (זאת) the sages understand it to be a visual clue. In BeMidbar Rabba we read that Moses had special difficulty understanding three of God’s commandments—the identification of the new moon, the design of the menorah, and the signs of kosher animals. For these three commandments, God provided a light show—a fiery image of the object—so that Moses could understand what was being described. Incidentally, this demonstrates good pedagogy, making use of various senses to teach difficult material. It was not only the species signs (split hoofs, cud-chewing etc.) that confused Moses, but also the extent of damage suffered by an animal to render it “injured” (טרפה) and thus unfit for consumption.
Mishnah Hullin (3:1) lists many forms of injuries to an animal that would render it unfit even if it lives. The sages notice that the initial word for an animal, חיה, implies that it is living, but they also realize that some injured animals are in fact dying, even if slowly. At what stage does it become unfit? According to the school of Rabbi Yishmael, as reported in Bavli Hullin 42a, God picked up animal after animal to show Moses until he could finally become expert in the diagnosis of animal injuries. Moses needed to become a veterinarian (as well as an architect and an astronomer) before he could become a rabbi for Israel. Midrash Vayikra Rabba imagines God summoning the image of a flaming skull in order to show Moses what type of cranial injury would make an animal טרפה. Continue reading
Can you imagine what it would look like if the Jewish people took collective responsibility for creating a righteous and just society? If instead of a squabbling and loosely organized confederation of miniature camps, we had a truly representative Jewish leadership that held itself accountable to the people and to God? I confess that it is hard to imagine such a scenario, but that counterfactual reality is precisely what our parashah describes in chapter 4. Verse 13 begins, “If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt….” A ritual of expiation follows, with the elders laying hands on a bull at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and slaughtering it before the community.
I realize that killing cattle in front of a tent would not work so well in our day—our rituals of expiation play out in courtrooms and in the press. Still, we can appreciate the concept that the people and their leaders should not simply admit error and move on, but must act out a ritual so that the divine presence will not depart the camp. Let’s look at how these verses have been understood by Jewish readers, and then think of what would work in our own day. Continue reading