The summer after graduating college, I went backpacking with a friend in North Cascades National Park in Washington. The sun shone brightly on Lake Chelan as we were ferried deep into the woods, landing at the little outpost of Stehekin to begin our weeklong trek. It was a euphoric beginning, but soon both the weather and my mood grew darker. Late one afternoon we were hiking up a long ridge when the icy drizzle became a frigid downpour. A tender spot on my foot blossomed into a painful blister, and each step was agony. It was getting dark, we hadn’t found a place to make camp, and my friend was hiking just a bit faster than I could. I fantasized that beyond the next towering Sitka spruce we’d find bowls of hot soup and a warm, dry tent waiting for us, but instead it was just more wet woods, cold rain, and painful feet. This was a miserable moment, the kind when one obsessively asks: Why did I ever leave home?
When we enter the tortured world of Numbers, better named in Hebrew as Bemidbar—In the wilderness—I recall the discomfort of that journey and my inclination to self-pity. There is quite a bit of complaining in this book, as the Israelites schlep through the wilderness, making mistakes that lengthen their journey and deepen their problems. Yet the wilderness is also their place of revelation. True, its discomforts and exertions bring the people’s character flaws to the surface, but they also discern there the voice of God and their national mission. This book begins in the wilderness but ends on the banks of the River Jordan, across from Jericho. The people who arrive at that point are battle-hardened from the journey, but what has become of their spirit? Continue reading
Perhaps the most radical idea in Jewish theology is that God’s holy status is dependent upon human conduct, specifically on the behavior of Israel. Far from being an “unmoved mover,” the God of Israel is deeply invested in the conduct of God’s servants. The rabbis, especially the mystics among them, understand the covenant as an elaborate dance between partners, with God leading by a step, and then Israel responding, as in the pas de deux of French ballet. Passover is understood as the divine awakening—a grand entrance made by God onto the stage of history—but it is followed by a series of small delicate steps taken by Israel during the counting of Omer (like the adagio) before the two dancers come together for a synchronized coda at Mt. Sinai.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev writes in Kedushat Levi that the command in our portion (23:15) to “count for yourselves” (וספרתם לכם) implies a divine desire that Israel will “awaken below,” integrating each of the seven attributes of divinity week by week so that the flow of blessing can be channeled through them. This is a beautiful and affirming understanding of the covenant between God and Israel.
Yet there is another side to sanctification which is associated with one of the most important verses of our portion, in which God declares, “I will be sanctified in the midst of Israel” (22:32). This concept that God becomes sanctified through Israel is repeated several times by the prophet Ezekiel, but in those cases, it seems that God is using the people Israel to demonstrate God’s providence in the “eyes of the nations,” specifically by gathering them from among the peoples and bringing them back to the holy land. Here God becomes holy by first punishing and then rescuing Israel, which is less of a covenantal partner than a prop for the demonstration of divine power. Continue reading
Many years ago a teacher challenged me to name a mitzvah that had no personal significance. It took but a second for the word shatnez to cross my lips—I just couldn’t think of any spiritual insight that could come from worrying about the fabric blend in my clothes. As a city dweller, I didn’t have much opportunity to practice kilayim by avoiding blending species of seeds in my non-existent garden or breeding different kinds of animals in my imaginary barn. My teacher’s eyes twinkled as he told me that my personal challenge was to find meaning in this mitzvah.
It has taken a few decades, but I think I may have gotten there. For the past year I have been working on a new responsum for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards called, “Halakhic Perspectives on Genetically Modified Organisms.” Because one of the major forms of genetic engineering involves combining DNA from two or more organisms, the most relevant halakhic category is kilayim, the mixing of breeds, which the Torah forbids this week in Parashat Kedoshim, 19:19.
But even if kilayim turns out to be a useful model for considering the halakhah of genetic engineering, the question remains what spiritual significance can be found in the Torah’s insistence upon species separation. The perspective of this section of the Torah, and of other sections associated with the priestly traditions, is of a tightly ordered world. Time, space, animal species and also human groups are all organized into hierarchical structures. The Torah tells its readers to “guard my statutes by which you shall live.” Part of this regime involves maintaining distinctions in nature and in society. Continue reading