Monthly Archives: April 2016

Tying Up the Ram, Trying to Be Free: Shabbat HaGadol 5776

Aries StampThe Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes taught a course that I took one year in college, and I still savor his exploration of magical realism with our class. One of his grand themes was the elliptical nature of time. Some cultures, he claimed, view time in cyclical terms, with each development merely a return to a former position. Other cultures are teleological, setting a distant target and placing the highest value on progress from the benighted past to a splendid future. Fuentes found both paradigms to be limiting. Life as this novelist understood it is elliptical or perhaps spiral in nature. One never returns to precisely the same location, but neither do they ever put the past entirely behind. Like an interstellar spacecraft on a vast journey, we return to circle the same planets, absorbing new energy from their gravity, and then rocketing onwards on an elliptical orbit, only to return to the region in an uncertain future.

When we return to Pesah each year I recall my old teacher, of blessed memory, and think about how revisiting our ancient story can invest us with new energy to confront a developing future. We are not quite the same as we were last Pesah, and who knows where next Pesah will find us, but the familiar themes give us energy for the journey. I find this insight also in the writings of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1560-1630), known as של”ה הקודש, or the sainted author of the book, שני לוחות הברית, the two tablets of covenant. For him, Passover is always about renewal, or חידוש עולם (in this he is reminiscent of Ramban’s comments regarding Shabbat at Deut. 5:15). This renewal is not a political revolution but a spiritual one. A breakthrough in awareness happened that first year on the tenth of Nissan, which was Shabbat HaGadol. Before we get to this redemptive notion, however, we need to wade through some darker waters. Continue reading

Babies as Spiritual Giants: Tazria/HaHodesh/RH 5776

Preemie Newborn babies are miraculous to see, and even more remarkable to hold. To let their tiny fingers curl around your pinkie and breathe in their new-to-the-world fragrance is divine, but sometimes this pleasure isn’t possible. A few days ago I met a newborn so small that even his parents can’t hold him—at just 2 lbs, this premature infant in the NICU is tethered to life support, receiving remarkably skilled and compassionate care. I pray that this boy and his twin sister, also premature but in better health, will grow strong and secure in the weeks and months ahead. Standing there by the incubator and watching this tiny, tiny person, not much bigger than a yam, I felt deeply humbled by the mysteries of physical existence. Spiritual existence is also a mystery, but first there is the guf, and to look at a few ounces of person fighting for his place in the land of the living is to remember that all of our automatic systems—respiration, circulation, digestion and more—are an enormous miracle that we are challenged to appreciate. Sure, we can stop to notice our breathing for a few minutes, but then our attention shifts. Fortunately our body’s attention does not shift. Even when we sleep, our hearts beat on, our breath remains, and our souls stay tethered to these remarkable bodies, so that we might continue to live, to grow, to love, to give.

It is with this consciousness of the fragility and preciousness of life that I enter the realm of Parshat Tazria. The new mother is quarantined for a week, just as at menstruation. In both cases one senses the Torah’s desire to give her time to heal before facing the pressures of public life. But then she is invited to the epicenter of holiness—the sacred precincts of the tabernacle/temple, in order to offer two sacrifices—an offering of ascent (קרבן עולה), and an offering of purification (קרבן חטאת). In many ways this story is one of appreciation for the physical and spiritual power of women—they bring life into the world, and they are invited to connect this wonder with the spiritual life of the sanctuary, offering their own double sacrifice. The purification offering acknowledges the danger of labor and delivery, as well as the cultic contamination caused by her bleeding; the offering of ascent (olah) is not explained, but “it may be an expression of thanks or a required gesture of obeisance” (Jewish Study Bible, p.234).  Jacob Milgrom finds rabbinic support for the use of the “olah” as a thanksgiving offering in t.Parah 1:1 and b.Zevahim 7b. 

In any event, the new mother possesses spiritual power, both positive and negative, and her presentation of altar gifts may be read as a narrative of her agency and empowerment.  However, this affirming narrative is undermined by many of our rabbinic commentaries, some of which are inclined to blame the mother at the very moment of her greatest vulnerability. Continue reading

Don’t be Cowed–Shabbat Shmini/Parah 5776

IMG_3560Shabbat Parah, Cow Shabbat, is one of our more perplexing customs. We chant the passage describing the red heifer ritual in Numbers 19, and then read Ezekiel’s prophecy of a re-purification of Israel, which has been sullied in exile, and which will now receive a new heart and new spirit, returning them to their land and blessing them with peace and prosperity.

According to the Mishnah (Megillah 3:4) Parah is the third of the special portions surrounding Purim and Pesah, and is normally recited on the Shabbat following Purim (Tosefta 3:3 and Bavli 30a) except in years like this one when Rosh Hodesh Nisan and thus Shabbat HaHodesh falls on Shabbat, and there is an extra Shabbat break between Purim and Rosh Hodesh Nisan. In this case we always delay Parah so as to maintain its proximity to Nisan and Pesah. In the Talmud Yerushalmi there is a suggestion that HaHodesh should really precede Parah, since the Sages understand that the tabernacle was first erected on Rosh Hodesh Nisan, and the cow sacrifice was offered the next day. However, the established custom is for Parah to precede HaHodesh. As Rabbi Obadiah of Bartenura explains, Parah is intended to purify all of Israel before the month of Passover. Continue reading