Monthly Archives: March 2019

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.

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From Mishkan to the Mind of God: VaYakheil/Shekalim 5779

What are you thinking? That is an interesting question, but perhaps more important is, how are you thinking? Consciousness is one of the most mysterious aspects of our existence. We know that we have brains, and that they have mechanisms for receiving stimuli, but how does one go from mechanical information processing to consciousness? And, is consciousness merely a product of input, or is it also a form of control that can direct thought, reshaping our internal state and guiding behavior?

Such questions belong to an area of overlapping concern between scientists of cognition and religious thinkers. An organization called Sinai and Synapses has been bringing the discourses of science and religion into conversation. I’ve been reading the work of Princeton neurologist Michael Graziano, with whom I’ve been asked to appear at the Princeton Jewish Center in May to discuss consciousness. I’d like to take a few minutes to share the theory outlined in his book, Consciousness and the Social Brain (Oxford UP, 2013) before turning to Jewish texts connected to VaYakheil. Let’s see if they can inform one another. Continue reading