This ceremony of investiture and ordination, Tekes Hasmakhah, represents the transmission of knowledge and authority down through the generations of Jewish leaders to the wise minds, sensitive souls and capable hands of our new cantors and rabbis. It is a moment of great celebration radiating from this room across the world, and up to the very heavens. Mazal tov to all of us!
Hasmakhah literally means “laying on of hands,” and it hearkens back to the moment when Moses recognized Joshua as his successor, placing both hands on his head and sharing the divine spirit with him, וַיִּסְמֹךְ אֶת יָדָיו עָלָיו וַיְצַוֵּהוּ. Private ordination of disciple by mentor is one model for this transmission, and today each of our graduates has chosen a mentor to bless them and to lay on hands. However, the Torah gives us an additional model when all the people lay their hands on the Levites, designating them as leaders, וְסָמְכוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל הַלְוִיִּם and we at JTS view the transmission of authority as a collective responsibility involving many teachers. Continue reading
Last week in Parashat Kedoshim we read one of the most enlightened passages in the Torah. In verse 14 the Torah commands us not to curse the deaf, nor to trip the blind, but to fear the Lord your God. This verse is embedded within a glorious section about social solidarity, including concern for the elderly, the poor, the vulnerable worker. It climaxes with the centerpiece of the Torah, but love your neighbor as yourself, I am God. These verses are all important, but the command not to take advantage of people with physical disabilities is perhaps most notable and noble:
ויקרא פרק יט, יד
(יד) לֹא תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי ה’:
Savor that verse, because unfortunately, it is not all that Leviticus has to say about disability, as we heard today when we read the portion. Parashat Emor opens with regulations about the priesthood, their marriage partners and mandate to maintain ritual purity. Fair enough, but then in chapter 21 there is an extensive passage about physical blemishes that disqualify the priests from serving at the Temple altar. Let’s read this painful passage together:
ויקרא פרק כא, טז-כג
(טז) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: (יז) דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אִישׁ מִזַּרְעֲךָ לְדֹרֹתָם אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בוֹ מוּם לֹא יִקְרַב לְהַקְרִיב לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו: (יח) כִּי כָל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ מוּם לֹא יִקְרָב אִישׁ עִוֵּר אוֹ פִסֵּחַ אוֹ חָרֻם אוֹ שָׂרוּעַ: (יט) אוֹ אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בוֹ שֶׁבֶר רָגֶל אוֹ שֶׁבֶר יָד: (כ) אוֹ גִבֵּן אוֹ דַק אוֹ תְּבַלֻּל בְּעֵינוֹ אוֹ גָרָב אוֹ יַלֶּפֶת אוֹ מְרוֹחַ אָשֶׁךְ: (כא) כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ מוּם מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן לֹא יִגַּשׁ לְהַקְרִיב אֶת אִשֵּׁי ה’ מוּם בּוֹ אֵת לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו לֹא יִגַּשׁ לְהַקְרִיב: (כב) לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו מִקָּדְשֵׁי הַקֳּדָשִׁים וּמִן הַקֳּדָשִׁים יֹאכֵל: (כג) אַךְ אֶל הַפָּרֹכֶת לֹא יָבֹא וְאֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא יִגַּשׁ כִּי מוּם בּוֹ וְלֹא יְחַלֵּל אֶת מִקְדָּשַׁי כִּי אֲנִי ה’ מְקַדְּשָׁם:
If you look closely at the passage, you’ll notice some interesting features. First, there are 12 blemishes listed. This is hardly an exhaustive list of things that can go wrong with our bodies, so either there is something very special about these conditions, or the list could be paradigmatic—just examples of the endless litany of injury and disease. Indeed, the rabbis counted 142 disqualifying blemishes in Mishnah Bekhorot, Chapter 7 (מומים אלו), including the deaf and the mute. So much for our progressive attitude. Continue reading
Ze’ev Wilhelm Falk was a professor of law at Hebrew University who also served as rector and faculty at the Schechter institute in Jerusalem. Born in Breslau in 1923, he fled Germany alone at 16, arriving in Israel in 1939, and went on to study in the Hevron yeshivah and then at Hebrew University. He is best known as a scholar of religious law and ethics (I lived near his home on HaRav Berlin in 1991 and bought a copy of his book of this title from him), but he also wrote poetry and prayers. If you look at the Yom HaShoah section of the daily Siddur Sim Shalom (p.202), you will find a powerful prayer that he wrote called “Silence” (דומיה):
אבינו מלכינו שמא תפלתנו שלא לרצון? יאתה לשכולים ולך דומיה—מול דמי עוללים.
עמדת על דם בנך עבדך, התש כחך? תשה תפלתנו, הותשה תורתנו, שמע קול הדממה.
Avinu Malkenu—Is it possible that our prayer is not acceptable to You? Attend those who are bereft—You are silent in the presence of the blood of sucklings! You stood by as the blood of Your children was shed—has Your strength failed. Our prayer is diminished, our Torah has been compromised. Listen to the sound of our silence.
In this poem Falk juxtaposes the words דם (blood) and דום (silent) to great effect. Human prayer is voiced but unheard—it might as well be silence. Babies bleed and cry—but elicit no divine response. What became of the listening and responsive God who spoke to Cain, saying, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil” (Gen. 4:10, trans. Alter). What of Ezekiel’s image of Israel as a bloody baby taken up by God and told to live (Ez. 16:6)? What of the “still small voice” that greeted Elijah (1 Kg 19:12)? Rabbinic literature often states, “when X happened, the strength of Y failed (תשש כחו).” But here it is God whose strength has failed (תש כחך), and as a result, so too have the prayers and Torah of Israel failed. Suffering, screams, and supplications—none of it matters, so it seems, to the silent God. In a bitter closing, the poet instructs God to listen to the sound of our silence. After the Shoah, we literally give God the silent treatment. Continue reading