Shmini 5777: Ostrich Eggs and Miracle Meat

It might have been Parashat Shmini that put the idea of becoming a rabbi in my head. No, not the part about the two young priests getting zapped, but rather the detailed laws of kashrut. I grew up eating “glatt treife,” but by the time I was 13 I bought into the kashrut system as a way of cultivating self-control and awareness of the potential for holiness in every bite. I was one of the only teens who regularly attended services at Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake, NJ (one of the others was named Benjamin Sommer), and somehow I got invited to make a presentation each week to the b’nai mitzvah. My presentations grew increasingly elaborate, no doubt trying the patience of our distinguished (and terse!) Rabbi Andre Ungar, reaching their apotheosis with an impassioned plea for kashrut one Shabbat morning. Weirdly, the congregation applauded, and my grandparents (who did not keep kosher, though Nana waited an hour to serve ice cream after eating meat) kvelled. Well, it took another decade to sort things out, but that is a decent origin story for my rabbinate.

And so it is to kashrut that we turn, but in a very strange way. The Torah’s code is reasonably specific about the criteria for kosher mammals and fish, but as for birds, all we get is a long list. What distinguishes the “impure” birds listed in Leviticus Chapter 11 (and Deut 14) from edible avians is not specified, though many have noted that the banned birds are all predators (yet I suppose that worms consider chickens to be predators). We can’t really say for sure what each listed species corresponds to in modern identifications—is a nesher really an eagle, or perhaps a vulture? (…”and I shall bring you on vultures wings” doesn’t have the same ring).

For today what really interests me is the ostrich, which is identified here as בת היענה. Literally, this could be read as “daughter of the ostrich,” though BDB suggests (p.419) perhaps “daughter of the desert or steppe.”  In other words, it is a bird that dwells in the desert, as ostriches tend to do. The rabbis, however, took its name literally and they asked, why does the Torah mention the ostrich’s offspring? Continue reading

Vayikra 5777: Wholeness after Error

The world of Leviticus can be disorienting, especially in the chapters which focus on the details of the korbanot, the sacrifices with all of their bloody and smoky mess. Upon closer examination, each of these ancient forms of worship is recognizably connected to a modern mode of worship. We too approach God at times with awe, uttering words of praise that have no agenda other than worship—this is how I understand the olah or burnt offering. We too approach God at times with gratitude for the blessings of our lives—this is how I understand the shlamim, or wholesomeness offering. And we too approach God at times from a sense of brokenness—either accidental or intentional—and seek in our divine encounter the path back to wholeness. This is how I understand the various forms of hattat or purification offering. These categories connect to the three modes of the daily Amidah—praise, petition, and thanksgiving—and they establish a balanced theology of worship.

Still, this carefully ordered structure must contend with messy missteps, including the most frustrating form—those that are not intentional or even negligent, but truly innocent. In chapter 4 there is discussion of mistakes—what if a person sins by mistake? What if a priest sins by mistake? What if the entire people sins by mistake? The first two cases are expected, but how is it possible for the entire nation to sin by mistake? At some point isn’t there safety in numbers? Apparently not.  At Lev. 4:13 the Torah says, “If the entire congregation of Israel sins, and a matter is hidden from the eyes of the congregation, and they do one of the commandments which should not be done, and they sin….” Restitution involves an ornate and bloody ritual of expiation for the sin of the community.

The Torah’s concern seems clear enough, but it takes some interesting interpretive twists in the classical rabbinic and then medieval and mystical stages to reflect later concerns of Jewish spirituality. The rabbis do not take the Torah literally to mean that the entire nation of Israel sins—rather, in Midrash Sifre, “the community” refers to the high court, the Sanhedrin. From this understanding, the Talmud in tractate Horayot proceeds to consider the culpability of individual judges/sages for the mistakes of the high court. At some point a judge cannot follow the majority but must assert independent reasoning and teach that which is right. It is complicated, however, since a judge who steps out of line is at risk of being deemed a zaken mamre—a rebellious elder—and put to death. This passage reminds us of the importance of selecting judges of high integrity, ones who are courageous enough to stand up against a mob, but who are not simply stubborn on principle and unwilling to listen to the wisdom of their peers and of the public. The rabbis seem less concerned with the spiritual state of the entire nation, and more with the integrity of its judicial elite—hence the entire people of Israel comes to mean the entire judiciary. Continue reading

Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777: Moses, a Successful Failure

Moses, as a leader, is a successful failure. His highlights reel is pretty impressive—liberator, warrior, logistics coordinator, judge and prophet. And yet many things that Moses seeks to accomplish are utter failures. He fails to reshape the liberated slaves into a dignified and free people; he fails to deliver them to the promised land; he fails to create harmony even in his own family; he fails to realize his personal desire to enter the land.

There is tragedy to these failures of Moses, and yet somehow they are necessary and even redemptive failures. If Moses got everything right, then how could anyone else ever assume the mantle of leadership? Our double portion of VaYakhel-Pekudei closes out the book of Exodus on the heels of his most spectacular failure—the golden calf and the destroyed tablets. But in Leviticus, the dedication of the tabernacle will be marred by the deaths of his two nephews, Nadav and Avihu. In Numbers, he will face a rebellion from his Levite tribe led by Korah, and also suffer the indignity of being criticized by his own siblings Aaron and Miriam. In Deuteronomy, a “book of rebukes,” he will be forced to foretell future failures and punishments of his people. Painful as these incidents surely are, each set-back and tragedy clarifies matters and allows Moses and the people of Israel to learn that the covenant is not, in the end, about Moses or any other individual. Individuals will always fail, but strong communities will ultimately prevail.

This message is found in two verses related to the architect Bezalel, one in each of our portions. In VaYakhel (35:30), Moses presents Bezalel to the people as a wise master builder. He says, “See, the LORD has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah.” The second verse from Pekudei (38:22) says, “Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur of the tribe of Judah did all that the LORD had commanded Moses.” Continue reading

Ki Tissa 5777: Show Me Your Glory

What is Moses asking when he demands that God show him the glory? The Torah already had reported in Ex. 33: 11 that in the Tent of Meeting, the Lord spoke to Moses “face to face, like a man to his friend.” That sounds pretty direct—shockingly so—and yet somehow, Moses isn’t satisfied. A few verses later in 33:18 he blurts out, “Show me your glory!” Remarkably, God consents, and then patiently offers the great prophet a lesson in theology, saying, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But, He said, you cannot see my face, for man may not see Me and live.” (JPS).

Looking closely at these verses, it appears that aspects of God may be experienced by Moses directly—God’s goodness, and name, and grace and compassion—but other aspects of God cannot be exposed without killing Moses. Even though v.11 says that Moses speaks to God “face to face,” v.20 makes it clear that the divine face may not be experienced directly. This is reiterated in v. 23: “you will see My back, but My face must not be seen.” One wonders, or at least I do, if this is how Moses eventually died ‘על פי ה “by the mouth of God”—finally facing God directly, merging and at that intimate moment, ceasing to exist as a separate body.

What, then, is God’s glory, goodness, face and back? This question has obsessed Jewish thinkers for millennia. I have been reading a book by Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz called אחד בכל דמיונות: הגותם הדיאלקטית של חסידי אשכנז (2015) which explores the diverse philosophical and literary records of medieval Judaism (not only Hasidei Ashkenaz) on the perception of God. Chapter two focuses on the divine glory, ‘כבוד ה, which is apparently the dearest desire of Moses in our portion. Continue reading

Purim 5777: Make Shushan Great Again?

Shittah Mishubeshet is a collection of medieval debates about the laws of Purim which exists only in manuscript form, and that in a single copy held by the venerable rare book collection of JTS. Unfortunately, the collection has been removed to a black site for the foreseeable future, leaving us unable to clarify its important insights. Still, I previously had the opportunity to examine the manuscript and will try to reconstruct its insights for you.

Our concern today is the definition of “great.” What makes a city, or for that matter, a nation, “great”? This question has halakhic import because the Megillah is to be read on the 14th of Adar in “normal” locations, but on the 15th in places designated as a כרך, a “great” city. According to the first Mishnah in Tractate Megillah, a great city is one with a wall, which is implied by the very word כרך meaning surrounded on all sides, like a sandwich or כריך. Fair enough—according to polls 47% believe that that walls make cities or nations great—but much remains perplexing about the text. Continue reading

Zakhor 5777: On the Road with Amalek

This Shabbat is both Titzaveh and Shabbat Zakhor—in addition to all the normal reasons to go to shul and hear the Torah, there is a special commandment to listen to the Zakhor passage and think about the continued danger of genocidal hatred in the world. The Torah states in Deuteronomy 25:17-19 that Amalek did something terrible—accosting Israel, tailing its weak, and not fearing God. Curiously, the Torah does not quite say that Amalek killed any Israelites. Even back in Exodus 17:8, when Amalek suddenly appears, they battle Israel, but the Torah does not specify that they killed any victims.

I don’t deny that the Torah’s implication is that Amalek launched a guerrilla attack of some sort and claimed many victims before the counterattack began. We can picture the Israelite refugees trudging through the desert, with the most vulnerable ones falling prey to Amalek’s depredations. Yet in the specific language of the Torah there is a prod to think not only what Amalek did to Israel as a passive victim, but also what impact Amalek had on Israel’s psychology and conduct.

Midrash Sifre Devarim (296) says that the Hebrew verb קרך means simply that Amalek “happened” upon Israel, which is the literal meaning (see too Tigay’s comment on p.236 of the JPS Torah commentary). This reading implies that Amalek did not so much ambush Israel as collide with it—and so an unintentional conflict began. Perhaps, though the JPS translation of “surprised” may work better in the context, which has Amalek “tailing” the laggards of Israel in a menacing and predatory fashion.

A long Midrash from Pesikta D’Rav Kahana (quoted again in Tanhuma) offers multiple interpretations to קרך. It could allude to the idea of קרי, nocturnal emission, and imply that Amalek somehow made Israel impure. This works well with the later allegorical interpretations of Amalek as a demonic power that aims to corrupt Israel.  Or, the Midrash reads the word as related to “called you” (קרא לך), and offers a scene in which Amalek lingers outside the protective cloud, calling to the different clans, “Hey, Shimon, it’s your brother Levi, come on outside”), and picking them off. In this scenario, Amalek is a predator, but he knows secrets of the Israelites, making his threat not only physical but also psychic. Finally, the word קרך could come from קור as in cold—Amalek chilled you. When Israel left Egypt, victorious after the split sea, no one dared touch them. Then Amalek came and attacked. And though Amalek failed to defeat Israel, they did break the spell, inspiring others to attack as well. Continue reading

Terumah 5777: A Gift from Titus

The Arch of Titus in Rome is simultaneously one of the saddest and most exciting places for a Jew to stand. It is but a short distance from the Colosseum, the stadium made famous by its cruel sports, built with money plundered from the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. Titus’s Arch celebrates the destruction of our Temple, a building designated by Isaiah to be a house of prayer for all nations. A bas-relief sculpture on the arch’s inner walls depicts a sickening scene: the triumphant display of the Temple’s sacred objects, the Menorah most prominent among them, along with a pathetic procession of enslaved Jews.

I once visited this spot with a group of Christian clergy and found myself suddenly weeping over this ancient tragedy. A Catholic deacon named Mark asked that we all embrace and pray together in order to repair some of the hatred and violence of that scene with our friendship and respect. I appreciated his instinct, and it helped. And yet, the image of the Menorah above our heads reminded me of the destruction of our Temple and the two millennia of exile and oppression which followed the sack of Jerusalem.

Sad as the sight of this arch is, I must admit that it is also fascinating. After all, this is the closest that we can get to an eyewitness account of the design of the ancient Menorah, at least as it appeared in the Second Temple. The Torah’s description of the seven-branched lamp stand in our portion (Exod. 25: 31-40) is extremely detailed. It is to be fashioned of beaten gold, with a central shaft and six branches, three on each side. There are almond blossoms and lily cups, all made of pure gold. How radiant it must have been when its lamplight played off the blossoms of beaten gold! Continue reading