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Friday, March 26, 2010

Yikes! It's Almost Shabbat And I Haven't Posted Since Last Week!

Okay, I won't go into my litany of lame excuses (like trying to make a living and get ready for Pessach) for why I haven't posted since the beginning of last week. All I know is that I have a bunch of things I want to talk about beginning with last week's parsha.

However, because of the lateness of the hour and because I will be removing from my oven the last challot  I will bake before Pessach any minute now, I will just prattle a bit, if you'll bear with me.

Sefer Vayikra, aka Leviticus, is also known by the Sages as Torat Cohanim or the Priestly Teaching. The most obvious reason for the appellation is that much of the book deals directly with laws that applied directly, and sometimes solely, with the cohanim, the priests. The opening chapters, for example, describe the various sacrifices that were brought in the Tabernacle. The commissioning of Aharon and his sons to the priesthood will be an important story which will also include much detail of that process. Laws about ritual purity will be dealt with as well as the service in the Tabernacle for Yom Kippur and other holidays.

I will just remind you all, in case you weren't paying attention, that all of the Children of Israel were/are supposed to be cohanim, priests:

שמות יט ה וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי--וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.  ו וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 

Exodus 19 5 And now if you will surely listen to My voice and you will keep my covenant then you will be special for me from all the nations, for all the earth is mine 6 and you will be for me a kingdom of priests and  holy nation. These are the things you should speak to the children of Israel.

So what did that mean? We know from later on in Vayikra that only duly ordained priests or their progeny are even allowed into certain areas of the Tabernacle, much less allowed to actually perform much of the service there. Surely the children of Israel weren't all meant to really be priests!? 

Or maybe it is the other way: All of the children of Israel were/are really supposed to be priests. The question is, what exactly is a priest? If we define the term narrowly, it refers to Aharon and his sons and their offspring and those among them who were not otherwise disqualified to do service in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. 

However, we spoke earlier  about how the building of the Tabernacle, okay, the mishcan (sorry, I find some of these English translations really annoying) was itself parallel to the creation of the universe. 

When God appoints the children of Israel to be a kingdom of priests He is saying that they should go out in the world to be His representatives. That is what makes them 'special.' Not that they have special privileges as much as they have special responsibilities. 

Aharon and his sons are appointed for work in the mishcan, in the microcosm of this universe. The service they do there was in some way supposed to reflect a universal reality and universal aspirations, those realities and aspirations that we, as the children of Israel are supposed to bring into the wider world. 

Have a shabbat shalom! My challah is finished!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Interlude--Is the Torah Really Telling Me to Do Stuff That I Don't Wanna?

Short answer--hmmm, maybe!


Here's some things to consider:

1) Unlike a lot of other books, the Torah comes with no title page, frontispiece, preface or introduction! In principle, we are left to our own devices to understand what it is saying. If you take the Talmudic point of view, you can take advantage of millenia' worth of considered and deep analysis and understanding coupled with long standing oral traditions.

2) That said, one of the things which distinguishes Jewish tradition vis a vis the Tanach from, say certain Christian traditions, is the lack of dogmatic understanding. Even the most orthodox of Orthodox Jews would not, if he/she were educated, make the claim that there is a single understanding of everything in the Torah. Perhaps the great strength of the Torah in Jewish tradition is that it can and does bear a multiplicity of interpretations.

Nonetheless, the Torah doesn't 'speak' to everyone. However, maybe it is more the case that not everyone 'listens.'

Again, I am not here to push a specific (read: Orthodox) agenda neither in regards to personal observance and practice nor in regard to biblical interpretation. However, I firmly believe that the Torah, as part of the Jewish collective subconscious, has something to say to us all. Certainly this book has resonated for thousands of years with not only Jews but other significant religions and their adherents.

As Jews, this book is the basis for a consciousness which carries its power to this day. Each of us will make of that what we will.

We can also ignore the book. But, to my mind, this is like ignoring who your parents, grandparents and all prior generations were. You may choose not to recognize how these people contributed to your existence, but that doesn't mean they didn't. Likewise the Torah.


On a related note, Maimonides writes in the Sefer Hamitzvot (the Book of Commandments--Maimonides' count of the 613 eternal commandments of the Torah):

ספר המצוות לרמב"ם מצות עשה ד והמצוה הרביעית היא שצונו להאמין יראתו יתעלה ולהפחד ממנו ולא נהיה ככופרים ההולכים בקרי אבל נירא ביאת ענשו בכל עת והוא אמרו יתעלה (ואתחנן ו) את י"י אלהיך תירא

Maimonides' Sefer Hamitzvot Positive Commandment 4 The fourth commandment is that we are commanded to believe (in) His fear, may He be esteemed, and to be afraid of Him so that we will not be like the deniers who attribute things to mere chance; rather we should fear the coming of His punishment at any time. This is what The Esteemed One meant when He said (Deuteronomy 6) You shall fear God Your Lord.

Maimonides goes on a bit more to demonstrate that this should indeed take its place as one of the 613 commandments. 

Bottom line here: Be afraid--be very afraid! 

Of course, there is also a commandment to love God which is a complement and contrast to this. But we are still left with the feeling that underneath it all we have to watch our step or risk being the target of Divine retribution. 

While I am not here to say whether or not such retribution exists and, if it does, what form or forms it takes, I want to point out that later in life, Maimonides shifted his understanding of this mitzvah. When he was older and writing the Mishneh Torah, his comprehensive halachic work, he described this mitzvah as follows:

רמב"ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ב הלכה ב והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו ויראתו, בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים ויראה מהן חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח ומפאר ומתאוה תאוה גדולה לידע השם הגדול א כמו שאמר דוד צמאה נפשי לאלהים לאל חי, 

וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו ויפחד ויודע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה עומדת בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות, כמו שאמר דוד כי אראה שמיך מעשה אצבעותיך מה אנוש כי תזכרנו, ולפי הדברים האלו אני מבאר כללים גדולים ממעשה רבון העולמים כדי שיהיו פתח למבין לאהוב את השם, כמו שאמרו חכמים בענין אהבה שמתוך כך אתה מכיר את מי שאמר והיה העולם. 

Maimonides, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 20:20: And what is the way to His love and to His awe (יראה yirah--the same word Maimonides used in the Sefer Hamitzvot rendered as 'fear')? At a time when a person will consider His doings and His wonderful, great creations and he will be in awe of them--His boundless, infinite wisdom--he will immediately love and praise and glorify and desire a great desire to know The Great Lord as David said, "My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God (Psalms 42:3)." 

And when he will think about these things themselves, he will immediately be taken aback and will be afraid and know that he is a small, lowly, dark creature, standing with slight, insignificant knowledge before The One Of Perfect Knowledge, as David said, "When I see Your Heavens, the work of your fingers: What is man that You should remember him(Psalms 8:4)?"

And according to these things, I explain major rules from the doing of the Sovereign of the World in order that this should be an opening for the one who (comes to) understand (how to) love God, as the sages said, "Because of this, you come to know the One Who Spoke and the universe came into existence."

You know, once I translated that, I realized that to fully understand all the basic things Maimonides is trying to say, I would have to write a whole bunch more. 

But, note that Maimonides in this passage combines love of God (אהבת ה') with the mitzvah of יראת ה' yirat Hashem which now we will render in this context as 'awe' of God. 

That is, there is a close tie between these two mitzvot--in order to do one  you really have to do the other. And now the other, the yirah, is not a fear that God will punish you if you don't do his commandments; rather, it is a reflection of the deep sense of awe you will achieve once you ponder the depths if His creation. 

I'll close today by pointing out that we live in a time when, for all kinds of reasons, many if not most of us are not really afraid of Divine punishment. That notion doesn't seem to fit into our 'modern' take on the way the world works. 

However, people everywhere and in all walks of life, artists, musicians, mathematicians, scientists, cake bakers and fabrication makers can be, and sometimes are overwhelmed with the profundity of creation. 

While there are virtually no Jewish courts to mete out halachic punishments, and so we don't generally have to be afraid of that sort of thing, and, as we noted, we tend to be less afraid of Divine punishments, this reality in a way frees us up to all the more so appreciate the depths of creation not from a place of fear, but from utter awe and respect. 

So, bottom line, maybe our relationship to Torah has now become much more up to us and less up to an external force like fear of punishment (Divine or otherwise) and is a step along the way for our individual and collective spiritual maturity. 

Friday, March 12, 2010

More M'lacha

Sophie, bless her, posed the following:

You're not off the hook yet, my dear Shel. Let me sharpen my argument a bit and say - not sewing fashion bags for sale, but rather some mind cleansing cross stitching or sketching, done more to help the mind relax than for any earthly purpose.

You raise a sort of classic question about the nature of Shabbat observance. I will point out from the very outset that it is not my intention here to push people into Shabbat observance as understood by the rabbinic law. Mainly, I have been trying to point out a certain systematic and careful reading of the text. I draw my basic approach from the rabbinic approach both because it is, to my mind, very deep and well thought out and also because I happen to have devoted most of my life to understanding it.

What we have observed is that the term m'lacha in the context of Shabbat refers to some type or types of creative activity. On a deeper level we see that refraining from doing those types of activities on Shabbat is, in some way, to imitate God in the story of creation.

Just to highlight this point: God does not complete creation until he refrains from m'lacha on Shabbat. So Shabbat becomes not just a negative or an absence of activity; rather the resting is in itself an integral part of the creation. It is like the pauses in music, or the empty space of a picture--the absence of a thing is a thing itself, even a very important thing! Every artist understands this inherently. 

The rabbis understood a couple of things: 

1) The word m'lacha does not refer to some general or arbitrary activity or activities; rather it refers specifically to the 39 basic activities which were necessary for the building of the mishcan. While some Talmudic sources point to a verse which hints at that particular number, thirty nine, it is more likely that the rabbis saw the number and the specific activities as part of a tradition which traced back to what Moshe received as part of the oral Torah at Sinai. 

Therefore, they say, these acts are prohibited on Shabbat provided that they are done with intent, i.e. the specific intent to accomplish that specific act. For example, if you kick a stone by accident while walking and that action causes sparks to fly and the sparks catch on tinder and start a fire, according to Torah law you would not be held culpable for lighting a fire on Shabbat. If you took matches and lit one with the intent of lighting a fire that would be seen as a violation. This would be true even if your house had gone dark and you needed the light to feel comfortable and safe. Of course, if it is a matter of saving a life then these laws are pushed aside (based on an understanding of other verses later in Vayikra).

2) There are other aspects to Shabbat which were clearly part of the ancient tradition even though they are not mentioned specifically in the Torah. Thus, for instance, we find in Yishaya:

ישעיה נח:יג  אִם-תָּשִׁיב מִשַּׁבָּת רַגְלֶךָ, עֲשׂוֹת חֲפָצֶךָ בְּיוֹם קָדְשִׁי; וְקָרָאתָ לַשַּׁבָּת עֹנֶג, לִקְדוֹשׁ יְהוָה מְכֻבָּד, וְכִבַּדְתּוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכֶיךָ, מִמְּצוֹא חֶפְצְךָ וְדַבֵּר דָּבָר. יד  אָז, תִּתְעַנַּג עַל-יְהוָה, וְהִרְכַּבְתִּיךָ, עַל-במותי (בָּמֳתֵי) אָרֶץ; וְהַאֲכַלְתִּיךָ, נַחֲלַת יַעֲקֹב אָבִיךָ--כִּי פִּי יְהוָה, דִּבֵּר.

Isaiah 58:13 If thou turn away thy foot because of the sabbath, from pursuing thy business on My holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, and the holy of the LORD honourable; and shalt honour it, not doing thy wonted ways, nor pursuing thy business, nor speaking thereof; 14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD, and I will make thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and I will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. (Not my translation!! JPS 1917--sorry in a bit of a rush today)

The Torah does not explicitly forbid doing business, for example, on Shabbat. But the prophet understood that refraining from such activities constitute עונג oneg, a sort of delight or pleasure. So Shabbat observance is not just a matter of refraining from m'lacha as such but assuming a kind of mood or ambience which comes in the wake of leaving behind our daily pursuits.  

Sophie is probably saying right now, "That's exactly my point! I would do my cross-stitch or my sketching as a way of getting away from my regular daily pursuits!"

Who am I to disagree? Again, I am just pointing out that from the rabbinic point of view, the Torah forbids all m'lacha and does not make exceptions except in life threatening situations. Moreover, cessation from m'lacha coupled with a sense of the ambience of Shabbat is what creates oneg which seems to be one of the points and even gifts of Shabbat. 

From a parshanut perspective, this understanding has the advantage of producing a consistent reading of the text of the Torah in the context of Shabbat, the  mishcan and the creation. 

It is not the only way to read the Torah. I think, ultimately, we need to each find our place in the Torah and the Torah's place in us. There is a certain inevitability of us imposing ourselves on the text but the less we push our own agenda on the Torah and the more we  try to figure out the Torah's agenda perhaps the wiser we will be and perhaps the better.

But, as they used to say in ancient Babylonia נהרא נהרא ופשטיה each river runs its own course--in more modern parlance: different strokes for different folks!

Shabbat shalom and ziggi, I hope your challah came out well!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mo' Better M'lacha

We left off with, hopefully, a greater understanding of the word m'lacha yesterday. But, as Sophie points out, what we examined raises more questions. I don't know that I will tell you why you can do dishes on Shabbat but not, say, sew a bag but I will give you some insight regarding the bigger picture of m'lacha and look a bit at some of the details.

Just to remind us, the first time the term m'lacha is used in the Torah is here:

בראשית  ב:ב  וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה; וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה.

Genesis 2:2 And on the seventh day God finished His m'lacha which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His m'lacha which He had made.

Let's jump to nearly the end of Shmot:

שמות מ:לג  וַיָּקֶם אֶת-הֶחָצֵר, סָבִיב לַמִּשְׁכָּן וְלַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וַיִּתֵּן, אֶת-מָסַךְ שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר; וַיְכַל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-הַמְּלָאכָה .

Shmot 40:33 And he reared up the court round about the tabernacle and the altar, and set up the screen of the gate of the court. So Moses finished the m'lacha

This latter verse describes the completion of the building of the mishcan, the tabernacle, by Moshe. The style of the verse is strikingly similar to the verse describing the completion of the universe by God. In both instances, the term used to describe the activity of creation/building in toto is m'lacha.

Let's look again at one of the verses from the beginning of our parsha:

שמות לה:ב  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת.
Shmot 35:(2) Your m'lacha will be done for six days and on the seventh it will be holy to you, a shabbat shabbaton to God; anyone doing m'lacha on it will die.

When we read this verse now, we understand that the activity which is prohibited on Shabbat, m'lacha, is the same sort of activity which created the universe and the same sort of activity used to build the mishcan

Chazal had a tradition that there were 39 m'lachot used to build the mishcan.  They are listed in the Mishnah Shabbat 7:2. I won't go into them all now but we'll touch on some or more before the end of the week. 

So, when the Torah prohibits m'lacha on Shabbat it is reasonable to think that it is prohibiting the activities which were used to construct the mishcan. Again, these are all creative acts which have a specific purpose and must be carried out with specific intent as that was our conclusion about the meaning of the word m'lacha in our last post. 

What is particularly interesting to me is that we might also understand that the building of the mishcan is/was truly parallel to the creation of the universe. We pointed out how strikingly similar the language describing each is. If that is the case, it would be reasonable to think that the m'lachot used to build the mishcan are all in some way very basic elements of construction--but not just construction of a building, but construction of a microcosm of the universe. Tomorrow we'll look broadly at the list of m'lachot to see how we might understand all that better. 

We could also turn that around and say that the universe is in some cosmic way a mishcan, a dwelling place for the Divine presence.  This idea is already promoted in several places in the Tanach, i.e. that the entire universe is God's dwelling place. It was fitting when God wanted to focus His/Her Presence in this world that He/She chose to do so in a structure and with a series of activities which were the human analog to God's activities which created the universe. 

Thus, when we refrain from doing those m'lachot on Shabbat we are, in our little way, completing the Creation just as God completed the Creation by ceasing m'lacha on the seventh day.

So, Sophie, not a full answer but we're getting there :)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Whistle While You Do M'lacha?

While we're looking at the first verses of the parsha, let's take a closer look at verse 2:

ב  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה יוּמָת.
(2) Your m'lacha will be done for six days and on the seventh it will be holy to you, a shabbat shabbaton to God; anyone doing m'lacha on it will die.

You probably noticed yesterday that I didn't translate the word m'lacha (or shabbat shabbaton--but maybe we'll talk about that tomorrow). That's because there is no simple translation.  JPS, both old and new (because it is still under copyright, I cannot provide a link) translations say it means 'work.' This is problematic because it doesn't necessarily seem any different than the word עבודה avoda which can also be translated in some contexts as work. 

In an earlier post I talked about how the word malach (angel) seems to come from the same root as m'lacha. The malach is the being doing m'lacha -- that is performing an act or task under a Divine directive. 

Maybe we can understand something about the meaning of m'lacha from malach, as well. A malach, we might assume, is tasked with performing a specific duty with a specific purpose. Thus, we would understand that m'lacha is something which has a specific intended purpose. 

Famously, the first appearance of the word m'lacha is here:

בראשית ב:ג  וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ:  כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ, אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת. 

Genesis 2:3 And the Lord blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it for on it He rested from all his m'lacha which the Lord had created to do.

So the creation of the universe is termed the Lord's m'lacha. In biblical terms, you can't get more purposeful than that. 

The rabbis likewise understood the  word m'lacha in this way and thus said that only doing certain acts on Shabbat with specific intent to accomplish a specific end would qualify as a m'lacha and thus be forbidden on Shabbat. 

A Gathering--Parshat Vayakhel

Back after popular demand--well, back after one follower asked me why I haven't been posting. The answer is just that my energy levels were extremely low for a while, in part as a result of having given up smoking. So in the short term it put me off my game but should be better for the long term.

We left off in the middle of trying to understand what Moshe received at Sinai. I am a little torn as I want to fill out more about that theme while still keeping up with the weekly parsha. I am going to opt for now to focus on the latter but we will yet have occasion to talk about the former.

The first word of the parsha is ויקהל vayakhel meaning 'and he gathered' (or congregated--or, according to the new JPS version 'he convoked'!). The first verses are:

שמות פרק לה (א) וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם:
(ב) שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן לַיקֹוָק כָּל הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה יוּמָת:
(ג) לֹא תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת: פ

Exodus 35 (1) And Moshe gathered all of the congregation of the children of Israel and he said to them, "These are the things (or words) which God commanded to do them.(2) Your m'lacha will be done for six days and on the seventh it will be holy to you, a shabbat shabbaton to God; anyone doing m'lacha on it will die.(3) Do not kindle fire in all (or in any) of your dwelling places on the day of the shabbat.

Moshe then goes on to give the children of Israel the commandments/instructions to build the mishcan, the tabernacle.

The word vayakhel comes from the root קהל kahal meaning congregation. Variations on the noun form in the Torah are not uncommon--several popped up in B'reishit. However, as a verb form it is less common. 

The only other place in the Torah so far where we see a verb form from that root happens to be from last week's parsha, to wit:

שמות פרק לב (א) וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן הָהָר וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה הָיָה לוֹ:

Exodus 32 (1) And the people saw that Moses tarried in coming down from the mountain and the people gathered themselves (Heb. ויקהל vayikahel) about Aaron and they said to him, "Arise and make gods for us which will go in front of us. For this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt--we  don't know what has become of him."

This passage is, of course, an integral part of the story about the golden calf. The people are expecting Moshe to return but they get antsy when he doesn't seem to return 'in time.' So they gather themselves together and press Aaron to make them gods to somehow replace Moshe.

The verb form is different than our parsha's: Vayakhel, from our parsha, is a causative form. So it means "he made them (or caused them) to gather." In last week's parsha it is vayikahel a reflexive form meaning "and they gathered themselves." 

I would say that Moshe's action of causing the people to gather now in preparation for the building of the mishcan is an intentional contrast to the people's self gathering for the purpose of introducing false gods. Both bring the people together in pursuit of worshiping God but the former, when done by the people themselves, is misguided as they are gathering out of some kind of fear that their leader is gone and they feel more comfortable creating a representation of their leader in the form of an idol or idols. By contrast, Moshe now brings the people together to make the mishcan which is literally a dwelling place for God--but not God incarnate as the people would have had it, but rather a dwelling place for the Divine Presence, the sh'china,
which will be represented by the tablets placed in the ark in the Holy of Holies.