Torah Reflections – March 30 – April 5, 2014

M’tzorah

Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

Connecting Near-East & Far East    

This week’s Torah portion is, admittedly, a challenge to our modern sensibilities. This portion talks about tzara’at, a skin affliction most translators define as leprosy; although no one knows what it was exactly. Given that skin disease is generally not a favorite topic of conversation, I’ve been known to try and bypass it by seeking to extract from the text the more mystical teachings, and avoid dealing with scaly skin afflictions, and other colorful details. But this time, for a change, I found at the literal level of the narrative, a fascinating passage that brings to light a broader understanding of the context and the aim of the biblical text.

In the ancient sacrificial system of the Temple, the disease afflicted person would come to the High Priest for healing. The High Priest, not unlike the Shaman, was also a healer. This portion describes what the affected person is to do. He is to bring animals for sacrifice, and come to stand in front of the High Priest. A rather curious ritual is then described, whereby the High Priest dips the fingers of his right hand into the blood of the sacrifice, and puts it on the ridge of the right ear of the leper, on the right thumb and on the right big toe. Then the High Priest repeats the three part ritual, but this time, with oil. This peculiar encounter is described twice back to back in this Torah portion. Our sages tell us, anytime something is repeated in Torah, you have to pay careful attention. So what was this ritual about? [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – March 23 – 29, 2014

Tazria

Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59

Sin is a Divine Gift  

Our weekly Torah reading begins laying out spiritual practices connected to human birth: “Ishah ki tazria… - When a woman conceives…” [Lev. 12:2] In his commentary on these three words, Rashi (11th Century, France,) quotes a peculiar midrash by Rabbi Simlai: “Just as the formation of mankind took place after that of the cattle, beast and fowl, when the world was created; so the law regarding mankind is set forth after the law concerning cattle, beast and fowl.” [Lev. Rabbah 14:1] What is Rashi trying to tell us here? By bringing up this midrash he explains why the laws concerning animals’ sanctity — which occupy the previous Torah portion — come before this week’s reading which explores the laws concerning human sanctity.

Rabbis like Rashi are preoccupied with this order in the six-day Creation myth. On the one hand, some argue, mankind was created last because people were to be the apex of Creation. On the other hand, many counter, in order to avoid misplaced pride, mankind was created last to be reminded that even the gnats took precedence in Creation. What concerns the rabbis most is their realization that, contrary to humans, animals are incapable of sin and may, therefore, appear to be superior to mankind; at least in God’s eyes. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – March 16 – 22, 2014

Tzav

Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Joy And The Possibility of Forgiveness 

The inaugural ceremony of the Tabernacle’s dedication and the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood which began with last week’s Torah portion, concludes this week. “BaYom HaSh’mini - On the eighth day” of this protracted affair the final sacrifices are made on the altar, after which, in the culminating moments, we read:

Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he descended from having performed the sin-offering, the offering-up, and the wholeness-offering. Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from the Presence of the Eternal and consumed the offering-up and the fat-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, sang joyful songs, and fell upon their faces. [Lev. 9:22-24]

One of the midrashim (rabbinic homiletic exegesis) on this passage explains that on this day there was joy before God in the heavenly realms just like on the day when heaven and earth were created. Why? Our sages taught that the eighth day completed Creation. In building the Tabernacle and ordaining priests the Israelites created the possibility of teshuvah, repentance, return, and ultimately forgiveness. It takes the flawed humanity to manifestteshuvah; God alone in His perfection could not have done it without human partnership. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – March 9 – 15, 2014

Tzav

Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

The Light of Our Heart

In my approach to Torah, I see the text as myth, not reality. I presuppose that, as such, the stories it conveys speak of universal archetypes relating to the human spiritual journey, and seek to unpack the deeper meaning of the text often as if I was interpreting a dream or a vision. 

The burnt offering shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept aflame…. The Kohen shall… remove the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them next to the altar. He shall then… carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place.  The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, it shall not be extinguished; and the Kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning… [Lev. 6:2-5]

What if the burnt offering represented, here, the waking hours of our day? Was relating to how we “burn up” our time and energy? If lived mindfully, every day of our lives can become an offering of the best we have to give. Each day lived to the fullest is a day we didn’t hold back and shared the choicest aspect of our self regardless of our circumstances; a day we stepped into the “fire” of life fully and with great gusto. Though not a rabbi himself, G.B. Shaw could very well have been reflecting on these verses when he said: “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.” [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – March 2 – 8, 2014

VaYikra

Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

The Fire of Divine Love

The last few Torah portions of the Book of Exodus were, as we have seen, focused on the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness; a Sacred Space amidst the traveling Israelite tribes where God came to dwell. We related to this seemingly outward structure as a mythical Temple that acted as a mirror to the Temple awakening within each of us, reminding us of the inner Sacred Space we are within which the Divine Presence not only dwells but through which it expresses. But lost in our separate sense of self, lost in the delusion of our ego’s drama, we seldom know ourselves to embody such awareness.

[Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – February 23 – March 1, 2014

P’kudei

Exodus 38:21 – 40:36

Building The Inner Tabernacle                                          

This week’s Torah reading brings us to the close of the Book of Exodus. In these final moments the Israelites build all the many pieces of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which Moses is to later assemble. S’fat Emet (Rabbi Leib Alter of Ger – 19thc. Poland) comments that many of the verses in our portion echo, in their wording, verses from the story of Creation that began the Book of Genesis. It is as if the last lines of the Book of Exodus serve as a mirror to the first lines of the Book of Genesis. The word m’lachah, usually translated as “work,” for example, repeats at least ten times in our combined portions this week. This is the word used in Genesis to describe God’s “work” of creating. Furthermore, we read in Genesis: “And God saw all that He had made… Thus were completed the heavens and the earth… Then God blessed the seventh day….” [Gen. 1:31 - 2:3]

S’fat Emet compares this with this week’s reading: “Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting…And Moses saw all the work that they had done… And Moses blessed them” [Exod.39:32 - 43]. For the S’fat Emet, this parallel in both stories hints at the redemption of all Creation, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s work. With the building of the Tabernacle, the work of Creation is finally complete. And as our story concludes, the Cloud of Glory can now come down to earth; the Presence of the Holy One can now come to dwell in the Mishkan: “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle.” [Exod. 40:34]

[Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – February 9 – 15, 2014

Ki Tissa
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

What If Moses Never Came Back?                                         

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him: Arise, make us a god who will go before us, for that fellow Moses — the man who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has become of him. [Exod. 32:1]

This “god” Aaron is going to help build, is the infamous golden calf.  It had been forty days and forty nights since Moses had disappeared atop Mount Sinai, and the Israelites had become restless, unable to tolerate weeks upon weeks of inaction. Moses must have died, they presumed. All these trials and tribulations were for naught. And so they resolved to resurrect an Egyptian god — that the golden calf represented — to find reassurance in the familiar. The episode of the Golden Calf is, therefore, seen by many rabbis as a spiritual backslide brought about by a lack of trust in the unfolding of a process. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – February 2 – 8, 2014

T’tzaveh

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

The Olive Oil Paradigm    

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light, to kindle an eternal light. Aaron and his sons shall set it up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be an eternal decree for the Israelites throughout their generations. [Exod. 27:20-21]

Thus we learn why in every synagogue, to this day, the Jewish people continues to kindle a flame, a Ner Tamid, an Eternal Light over the ark that houses the Torah. Our people have followed this biblical injunction for 3000 years, beginning with the Temple in Jerusalem and the kindling of the seven-branched Menorah; which is, initially, what these verses referred to. Though our rabbis would say that this commandment was given to the Israelites at Sinai in anticipation of the Temple being built later — since the Israelites had no way of acquiring olives in the desert, let alone the necessary equipment for extracting oil — many scholars agree that this passage was written, instead, at a time when the Temple was already standing and retroactively inserted into the narrative.

But why oil from olives? [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – January 26 – February 1, 2014

T’rumah

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Temples Within Temples Within Temples                                       

We find, in this week’s Parashah the Divine injunction that adorns Bet Alef’s new ark:

V’asu Li Mik’dash, v’Shachan’ti b’tocham - Let them make Me a Sanctuary that I might dwell among them.” [Exod. 25:8]

Following this verse and for the rest of the Torah portion, the Eternal communicates to Moses the detailed plans of how to build and assemble such a Sanctuary — also called a Tabernacle (Mish’kan in Hebrew) — in the wilderness. The Mish’kan was to be placed at the center of the traveling twelve tribes, a reflection of what the newly freed Israelites held sacred, of what defined their way of worship, and what united them as a nation.

We too, as a nation, have created temples that are a reflection of what we worship. As a society, we have built at great expense our temples of sports in so many big arenas and gigantic stadiums. We have our temple of money in Wall Street, our temples of political power in the White House and Congress. The temple of our military power is the Pentagon, and Corporate America’s temples are all the skyscrapers that make up the skyline of our cities. And let’s not forget our shopping malls. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – January 19 – 25, 2014

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

The Angel Within                                      

Can you imagine what it must have been like the day after? Just yesterday we were at the foot of Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. It was big. It was thunderous. Our bodies were shaking, our senses were confused, we saw the thunder and we heard the lightning. Amidst the deafening blasts of the shofarot and the shuddering mountain which was afire and smoking, God revealed God-Self to us. Unfathomable! But then the moment passes. The day ends and the next day comes; and that morning feels a little like a hangover. What do we do now? After such a momentous event, how is one supposed to re-enter “normal” life? Because no matter how deep the experience, one does re-enter normal life. Life’s needs still require attending. As Jack Kornfield pointedly titled his book: “After The Ecstasy, The Laundry.” But how do we do that?

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