Category Archives: torah interpretation

Parashat Sh’mini: The Holy Power of Hands

I have two tales about hands.

The first concerns the hands of my college president. When we ordain our rabbis and cantors at the Hebrew Union College — an annual event, scheduled this year in just a few weeks’ time — our president lays his hands on each candidate’s head or shoulders.

In theory, the idea goes back to Deuteronomy 34:9, where we hear of Moses laying hands on Joshua, Moses’s successor. In actuality, rabbinic ordination with the laying on of hands is altogether a modern innovation. But never mind. That’s what we do. The idea is sound, the practice unforgettable.

We call it s’michah, a word also used for sacrifices. The priests of old practiced s’michah — laying hands on the sacrifices before offering them to God. Moses tells Aaron, “This is the thing that God commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear” (Lev.9:6). But the Torah does not say what “thing” Moses has in mind, so Italian commentator Obadiah Sforno (1475-1550) explains, “It is the laying on of hands.” Hand-laying is as central to Temple sacrifice of old as it is to my college’s ordination today: and for the same reason — not that rabbis and cantors are “sacrifices,” God forbid, but because the touch of human hands is how “God’s presence may appear.”

The second tale of hands comes from a sign I saw the other day: “Need a Handyman? Call me!” As someone who fixes nothing without making it worse, I always need people who are “handy.” Yes, “handy”! They too lay hands on things — hands, however, that mysteriously comprehend the inner life of gaskets, cams, cogs, and cranks. They unmake and remake complex machinery — make the old look like new.

By contrast, my college president’s hands — like the hands of the Temple priest — do absolutely nothing. They just sit there, utterly inert, untrained and unmoving. They are mere vessels for the work that God does through them.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy is insistent on that point: “God reaches out a hand” it says. But God has no actual hands, for God has no body at all. When priests or seminary presidents lay on hands, they do so on behalf of God, that God may reach out through them.

So too, Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim of today, reach out hands to offer the priestly benediction. Many people bless their children that way, too — or, nowadays, increasingly, even one another. In all these cases, the “hands” are not what we call “handy.” They are untrained. They accomplish nothing on their own. The people being blessed do not get put together differently; they are exactly the same as they were before. But there is this difference (a big one): they may sense they have been visited, through those outstretched hands, by the hand of God.

God visits the earth through the magic of human touch, as sacred a thing as there is. Like all things holy, it too is open to misuse — as when we warn, “Hands off,” or feel violated when someone touches us against our will. But also like all things holy, nothing bestows the certainty of hope and comfort better than the human touch, properly applied, by those we love: a friend at our bedside, their hand on our own; a soft embrace when words cannot assuage our pain.

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo captured the magic of creation by the hint of two hands touching: the hand of God from whom life flows, and the hand of Adam, the first human being to receive God’s life-giving force. We humans, ever after, can do “what God commanded… so that God’s presence may appear.” We too can lay on hands for blessing.

When explanations only make things worse, when words ring hollow, when we have nothing to say, we can reach out, God-like, feeling hope’s promise flow to those in need. God shows up best in the warming touch where two hands meet.

Do Jews Believe In A Soul?

Do Jews believe in a soul?

The answer is, “Yes, yes, yes, and “sort-of.”

The “sort-of” arises within the welter of detail regarding the Levitical sacrifices, a system that allowed for different levels of giving depending on personal financial means. Those unable to afford costly animal sacrifices brought a grain offering. Rashi observes that the person offering it is called a nefesh – a word usually translated as “soul.” He wants to know why here, particularly, the Torah calls a “person” a nefesh.

The answer, he says, is that grain is offered expressly by the poor. Objectively speaking, it may not cost much, but for the poor it is so enormous a sacrifice that God says to those who offer it, “I consider it as if you have offered your very soul.”

So nefesh — literally, just “person” – implies, for Rashi, something more. It bespeaks the moral core of our being: the part that overcomes selfishness; the deeply-rooted sense that we must live up to responsibility, doing what we can, as best we can. We ourselves call such people “good souls.” They come through; you can count on them.

Does nefesh mean “soul” in this case? In a way; metaphorically, at least; “sort-of.”

It is the Zohar that provides us with the “yes, yes, and yes” – three affirmatives corresponding to three different biblical and rabbinic words for “soul,” from which the kabbalists deduce the lesson that the soul has three parts.

The first “yes” affirms the highest part of the soul, the n’shamah what we normally think of as the soul that preexists us and lives on after we die. It is non-material, purely spiritual, so scientific study can neither prove nor disprove it. Brain science may discover the electro-chemistry of how we work, but not of all we are. We sense something more, an inexplicable entity that animates the deepest wellsprings of the “self” we hope to become.

The n’shamah is that “something more,” an invitation to realize the Godlike embrace of morality, creativity, artistry and truth. Being unexplainable scientifically, it appears within us as a mysterious gift from without. Hence the idea of a n’shamah as “heaven-sent”: a glimpse of transcendence; purpose beyond our admittedly paltry – and, conceivably, petty — personal lives, dwarfed as they are by the infinitude of the universe. When the rest of us dies – body, brain, and all – the soul part called n’shamah is what we say lives on.

The second “yes” denotes the second part of the soul, the ru’ach. If the n’shamah is wholly other, utterly ethereal and divine, the part of God that reaches down and pulls us up to greater moral, artistic, and intellectual stature, the ru’ach is the part of human nature that reaches up receptively to embrace the wonder it all.

Even people who disbelieve in the eternality of a separate and non-material n’shamah can appreciate the potential for nobility that lies miraculously within them. In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, the brilliant but dissolute Sydney Carton sacrifices himself on the guillotine to save somebody else. When he famously declares, “It is a far far better thing that I do than I have ever done,” he is (Jews would say) acknowledging the upward aspiration of his ru’ach.

The final “yes” returns to the nefesh, the part of the soul that is actually embodied. Even our bodies are sacred, Judaism says. Torture, enslavement, corporal punishment – we know these to be wrong, because human beings are more than conglomerations of bodily organs to be owned, used or abused. They are, simultaneously a nefesh – neither the n’shamah that is given from on high nor the ru’ach that reaches up from within, but our very earthly selves that must live with the financial loss engendered by the sacrifices we make.

This nefesh is Rashi’s “sort of.” But it is also a “yes,” because the earthly experience of loss comes with the satisfaction of reaching higher. And that is the nefesh talking.

A Realist’s View of Heaven; or Just, “Heaven, Really!”

The universe, we like to imagine, encompasses two categories of reality: the heavenly and the earthly. We know what the earthly is – science has been studying it for centuries. But what, exactly, is the heavenly? The usual explanations are often unenlightening – they just replace one problematic word (heavenly) with others (divine, Godly, spiritual, and so on), leaving us pretty much where we started: wondering if “heavenly” is anything real altogether — anything more, that is, than a wishful figure of speech.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra objects to this evasion of clarity. In the portion of Torah called Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32) — which Jews read in synagogue this coming week — for example, Moses calls on heaven and earth as witnesses (v. 32:1), and Ibn Ezra disparages interpretations that identify “the heavenly” as angels, or even rain. Yes, the angels must live in heaven and yes, rain comes from on high, but neither term tells us anything about heaven itself. “Actually,” he concludes, “heaven and earth” denote the two categories of “everything that has permanent existence.”

Let’s start there: we have two categories of existence that are permanent: the heavenly and the earthly. What can we add, without lapsing into dubious metaphysics?

The earthly is familiar to us. Over four centuries of scientific analysis has built up massive sets of laws describing it. Unfortunately, these laws are stunningly amoral – they explain the phenomena of nature, but without regard for good and bad, right and wrong. Philosopher John Stuart Mill captured the problem by observing: “Nature impales men… burns them to death… starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold…. A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.”

So religion adds a category: the heavenly, something equally real, albeit not amenable to scientific measurement. We should not think of “the heavenly” as a separate realm, however, some actual space somewhere or other. It is just another perspective on the same phenomena that we study with science. It too looks at nature but from the perspective of human empathy, and the consequent demand for mercy and justice.

The earthly perspective of science provides an unsympathetic calculus of how the universe works: how hurricanes happen, for example. The heavenly perspective of empathy evaluates the way that universe affects the lives of those who live in it: not the science of how hurricanes happen, but sympathy for the way a hurricane devastates this ruined farmer or that grieving mother whose child was crushed under a falling tree. “Science and the earthly” measure truth; “empathy and the heavenly” allocate kindness.

The two perspectives coalesce in our concept of life. From a scientific perspective, the various forms of life come and go; Darwinian selection favors continuity of the species, but cares not one whit about any given instance of it. By analogy, sociology or economics, say, can rightly be called “sciences” insofar as they study the laws by which human organizations and the economy operate – without, however, any necessary sympathy for the poor, the sick, and the victimized in the systems that they study. When economists or urban planners actually decide to address these unfortunates, they adopt the perspective of the heavenly.

Thank God for the heavenly perspective that supplements scientific knowledge with kindness. But thank God for scientific understanding too – without it we wouldn’t know how to alleviate the misery that empathy uncovers.

Scholars tell us that the last three portions of the Torah (Deuteronomy 31-34, that is) follow from the portion before them, Nitsavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20), which Jews read in synagogue just two weeks ago (and which Reform Jews read on Yom Kippur as well). There, Moses also summons heaven and earth (v. 30:19), this time to witness the claim that we are given life and death, and the insistence that we choose life. But who wouldn’t choose life? Why remind us about the obvious?

The point must be that in choosing life, we risk choosing only one of the two perspectives on it. We actually need both: the scientific laws on how life works, and the empathic kindness toward the way those laws impact the less fortunate among us.

Quite rightly, Moses calls both heaven and earth as witnesses to history. Either one alone, science without empathy or empathy without science, will ruin us.

In Praise of “Ordinary”

Student: Teacher, what is the point of Isaac? Abraham was the first Jew. Jacob became Israel. Why even bother with Isaac?

Teacher: Maybe just because he existed. As the bridge generation between Abraham and Jacob, the Torah had to include him.

Student: But the Torah frequently leaves things out. Last week’s sedra, for example, was called “Life of Sarah,” but it said virtually nothing about Sarah’s life. The Torah always reports selectively. So it cannot be accidental that this week’s reading begins, “These are the generations of Isaac.” Why “Isaac,” who, truth be told, is easily forgettable? The Torah even says next, “Abraham bore Isaac,” as if it assumes we need reminding.

Teacher: Come now, who could forget Isaac? What about the akedah [the binding of Isaac]? How many people are almost sacrificed by their father?

Student: Actually, the Torah overlooks that point altogether here. It tells us, “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” but not how old he was at the time of the akedah.

Teacher: Maybe recollecting the akedah was just too painful. Why dwell overly much on trauma? Better to move on to Isaac’s marriage and the birth of Jacob.

Student: But teacher, we spend every Rosh Hashanah remembering the akedah. Had our tradition wanted just to move on, we would have some other Rosh Hashanah reading. No, in some way even “easily forgettable” Isaac must be important enough to warrant saying, “These are the generations of Isaac.” I want to know why.

Teacher: The Rabbis asked that very question – so do what they did. Read on. Let the Torah provide its own answer.

Student: There isn’t much to read. After finding out that “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” we get nothing of importance.

Teacher: Nothing?

Student: No. Nothing. Only that “Isaac prayed to God because his wife could not become pregnant”; and then, that he gets rich and settles in a comfortable oasis — like someone today whose business prospers and who moves to a fancy uptown address.

Teacher: You call that nothing?

Student: Compared to Abraham and Jacob? Of course that’s nothing. Abraham and Jacob are monumentally heroic characters. Abraham intercedes to save a whole city of Sodom. Jacob dreams of angels going up and down a ladder connecting heaven to earth. How important, by comparison, is praying for your wife, going into business or moving to a new neighborhood?

Teacher: You miss the point. Isaac’s story matters precisely because of its ordinariness. Of all our patriarchs, only Isaac is a real person with real problems. The akedah teaches him how little we human beings are in charge of our lives, and how much of life we spend simply trying to muddle through. Sure, his business prospers, but look at his record as a husband and father. He lies about Rebekah in order to save his life, and he gives his blessing to the wrong son.

Still, he loves his wife enough to pray for children on her account — better than Abraham, by the way, who prayed for a child only so he himself could become a father of multitudes. And upon hearing Sarah laugh in desperation at the unlikelihood of giving birth in old age, Abraham is of no help at all. He laughs too; and he should have cried, either for joy on Sarah’s behalf, or (if he didn’t believe it) out of sympathy for her anguish. Isaac, by contrast, feels Rebekah’s pain and puts aside everything to pray for her.

Then years later, he messes up the blessings. He is properly aghast, however, and when Esau cries out for at least some blessing, Isaac duly provides it. Isaac is any of us on our death bed, looking back at the messy business of trying to be human.

Real people love, but make mistakes; they alternately succeed, then fail, then try again. Isaac is you and me, consumed with life’s day-to-day struggles. He is imperfect, but his very imperfection supports the Torah’s claim that we are indeed “the generations of Isaac.