Tag Archives: biblical 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.

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Donkeys, Tongs, and the Coming of the Messiah

The talking donkey most familiar to Americans these days is the cartoon character “Donkey” from the hit movie Shrek (2001). But Donkey’s predecessor, Francis the talking mule, debuted in a 1946 World War II novel, and then seven follow-up films in the 1950s; and the unbeatable original is a whole lot older still — Balaam’s donkey of Numbers 22.

All three donkeys are noticeably smarter than the people who own them, and maybe that’s the point. A donkey is a jackass, after all, the archetypically stupid beast of burden; granting them intelligence is a favorite artistic strategy

The Rabbis, who think Balaam’s donkey was real, trace its origin to creation itself, when God fashioned a variety of things that history would someday require but put them aside until they were needed. One such item was Balaam’s donkey. Another was the first set of tongs

Yes, tongs!

A quintessential breakthrough in human material culture is metallurgy: first iron, and then the process of heating it above 800 degrees centigrade to “steel” it for tasks where ordinary iron breaks. But to manipulate iron, you need tongs, and in order to make the tongs, you first need other tongs! It follows, then, that alongside Balaam’s donkey, God must also have fashioned a set of primeval tongs, which humans eventually discovered and used to make all the other tongs.

Long before metallurgy, there was fire itself, of course, so another rabbinic tale traces that also to God. This story accents Adam, the human being who discovered it; celebrated its heat and light; thanked God for it; and used it ever after

To tongs and fire as benchmarks in human progress, we should add writing, the means of transmitting knowledge through the generations. Rabbinic tradition ascribes the discovery of writing to Enoch, a descendent of Adam. Legend pictures God allowing Enoch to live among the angels, so that he might attain their mastery of the natural universe, and write it down for humans to learn

The important lesson here is that all these tales picture God as welcoming human discovery — unlike Zeus of Greek mythology, from whom Prometheus, like some primeval industrial spy, has to steal these very secrets (metallurgy, fire and script) and give them to mortals: an act for which he is punished by being shackled to a crag, where every day, an eagle rips open his flesh to devour his liver. The God of the Rabbis, by contrast, willingly creates everything we need – writing, fire, tongs, and even (for a single cameo appearance) a talking donkey: and then glories in our discovering them.

Civilization requires regularized breakthrough inventions, but do we invent them despite creation or does the very plan of creation favor our inventiveness? Judaism’s answer is the latter: the cosmos and we are in sync. God welcomes curiosity. God wants us to uncover the world’s secrets

Judaism views the universe as massive beyond imagination, but created with order and logic – just awaiting human discovery. To be a Jew is to value the art of exploring the unknown. Adam stops to investigate fire; Enoch writes notes on what the angels know; some unknown blacksmith figured out how to use tongs; and Balaam marvels at, and listens to, a talking jackass.

God supplies the world with whatever we might need; we dedicate ourselves to finding it. That, the Rabbis say, is what God wants: we are in league with God in manufacturing progress.

Progress is slow, however, measured only in eons, so we must commit ourselves to this business called life, for the long haul. Only eventually will we, conceivably, discover miraculous solutions for such problems as intractable disease, endemic poverty, ecological disaster and war.

We call that eventuality the messianic age, which tradition describes as a messiah arriving on yet one more donkey. That too, perhaps, is a holdover from creation, deposited in the wings of history and awaiting its turn on the world stage. Stay tuned. Who knows

Parashat Nitzavim

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” we say, but we are often wrong. It is self-delusion to suppose that if we always make a sound decision, always expend the extra effort, and always do the right thing, we will equally always figure it all out.

Jewish culture especially glorifies the seductive illusion that everything is possible. Sometimes it works — our grandparents lived adjacent to the Lower East Side’s Eldridge Street synagogue, which we now renovate with donations from Scarsdale and Great Neck. But sometimes it doesn’t.

So the important message of Rosh Hashanah is not what we usually think: not the self-congratulatory celebration of Happy New Year, L’chaim! Shehecheyanu, and all that; but the line from Avinu Malkenu — choneinu va’aneinu ki ein banu ma’asim; “Be gracious to us for we have no deeds of our own” — or, at least, some day we won’t have any. Count on it. The day will come (if it has not come already) when our capacity will seem paltry, given lives that grow older and frailer, and the inevitability of meeting challenges along the way that prove insurmountable.

“On Rosh Hashanah,” we say, “it is written who will live and who will die.” As literal theology, I don’t buy that. But as metaphor for the human condition, nothing could be more graphic. Our fate is often written for us; we don’t always get to write it.

This is not to say that we are helpless, but we do need to replace the neurotic notion that we are completely in charge with the recognition that we are often quite dependent — on the weather; on politics and people; on fate, coincidence and circumstance; on any number of things.

This should have been shabbat m’var’khim, the Shabbat immediately preceding the new month, when we pause in our morning prayers to invoke blessing on the month ahead. But the new year is an exception to the rule. Rosh Hashanah is indeed a Rosh Chodesh, a new month, but Jewish tradition dispenses with the normal blessing then because (says the Baal Shem Tov), “In the month that starts the new year, it is God who says the requisite blessing. Only by virtue of that divine act, may we bless the other months that follow.”

The recognition that we are unempowered, on our own, to invoke blessing for the coming year underscores the message that we cannot go endlessly through life bestowing unlimited blessing on everything and everyone. We will get tired, we will sometimes fail, we will need help. Some people learn this the hard way: millions of Americans who are in twelve-step recovery programs, admitting they have to “let go and let God”; and millions more who would do anything to cure a child of leukemia, bring back a teenage runaway, save a marriage, find a job. They do what they can; it is sometimes not enough.

The real heroes of the world are not the people who claw their way to the top as if immune to limitations. Forget Time Magazine’s annual story on the “Person of the Year.” Take the pictures of the rich and the beautiful that fill the New York Times’ style sections and wrap your garbage with them. Life isn’t like that.

The people I nominate for men and women of the year are the ordinary souls who muster the courage to go on, day after day, week after week, knowing they cannot solve life’s worst problems, but committed nonetheless to solving what they can and living with what they cannot. They, and we, will find comfort in a prayer with which Yom Kippur ends: precisely because we are dependent, “God reaches out a hand” to us. We are not alone in our shortcomings; some invisible force sustains us; and throughout the year-long silence following the echoes of Yom Kippur’s final t’kiyah g’dolah shofar-blast, that hand will be there for all who seek it.

Parashat B’chukotai

This final week of Leviticus is called “The Sabbath of Blessing” – a euphemistic reference to the content of the Torah portion, the curses said to await Israel if it fails to keep God’s commandments. The logic is as simple as it is unpalatable: God controls history and punishes us for noncompliance with God’s will.

Over the years, this thinking has been applied wholesale to Jewish tragedy — whether the destruction of the Temple in antiquity or the Holocaust of our own time, Jewish suffering is explained as divine punishment for sin.

I can think of few ideas as pernicious as this one. It is morally reprehensible to blame the Holocaust’s victims for their own agony. And what kind of God would mete out such punishment anyway? Finally, the notion that God determines history runs counter to everything we know about both God and history. Imagining God as a puppet-master manipulating the Romans or the Nazis is a profanation of the very word “God.”

The euphemism “Sabbath of Blessing” is not the only way we mitigate the pain of this parashah. Customarily, we read its curses quietly and rapidly, to get them over with quickly. Some people even leave the synagogue so as not to hear them.

The normal explanation for this behavior is the belief that by minimizing attention to the curses we prevent their coming true. But just the opposite conclusion ought to follow, the Chatam Sofer says. If we take the warnings seriously, they should be recited especially loudly and clearly, to make everyone hear them and heed them!

Yet we continue to read the curses sotto voce anyway. And I think we should, not because we superstitiously believe we thereby avoid their consequences, but because the very idea of God bringing curses upon us is so reprehensible that we slur over the verses that purport to say it. It is an embarrassment to God to imagine that God tweaks history to kill Jews – or anyone else, for that matter. No wonder we prefer downplaying the reading as much as possible.

The clear and evident point of the curses is to instill fear of God, an obvious consequence of hearing them read, if you believe they describe reality. If we no longer think that way, however, we need to redefine what we mean by “fear of God.” Here we can turn to Nehemia Polen’s discussion of Esh Kodesh, the sermons of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto.

Shapira saw first-hand the tortures endured under the Nazis; fear of punishment was all around him all the time; yet he hardly preached associating God with the Nazis! Having to face up to the theology that assumed the hand of God in history, he concluded that “fear of divine punishment,” is just a lower understanding of a loftier goal: attaining the awe that comes from comprehending “God’s grandeur.”

The curses of our parashah came from a time when imagining God as a micromanager of history was the best way to enforce the lesson of a God far enough beyond our ken to evoke awe. In our time, we have other ways to imagine that. How about the sheer force of numbers: our own earth that goes back 4,000,000,000 years; or the solar system that is 14,000,000,000 years old!

The awesome recognition of a God beyond ourselves is especially necessary today, given the possibility that we are likely, otherwise, to imagine we are God – and to do whatever we want, even to the point of destroying the world we live in.

So we should happily hear the curses muttered through at breakneck speed this year, not because they otherwise might come to pass, but to remind us that God does not actually manage history at all — in which case it must be true that we do. And we had better take that responsibility seriously before there is no history left to manage.

Parashat K’doshim: Individual and Societal Holiness

“Holiness,” says Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, 1809-1879, Russia), “is separating ourselves from materiality,and elevating ourselves to spiritual and divine concerns that transcend matters of the flesh.” By that standard, this week’s commandment to “be holy” seems an impossible task. So Malbim modifies his stand: “There are various degrees of the holy,” he concludes, ranging from curbing our appetite for forbidden pleasures to becoming immune to sensory pleasures altogether. But even so, one wonders: is total asceticism the ideal?

Jewish tradition does know isolated instances of ascetic behavior, but total self-abnegation seems foreign to Jews. So Malbim has a much grander message in mind, as we see from his following comment, an analogy between individuals and the world they inhabit.

He calls the individual and society, respectively, the “small world” and the “large world” of God’s creation (what we would call “microcosm” and “macrocosm”). They mirror each other, he maintains, in that they are both composed of body, mind, and soul. The purpose of controlling one’s individual urges is not to become an ascetic, but to effect a parallel change in the “large world,” the social order in which we dwell.

The three domains of body, mind, and soul, he thinks, constitute a sort of zero-sum game – diminish one, and the other two expand to fill the vacuum. So when individuals shrink their material appetites, the realms of mind and spirit automatically get bigger. Since microcosm and macrocosm are interdependent, contracting our personal appetite for physical pleasures produces a parallel contraction throughout society as a whole. As individuals become more mind and soul centered, so too does society.

From a scientific point of view, there is much wrong with this analysis. In Malbim’s understanding, the connection between individual and society is automatic – a kind of metaphysical law built into the universal order of things. But take away the metaphysics, and Malbim is on to something. As every social psychologist knows, individual and society are indeed mutually interdependent; if cultures are materialistic, their citizens are equally so, and vice versa. We take our individual cues from the culture in which we are raised.

But individuals are not, on that account, mere lemmings destined to follow their cultural ideals into the sea, if need be. We hold people morally responsible for resisting cultural norms that go astray: we believe in the individual’s right to protest; we think cultures should be called to account by individuals who believe their society has taken them too far.

Malbim is not arguing for selfless asceticism, therefore. His target is materialism so rampant that it crushes the other two realms of mind and spirit. What makes us distinctively human, he contends, is not our bodily appetites, after all – since other species share them with us; it is our mental and spiritual capacities that give us the right to the label “human.” When the “large world” of society becomes overly materialistic, only “the small world” of individuals can right the balance.

The commandment to be holy is thus no call for otherworldly monasticism. It is the commitment to cultivate mind and spirit. By mind, we mean a life of learning and of thoughtfulness. By spirit, we mean the values we associate with God, who is, after all, the ultimate standard of holiness: such things as compassion and kindness; justice and nobility.

Although he wrote well over a century ago, Malbim’s analysis could well have been an op ed column in today’s newspaper. Our American culture is indeed materially driven to the point of eclipsing the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake or goodness as an end in itself. The command “to be holy” is not a call to renounce all sensual pleasure. It is a request to balance it with the higher virtues of mind and spirit – starting with the “small world” of each and every person, the only way for the “large world,” the social order itself, to change.

 

Parashat Vayakhel

On June 14, 1954, millions of Americans stumbled over the Pledge of Allegiance. The 1892 original said, “one nation, indivisible.” Now Congress required everyone to pause after “one nation” and insert “under God.”

Recognizing God in 1954 was not just piety; it was also a Cold War response to Godless Communism. Since the Pledge is as close to a public prayer as we are likely to get, we should wonder if prayers, too, can be politically motivated. And indeed they can.

Shabbat candle-lighting, for example, derives from Exodus 35:3: “Light no fire throughout your settlements on Shabbat.” Early in the rabbinic era, this verse prompted vociferous debate. The Sadducees, a party of Scriptural literalists, thought it mandated dousing all fires before Shabbat began. The Pharisees said the ban covered new fires only; fires already lit could continue burning.

The Rabbis inherited the Pharisaic mantle, and assured people that God could never have intended us to keep Shabbat in cold, dark, gloom. Shabbat demanded oneg, joy. The Rabbis, therefore, permitted Jews to light fires in their homes before nightfall on Friday; in fact, they demanded it! And ever since then, Shabbat has featured symbolic candle-lighting.

But Shabbat lights were not yet a mitzvah  — there was no blessing over them. That came only in the 9th century, when a sect called Karaites reasserted Sadducean literalism, and declared the entire rabbinic tradition misguided. In response, the rabbis upped the ante, declaring Shabbat candles a mitzvah and requiring the blessing, “Blessed is God… who commanded us to kindle Shabbat lights.”

A more recent example of politics is Chief Rabbi Herzog’s 1948 prayer for the State of Israel, which called the new state “the first flowering of our redemption.” In time, the phrase came to be seen, by some, as a mandate for the wholesale eviction of Arabs from their land. We now live in a new “post-moral” age, went the reasoning; what was unethical before “the first flowering” is ethical today.

Some new prayer books, therefore, omit the phrase or go out of their way to prevent such a radical reading of it.

What should we think about the politicization of prayer? The answer is, we should welcome it as a sign that we think religion matters. Piety not worth arguing over is not worth taking seriously. Prayer should absolutely address such matters as the nature of Shabbat (in rabbinic times) and the theological standing of Israel (in our own).

We should, therefore, not hesitate to pray for parallel matters of moment in our time. Prayer is not just praise, petition, and thanksgiving addressed to God. It is equally a message to one another, a way we get our own values straight. We pray for things, not just because God might then support them but because we are more likely to.

A couple of months back, for instance, synagogues might have prayed that Marlise Machado Muñoz — the brain-dead women forced to remain on life support against her family’s will – be given death with dignity; or we might pray, this Shabbat, for Congress to be granted the wisdom to raise, not lower, food stamp allowance. Sure, such prayers are controversial, but some things ought to matter enough to warrant praying for them, and any ensuing “debate for the sake of heaven” (machloket l’shem shamayim) would be a welcome break from the saccharine sentiment of prayers that ask only for peace on earth, generally — ho-hum petitions that are virtually meaningless. Such generalities have their place, but some things are actually within our power to bring about, if we care enough to do so. Why not pray for them – an act that just might galvanize us to work for them?

If prayers speak only in platitudes, religion itself becomes platitudinous, a word that the dictionary defines as a polite way of saying, “trite, hackneyed, and banal,” precisely what religion should not become. People who claim to be irreligious may not be against it; they may just think it too dull to matter.

Parashat T’rumah – Rosh Chodesh Adar

Is there anything new under the sun? Ecclesiastes thought not. “One generation goes and another comes, but the earth remains the same forever.” But Ecclesiastes was jaded, cynical, skeptical, and misanthropic to boot.

Judaism, by contrast, insists that the proper answer to, “What’s new?” is not, “Same old, same old,” but, “This morning I awakened to a brand new day.”

It is particularly worth waking up to this Shabbat, because it is also the new moon (Rosh Chodesh). The American calendar ignores the moon, hardly noticing its waxing and waning. Judaism, however, follows it closely, convinced of the fresh beginning that each new month may bring.

On each new moon, medieval Jews in the Land of Israel prayed, “May Elijah the prophet come quickly; may King Messiah sprout up in our days; may joy increase!” They cited Isaiah 65:17, where God promises “a new heaven and earth, when the former things will be forgotten” — a prophecy composed in the wake of the war that brought Babylonian exile. Imagine a beginning so new that the traumatic nightmares of the past can virtually disappear. Nothing new under the sun? Hardly!

That glorious time has yet to arrive, however (there is a reason why we call relief from our worst memories “messianic”). So we settle for a dress rehearsal in the form of the new moon, a time at least to practice putting bitter memories on hold while summoning up the courage to hope for better times ahead. Elijah the prophet may not “come quickly;” the Messiah may not “sprout up in our days”; but “joy may increase.”

Not all months are equal in their capacity to spread such joy, however, because calendars are not empty envelopes of time where one day is as good as the next. Much as we like to imagine (with poet William Ernest Henley) “I am the master of my fate: I am captain of my soul,” our moods, at least, are captive to a calendar that influences the spirit of the moment.

In the American calendar, for example, Thanksgiving feasts are altogether different from July 4th fireworks. Jewish time too varies in perspective. High Holidays bring serious introspection, while Passover demands Seder celebration. The opportunity to find joy as each new month unfolds depends, in part, on which new month it is, and on the feeling-tone that the month in question brings.

This month, fortunately, is Adar, the month of Purim deliverance from Haman, and, therefore, in Jewish lore, a month of inherent joy. Better still, this is a Jewish leap year: a time when we add an entire extra month into the calendar. We could have added any month, but leave it to Jews to choose another Adar: a chance to double our joy! So we get two Adars this year, each one promising relief from oppressive memories and hope for better times.

If you doubt that the flow of calendric time makes a difference, just try ignoring Christmas or pretending January 1 is not the American new year. By contrast, open yourself to the rhythm of Jewish time, and see what happens.

Don’t get me wrong. All mental and physical pain will not magically disappear the minute the new moon appears. The hard truth is we cannot control sickness and misfortune. But we can control some of our reaction to it all, and Rosh Chodesh is the time to reexamine the way we face reality.

This Rosh Chodesh Adar, try saying your own silent prayer for Elijah; for the messiah, even; and certainly for joy. We do not know when the fullness of Isaiah’s promises will be realized. That, says Rashi, is known only to God. The simpler matter of insisting on joy, however, is at least partially dependent on us.

Was last month the worst you ever had? Take heart. Use this Rosh Chodesh Adar to find some unexpected happiness.