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David’s Corner – April 26, 2021

Emor

Just as Achrei Mot and Kedoshim assert and command ways that the Israelites are separate from their neighbors (diet and behavior), so does Emor assert and command ways the Priests of Israel are separate from other Israelites.

One way that Priests separate themselves is by staying away from bodies of the dead, with the exception of their closest relatives.  They are not, further, to shave smoothe any part of their heads or their sideburns for this makes them unholy, not worthy of offering “food” of HaShem.

Other unholy acts that defile the priest include marrying a harlot or a divorced woman.  Only a virgin of his own clan may be taken as a wife.  Physical defects such as a broken leg or arm, or yes, crushed testes or any of the eruptions cited in previous parashot make a priest ineligible to participate in sacrifices.

Lay folks are not allowed to eat any of the sacred donations at all.  The only exception is a person who is the priest’s property (not an Israelite, though that is not mentioned specifically), or those born into his household.  If a priest’s daughter marries someone who is not a kohen, she may not eat the donations either, though if she is widowed or divorced and living back at home, she may.

As with other parashot in Leviticus, Emor is punctilious about sacrifices.  What is offered may not have a defect.  Newly born animals may not be sacrificed until they have spent a week with their mother.  In addition to regular daily sacrifices, there are special sacrifices on the Sabbath and extra special sacrifices for Rosh Hashana (though it is not mentioned by name); the Day of Atonement, and Succot, during which everyone is supposed to live in booths.  Israelites are expected to abjure work on the Sabbath, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and the first and last day of Succot.

In addition to maintaining the sacred calendar, it is the responsibility of the priests to insure a constant supply of olive oil to light the menorah and a supply of flour and frankincense, a token offering for the bread and a  display.  Lastly, the priest is to adjudicate whether someone has committed blasphemy, a crime punished by death.

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David’s Corner- March 1, 2021

Ki Tassa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

The instructions from HaShem continue in this parasha.  The finest materials are now applied toward three elements:  the creation of the Priest’s vestments, the procedure for consecrating the priests, and construction of the altar for burning incense.

And then there was the big screw-up on the part of some Israelites, or the big explosion on the part of HaShem.  Was the Golden Calf episode inevitable?

 

Consider this.  The Israelites had no real antecedents to the new laws of HaShem.  As we saw in past parashot, there was no conception of rights, in Egypt.  The Israelites were to obey the Egyptian overseers, period.

 

Now, they were out of Egypt and, according to HaShem, have only to obey the word of HaShem in order to be happy.  Perhaps, though, some Israelites feel they needed a break from obeying authority, even if that authority sounds more reasonable than the Egyptians, even if that authority is truly looking after their welfare.

 

Perhaps, too, after the excitement of fleeing Egypt, perhaps because of so many wonders in rapid succession, the Israelites expect Moses to pick up the stone tablets quickly and to skate down the mountain to deliver them to the people.  When Moses doesn’t return after some days, some of the people grow restless and revert back to old polytheistic ways.

 

The people are creatures of habit, creatures who have not fully integrated the new habits of worshipping only HaShem and the habit of keeping the Sabbath.  The key to understanding this is Aaron’s behavior in the midst of the Golden Calf episode.  Aaron provides to Moses the lame excuse that Moses took too long coming down the mountain. It might be inferred that Aaron’s old habit before the Exodus was polytheistic sacrifice.

 

Both HaShem and Moses are furious at the lapse in the Covenant.  HaShem understandably instructs the Levites to kill the offenders.  But Moses, once calm, gets HaShem to calm down as well, or at the very least to realize that his anger could destroy all the Israelites.  HaShem creates a distance between himself and the Israelites so this does not happen.

 

Questions to be discussed:  What does Moses get HaShem to understand about his wayward people?  How does this affect HaShem’s expectations regarding the Israelites?

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David’s Corner – February 22, 2021

T’tzaveh (Exodus 27:20 - 30:10)

The instructions from HaShem continue in this parasha.  The finest materials are now applied toward three elements:  the creation of the Priest’s vestments, the procedure for consecrating the priests, and construction of the altar for burning incense.

Nothing is improvised.  Every detail is to be carried out exactly.  To be created are a breastplate, an ephod (a long vest), a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash; priestly garb for Aaron and his sons to wear as they serve HaShem.  

The materials are exquisite.  Here are those used for constructing a breastplate:  absolutely beautiful yarns of gold, blue, purple and crimson are employed, as well as beautiful stones of carnelian, chrysolite, emerald, turquoise, sapphire, and amethyst among others. (28:15)

The vestments must be consecrated, as must their wearers, the priests.  Here the instructions deal with the procedure.  With each vestment there is a pouring on of oil.  Yet the exacting procedure is only beginning, for a purification rite demands that unblemished bulls and rams be led to the altar to be sacrificed.  The blood of these animals is dripped on the right ear of Aaron and his sons.  Aaron’s vestments, once consecrated are passed on to the sons, and the purification right repeated every day for seven days.  Only Aaron and his sons may consume the meat of the animals. (29:1-28)

The odor is strong, to say the least.  Perhaps this is why instructions are made to construct an altar of the finest acacia wood in order to burn incense.  Incense can help neutralize or sweeten the odor.  No foreign incense is to be used, nor is a grain offering or a burnt offering to be made on this altar. It is to be cleaned once a year. (30:1-10)

In this worldview, the care that is taken in fulfilling these instructions is a mark of holiness, and obedience to them is the highest spiritual discipline.

Questions to be discussed:  Does holiness have its place today?  Is obedience still considered a virtue?  If not, what has replaced it in importance, now that we no longer have temple to make sacrifices?

david

David’s Corner – February 15, 2021

T’rumah (Exodus 25:1 - 27:19

The process of building a traveling Tabernacle is most impressive.  This week’s parasha, T’rumah, and next week’s parasha, T’tzavveh, contain HaShem’s instructions for the process.

The first really impressive element is unstated.  It is clear by its omission that the Israelites are not to turn their experience of receiving the law at Mount Sinai into a regular yearly event at Sinai.  Thus the intention behind having a mobile Tabernacle is likely that eventually it will find its more permanent home in the promised land once that land has been entered and conquered.

A further incentive is that HaShem appeals to the Israelites’ sense of participation in the construction of the Tabernacle by having Moses tell them to “bring Me gifts, and that Moses is to “accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (25:2)

Let’s be clear, however.  No chintzy, cheap materials in the construction of the Tabernacle are acceptable.  Rather Moses shall accept “gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood.” (25:3-5)

The reason for these fine materials quickly becomes evident: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  (25:8) Daddy is joining the kids for this road trip.  

But lets not get too familiar, alright?  HaShem will instruct the Israelites as to which spaces are open to the people, and which are so sacred that only the Cohanim may enter, and then there will be a space that only Moses can be near HaShem.  This will be all by design, HaShem’s design.  (25:9)  

Questions for discussion:  Can the Israelites live up to HaShem’s expectations in the construction of the Tabernacle?  What happens if they don’t?

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David’s Corner – February 8, 2021

MIshpatim (Exodus 21:1 - 24:18)

The tone of the Torah changes with this parasha.  Whereas up to now the focus has been principally on narrative, the Torah now presents the rules by which the the Israelites are expected to live.

 Where to start? So much is necessary beyond the initial commandments which frame essential truths.  Now there is to be a Book of the Covenant which spells out in greater detail what those truths mean in practice.

 Slavery and the liberation from it has been the great cause of the exodus from Egypt.  So perhaps that is the reason the Book of the Covenant begins with slavery.  A clear precedent is established.  Unlike in Egypt, the status of being a Hebrew slave is not a permanent condition unless a slave formally requests it.  The slave is to be released after six years of service, and his wife, should he have one, can join him. (21:2-6)

 A female Hebrew slave who has been sold by her father cannot be freed after six years. But if her owner finds her displeasing, he must let her be redeemed.  And if he designates her for his son and he marries another, he is not permitted to withhold her food, her clothing or her conjugal rights.  However imperfect this appears to 21st century eyes, it marks a clear distinction to what previously occurred in Egypt, for unlike then, Hebrew slaves now have some rights. (21:7-11)

 From the discussion on slavery, the topic jumps to murder.  “He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death.”  (21:12)    However, “If he did not do it by design, but it came about by an act of God I will assign you a place to which he can flee.” (21:13) Discerning intent thus becomes of paramount importance:  accidental or deliberate?   Certainly, as far as former Hebrew slaves are concerned, this is revolutionary.  No Egyptian cared much that Moses’s slaying of an Egyptian overseer was impulsive, with the intent of stopping the beating of a helpless Hebrew slave.


Questions for discussion:  Do you think that the intention of the Book of the Covenant is to draw a clear distinction between what the Hebrews had experienced as slaves and the new society of freedom?  If not, why not?  If so, were there other considerations as well?

david

David’s Corner – January 18, 2021

Bo (Exodus 10:1 -13:16)

The pharaoh knows it is time to let go, but he still won’t.  HaShem, we are told, has hardened his heart.

And look at what that has cost him after 10 plagues.  Not only has it caused the death of his first born, but the first born of all his people and their animals.  It has cost him Egypt itself.

Yet after that 10th plague, he says he is going to finally let the Hebrew slaves go.  He has at last admitted defeat.  But has he?  Not really.  He boards his war chariot and leads his army to overtake the Israelites at the sea of reeds.

There, after the Israelites have walked through a divided sea to arrive on dry land, the Pharaoh’s splendid army is drowned. 

With all of Egypt truly in ruins, why don’t Moses and the Israelites direct their attention to finding further ways to punish the tyrant Pharaoh for his excessive behavior?

Part of an answer might be that HaShem is well aware of the Israelites’ shortcomings.  Later he will call them a stiff-necked people.  They are hardly in a position to judge others as regards stubbornness and ego.

Also, however, after much celebratory partying, HaShem knows that the Israelites will awaken from their hangover and face a new challenge.  They must become a people, ready to enter their promised land, and have many trials and adventures ahead of them.

Questions for discussion:  Why does HaShem harden the Pharaoh’s heart?   What, if anything, do the Israelites learn about having a hardened heart? 

david

David’s Corner – December 28, 2020

Benjamin

Genesis comes to an end in the portion, Va y’ hi, with Jacob blessing his children before he dies.  It’s not exactly touchy-feely.   While Jacob does generate positive feelings about Joseph and Judah, he has a long memory of escapades by Rueben, Simeon and Levi, and isn’t shy about busting them on it.

Finally Jacob gets to Benjamin, his youngest:  

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf;

In the morning he consumes the foe,

And in the evening he divides the spoil.”  (Gen. 49:27)

Rather chilling isn’t it?  It’s the last thing one would expect to be said about Benjamin. He’s the cute kid everyone wants to protect, the one Jacob is adamant about NOT sending to Egypt as Joseph has ordered.

But there might be more to it than that.  First, remember that Benjamin’s mother, Rachel, died in childbirth.  Nor has Benjamin ever known his brother Joseph, because the eldest son of Rachel supposedly was killed by wild animals. So Benjamin has been left to his own devices in dealing with his tough elder half brothers. 

Then, once in Egypt, Benjamin may well have thought he had been a pawn in Joseph’s elaborate charade.  It’s not inconceivable that deep down he developed a certain chip on his shoulder.

In fact, Benjamin’s tribal descendants  will prove to be difficult customers in the time to come, as warriors battling not only external threats in the desert, but, in the Book of Judges, other Israelite tribes.  So accomplished will the Tribe of Benjamin be as soldiers, they will produce Israel’s first king, Saul.

Questions to think about:  Rachel’s two sons with Jacob both have a tangible connection with the Israelites’ future.  Joseph is linked to the Israelite migration to Egypt, and Benjamin is linked to the era of kingship.  Which other brothers are directly connected to Israel’s future?

david

David’s Corner – December 21, 2020

Is the story of Joseph merely a legend?

The story of Joseph has become a legend.  A young boy is forced to leave his family and work in an alien land.  He rises to great success and serves the ruler of this alien land.  His family joins him, carving an economic niche by doing work that natives look down upon and won’t do.  The family, with others like it, enjoy decades of success.  Then, gradually, the Israelites lose their advantage and status and will not know freedom again for a very long time. Ultimately they are liberated, and fight to take their promised land.

But is all this merely a legend?  Consider how elements of it have popped up over the centuries.  To begin, many of us have in our past a story of a youthful ancestor who walked across Europe, and then nearly penniless,  booked the cheapest steerage to the United States or Canada. Once established in the new land, the ancestor sent for his family.

As for rising to serve a ruler in this new land, think of Maimonides, who rose to become the physician to the sultan in Egypt.  Or, in our own time, think of the controversial Henry Kissinger, who forged the foreign affairs of the United States for two presidents, opening China in the process.

Ancient Egyptians looked down upon herding, while later European peoples looked down upon moneylending.  Jews filled these jobs to great success.

This happened, too, in Poland.  Jews, fleeing murderous German princes were actually invited into Poland.  Their particular talent?  Financial planning, as they helped manage estates.  Over centuries, the Jewish population in Poland grew to be in the millions.

As in ancient Egypt, the combination of enormous population increase and economic success was perceived as a threat by natives.  Before long, Polish Jews were second class citizens living under poverty conditions in Shtetls.    In our darkest moment as a people, these millions of Jews were not only enslaved in munition factories, but they were exterminated.  

Fortunately the story did not end there.  For just as the Israelites were liberated from slavery and fought for their promised land, so did survivors of the Holocaust fight to establish a new state in their old land.

David

David’s Corner – December 14, 2020

MIketz. (Genesis 41:1-44:17)

At the beginning of Miketz, Joseph rises from the dungeon.  The Pharaoh has had his disturbing dreams which no one can interpret to his satisfaction, and the Chief Cub Bearer remembers a “Hebrew youth.”  (Gen. 41:12). Before he can digest what is happening to him, Joseph is all dolled up, and whisked off to an appearance before the Pharaoh.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as indicating there will be seven good years of harvest and seven years of drought.  But he doesn’t stop there.  He makes a pragmatic suggestion:  Get organized so that when the lean years come, the people won’t starve.  In fact, hire a competent person to oversee all this.  Guess who gets the job?

When the lean years come, everyone in the Middle East knows that there is grain available in Egypt, including Jacob and his remaining sons. (Gen. 41:57) Jacob dispatches all his sons to pick up the grain ration, except Benjamin, for fear of something happening to him.

In a classic moment Joseph sees his brothers, yet they don’t recognize him.  Their bowing deeply to him returns him internally to childhood and his own dream of them bowing to him.  (Gen. 42:8)  One might expect that this would be Joseph’s moment of triumph, but instead he is a deeply conflicted soul.   Part of him wants to hug all his brothers, and part of him is still angry as hell at what they did to him.  

Questions for discussion:  How does Joseph deal with these conflicted feelings?  In the course of plotting a complicated stratagem, is he seeking revenge or rapprochement or both?  Why does Benjamin become a linchpin in this plan?   

David

David’s Corner – Decemer 7, 2020

Joseph Enters the Picture (VaYeshev)

Joseph begins as a pain in the ass to his brothers.  He is Jacob’s favorite son and isn’t shy about letting his brothers know, wearing the coat of many colors that his father has made for him.  Even more provocative, he tells them about dreams that could easily be interpreted as an assertion that he is superior to them. 

Is Joseph a goody goody?  What is his motivation for behaving the way he does?  Is he an innocent who doesn’t know any better or is he just overwhelmingly conceited?

His brothers are convinced he is the latter, and they fake his killing by an animal to cover the fact that they are literally selling him into slavery.  When shown the bloody coat of his favorite son, Jacob goes into deep mourning.

Yet there isn’t an ounce of haughtiness in Joseph when Potiphar buys him from slave traders and installs him in his household.  Joseph doesn’t need to be coached by HaShem or an angel of HaShem on how to behave.  Nor does he have some elaborate stratagem designed to trick anyone in order to serve his ambition.  

So when the torah tells us that In fact, “The Lord was with Joseph,” there appears to be a tinge of pride on the part of HaShem.  (Gen. 39:7). On his own, Joseph seems to have developed a way to get ahead through his own honesty and work ethic.  

Joseph is also smart enough to know that sleeping with Potiphar’s wife would not only be dangerous, but ungrateful.  Potiphar has put Joseph in charge of all his property.  Why betray him? 

Nor does Joseph whine to HaShem when Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of making a pass at her and Potiphar has Joseph sent to prison.  Here Joseph’s self-confidence is displayed as finding his niche as an interpreter of dreams.  This will be the path to his rise.

Questions for discussion:  In what ways is Joseph similar to his father?  In what ways is he very different?  Is that important or not?  Why?