Wednesday, February 27, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Vayakel (Cholenty Godness)

I am going to deliver this to the AJU Hillel this Shabbat, so please understand the esoteric nature of some of my statements... For your mouth-watering pleasure, I also present various pictures of cholent I found on the internet and a "before" picture of the first one I ever made.

This week's Torah portion is Vayakel, the penultimate Parasha in the book of Exodus. It is usually joined with the final parasha, Pekudei, but because it is a leap year (in the Hebrew calendar) we separate

Today I want to talk about cholent. If you've never had cholent, you're missing much. If you've had cholent, you probably also have high cholesterol and heartburn. You might think of cholent as the Jewish chili, they even sound alike! Cholent is tasty, cholent is meaty, cholent is a religious imperative.

Wait, what?

Cholent older than the Kol Nidre prayer. It has roots in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi cultures (the latter's version is called Chamin, which means hot) and it has a fascinating history. Cholent was originally developed to prove you were a true blue Jew. This easy, tasty, and deadly dish made by throwing barley, beans, potatoes, beef, potatoes, beer, kishke and whatever else you happen to have lying around, like rice, hard boiled eggs or even Coca Cola into a crock pot and originated as a litmus test to your allegiance with Chazal, the sages who composed the Oral Law and that you believe in the Talmud. You put the mix into a pot in the oven or into crockpot before Shabbat, cooking it on low heat and by Shabbat lunch you have at the same time the greatest and worst food ever

At the very beginning of this week's parasha we have a law that prohibits burning a fire in the house on Shabbat. As Rabbinic Jews this is a prohibition against KINDLING a fire. In fact, one of the seven Rabbinic Mitzvot* (that are in addition to the 613 Torah mitzvot) is to light Shabbat Candles. It was created as a Is a shibbolet, a matter to prove one is not a Karaite, a sect who believe that lights are forbidden on Shabbat and will sit in the dark. It has the full status of a mitzvah to light at least candles to usher in the Sabbath, symbolizing shamor and zachor, observe, and remember, encompassing the many negative and positive commandments that go into observance of Shabbat.

We don't just require illumination, but food. On Shabbat one is commanded to feast! Unless the holiest day of Yom Kippur coincides with it, fasting is absolutely forbidden. We need to eat good food, hot food. But we can't cook on shabbat! We can reheat, however, a mark of a distinction between mainstream and Karaite Jews. We don't have the wars with Karaites anymore, but we still have these tasty leftovers in the form of Cholent. It may have lost its ulterior reasons but has become identified as the part of the ultimate shabbat meal, along with warm loaves of challah, gefilte fish, steaming bowls of chicken soup, and meat. I've had a number of good vegetarian cholents too, because it's not the meat, it's the heat! If you take a look in the B'kol Echad little blue song book we use, you will see about half of the Shabbat songs are about food. Lobby for Cholent in the Berg for Shabbat Lunch to prove you're not a Karaite. Eat cholent and you will fulfill the original mitzvah of Shabbat, because after you have this thick beef stew you will be taking what we refer to as the afternoon cholent nap, the only real way to observe the Day of Rest.

Shabbat Shalom!

*The seven Rabbinic Mitzvot corrrespond to the Mnemonic נע בשמח"ה
- נטילת ידים Netilat Yadayim - Washing hands before eating, waking up, after using the restroom, etc...
ערוב - Eruv - Shabbat Boundaries, whether physical walls or food-relate
ברכות - Brachot - Saying blessings for various occasions (besides Birkat HaMazon which is in the Torah)
שבת-Shabbat - Lighting Shabbat Candles (the mitzvah is not literally "Shabbat" which is both negative and negative mitzvot in the Torah already)
מגילה - Megillah - Reading the Scroll of Esther on Purim
חנוכה - Chanukkah - Lighting Chanukkah Candles
הלל - Hallel - Saying certain psalms on certain festive occasions

Friday, February 22, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Ki Tisa (11 secret herbs and spices)

I love this week's parasha as there is so much to discuss. In Ki Tisa we have the Half-Shekel Tax "to atone for your souls" (a hint to the IRS to make April 15th more interesting for us...), the Veshamru which has made its way into our Shabbat liturgy, that we should keep the sabbath as a sign of the covenant between Israel and God, the giving of the stone tablets and their subsequent shattering at the Sin of the Golden Calf, Moses' ascent to heaven and actually seeing God more vividly than anyone who has ever lived and learning the Thirteen Attributes and recieving atonement for the sin of the people. It's looking pretty good when for the past couple of weeks we have been dealing with esoteric architectural blueprints. We still get a little bit of it here with cinnamon, galbanum, frankincense and myrrh and the other spices that go into the Ketoret, but still exciting stuff as we get the names of our architect Betzalel son of Uri son of Hur (Cliff Note: Hur is about to get murdered in the mob...) of Judah and his assistant Oholiab son of Achisamach of Dan. W00t, fun.

At this point I realize I forgot to finish and post before Shabbat. Oops.

As we've realized, there is a lot going on here, enough to fill a couple of years of sermons (unlike Terumah and Tetzaveh, those are a little harder. It won't get easier after this week either). Perhaps it is the myriad of topics which makes Ki Tisa so difficult on which to commentate; which should I pick? I'll hold off on the Half-Shekel for two weeks until we reread this account on the special Shabbat Shekalim which precedes, or in this case falls on Rosh Chodesh Adar (II, this year) as Pekudei has less to talk about.

Alright, with all of the fun stuff here, I will challenge myself to talk about the boring portion of this... portion: the spices. We have a long list of spices which will be included in the Ketoret HaSamim, that which will be offered on the Gold Altar in the Kodesh. We get a bouquet of interesting spices that include one called galbanum (which incidentally is not even recognized in FireFox's dictionary. Galbanum is putrid smelling and sulfuric. There is something which is done at the end of Shabbat Musaf in many Orthodox communities that we do not usually do within Conservative Judaism, that being the recitation of Mishnaic and Talmudic passages relating to the Ketoret. In it we recite all of the spices and ingredients that go into the ketoret and that omitting any of them would cause liability of death. Even foul-smelling galbanum must be included. I think this symbolizes people. You might be sweet as cinnamon, sugar and spice and everything nice (see: girls), but you could also be odious and unpleasant as symbolized by galbanum. All are part of our community, people we like, people we don't necessarily like, kind people, sweet people, agreeable people, argumentative and stand-offish people, removed people, jerks. We have Four Sons on Passover and Four Species on Sukkot that also represent people, and all elements in all of our examples, as much as we may not like it, are indispensable parts of the whole. We are all in this together. There may be detractors, but we are all still part of the community, and casting anyone out, as much as they may get on your nerves, is a grave matter indeed.

Friday, February 15, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Tetzaveh (Priest in the Pocket)

I just realized something. As I have mentioned in the past, this weeks parasha, Tetzaveh is the only Parasha outside of the book of Genesis to not once mention the name of Moses. God may be speaking to Moses, but we don't know from the pshat, from the plain text (except for the fact that "Aaron your brother" is mentioned and the anonymous recipient is mentioned in the masculine). All we have is the strange oddity where it constantly states "ve'ata", "and you". God instructs to the second person to make various vessels and vestments for the priests.

It immediately raises red flags that Moses, who for all intents and purposes is the main character of the Bible, is not mentioned by name here. I think, based on no extant parshanut, that God is talking to us. We can speak to the priest and exercise some control. A caste system has never really been a solid thing in Judaism. Sure, a Kohen and Levi have various entitlements in certain communities, but they also have responsibilities and burdens to bear. They must bless and serve the people Israel and for that we give them these entitlements. Synagogues that don't do Duchanen, the priestly blessing usually don't give the Priest and Levite the first two aliyot. In the ancient Land of Israel, priests were not allotted land and lived off donations from the people Israel. Kohanim today find it difficult to be rabbis or doctors (eliminating two forms of nachas for Jewish mothers) as priests cannot be anywhere near dead bodies, something incompatible with the position of doctors who save lives (and lose some) at hospitals and rabbis who offer deathbed support and officiate at funerals. It was not in fact easy to be a priest.

According to Mishnah Yoma, which I studied last semester, In the Second Temple, the Kohen who was "lucky" enough to be elected High Priest tended to die within the year after they served if they were not pure of heart. When the office became corrupted under Hasmonean and Roman administration, and the office was bought, High Priests died left and right. They cannot be in it for themselves but are servants of Israel and God. They are empowered by the Beit Din of the Sanhedrin and their position can be revoked, by monarch or by God (usually from the latter involves death or sudden disqualification). Next week and three weeks from now (as Maftir Shekalim) we will read the beginning of Ki Tisa where the annual half-shekel tax is announced. Though minimal so that even the poorest can easily afford it (the Half Shekel in Israel is roughly 11.5 US Cents), the priest has to remember who is signing their checks: the People of Israel. Therefore the Priest is answerable to them.

Rabbis too are not the ultimate authority. Any layperson can do anything a rabbi can. Sure, the rabbi is further educated in Jewish law and a rabbi is empowered and recognized by the state to perform legally-binding status-changing ceremonies such as weddings and divorces but really anyone with the know-how can do it. Everyone matters. YOU tell the Kohen what to do!

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, February 10, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Trumah (A Whole and Holy Heart)

Delivered before VBS Library Minyan 2/9/08. Embargoed until Motzei Shabbos. I ad libbed a lot but this is basically what I said... This is a handy tool if you agree I spoke too fast and part of the reason we were done 15 minutes before the Main Sanctuary got out...

To be delivered before VBS Library Minyan 2/9/08

SUMMARY: Welcome to Trumah, it is here we interrupt the narrative and begin the excessive laws and instructions to the Israelites in the desert which will be the major focus of the next book and a half of the Torah. It is in this portion where God begins to command Moses with the specific blueprint for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle which will act as a movable sanctuary during their sojourn in the desert. We begin with the first ever synagogue appeal, where God Himself commands those of a giving nature “whose hearts so moved them” to donate gold, silver, copper, and various fabrics made from valuable threads and mythical beasts (one midrash in the Talmud defines the tachash skins as from a multi-colored unicorn. Our own Etz Chaim giant red chumashim translate tachash as Dolphin Skin. Where they got giant sea creatures in the middle of the Sinai desert I wonder to this day, something I find to be about as plausible as multicolored unicorns). We shall later learn that the fundraiser was too successful, something that never happens during synagogue appeals. Moses receives specific instructions on how to make the Tabernacle, Ark of the Covenant, Shewbread Table, Menorah, and how to design the curtains. Admittedly, it’s not the most exciting and it is, in fact, the first Torah portion in our cycle completely devoid of narrative, but as we will soon learn there are indeed diamonds in the rough.

DVAR: First of all, when I was asked to give a Dvar Torah on this week’s Torah Portion I immediately knew I was in trouble. Any of the Torah Portions since, say, May, would have been relatively easy to commentate. But from this point through the next couple of months, besides a Golden Calf or grizzly zapping story, we will be dealing with laws. Many many many laws. Many of these laws will be regarding Sacrifices or building edifices or fighting sin-induced skin diseases which have not been part of our culture for 2,000 years. So it is a real struggle to find something engaging within the specific instructions on how to build the Mishkan.

But among the tedious architectural instructions given in this parasha is something absolutely revolutionary that will change the course of the Jewish people.

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם (Exodus 25:8), they shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.

Unfortunately, even the dearth of Midrashim I looked up for this verse are mum on the inherent floodgate this should open. But as my teacher Rabbi Brad Artson said at his lecture here on Wednesday night, “it is a mark of greatness to not recycle something dead rabbis have said, stringing together quotes, but instead offering previously unrevealed wisdom”. This Dvar Torah is an attempt at such revelation. I have never heard anyone comment on this verse, so this is a trial in uncharted territory.

Past attempts to centralize God have failed. In the Tower of Babel, the inhabitants of Babylon attempted to go up to the abode of God in the heavens. But now God desires a meeting point between Him and the Israelites, a structure through which the Children of Israel will have a very real and constant knowledge of God’s omnipresence and providence. He commands us to create a home on Earth, commanding us to build him a dwelling among the Israelites.

Ramban, Nachmanides, says on this verse that the place will serve as the house of a king and that God will dwell in the “Bayit” and “Kisei HaKavod” , “in the house and on the Throne of Glory that they will build for Him there. These parallel the same locations to God’s palace and Throne of Glory in Heaven, richly described in midrashic literature. But now we bring God down to Earth. We read a few minutes ago: רוממו ה' א-לקנו והשתחוו להדום רגליו, קדוש הוּא. Praise the Lord our God and prostrate to His footstool, for it is holy.” The footstool is the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, the meeting point where Heaven and Earth kiss. When the Ark of the Covenant is led into battle, the Israelites rout their enemies as God and His Celestial Host of myriads of angelic warriors join and obliterate our adversaries. We just said this very thing as we took out the Torah

ויהי בנסוע הארון ויאמר משה: קומה ה' ויפוצו אויבך וינוסו משנאך מפניך, arise God and cause your enemies to scatter and those that hate you to flee from before you.

These relics are a way of summoning God, a trend which will continue next week with the instructions to Aaron regarding the creation of the Priestly Garments. All these devices will be used to divine God or perform other supernatural tasks.

This week’s Haftarah from the Book of Kings similarly gives the blueprint of another Mikdash, Solomon’s Temple, the first Beit HaMikdash. It uses the same language as the Torah portion did.

וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא אֶעֱזֹב אֶת־עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

“And I will dwell among the children of Israel and I will not abandon My nation Israel.” The Ark of the Covenant, previously mobile, will now have a permanent home in the Holy of Holies, God’s eternal dwelling place. Something notable in this haftarah is that is in the aside quote “in the 480th year after the Israelites left the land of Egypt”. I don’t think I have seen other references to the date of the Exodus from Egypt in other books besides the Torah. We are commanded to daily recall the Exodus and set our calendars from this date, and yet this is one of the few examples which actually follows this guideline. I feel that it is tying the two events together, the building of the movable Tabernacle of the Desert, and the Holy Temple in the permanent capital of Jerusalem, that 480 years passed between the constructions in the two events.

What happened to the Tabernacle? Some commentators go so far as to claim that identical cubit measurements placed the entire Tabernacle into the Holy of Holies in the First Temple, that it be a continuation of that place which Moses entreated God and in which Aaron and his sons ministered in the home of God. This is the continuation of a literal emanation of God on Earth.

But we, as Maimonidean Jews cannot allow ourselves to anthropomorphize God, that God needs a physical place to dwell Ironically when King David asks to build the First Temple God rhetorically responds to the negative, “should you build Me a House in which to dwell?” I think it is vital to look at this metaphorically. There is a song that is traditionally sung at Seudah Shlishit, the third meal which is eaten late Saturday afternoon as the Sabbath wanes, a placid song known as Bilvavi, the melody slow, powerful, and emotional, I will now sing it one time through so you can get a feel for the emotion pulsating through these words:

בלבבי משכן אבנה להדר כבודו

ובמשקן מזבח אשים לקרני הודו

ולנר תמיד אקח לי את אש העקדה

ולקרבן אקריב לו את נפשי היחידה

“In my heart I will build a Tabernacle to beautify Your Glory, and in this Tabernacle I will place an altar for the rays of Your Splendor, and for the Ner Tamid, [the Eternal Light], I will take the fire of the Akeidah, [where Isaac was bound on the altar], and for the sacrifice I will offer to Him my unique soul.”

This is a powerful statement but certainly not literal. God wants to be a part of our lives but we need to let him enter. When we are standing at the Sea of Reeds, Charlton Heston famously yells, “The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us. Behold his mighty hand.” The actual quote from Exodus 14 is “Have no fear! Stand back and witness the salvation of God which he makes for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The Lord will battle for you and you will stand back!” Then the water parts and the Israelites enter, right? No! In the Torah, God responds by saying “why do you cry out to me? Tell the Children of Israel to go forward!” It takes a brave Jew named Nachshon ben Aminadav to walk into the turbulent waters up to his nose for the sea to split. Okay, so there’s a little Midrash here. God wants us to want him.

In the beginning of the Jewish people we needed a Mishkan or a Beit HaMikdash in which to offer of our substance to God, to bring ourselves close to Him. The word for sacrifice is Korban which also means drawing close. But how will the slaughtering of an animal and burning it on an altar bring you closer to God? The prophet Hosea suggests “instead of bulls, the offering of our lips” should suffice. We need to appear before God with לבב שלם, a whole heart, many of us also approach with a broken heart, which may be even more powerful. The offering of our lips will not suffice without our heart being in it. The psalmist wrote a phrase which we use to conclude our most important prayer, יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון ליבי לפניך ה' צורי וגואלי, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

We have found a way over the past two millennia to survive without any sort of sacrificial service, that which will be the focus of most of the rest of the Torah and much of the rest of the Bible. Yet 2,000 years later, here we are as Jews, and no Korbanot. 480 years separatated the building of the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple. We too can count from this red-letter day. According to my math utilizing the traditional year of the Exodus 2448 Anno Mundi (corresponding to 1312 BCE), we are 3,320 years removed from God’s instructions to Moses and 2,840 from Solomon’s glorious construction project, and today we continue the tradition, in a slightly less literal way. We have moved into the synagogues and shtiblach and come together to pray. ועשו לי מקדש. Mikdash doesn’t need to be a place, it means holiness! Make for me holiness, commands God! Though we pray for it, we don’t need a Beit HaMikdash to feel the Presence of God. Though it might not be the best thing for a Rabbincal student to say, especially at a minyan, even the synagogue is not the be-all-end-all. Yes, it is ideal to be among a quorum of Jews, which the Talmud states brings down the shechinah. But God dwells within each any every one of us, and God implores us to make room for Him in there, to avoid impurity and allow holiness to abide within. God knocks at the door of our souls and we need to let Him in. As the aphorism goes, your body is a Temple. But a temple to whom? And do you allow your heart and soul to act as the High Priest? Let God in! וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם There I will dwell, within the sanctuary of your heart.

Meta: Trumah Terumah T'rumah Teruma Truma

Friday, February 01, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Mishpatim (Three out of the five words in that sentence were "death")

This parasha is full of fun things about which to write Divrei Torah (unlike next week's, Trumah, for which I have to write a really long one to deliver at the Library Minyan...)

I have many options about which to write, so instead of writing about one thing, I will comment briefly about several. In this parasha are both laws that are of ethical imperative and fierce justice, sometimes blended into one. It starts out describing the treatment of a Hebrew slave, that a lifetime of servitude is by no means part of an ideal society (the slave is expected to accept his freedom after six years). The rabbinic tradition is rife with commenting that the slave should be treated better than the master. If there is only one bed in the household, the slave should get the bed and the master can sleep on straw in the barn. The slave should get the best of the food, and the master has many responsibilities to the slave. Jewish slaves are exempted from many time-bound mitzvot so that they can perform their duties. If you injure your slave he is automatically free to go; that is not the way one treats their brother.

This parasha brings up crimes for which capital punishment would result, such as murder and kidnaping, as well as complete disdain for filial responsibilites, committing bestiality, idolatry, or sorcery (sorry Harry Potter, you are not exempt).

Miscarriage and abortion are addressed: If two men are fighting and one strikes a pregnant woman: if the unborn fetus is killed in this act, the striker owes her and her husband money, but if she dies too, he is put to death.

It is in this case where Hamurrabi's infamous Code of Law is pronounced: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, et al. This is where rabbinic interpretation of the law needs to come in. Eye for eye's value, etc. You must pay the cost of that injury which you inflicted, trauma, shame, potential lost. This is the first case of Workman's Comp.

Alright, I promised the ox that gores, the shor shenagach last year. This is a case that varies based on intention and negligence. If it is a first time offense, the ox shall be put to death. However, if the owner repeatedly allows a violent ox to misbehave and doesn't properly restrain or control it, if it gores and kills someone you are to stone both the ox and the owner. You are responsible for your animals.

The parasha deals with stealing and rape (it is not pro-either)...

It then retakes the merciful ethics. God is the defender of widows and orphans and if you mistreat them, God will turn on you and then makes a cute metaphor "Your own wives will become widows and your sons orphans". Yeah, you dead.

Also, you can't take the garment as collateral from a poor person who only owns one garment overnight or God will kick your ass.

That being said, you should not show favoritism in judgment, neither to the poor due to pity or the wealthy due to their importance, but be unbiased in judicial matters.

Lashon hara = bad.

The parasha deals with recovering lost objects, which is the focus of the Talmud in Bava Metzia we are currently studying in my Gemara class. The gemara goes into much detail exactly what must be done. Because I am merely scratching the surface of much of the parasha I won't go into details. Also, be nice to animals.

Don't oppress the stranger (you're going to see this one a few dozen times), Shmitta, Shabbat, the festivals, kid in its mother';s milk (which we all know means "no milk and meat") ,a eschatological and supernatural series of promises for what is going to happen once you properly enter the land (I will remove sickness, no more miscarriage, no hunger)

Finally after this long string of chukim, the people say Naaseh V'Nishma, we will do and [then] we will hear (that's the last time the Jews would ever say that before finding out the details, Rabbi Artson said yesterday in a lecture at VBS)

Some strange stuff about sapphire (the alliteration was unintentional), and Moses goes up to Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights.

Tune in next week (though I probably will not post it before Shabbat)

Shabbat Shalom.