Tetsavveh – on service, on spiritual leaders, on sacrifice

A continuation from Terumah, which outlines how the space of the tabernacle must be set up, this parshah talks about how the Priests (beginning with Aaron) are to be dressed and anointed. It then outlines the sacrifices at the temple – what they are and how they must be carried out. This passage reflects the power of the Priests during the time of the Temple in Jerusalem. Because worship relied on the Priests and the offerings made to them, religious life was centralized. Being a Priest was an incredibly important and powerful role – and all this free food from the sacrifices made being a Priest a great gig. The Priests were separate from the rest of the community; they were a set apart. After the temples were destroyed we began to mark religious customs in smaller decentralized places of worship and, importantly, in the home. This meant that Judaism became portable; it did not rely on a central temple. It also meant that women had a greater role to play because they were/are typically the ones who controlled the private domain of the home. 

This passage makes us consider the role of leadership. We no longer look to Priests to guide us in our spiritual practices. Some of us do look to Rabbis (who after the destruction of the temples eclipse Priests as the most important spiritual and community leaders. They became the main access point to God and also emerged as the learned ones in the community who,therefore , became the ones set apart from the people). Do we need external leaders to show us how to practice our Judaism? Do we need teachers to guide us and shed light on the aspects of our tradition that may continue to inspire us today? For many of us we do look to leadership. A good rabbi (teacher) can inspire us, ignite our curiosoty, push us in our thinking, and point us in the direction of ideas and sources we may not know. Leadership matters. Many of us also, however, look within ourselves. We have the tools to educate ourselves about important Jewish texts, history, and culture. We value community, and any community relies on leadership of some kind of other – even if it is grassroots leadership from “below” – but we also value the ability to find meaning for ourselves.  

This parshah also invites us to think about sacrifice. Many of us do not lament that animal sacrifice disappeared with the temples. But the idea of sacrifice is an interesting one. Too many of us lead lives in which we are unwilling to make sacrifices – even for the benefit of those we love. We are a self-interested society; but, it is worth thinking about what we lose when we prioritize only ourselves above all others. There is a fine line between self-love/self-care and selfishness. Those who prioritize themselves last are also not doing themselves or their loved ones a favour; martyrdom doesn’t really serve anyone. But neither does self-interest above all else. We are asked to make all kinds of sacrifices in our lives. We make a financial sacrifice when we pursue an education, although we see it as an investment in our future. We make sacrifices of our personal freedom when we decide to take on the awesome responsibility of parenting, although children enrich our lives in immeasurable ways. We make sacrifices for partners and friends who, when they need something of us that conflicts with our own wishes or needs, may be more important at that moment. These sacrifices all hopefully pay off. I make sacrifices for my partner, but trust he would/will do the same for me. When we sacrifice for our children it is because our love for them feeds us, and we want them to be as full and happy as possible. But there are sacrifices we might have to make that do not benefit us directly. People who fight for just causes to which they are committed, people who donate organs, people who risk their own lives to save the lives of others after emergencies or disasters, there are true heroes in the world who understand the beauty of sacrifice. All of us are on a path to find balance in our lives. How much and what are we prepared to sacrifice in order to be the best versions of ourselves?  

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Terumah – on sanctuary, on stories, and on space

This Torah portion includes the precise details by which the people are to build a sanctuary/tabernacle for prayer. The context in Exodus is that the people have begun to receive the law but have not yet received the entire Torah. The building of the sanctuary is meant to physically resemble the ways in which he people are becoming a people. The act of wandering is to signify a search or a dislocation. But the precision with which the sacred structures must be built suggests something of permanence. As the people begin to centre their lives around ritual practice, they will shed that sense of dislocation. A physical centre becomes a spiritual way of centring oneself and one’s community.

Some feel that the structure described in this portion is the first temple, while others think of it as the template for smaller temples that could have been built anywhere. What we see here is that the Priests are encouraging the people to build structures that will centralize communal ritual practice- thus ensuring Priestly power but also ensuring the people have a place to congregate. Congregations are not for everyone, but we can see in this passage the importance our early ancestors placed in finding ways to bring the community together. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, articulated that Judaism was a “civilization” and thus he reimagined synagogues as communal spaces that went beyond prayer. We find our Jewish community centres, congregations, or other groups and meeting spaces to be places for us to get in touch with our deepest selves – by getting in touch with our community.

For Humanistic Jews, it is not prayer that is important but people. We find value in our communities – Jewish and more broadly human. But we need places in which to congregate, to come together. Public spaces are disappearing in many of the cities in which we live. Parks, markets, arenas, these are the centres of human life. It’s where we run into our neighbours and friends. It’s where we can relax in nature or amongst beautiful architecture. Space matters, particularly as it can help to /construct communities and how they function.

There is a beautiful church in Ottawa, Ontario, a city about five hours from where I live. Whenever I am in Ottawa I go into that church, even for five minutes, and sit. I love that church because I know its history – an Italian sculptor came to Canada as part of a competition to win the commission for a sculpture on top of the Canadian parliament buildings. He was so sure he’d win that he did not consider how he would pay for his passage back to Italy if he lost, which he did. Desperate for funds, he convinced the church to take his sculpture instead – it sits on top of the entrance to this day. The church’s congregation outgrew its structure so they built a new church around it so as not to disrupt services, and then demolished the old one from the inside and carried it out the back. All of this is charming as it tells a story of religious life in Canada and how it has been defined by, and also helped to construct, space. But I really love the church because its architecture has a simple beauty. It is not ostentatious as some cathedrals. It is quaint and lovely. And, for me, it is sacred space. I am not a Christian and I do not pray, but I can find meaning in the human project of constructing spaces that are meant to inspire us and to represent the best of human ingenuity, creativity, and passion.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us of the Jewish project of constructing space – complete with symbols such as the menorah, the alter, the ark. Even for those of us who do not pray, we can find meaning in the physical structures that have inspired and housed Jewish communities for centuries. And we can consider what kinds of spaces may feed us today. What kind of beauty, what kind of community, are we looking for, and in what kind of house? Many Humanistic congregations lack buildings of our own. Our challenge is to find spaces that work for us and to remember that building community is an equally important project to building the spaces that house us.

Mishpatim – on measure for measure, on monotheism and/as morality, and on the “magic” mountain

This week’s portion focuses on laws. We can be proud of the ways in which our early ancestors began encoding practices that sought to ensure fairness and justice. We can celebrate the laws that were intended to promote justice, even while we keep in mind the balance that justice during the biblical times might be different from justice today. Rules for how to treat women, slaves, etc. make clear that there was an intention to try to limit suffering, but no intention towards challenging the inherent hierarchies of society.

Mishpatim details the “measure for measure” laws: “the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” While this is not progressive justice as we understand it today, it is important to understand that this code ensured some sense of consequences for one’s actions – even in spite of how powerful someone was. It is important that the measure for measure laws follow a lengthy discussion about the treatment of slaves, because what is implies is that all people, regardless of social position, are entitled to justice and, by the same token, all people are subject to the same sets of moral laws and practices. All are deserving of fairness and all are accountable.

Rashi believed that even though “an eye for an eye” appears to suggest that
literally the punishment be causing the same injury to the guilty as the guilty did to the innocent, that rather each of these things be assigned value. Rashi notes the importance of work and so suggests that injuries that prevent a person from working should be compensated monetarily. So too, a taken eye should be paid for because it would prevent the person from earning a wage. These legal sections were of great interest to the debaters of the Mishnah (oral law), who sought to solidify legal codes based on the rules in this section (and others), and to Rashi who sought the “plain sense” or “pshat” meaning of the Torah and found much to work with in sections like these that move from plot- and character-driven narrative to law. The JPS commentators note that the legal codes emerging here resemble in many ways the code of Hammurabi in Babylonian law. This was a period in which law was being taught to the people as a whole for the first time, and also codified so that legal practice could be made consistent.

The next section of the parshah includes religious laws. It is important to realize that religious laws, particularly those that are meant to foster monotheism, are embedded in other legal rules. Many contemporary religious leaders argue that organized religion is the vehicle through which people learn morality; that because moral codes are deemed to be commanded by God, people follow them (this is a fear-based morality. I avoid doing bad things because I want to avoid punishment. This is not quite the same as doing good for the sake of good). That argument becomes harder and harder to justify when we see so many examples of “devout” people doing terrible things – often in the name of the very God and religion who are supposed to be the catalyst and impetus for moral and ethical behaviour. We also see many non-believing, secular and Humanistic people (Jewish and non-Jewish) assuming responsibility for ethical behaviour because, in the absence of a deity, we are the only ones who can promote and enact justice and fairness in our world. What we see evidenced in this Torah portion is the way in which the connection between monotheistic belief and morality has been fused through text.

In this parshah we also have the rules for the shmita, the “release” of the land. The text tells the people to sow land for six years but in the seventh year to let it lie fallow. While this does not seem like the biggest deal in terms of the laws set forth here, it reminds us of the seven years of feast and famine in the Joseph story. The people have learned that in order to keep the earth fertile and to stave off hunger, that rotating fallow fields made sense. Jewish environmentalism points to textual moments
like this in a celebration of the ways in which our early ancestors understood the symbiosis between a healthy earth and a healthy people. This year is the year of the shmita and many Jews have taken this year as a year of rest and reflection. What can we “release,” or let go of that makes us worry or stress? How can we find more ways to take breaks, whether by enjoying Shabbat or other times of quiet? The shmita reminds us that humans are part of the natural cycle whereby productivity is enabled by rest.

The symbiosis between peoples is paramount too. The text says: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” and “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Any repetition such as this may suggest a fusing together of different versions of the text. But there are other interpretive possibilities. The JPS editors note “This verse may be repeated here because strangers, who lacked kin to protect their rights, are at a disadvantage in courts composed of local or tribal elders.” What is fascinating is that the Exodus story, just told a few
chapters back, is now being used to inculcate a sense of moral responsibility in the people. The Torah is comprised of narrative and law and we see how they mutually reinforce one another in the text.

This parshah also mentions three festivals: the Feast of Unleavened Bread
(what we call Passover), the Feast of the Harvest (what we call Sukkot), and the Feast of Ingathering (what we call Shavuot). These festivals are mentioned again in Leviticus and Deuteronomy where we get more detail about how they are to be celebrated. But here we see evidence that these are some of the earliest Jewish practices. We also see evidence that the celebration and marking of Jewish festivals is connected with the laws that
precede and follow this chapter. The law and the cultural practices become bound up in what we call Judaism; they are inextricable from each other during the time of the formation of our people as a people.

The laws of Kashrut, the dietary restrictions, are also detailed here, and also highlight how the formation of the law led to the formation of a people. Eating in a specific way, ensuring that people eat with only those in their same group, was a very concrete way to create and keep the people. Many Jews today still maintain that they keep kosher for the reason that it reminds them of their Jewishness in the quotidian and necessary decisions and acts around food. There are many of us Jews who do not keep kosher, for there are other markers of culture and peoplehood that may be more valuable or relevant to our own lives (and other measures for ethical eating whether fair trade, environmentally sustainable, vegetarian, etc.), the point here is that the text shows us the logic and strategy behind the creation of the Jewish people, and as our legacy this is of interest.

The portion ends with a departure from the laws and a return to narrative. Moses, Aaron and the other “elders of Israel” ascending up the mountain. The text says “they saw the God of Israel: under His feet was the likeness
of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity” (24. 9 – 10). Commentators have had to wrestle with the contradictions inherent in these lines. On the one hand, God is not supposed to be visible, and on the other the text, if divinely written/inspired, must be true. So how do Moses and the others “see” God? Commentators explain that the sapphire-like pavement “under God’s feet” was above them, so they “saw” something like a reflection
of God refracted through this pavement-like blueness. Thus God was visible, but obscured. Further commentators extrapolate from this explanation that this is why the sky is blue – God is above us but obscured by the sapphire-like pavement that serves as the barrier between us. The bible and such commentaries were written before we had the scientific means to understand much of our natural world. We have an evolved understanding of nature now, just as we have an evolved sense of justice and fairness, yet the text provides us with insight into how our early ancestors made sense of these big questions.

Yitro – on teamwork, on text, and on the ten commandments

Jethrow, Tziporah’s father, comes to Moses and sees his great work. Moses is slaving (pardon the use of the term) morning until night in the service of his people. Jethrow tells Moses that “the thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (18.17-18). Jethrow, Moses’ non-Jewish father-in-law imparts some of the best wisdom in this parshah and in the Torah: we need each other. A good leader delegates; a good community supports on another. Jethrow does not simply tell Moses that shouldering the entire burden is wrong because he will tire himself out, but that ultimately he will also fail his people.

It is not only for the good of Moses that Jethrow tells him to share the work, but to empower the community as well. Moses selects leaders and judges from amongst the people. A society is more functional when there are many leaders from within. This is the lesson Jethrow imparts on Moses. Not only do we as individuals need help sometimes (we cannot do it alone) but
the worth of work done as a collective is greater than the sum of its parts.

The idea of community is furthered in this week’s parasha by the great moment of solidification of the Jewish people. In Yitro we have the revelation of God to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. Here we have storytelling at its greatest. There are cues relating to the passage of time to build suspense, there is the pathetic fallacy (when the weather resembles the mood) of the thunder and lightening, there are sensory details such as the sound of the blast of the horn, the visual effect of the smoke and fire on the temple mount, etc.

Here is where the people are told that their freedom from Egypt and the miracles they witnessed come at a price. “I the LORD am your God who brought you out of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other Gods besides Me” (20.2-3). This is the first commandment of the decalogue, the ten commandments (considered the most important of the commandments – there are indeed many more in Jewish law). The people are prohibited from constructing idols, from taking God’s name in vain. They are told to keep the Sabbath, to honour one’s parents, to refrain from committing murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness or coveting.

While many of us may not take the story of the revelation at Sinai literally, we can applaud that our early ancestors were interested in constructing a
moral code. The commandments relating to God are part of how the commandments relating to humans and their interactions are justified. Any parent who has told their child to do/not do something just because “I say so” knows that authority can be used to promote morality (not that it’s always the best strategy). That is what is happening with these commandments.

We all benefit from a system that instructs us not to steal from or murder each other. The ten commandments are really very human commandments. Even those that are more about the relationship between people and God
have meaning for Humanists. The God-character tells people to honour the Sabbath to commemorate the creation of the world in six days. People need rest to be productive. The idea of the holiness of the Sabbath is a way for people to carve out a sacred time to be with their families, a time for reflection, and a time to rejuvenate themselves. At the time of the Bible’s writing (and this section was clearly written and re-written – we see elements of many writers and a chronology that gets confused because of the multiple layers of narrative) there were not exactly good labour laws. The commandment to keep the Sabbath meant a balance between work and rest that served human needs.

In the beginning of this discussion I suggested that we need community – we rely on one another. Towards the end of it, we have commandments that suggest that individuality is also important. We must respect other people, and we show that respect by respecting one another’s property, spouses, and lives. We are told in the decalogue that we as individuals have both rights and responsibilities, which serve as a balance to our need for community. We have worth as individuals, we must be moral as individuals, and our strength, morality, worth, and goodness are enhanced by our relationship with our community/society.