Tsav – on distinctions, on disillusioning, and on drive

In this parshah we get more rules for the alter, some addressed to the people but most addressed to the priests. Here we see the anointing of the priests – very clearly showing that some people are made holier than others. The priests, as the access point to God, are elevated above the level of mere human. Towards the end of the parshah we even see that if the priests leave the temple before the required seven days after anointing that they will die. They have crossed from the realm of the human to a more spiritual realm and it would be lethal to cross back. 

The supernatural implications of this kind of idea do not appeal to Humanistic Jews and, indeed, many other rational Jews. Neither does the idea that some humans are above others. Obviously we live in a world with different levels of power and privilege, but no human is essentially more holy than any other. With the destruction of the temple comes an equalizing and, although many Jews mourn over the destruction, for many of us that equalizing is a positive. Of course, rabbis took the place of priests as the access point to God – and many behave as though they are superior to others. But many do not. The best leaders are those who acknowledge their humanity and find ways to make their own lives meaningful and inspire others to do the same. None of us can be perfect and all of us are simply human. 

This idea comes across in the parshah. The priests are exalted and are given the sacrificial offerings. But they also are charged with cleaning the ashes from the perpetual fire. The idea of a flame that burns and should never go out is not unique to Judaism, but is a powerful idea. An eternal flame can represent the continuity of a people, and also the goodness within us as individuals and as a community. It can be the fire of passion and the light of reason. The idea of the ever-burning fire provides nice symbolism for us to consider – what do we value and hope to be everlasting? Of course, the fire produces ashes and these must be dealt with. The priests are custodians – of the people’s access to the spiritual, but also of the physical temple. In removing the ashes, in doing the physical work, they solidify their humanity and their connection with the other humans – even as they are performing the most holy tasks. All of us must try to find this balance between doing the drudge-work that must get done but making sure we attend to the flame inside of us that drives our deeper selves.  

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Vayikra – on legal code, on liability, and on lesson-seeking

Whereas the books of Genesis and Exodus are comprised mainly of narrative, in Leviticus (Vayikra), the text begins to read more like legal code and less like literature (of course, Torah is all this and much more!). Our challenge is to find the narrative behind the legal text. What are these laws meant to accomplish? Whose power is enshrined? What do we know about a society that needed these laws and/or followed them? 

The text gives us clues as to how our ancestors lived and the society they hoped to build. For example, in this parshah we have details about how to perform ritual sacrifices made to ameliorate wrongdoing. The text makes a distinction between willful acts and accidental ones. Offerings are required in either case, but the distinction is important. To give a contemporary example, if we are driving a car and cause an accident in which someone is hurt, we may experience guilt and sadness. There may be things we can do to address the hurt we’ve caused, such as pay for the damage to the other car, ensure that if medical help is needed that it is provided, etc. We are still responsible for hurt we cause by accident, but the hurt is not a reflection of our morality or humanity.

If, however, we hurt someone intentionally, such as by gossiping about them, stealing from them, etc., then we are accountable for that in a different way. We are responsible to repair the damage but also to consider how we might learn a moral/ethical lesson and how we might change ourselves to better reflect our own humanity. Although the text does not say all of this, the distinction it draws between intention and action should drive us to contemplate its implications in our own lives. 

As we enter into the book of Leviticus, we move from compelling narrative to legal codes; often laws that we no longer practice and sometimes find offensive. To seek out the intention behind the text, there are many more questions we could ask: were these laws created so that people would start/stop doing something? Were they really practiced? Were the laws written retroactively to try to present a society as something other than what it was? Was there a true desire for law and order? Not every parshah provides us with answers to these questions. But many do, and it is fascinating how the Torah, in its exploration of literature, history (both real and imagined), and law can give us much to think about, even in the most trying of sections. We will explore Leviticus through this frame. 

 Va Yakhel – Pekudei – on contributing, on cycles, and on change

Va Yakhel and the next parshat, Pekudei, are read together. Some weeks have double entries to make the number of Torah portions conform to the lunar calendar. But this time the pairing makes sense. Both parshot are completely concerned with setting up the Tabernacle and readying the Priests as the previous chapters have outlined. A nice thing about parshah Va Yakhel is the communal sense of building something together. The tabernacle is meant to be set up with great precision, including being adorned with jewels, gems, and other things. Artists contribute what they can, women contribute their weaving, and what is really being constructed and weaved together is community through space. 

Pekudei is the final parshah of the book of Exodus. Exodus ends not with a dramatic narrative moment, but with a continuation of the preparations for Moses to descend from the mountain and for Yahweh to completely forgive the people for the golden calf so that he may dwell in the Tabernacle as opposed to on Mount Sinai. The idea is one of cycles: rebirth for the people is possible. Thus it is fitting that the day the Tabernacle is finally completed is New Year’s Day – the first day of the first month. This marks the second year of freedom. The people have had the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. The new year gives the chance for a fresh start and for new beginnings. Thus it is fitting that the book of Exodus – the story of the rebirth of the people from slavery to freedom – ends at the beginning of a new year. 

Each new year and season we too have the opportunity for a mini-rebirth. We are not created completely afresh, but we can freshen up ourselves, our goals, and our relationships. We can use the markers of time’s passing to remind us to be reflective, always changing and growing to become the best versions of ourselves we can. Our Jewish texts teach us that to do so, to engage in a process of self-renewal, is an act that connects us with our Jewish legacy. Exodus has taken the people from slavery to freedom. The text places important emphasis on the relationship between the people and their leaders, their space, and their hope. We find many Humanistic lessons in the Torah, but these lessons are embedded perhaps most meaningfully in the narrative of Exodus. This is the foundational narrative of our people, told annually at Pesach, and remembered always when we hear of struggles for freedom and justice.  

Ki Tissa – On Idols, on “I didn’t do it”, and on Israel the stiff-necked people

Moses goes up on the mount to meet with God, and he is gone so long that the people worry he has abandoned them. They ask Aaron for a way to make God approach the people, or for a new God to lead them. Aaron tells the people to gather their gold and he melts it into the golden calf.* The symbolism of the golden calf is rife with meanings for every age. In ours, we can see it as a condemntation of materialism; that we tend to wroship “gold” (money, etc.) in unhealthy ways. The golden calf might symbolize all sorts of false idols many of us have.  A friend once told me that, in her view, the problem with our society is not that people don’ t believe in anything but rather that people will believe in anything. We replace deities with new age theories (don’t even get me started on “the secret”), the newest digital gadgets, the latest fashions, whatever is trending on twitter, etc. This is not to say that we should abandon all of these things. I appreciate a nice pair of shoes as much as the next guy… just ask my husband. But we could all do with some reflection about how much we invest in material goods and exactly what we hope to get in return. Our spiritual and emotional needs cannot be met through these external items.  

 In the story, Moses leaves Aaron in charge. Aaron might have been a wonderful Priest, but he was not a terrific leader. When Moses descends the mountain, furious, he asks Aaron what happened. Aaron replies that he put the gold into a fire and “Out came this calf.” Commentators have tried to excuse Aaron by saying that we was perhaps stalling by collecting the gold items, knowing that Moses would return. But anyone who has spent time around children can see a very childish quality to Aaron’s response. He is basically telling Moses: “I didn’t do it.” Further, the text notes that the people, lacking strong leadership, were running amok. “Moses saw that the people were out of control since Aaron had let them get out of control.” So what we learn from this story is just as much about human leadership as it is about the power of the deity; people need strong leadership in order to feel secure. Without strong models to turn to, people start looking to that which can’t truly provide what they’re looking for. 

God is angry at the people and suggests to Moses that he will forsake him. Moses, the better leader, negotiates with God. Moses reminds Yahweh about the promises he made to the ancestors. He tells him that if he were to destroy the people now, that the Egyptians would think the Exodus was simply an exercise in futility, and that the Israelite God was evil after all. Moses employs other examples of rhetoric to convince God to spare the people. This suggests a) that the God-character can be manipulated by human speech and b) that Moses, not God, is the true deliverer of the people. The people, even after having experienced the “miracle” of the Exodus, are still seeking strong leadership. Many of us are aware of the leaders and teachers we’ve had who shape us and make us who we are. Even though Moses is angry at the people (he smashes the tablets!), he fights for them. 

Several times in this parasha, God refers to the Israelites as a “stiff-necked” people. What he means is that they are stubborn and will not bow to him. However, I see being “stiff-necked” as a positive attribute, though it is not meant that way in this context. The Maccabees refused to bow, and for this we call them heroes. Our stubbornness as a people has given us our grit, often allowing us to stay Jewish even when it would be much easier not to. We are “stiff-necked” in the sense that we are proud, and that we do not bow when we do not believe. That is a legacy with which Humanistic Jews can identify.

*Historical footnote:

The JPS commentators cite an interesting historical possibility for the Golden Calf scene. After the temple destruction, the united monarchy falls (if it existed; archaeologists and historians cannot conclusively find Solomon’s temple) and the people split into the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah (there is archaeological evidence of a community in the north and in the south). There is evidence that Jeroboam of the Northern Kingdom created two golden calves. In embedding historical details in the (likely) fictional text of the Exodus, the Southern kingdom of Judah is playing politics with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In much of the bible, written by the people living in the Southern community of Judah, there is an emphasis on denigrating the practices of the North. Because the bible makes it seem that the South was more righteous and powerful, archaeologists were surprised to find that the community in the North appeared much bigger, more affluent, and stable – a lesson that the bible does not always attempt to encode, but rather create, the historical record.