The bulk of the parshah tells the story of the “rebellion” or “sin” of Moses and Aaron. About Miriam, one of the great leaders of the Exodus, the text simply says “Mirian died there (Kadesh) and was buried there." It is written as a footnote. There are many biblical characters whose death is not given much importance, but simply stated factually as part of the narrative. This death, however, is told particularly briefly. Later in the same parshah, after Aaron dies, we know he is mourned thirty days. Miriam’s death is given no such fanfare. Miriam's important contributions are dismissed and her voice is silenced, thus mirroring the experience of women in Judaism throughout the ages. The aftermath of Miriam’s death is that the people are lacking water (we recall that Miriam had been the one to bring forth the waters previously). Once again the people complain to Moses and they wish they had died or had not left Egypt which would be better than facing yet another calamity (by now this is a familiar refrain). To show Yahweh’s power, Moses and Aaron are told to assemble the people and, in front of them, order a rock to give water. This is meant to highlight God’s power and also to reassure the people that they will continue to be provided for. Moses and Aaron assemble everyone, but then instead of commanding the rock to give water, Moses strikes the rock with his rod. Water comes forth and the people are happy. But then, in a shocking turn of events (narratively speaking), God tells Moses that because he did not “trust” God enough to sanctify him in front of the people, Moses will never enter the promised land. This is one of those moments at which it seems easy to criticize the idea of God, and certainly the idea that God is benevolent and loving. The God figure here is depicted as being vengeful and mean-spirited. It is unclear that Moses ever meant to defy him, hitting the rock instead of asking the rock to produce water seems to be a very slight mistake. Some commentators suggest that the transgression is that when Moses asks of the people “shall WE get water?” before striking the rock, that this leads the people to believe it is Moses and Aaron who are their protectors and saviours, not God. This is what provokes his fury. The text is therefore making a comment about leadership. It is not enough that Moses and Aaron have to wander in the desert for forty years, listen to the people’s kvetching, perform the will of God etc. But they must do all of this exactly how God demands and always in public praise of him. The lesson is that obedience to God is everything. A Chassidic friend of mine told me that this is her understanding of this moment in the text: “we have to do God’s work on God’s terms” is how she phrased it.
For Humanistic Jews, there are lessons that come from exploring the character of Moses and what it means that he can never reach his goal. Many people feel as Moses does; they struggle to bring their people somewhere wonderful, even if not reaching it themselves. This is the story of the Jewish immigrant to North America who struggled hard to provide an education and standard of living for their children that they knew they could never enjoy themselves. This is the story of those working to cure diseases or discover scientific advances that they know will only benefit future generations. This is the story of people who plant trees so that their grandchildren will enjoy their fruit. Moses and Aaron are meant to lead the people to their freedom, but they are servants – yes, they are meant to serve God, and when they transgress they are punished. But they are also leaders par excellence of their people: their work is for the benefit of others. This is something laudable with which many of us can identify.
For Aaron's part of the punishment, he is left to die. God tells Moses to ascend the mountain with Aaron and his son Eleazar, to take Aaron’s “vestments” and give them to Eleazar, and to leave Aaron there to die. It is notable that Moses had argued with God on behalf of the people numerous times, pleading with him for mercy and to spare the innocent, he does not try to save his brother. In fact, the next thing that happens is that the people once again complain about God’s provisions and God sends serpents to bite them. They appeal to Moses to help them and he speaks to God to help the people (by creating a copper serpent that would provide solace - something approximating idolatry, some point out). Moses’ seemingly easy acceptance of Aaron’s death is troubling, especially in light of how quickly he comes to the aid of the others. There is a lesson here that sometimes we focus on helping our broader community so much that we become deaf to the concerns of those closest to us. Or perhaps as servants of the people, Moses and Aaron feel it is inappropriate to advocate for themselves. The harshness of the way Moses, Aaron, and Miriam are treated certainly suggest something about leadership and community. At this point in the text it is clear that it is the people as a group, not any individual (even ones as central and revered in the text as Moses and his siblings), that matters. The people will enter the Promised Land. Israel will survive, even though its deliverers will not. It is the community that is important.
Here we have yet another rebellion – this time mostly aimed at Aaron. Korah, the leader of this anti-Aaron movement, argues that the whole community is holy and therefore all should perform the same rites. He rebels against the priests being a class above all others, asking "why are you different from and above us?" The parshah makes clear that a rebellion of this nature is not to be tolerated. Moses tells those rebelling that they’ve gone too far and that God will deal with them – which he does. All of those who rebelled are swallowed up by the earth and taken to "sheol" and/or consumed by fire. Doubting the order of things is not only frowned upon, but the narrative inscribes a real sense of danger: to question authority is to die. Yet many of us might really identify with Korah. We do take issue with the idea that some within Judaism – first priests who handled the sacrifices and then the rabbis who superseded them after the temple destruction made central sacrifices impossible – are above all others. We want members of our community to be empowered. Indeed, we believe that no one is intrinsically worth more than any other. Traditional interpretations of this parshah suggest that an individual who tries to seize power instead of going along with community can be dangerous. Included in the analyses of the parshah are questions and discussions of how much it is fair to punish the group for the actions of one individual, or a few. Do we bear guilt for one another's choices? Where does individualism infringe on the rights of the group and vice versa? The text wrestles with the power balance between individuals and community. Its answer is adhering to strict hierarchy to keep the peace. This is not our answer, but these are still our questions.
In this parshah, the Israelites once again doubt that they will see the Promised Land. A team (often called spies, but this isn't quite accurate) is sent to survey the land and to report back as to any challenges or dangers. Most return saying that conquering the land will be impossible. Caleb and Joshua, however, feel differently and think they should proceed. Some of the people complain that it would be better to have stayed in Egypt, even to die in the wilderness, than to face what they perceive to be certain violent death in battle for the land. There are many readings of both the optimism of Caleb and Joshua and the fear of the people. Many liken the former to the Zionists who helped create the modern state of Israel. But it is tough to grapple with the harsh treatment of the people who doubt. Those who do not believe they can defeat their enemies are doomed to die in the desert. Yet I have sympathy for those who have suffered under tyranny and wish to avoid meeting a similar fate. It is possible to both laud Caleb and Joshua as heroes and seek to understand the mentality of those who could not follow them.
There may be times when we face circumstances that seem daunting or even impossible. Optimism in the face of adversity can be a wonderful tool – not just for oneself but for others. Like the brave and daring Zionists who created the state of Israel, Caleb and Joshua established themselves as leaders who could inspire others to embark on a difficult but wonderful journey. Not all of us are Calebs or Joshuas. Sometimes fear is reasonable and even useful. But the world needs those who can rise up to a challenge and help those less hopeful to join them on the journey.
In this parshah, the people commemorate the Passover. This is the first such event in the desert, thus marking the time between Sinai and the wandering. Some in the camp (the JPS translation calls them “riffraff” but the implication is that they are those outside of the Israelite tribes who chose to join the exodus), begin to complain that there is no meat. Moses, in utter exasperation, becomes angry with God and says he would rather die than have to face leading these people. He also suggests that if God created the people than maybe he should deal with them. For this, partly as punishment and partly to provide him with aid, some of Moses’ spiritual gifts get transferred to 70 leaders who will aid him in the task of leading the people. This parshah therefore offers lessons in leadership and our struggles in life. Sometimes we are faced with situations in which we must care for or carry those who do not appear to be pulling their weight. Many of us work with people who complain and expect miracles to happen to ease their discomfort. Moses shows that leadership is hard; the people are never satisfied. And his criticism of the God-character – that if he created all of these people why can’t he deal with them – shows the kind of chutzpah that Humanistic Jews love. Moses is a good leader because he questions authority as much as he embodies it. The 70 leaders become like prophets. Joshua – who we will learn has warrior tendencies and personality – feels Moses should resist competition and be the sole leader. But Moses knows that strong leadership is a team-effort and that if he shares the load he will not burn out as quickly. This is excellent instruction for anyone in a leadership position, from teachers to parents to office managers etc. But beyond the idea of leadership is the idea of community. Many hands make light work and sometimes all that is needed to face a challenge is some company. Moreover, Moses shows us that it is ok and sometimes even necessary to ask for help. As if Moses is not having a tough enough time, Miriam and Aaron begin to chide him for marrying a Cushite woman. This is one of the passages that tells us either that intermarriages were frowned upon, or that intermarrying was commonplace and the writers of the text hoped to “correct” the practice. In some passages, such as this one, intermarriage is portrayed as negative. In others, such as the Book of Ruth, intermarriage is no issue at all. The issue of intermarriage in the text here is a bit of a red herring. The real sin is “lashon hara” or gossip/slander. Miriam and Aaron should not shame or speak negatively to Moses. Many Jews take very seriously the idea that we should not shame others, even when we disagree with their choices. Miriam is punished by getting leprosy (or some disease that produces white scales on her body) and must be excised from the group for a week. This punishment from above seems, again, rather harsh. In this week’s parshah, we see examples of people faltering which, in fact, is a reminder that these narratives are about the fundamentals of humanity. All of us may feel ourselves to be in the position of Moses – that we cannot face the challenges before us. Asking for help is hard but when we get help it can change everything. Community is important. Many of us may feel ourselves to be Miriam – we speak out against what we think is wrong and then we are the ones to get punished. The biblical characters portray many truths about human nature, and this is how we learn from them. Humanistic Jews do not believe that we will be punished by a God for our transgressions. But we do believe that when we rise up to face our challenges, when we learn to speak more gently with our loved ones, when we find ways of dealing with the kvetchers in our midst, we can become the best versions of ourselves.
In Parshat Naso we find the organization of the camp and also the purity regulations. Anyone with skin diseases, sexual discharge, menstruation, or those “defiled by a corpse” had to be excised. While many of us find these pronouncements exclusionary (particularly to women who were the only group to regularly experience one of these), it is also understandable that the control of disease and other concerns over cleanliness and health, particularly in the absence of medical knowledge, were paramount. The text is not simply about purity in terms of cleanliness but also creating sacred space. While the word “sacred” is controversial in Humanistic Jewish circles, we can all identify with the idea of creating space and time that is set apart. The Levites are in charge of “worldly” (i.e. secular) and “sacred” matters. We sometimes label this division the sacred and the profane, but can also think of it as the regular and the special. When we celebrate Havdallah, we mark the division between special time and regular time. It is not that the rest of the week is “profane” as in offensive, but it is not special as is the Shabbat. Of course we try to bring elements of depth and light into our regular time and space, but we also all have certain times and places that are marked for deep critical reflection, quiet, or thoughtfulness. We also designate times and spaces for celebrating special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, commemorating yahrzeits, etc. Naso challenges us to consider how we make spaces special – by placing a mezuzah on our door with a text that is meaningful for us perhaps – and how we designate certain times to be set apart from others. The text can remind us to consider how we bring the idea of the “sacred” into our secular lives.
Naso also contains a very interesting idea concerning the relationship between people as it corresponds with the relationship between people and God. In chapter 5 the God-character instructs Moses to “Speak with the Israelites. When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him who he has wronged (5. 5-8). It goes on to describe how, in the event that no restitution can be made directly to the person or his kinsman, it shall go to the priests. But it is significant that restitution be granted to the person directly when possible. Even though ethical behaviour is justified through the mechanism of the “faith with the lord” that must not be broken, really the idea is that people must behave well towards and with one another. In excerpts such as these we find evidence of how our earliest ancestors tried to create a just society. The particular law being referenced in this passage is that one should not steal from a convert. The relationship between the people and outsiders is tricky. In trying to create a distinct identity lines must be drawn. But the “ger” or stranger/convert is to be treated ethically. This is a reminder that our tradition holds as an extremely high value that we behave ethically within and without our own people. Our treatment of converts, those intermarried into Jewish families, or our neighbours, is a reflection of our cultural values as well as our personal ones.
Just as we think the Torah might be a text wholly in pursuit of justice, Naso also contains the idea of the trial by ordeal for the Sotah, the “suspected adulteress.” Any man who suspects his wife to have been with another man brings her before the priest (notice there is no parallel for a suspected male adulterer). The suspected adulteress is given water laden with written curses and dirt from the tabernacle, which the text says will not harm the innocent but will create a distended belly (implying the lack of ability to carry children to term) in the guilty. It is a horrific scene designed to produce guilt and shame, and perhaps even physical torture.
Women are tightly regulated because of the “purity” of the birth line. Thus the parshah’s themes of purity, and the book of Numbers’ themes of loyalty and peoplehood, coalesce through the control of women. The English word “nation” comes from the root “natio” or birth/to be born. All nations depend on the loyalty of women to keep bloodlines pure. Societies throughout time and across the globe have created measures to ensure women stay within the bounds of marriage. Nationhood and sexism have thus reinforced one another.
Perhaps what is most disturbing is that the ritual occurs even if the man has a vague suspicion. We can imagine instances where even a man who had no such suspicion but wanted to control, torture, or threaten his wife might take advantage of the ritual. We can also imagine instances of men having suspicions of innocent wives but the wives dying anyway. There is no consequence to a man for going through the ritual – he bears no guilt, the text says – but the woman, regardless of guilt, is shamed and harmed in the process. It is a remarkably sexist passage in Torah.
Interestingly, there is no evidence to suggest the ritual of the Sotah was ever practiced. Rather, the text here serves as a cautionary tale for women. It is not encoding the law as such but projecting a potential legal practice in order to regulate women. What is Torah? Law book? Fictional narrative? It’s not really both or either.
I delayed writing this until after Shabbat/Shavuot to be able to reflect upon the incredible experience of being at the Tikkun Leil Shavuot (all night learning session). We honour the tradition of studying Torah all night by experiencing learning sessions on a range of Jewish topics. This is my favourite community-wide Jewish event in Toronto! Hundreds of Jews from all denominations and walks of life come together to learn, eat, and be together. The panel I was on that offered the most material related to the weekly parshah was entitled "What happened at Sinai? Who cares?" Four rabbis from many movements discussed the meaning of Torah, the story of the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai (the rabbinic explanation for Shavuot), and more. We often disagreed but there was lovely overlap as well, particularly about the Jewish expression of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) being a core part of what we value about Judaism. I also had the opportunity to co-lead the Havdallah ceremony with a Kohenet from Jewish Renewal, Annie Matan. I loved this experience! We asked everyone inside a packed theatre to imagine that this night was their mountain. To look around and notice who they were standing with. To realize that we may not believe literally that "all Jews were at Mt. Sinai the moment of revelation" as the religion teaches, but we can use that metaphor to imagine ourselves as part of a community with long-standing roots who come together to experience significant moments together. All of this is a lovely lead in to the book of Numbers. The title in Hebrew means in the wilderness/desert, but the title in English – “Numbers” – comes from the Greek Septuagint version which took the title from the census at the book’s beginning. In this book we’ll experience a narrative about loyalty and betrayal. While most religious interpreters understand that the narrative is about loyalty to God, in a Humanistic understanding we might find more interesting the lessons about loyalty to humans and about leadership in general. Moses has sacrificed for his people and is trying to deliver them to their promised land, but the people rebel. While the book is clear that those who make moves against their own people should be condemned, there are also hints that Moses and his siblings are a) disloyal themselves at times and b) sometimes let their power lead them to act unfairly. The book of Numbers can remind us of other literary texts, such as Hamlet, that focus on both how power corrupts but also how loyalty/disloyalty can have a significant impact on a kingdom or people. In the book of Numbers we have censuses, land divisions, and appeals for justice, which all work to solidify the people as a people. Loyalty is going to be paramount to keep this group together. Passover is celebrated in the desert for the first time, and the commandment to wear tzitzit is prescribed – both powerful ways of distinguishing the Israelites from others and making them cohere as a unified group. Thus the narrative continues to describe how a people becomes a people and, although we know the narrative is almost certainly not historically accurate, readers through the generations have identified with the characters in the desert and the story has served to solidify loyalty amongst the people through the generations.
In this parshah, we have the first census mentioned in the bible. The idea of a census being written into the text is likely simply a reflection of a practice that was happening in order either to collect some form of tax or to count those who might qualify to fight against enemies. The census here comes up with a number of over 600,000, which is clearly impossible. While commentators have theorized that the census was so God could count his most beloved people(oddly suggesting that the all-powerful deity did not already know who or how many his people were), this idea of chosenness weaves its way throughout the book of Numbers. Many modern Jews take issue with the idea of the chosen people, but one can also understand that in a text about inculcating people into a coherent group, the concept was one that could wield a lot of leverage.
The idea of leadership, or at least of those set apart, is inscribed in this first section of the book. Chieftains of each clan are put in charge of counting the people, and the Levites are not counted in this initial census but rather put in charge of the Tabernacle. Midrash indicates that the Levites are granted special status because of their continued loyalty to God, thus reinforcing the themes of loyalty and power that run throughout the book. As the camp is arranged, the tribes are organized according to their matriarchs from Genesis and the attributes of Joseph’s sons. Again, this reinforces the idea that God rewards those who have been loyal and instrumental in defining the Israelites as a people.
Lastly there is the idea of the wilderness/desert. Midrashim often highlight that Yahweh shows his love to the people in the desert, the most barren and desolate of places, to highlight that he is ever-present even in times of distress. From a Humanistic perspective, it is interesting to consider the meanings of the desert as well. We all find ourselves feeling lost at times. Our wanderings might not be so long or so dangerous, but many of us feel stuck or without a particular direction at different points in our lives. The way through the wilderness is often to lean on others. Community is essential for both survival and also finding hope and peace – especially in the “deserts” of our lives. The coming together of the people as a people in the desert is a reminder that finding our own place in community is a way of garnering strength as we face our own challenges. Standing with Toronto's diverse Jewish community at our mini-Sinai for Shavuot each year is a good reminder of that.
In this double parshah, we have the rules for leaving the land fallow on the shmita, the sabbatical year. We know that agriculturally land requires time to be left fallow in order to maintain good soil quality. But there are ways in which the agricultural can give rise to the cultural. Many of us are considering the idea of shmita metaphorically, especially now as we are in currently in a shmita year. We live in an age where there is a lot of talk of mindfulness, of living in the present moment. And yet we simultaneously live with the expectations of being able to multitask, of being constantly accessible, and of being able to manage our many roles seamlessly. We are overworked, overcommitted, and overwhelmed. Devices meant to make our lives easier often make us feel that we can never take a break. They are there to enable us to be “connected,” and yet I believe there has never been a time in history when people feel less connected to their families and communities.
Shmita literally means release. What if we released ourselves from some fear, guilt, and obligation? What if we asked ourselves what can I let go of? Fields which give us food and sustenance, if overworked and overwrought, will stop producing. And we are the same. If we are overworked and overwhelmed then we will be unable to be fully available to those we love. We too have a limit. And in this culture that measures goodness by productivity, it is good to remind ourselves that rest breeds productivity. Just like the harvest will be better if we rotate our crops and let the land rest, we will be better if we have a chance to rest and recuperate as well.
This parshah lays out further rules for the priests. It is notable in a text so laden with patriarchal rules of leadership and control, that the place of women is often delineated based on the threat they pose to that very control. If women, through their sexual and reproductive choices, taint the bloodline, they threaten the nation building that obsesses the text writers. One example is the rule that if a “daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire” (21.9). The sexism is blatant. But the more the text tries to rob women of their power, the more it underscores the fact that women's capacity for reproduction always posed a challenge to patriarchal power. The nervousness may have come from the fact that the power structure in the Priestly period, as typical of all periods, was contested. In this parshah, we see that Priests (here marked as descendants of Aaron) have special prohibitions. Just as the people is being set apart from their neighbours (see Aharei Mot from last week), the leaders are being set apart from the common people. Our societies all function through divisions and stratifications. This is sometimes a problem – such as when one class oppresses another, and it is sometimes healthy – such as when leaders are chosen by the people to take on certain roles and tasks. Our communities often struggle with how leaders should be of the people and also for the people. Rabbis and Madrikhim, educators and administrators, have training, skills and expertise that may not be common to most of our community. We are, in a sense, set apart. The difference is that we do not claim superiority and, certainly, we do not claim divine authority. The Priestly prohibitions are to signal a divine separation; Priests are more godly than other humans. This is understandable in the text as the Priests are attempting to inscribe and enshrine their own power. But when we take on a “holier than thou” attitude today, we run the risk of delegitimizing ourselves and alienating others.
The theme of separation continues in the parshah. Some separations are good. We demarcate between holidays and other special times, and the regular work week. This parshah lays out practices for the Sabbath and other holidays, reminding us that these special times only remain special through the rituals, practices, texts, and observances that are particular to them. The holidays mentioned here are some of the earliest we know were practiced: Sukkot, Shavuot, and Pesach. It is not a surprise that these holidays are rooted in the agricultural and climatic calendar, thus meaning they were likely adapted from earlier practices not particular to Israelite/Jewish culture. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also mentioned in this parshah, including the “loud blasts” (the shofar) that must ring out. Sometimes it is awe-inspiring to consider how old many of our holidays are. We know that their practices and meanings have changed over time. Still, it is wonderful that Jews throughout the ages have celebrated these special times, and have made the meanings of these holidays fit their lives according to the place and time where they have lived. Our holidays show that there has always been great diversity amongst Jews and our ancestors, and also that we are united through our cultural heritage.
The parshah ends with a short narrative, which interrupts the flow of the divine commandments, about one who speaks God’s name in blasphemy. The blasphemer vignette, the JPS commentators suggest, is purposefully an interruption in the text in order to highlight that God does not enjoy un “untroubled relationship” with his people. I think this is a delightful reading of how the form reflects the content. The blasphemer interrupts the narrative in text just like "blasphemers" interrupt a common narrative about what Judaism is (monotheistic, religious as opposed to cultural, based on prayer, etc.) In today’s Jewish world, Humanistic Jews are sometimes seen as the “blasphemers,” not in defiling the name of God, but denying the need to believe in one or pray to one at all. But we are part of a long line – even reflected in Torah! – of skeptics, unbelievers, those willing to challenge the status quo in their belief and in their communities. Indeed, the relationship between God and the Jews has never been untroubled and easy. We have always wrestled with deistic belief. Humanistic Jews are, ironically, traditional in that sense. Our texts highlight that there have always been those like us amongst the people, and that we serve an important role.
This double parshah week is particularly interesting because the two seem to be in conflict. Aharei Mot contains some of the most objectionable ideas we find in Torah, particularly a condemnation of homosexuality. In Kedoshim, conversely, the theme is brotherly love. This is the enigma and the beauty of Torah: sometimes beautiful wisdom comes alongside pieces that make us uncomfortable. The tension I love in studying Torah is that between tradition and change. In Leviticus 18.22 we have many prohibitions, including the very controversial ban on homosexual relations. This prohibition is repeated in parshah Kedoshim (20:13). The context for the prohibition suggests that it is less about sexuality and more about cultural identity. God tells the people that they must separate themselves from the practices of the Canaanites. In this context, it makes sense that the culture of the Canaanites be demeaned in the text. If homosexual relations were deemed germane to Canaanite culture, their prohibition may be more to do with establishing power over a united, and distinct, people than condemning the practice for something inherent to it. Jews are a distinct people, however we are rarely fully united. We see the world so differently from one another. Leviticus 18 has turned a lot of Jews away from Judaism. As have other prohibitions, such as the ban on intermarriage. It is useful to consider that in this same parshah, God considers the “ger” (stranger, someone among the people, later understood by rabbis as convert) to have the same rights and obligations as the Israelites. We are the people who believe, after all, that we must love our neighbour as we love ourselves. We find this wisdom in the parshah too.
A meaningful Jewish life is to find peace amidst the tensions of tradition and change, and to honour Jews as a distinct people while being good, kind and inclusive to all. This parshah includes a lengthy description about Azazel, the scapegoat. We know many examples of when Jews have been scapegoated by those who viewed us through a xenophobic lens, when we lived largely under the cross or crescent moon. Tragically, Jews sometimes scapegoat one another, blaming the problems of our community and people on those who do not conform or, as a friend of mine says, those who are “Jewing” it wrong. We read parts of Acharei Mot on Yom Kippur, a time when we are hoping to cast off our sins. Like the scapegoat, like the cleansing rituals detailed in the parshah, we are hoping to make ourselves clean of our mistakes. One mistake we continue to make, I believe, is to let our pride in our peoplehood sway us to hurtful tribalism, even xenophobia. Once, perhaps, we needed to distinguish ourselves from the Canaanites. But what allegiance do we owe now to our countries, Canada, America, etc.? Surely we are secure enough in our Jewish identities and cultures that we no longer need laws that are so fiercely and strictly trying to determine who is out and who is in. When we let our pride make us feel superior to others, when we try to rank Jews as “better Jews” or worse, when we tell people that they are not pure enough to be married or Bar Mitzvahed with us, while we despair our congregations are emptier and emptier, when we completely stop evolution and change – even in the face of doing what is right – because of tradition, then we have lost sight of who we are, who the Torah intends us to be.
This is the wisdom that comes in Kedoshim, the second of the double parshah we read this Shabbat. Kedoshim is about moving from wrong to right – from abomination to holiness and righteousness. We have laws that are meant to enhance moral human behaviour, such as to leave part of what we reap from the field for the poor and the needy, to deal honestly with one another, to care for the weak and disabled, and, again, to love your fellow as yourself which, as Rabbi Akiva said, is a “fundamental principle of the Torah”. Whether we are talking about loving our “kinsfolk” in terms of the Jewish community or our broader communities, when I look around, I think we could be doing a better job. Towards the end of Kedoshim, God says (20.22 – 24): You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them. You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the Lord your God has set you apart from other peoples. And therein lies the contradiction: be a people set apart, but a people who love and care for others. The people of Israel (by that I mean both the country and all of us as Jews), are duty-bound to set a high moral standard. We must find the balance between pride and xenophobia, tradition and change. To me, there is no point in studying Torah, except to learn how to be a better Jew and a better human being. There are therefore sections that I find very difficult. But this challenge is part of what makes the study great.
The Rabbi of the Birmingham Temple (flagship of the Humanistic Jewish movement), Jeff Falick, who identifies as gay, says he loves reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur. It reminds him of how far we have come as Jews – that we have become more open, accepting, and loving of difference among us, even as we continue to struggle with the tradition/change dichotomy. As Humanistic Jews, we care about social justice, some of which springs beautifully from the deep roots of Torah. The main idea in Kedoshim is that we are all holy. If we retain this belief, that all people have value, we do the work of the Torah with the best of intentions for others.
The double parshah for this week deals with the impure and unclean. From a biblical perspective, this includes menstruation and leprosy. Some joke that this is the most dreaded week to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah because writing a Dvar Torah on these subjects is tricky for anyone, much less an adolescent. In my movement of Humanistic Judaism, we do not require that Bar and Bat Mitzvahs read the Torah portion for their birthday or the date of the ceremony. We encourage them to choose projects of relevance to them to research and write about, we offer Torah readings that inspire them and challenge them to enter into the conversations about biblical interpretation that have excited Jews for centuries, and we ask them to complete Tzedakah work in their community to emphasize the “mitzvah” in Bar/Bat Mitzvah. We have changed some of the tradition around the Bar Mitzvah (Bat Mitzvahs are themselves a change from tradition) in order that they be relevant and meaningful. I have a friend who jokes that when he did his Bar Mitzvah it was on the “leprosy one.” He can’t remember anything else. I want more than that for our youngsters. Of course, change and tradition are constantly in tension in Judaism. Some change is necessary; no one does things the way they did in biblical times as we do not have a temple. Most Jews do not attempt or wish to follow all or most of the Halachah. But that doesn’t mean Jewish law, text, and tradition are irrelevant. For many of us, tradition gets a vote but not a veto. But we must carefully consider how and why we create change. Judaism continues to undergo evolution and revolution. It makes us nervous, but also excites us to be part of its ever-changing landscape.
In Metzora, it is menstruation which is the subject of the rule-making. The text is
very clear that the menstruating woman is “impure” that the Priest should offer a sin-
offering (and a burnt offering) on her behalf, and that separation is necessary. It is not
like the “red tent” was such a bad place to be; separation had its advantages. And we can
understand these rules as evidence for the fear (and loathing) of women’s bodies and
cycles on the part of the male authorities of the time, their power subverted somewhat by
their fear of the power of the female body and cycle. But we do not have to celebrate the
parts of the bible that remind us that sexism is endemic to the Jewish religion. We
continue to work to extricate the sexism from Judaism.
Shmini means “eighth.” In this parshah it refers to the eighth day of the Tabernacle. There were seven days of training in which the tabernacle was erected and taken down each night. On the eighth day the practice was to end and the temple to stand. The eighth day is, then, the first day in many ways. For this parshah this matters because we are reminded about cycles. After the seven days of the week another week begins. After the seven days of training the eight day starts a new cycle. This reminds of how Jews traditionally have circumcised sons on the eighth day; after the full first week of life the child begins anew with this ritual (in the Humanistic and other progressive movements of Judaism, we offer baby namings for girls and those who choose not to circumcise so as to honour the birth of any child. Baby namings also often happen on the eighth day to retain that symbolism). Many of the important Jewish holidays are celebrated as eight days in the diaspora. Sukkot and Pesach, both seven-day long holidays (corresponding with the days of “creation” from the bible), each get an additional day to make up for the differences in the lunar cycle. Eight is also the number of days in Chanukah (not a biblical holiday). The cycle of the moon defines our calendar, the cycle of the week defines the structure to our lives. After Shabbat, the day of rest, we celebrate Havdallah, meaning separation. It is time to mark the transition between the sacred time of Shabbat and the ordinary time of the week. Some see Havdallah as more of a join than a separation – we bring the sacredness into the rest of the week by beginning the week with the lovely rituals of lighting interwoven candles, singing songs, and smelling spices.
In Shmini, Aaron is told that the job of the Priests is to “distinguish between the sacred and the profane". This dichotomy informs philosophy and literature. While many of us do not believe that ordinary life is “profane” and that religious observance is "sacred,” it is worth asking ourselves what is sacred for us in our own lives? What is meaningful? Is it useful to create separation, to reserve special time for reflection, to unplug from our electronic world, to stop working for a while, to rest? Is it useful to bring the sacred elements of our lives into the ordinary? This week maybe seven won’t be our lucky number. Instead let’s focus on eight. The day after the cycle of the week when we can reflect on what is extraordinary about our ordinary weeks and lives.
We should hang onto some of those happier thoughts as we traverse Shmini. The challenge of Leviticus is sometimes to find meaning when the narrative and some of its messages are disagreeable. Shmini begins with a continuation of the commanding and performing of sacrifices by Aaron and the other priests. Two of Aaron’s sons, overzealous in their offerings, transgress the commandment. They burn an offering they were not supposed to. As punishment, God strikes them down right away. This is a reminder that the God-character of the bible is not the benevolent, loving God that some imagine. The JPS editors call the act of the offering “misguided super-piety,” a term I find striking. The mistake of Aaron’s sons is to go too far in trying to prove their faith in God, so far that they end up disdaining God by breaking his commandments. To me this resonates with people who make a huge show of prayer, attending religious services, or keeping certain religious commandments, but do not regard the morality or meanings behind those acts. Sometimes “super-piety” is indeed “misguided” because people spend so much energy trying to please God that they forget to be good to one another. Shmini is a reminder that the God-character demands to be served on his own terms. Humanistic Jews, believing that the concept of God is meant to serve human needs, and not that humans are meant to serve God, note this and the many other examples of the vengeful, wrathful God of the bible, as evidence for how religion has been used as a tool for control, not just inspiration, and how we can extract the meanings that make us fuller human beings without enslaving ourselves to the precision of the commandments.
In Shmini the commandments that are extended to the whole community, not just the priests, are the kosher laws relating to the consumption of flesh. Some of these may seem abstract – why is it fine to eat animals that chew their cud but not ones that don’t? – but there is evidence that these laws were ways of encouraging the most hygienic eating possible based on the knowledge of the time. We can appreciate that our ancestors were interested in health and hygiene. Of course, our contemporary health and hygiene relating to the eating of animals is very different. I would certainly encourage those who choose to eat meat to eat local and organic meat before kosher meat. I would encourage people to consider the cruelty of factory farming practices, the environmental impacts of eating meat often, and the concerning rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and other health problems that have been linked to a North American diet that tends to over-emphasize meat. Of course, we are all entitled to make our own choices over what and how we eat. In my view, however, the wisdom of the bible is that it can give us a reason to think critically about the consumption of animals. Some of us choose vegetarianism and some do not. But we should all make informed choices about how what we eat affects animals, ourselves, and the planet.
The purity laws of Shmini extend beyond the eating of animals. We are introduced to the idea of a “wellspring” that can purify. This gives way to the Mikvah in which women and men dunk for purification. Most of the time the dunking has to do with cleansing after a woman’s period (speaking of cycles) or childbirth. Many Jewish feminists, therefore, have rejected the Mikvah. However, many women have chosen to “take back the waters” (Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has an article by that name). Before a wedding, after a birth, leading up to a holiday or significant event, the symbolism of purification – to help us distinguish or separate between the sacred and the profane or the ordinary and extraordinary, or simply the renewal of a cycle or the start of something new – can be a meaningful act.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.