Random Musing Before Shabbat–Shabbat 22 Nissan 5779–So What Do I Write About?

I don’t normally like to repeat a musing with the same theme as the previous year. This year, I broke that rule – and did so by writing on the same subject without looking over what I wrote last year, just to see where else I might go, might make different choices of focus, etc. I did not disappoint myself. So before you read this year’s musing, read the one from last year: http://migdalorguysblog.blogspot.com/2018/04/random-musing-before-shabbat-otd-on-and.html

Then come back here.

Random Musing Before Shabbat – 22 Nissan 5779 – So What Do I Write About

OK, so this is one of those odd Shabbatot. In traditional Judaism, it’s not odd at all. The rabbis of the Talmud endorsed the practice of adding additional days to calendrical chagim outside of Eretz Israel, thus endorsing the practice of observing the three pilgrimage holidays for 8 days in the Diaspora (and only 7 days in Eretz Israel.) Even though modern technology obviates the concern which prompted the creation of these extra days of observance, the Talmud urges us to keep our calendar as a surety against losing our traditions in the face of persecution.

The Reform movement officially rejects these extra days (with the exception of Rosh Hashanah, which, it can be argued, is a different situation entirely. More on that later.) Thus Reform Judaism as a movement (but not every Reform Jew) recognizes and observes 7 days for the pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Pesakh, and Shavuot.

In many years, this does not present an issue. But when the chag begins on Shabbat (meaning that the eighth day will also fall on the next Shabbat) there’s an issue with what Torah reading falls on that eighth day Shabbat. In Israel, where on;y 7 days are observed, the practice is that the next parasha is read, thus Israel and the Diaspora get out of sync for a few weeks. Luckily, there are rules that help us get back in sync, though not that quickly. Brace yourself for a lot of arcane rules that guide the assignment of the parshiyot  based on the Hebrew calendar. Skip if you want, but you might find it quite enlightening.

These four basic principles guide the Jewish calendar vis-a-vis Torah readings:

    1. Parshat B’reishit is always read on the first Shabbat following the 22nd of Tishrei.
    2. Every Shabbat has a weekly parshah reading assigned, unless it coincides with a major holiday (Pesakh, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, or Sh’mini Atzeret).
    3. There are seven pairs of parshiyot that can be doubled up (six in Eretz Israel): Vayakhel-Pekudei, Tazria-Metzora, Acharei-Kedoshim, Behar-Bechukotai, Chukat-Balak (only outside Israel), Matot-Mas’ei, and Nitzavim-Vayelech.
    4. V’zot Hab’rachah will always be the reading on Simchat Torah (or in Israel, Shemini Atzeret), whether or not it is a Shabbat.

Based on these four understandings, the yearly cycle is then governed by this halakhah from Shulkhan Aruch, Orakh Chayyim 428:4

  • In a regular (non-leap) year, the Shabbat before Pesakh is always Parshat Tzav. In a leap year, it is M’tzora (or, when Rosh Hashanah was on Thursday, Acharei Mot)

    • This requires that Vayakhel-Pekudei be combined in most regular years (except when Rosh Hashanah is on Thursday and the year is “complete,” because then there’s an extra Shabbat available between Simchat Torah and Pesakh). They will be separated in all leap years.

  • On the Shabbat before Shavuot, parashat Bamidbar is always read (except in leap years in which Rosh Hashanah was on Thursday, then it will be parashat Naso).

    To make this work,  in a normal year three sets of parshiyot in Sefer Vayikra are combined: Tazria-Metzora, Acharei-Kedoshim, and Behar-Bechukotai. (The exception – in Israel, in years when Pesach begins on Shabbat, because then 22 Nissan has a weekly parshah assigned, as it’s a regular Shabbat. In that case, in Israel, Behar and Bechukotai are separated.) All three of these pairs of parshiyot will be separated in leap years.

  • The Shabbat after Tish’a B’Av the reading is always Parshat Va’etkhanan.

    This requires that in most years Matot-Mas’ei is combined. Exceptions – in the disapora leap years in which Rosh Hashanah is on a Thursday, and in Israel, leap years when Pesakh begins on Shabbat. In those settings, Matot and Masei will be read separately. In the Diaspora, years when Shavuot is on Friday and Shabbat, Chukat-Balak will have to be combined.

  • The Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah is always parashat Nitzavim.

    To make this work out (and still have all of the parshiyot read by Simchat Torah), in years when Rosh Hashanah is on Thursday or Shabbat, Nitzavim-Vayelech are combined and read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.

Phew.   Now, this system complicates things, so that generally, Israel and the Diaspora remain out of sync until the last of the combined parshiyot in sefer Vayikra. It would be so much simpler if we could get back in sync quicker, but the halakha prevents that.

I’ve made inquiries but haven’t really gotten a serious answer to my question of why Reform simply doesn’t following eretz Israel for a few weeks, since that is a long established tradition and custom not requiring inventing or creating something new.

(It should also be pointed out that all over North America, Reform congregations differ in their practices – some follow the URJ’s newer practice of this “half parshiyot, ” others following eretz Yisrael until things are in sync again, and yet others follow orthodox tradition and read that traditional 8th day on Shabbat reading staying in total sync with all the non-Reform Jews in North America – with the exception of some who follow Yemenite practice, which is another story altogether.)

While I can understand the logic of not following orthodox practice, I’m not sure I understand the choice to not follow Israel. There’s a part of me that wonders if this is a remnant of assimilationist tendencies from early Reform in which we sought to be like our “Christian” neighbors – only in this case, the neighbors we are seeking to be like are our fellow non-Reform Jews in North America. Let me explain that, since on its face it makes no sense. Reform creates this “half parasha” which hardly seems an attempt to be like our Conservative and orthodox neighbors in North American galut. However, the ultimate result of doing it this way puts us back in sync with our local Jewish neighbors in just a week, rather than the weeks that following the Israeli reading calendar would require until we’re back in sync again. So perhaps we’re placing the desire to be more quickly back in sync with traditional/orthodox North American diaspora Jews over following an already established tradition of readings when only 7 days of a chagim are observed as they are in Israel?

Marat ayin? Which is easier to explain to non-Jews in North America. Reform being out of sync with all the other North American Jews for a bunch of weeks, or just a week?

Personally, I think I favor following the practice in eretz Israel. We have determined that there is no need for 8 day chagim, just as it has been tradition of long-standing (even from Biblical times) in Israel to observe the Torah mandated 7 days for these holidays. A full week. 87 days. The number of completion, the number of days of creation (we’ll set aside the controversy of whether or not G”d’s “finishing” on Shabbat actually represents work done by G”d on the seventh day or not.)

Being the gadfly I am, when I raised this question on some online fora, I couldn’t resist adding a fourth option for Reform. Follow Israel, follow Diaspora, make up these “half-parshiyot” to get Reform back in sync with other North American  Jews faster, or why not simply create entirely new readings for these Shabbatot when they occur? Now, I don’t personally think that’s a great option, but I wonder if it was ever considered?

As a movement, we’ve considered and reconsidered all sorts of things. Things once removed without much objection from the siddurim of the movement have found their way back in. In early iterations of Mishkan T’filah, the second paragraph of the Sh’ma/V’ahavta was offered as an option (with some more objectionable text in a smaller type size.) That eventually got shot down, but at least it was considered. Plus the proponents at least got a partial victory with the restoration of the first section of the third paragraph (the tzitzit section.)

I mentioned earlier how many Reform congregations still follow the practice of observing two days of Rosh Hashanah (even though on the RJ website they state that most observe only one.) Why two in Israel ?It’s complicated, but the simple explanation is that it is the only holiday that falls on the first day of a month, the time of the new moon. In biblical Israel, there was no fixed calendar. Each new month was declared based on the sighting of the new moon (or to be more specific, the absence of a visible sliver of moon.) Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, as most holidays started on other days of the month. However, since Rosh Hashanah would have started immediately with the appearance of the new moon, and the witness could not report this until the next morning or later, the court had to simply assume that the 30th day after the new moon of Elul was the 1st of Tishrei, and thus Rosh Hashanah. If they were wrong, and it turns out the next day was Rosh Hashanah – well, they had already declared that day as Rosh Hashanah, and therefore couldn’t send out messengers throughout Israel to announce that fact. The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that this practice actually dated back to the time of the prophets (though this doesn’t make a lot of sense.) Once the rabbis established a fixed calendar (around the 4th Century CE) some Jews still living in Israel wanted to go back to a single day of Rosh Hashanah. However, it was determined that two days would be observed – one to honor the biblical commandment, and the other to honor the tradition of the Talmud Yerushalmi.

As I did with the arcane rules about the assigning of the Torah readings based on the calendar, I could go into far greater depth about the two-day Rosh Hashanah (and frankly, I originally did in earlier drafts of this musing) but I decided if you were really interested in al this, you could do your own research. Don’t want to burden you with too much information.

An argument that has sometimes been used in modern times to justify following the two-day practice for Rosh Hashanah is that it makes certain in years when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, that the shofar can still be heard, as that is a mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah. This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense in Reform settings, where musical instruments are already routinely used on Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah. So we’ll allow the use of instruments, but we won’t blow shofar on Shabbat? Talk about picking and choosing. (Again, customs differ, and some Reform congregations do blow shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.)

I remain conflicted as to what to write about for this Shabbat – thus I wrote about what has me conflicted, as a sort of cartharsis. Now I have to decided what I will write about for the next few weeks. I guess, by failing to write about Acharei Mot this Shabbat I’ve made my choice already. I’ll be following Diaspora Ashkehnazi custom, at least for this year.

So while I explored some of the same things, this year’s musing had a somewhat different focus than last year. It’s interesting to consider what led me down these different paths, what things are happening in my life that influence my writing choices. Thanks for indulging me.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shabbat 22 Nissan 5778 – OTD: On and Off the Derekh
Pesakh 5778 – Odds and Ends
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5777 – Valley of The Donald
April 11, 2015 – Cop Out
Pesakh 5775 – Day Off (Literally)
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5773 – The Whole House of Israel
Pesach 5772 – Don’t Believe This
Pesach 8th Day 5772 – The Bread of Freedom
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5771-Admat Yisrael
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5769 – Valley of the Dry Economy
Pesach VII 5768 – Department of Redundant Anamnesis Department
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5767-Not Empty
Intermediate Shabbat of Passover 5766-A Lily Among Thorns
Pesach VII 5761 (Revised 5765)
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5764-Dem Bones & Have We Left Gd behind? (5578-60)
Hol Hamoed Pesach 5763-No Empty Gestures (Redux 5762)
5761-Pesach VII-Redundant Anamnesis

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Random Musing Before Shabbat-M’tzora 5779-K’nega Nira Li Babayit

כִּ֤י תָבֹ֙אוּ֙ אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶ֖ם לַאֲחֻזָּ֑ה וְנָתַתִּי֙ נֶ֣גַע צָרַ֔עַת בְּבֵ֖ית אֶ֥רֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶֽם׃

14:34 When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess,

וּבָא֙ אֲשֶׁר־ל֣וֹ הַבַּ֔יִת וְהִגִּ֥יד לַכֹּהֵ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר כְּנֶ֕גַע נִרְאָ֥ה לִ֖י בַּבָּֽיִת׃

14:35 the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.”

OK. I’m following directions. כְּנֶ֕גַע נִרְאָ֥ה לִ֖י בַּבָּֽיִת׃. K’nega nira li babayit.

Something like a plague has appeared on my house. In fact, something like a plague has appeared on both my houses – the one I call home, and the one that is the home of my people.

I come to you as you are a priest, and I am commanded to tell you this news. You, in turn, are commanded to order the house cleared out so that you may examine it, and so that nothing else can possibly become contaminated.

So, come take a look. See those streaks on the walls there. I have some ideas as to what might be causing them.

[Insert here your litany of ways in which our house, aka the United States of America, has become unclean]

I had originally included my own list, but I think it’s better as an interactive exercise. It also allows you, the reader, to choose the perspective. You can make that perspective political, cultural, religious, ethical, philosophical, etc. and/or any combination of those. I would urge you, at first, to try and iterate as many of those as you can off the top of your head, before resorting to entering things like “the worst things x has done since becoming President” into a Google search. I think you may find this an interesting exercise. You probably won’t have trouble creating an initial list. Then you’ll dig online and discover how the totality of your list pales in comparison to all that you can discover online. There is value in those “oh yeah, I forgot about that” moments. Creating so many moments that one tends to forget some of them is exactly the effect “they” are after, whomever your “they” is. Distraction upon distraction upon distraction. Getting that list in one place where you can appreciate its enormity is a useful exercise.

It can be an interesting exercise to try and classify the various items on your list as to where they come into conflict with Jewish teachings and values. I’ve seen a few of those exercises already out there on the internet.

Last week, I taught an adult ed session on Jewish views of lying. It’s a typically mixed bag. Motivation matters. Topic matters. Intent matters. Situation matters. The people involved matters. I offer this as a caution. In our righteous indignation, we sometimes engage in blanket critiques that aren’t as nuanced as they could be. (To be honest, I hate having to write that, but if I don’t at least remind myself, I am liable to be carried to extremes by my own righteous indignation and potentially do things I might later regret.)

Then this week comes the latest blow. For a moment, at least, there was hope that the citizens of Israel might vote to restore some sanity (and values) to their government. Alas, that appears not to be the case.

Israel, as the home of my people, also appears to be suffering from something like a plague.

I wrote on Facebook:

What’s left? I live in a United States of America that elected a government I cannot endorse and have difficulty understanding or accepting, and now that the Israeli people have spoken, they, too, have made a choice I cannot endorse and have difficulty accepting or understanding. Who are my people now? At least I can’t be accused of dual loyalties now. Only dual disloyalties (which is an inaccurate accusation as I remain a loyal American citizen, and a passionate supporter of the dream of what Israel can be.) There was a time when terms like the “loyal opposition” were embraced. That is no longer the world in which we live. I am very, very saddened.

It is not always safe to speak openly and critically about Israel in the US Jewish community. Those of us who love Israel so much that we dare to call her to task for her failures are sometimes accused of disloyalty, even anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. (Though even we can be accused of the anti-Semitic dual loyalty trope, it seems.)

I truly love Israel. I have been there enough times to know the special connection one feels to the land when one is there. Though it may have evolved and changed, the religion which I practice has its origins there. There is clear, unambiguous historical evidence that the Jewish people lived there, starting at least 3500 years ago, and had nation states.  Despite the many times that control of the land passed from one empire or nation to another, there has been a continuous Jewish presence there. Given our historic and long connection to the land, it does make sense for us to have a modern nation state in the region. In light of the Shoah, having a Jewish state as a place of refuge also makes sense.

Make no mistake. I am proud of Israel. It has done amazing things. It has made the desert bloom. It has been a leader in agriculture , medicine, and technology. It is a democratic state in a part of the world that is sadly lacking in them. It does grant rights to all its citizens, and has, at least outwardly, strived to be an accepting society.

Israel is under fairly constant threat. Setting aside arguments that sometimes Israel herself contributes to making herself a target, no country should be subject, on a routine basis, to the acts of terrorism and random rocket attacks that Israel suffers. Israel is an important bastion in the Levant. Israel is a remedy for the ever-present existential threat against Jews that history has shown us always seem to exist in this world.

That being said, we need to have the priest come examine the red and green stains on the walls of our Israeli home to check for plague. I recommend to you the same exercise as before – come up with your own list of problems and issues that have plagued medinat Yisrael since its birth (and even before that) and then broaden that list with some online searching.

As with our own US house, you can frame your list of medinat Yisrael’s unclean things as it works for you. You could be the most ardent supporter of Israel, even a fervent “Israel right or wrong” type and still find items for your list (and if you don’t, I would question your self-honesty, and the ethical construct that allows you to gloss over obvious faults.)

[Insert here your litany of ways in which Jewish house, aka Israel, has become unclean]

A dozen years ago Rabbi Brad Hirschfield published his remarkable book, which I still use to guide me:  “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism.” If an orthodox rabbi from Chicago who made aliyah in the 80s and became a rabid “greater biblical Israel” fanatical Israeli settler can evolve into an intrafaith and interfaith bridge builder, there is hope for this world.

We don’t have to agree about these issues. You may not have the same issues and qualms about the things which cause me to worry about the plagues that have erupted in our American and Israeli homes. Live and be well.

There are Jews who are perfectly happy with everything that is happening in this country under this administration, and in Israel under its administration. There are Jews (like me) who are equally unhappy with both administrations. Then there are Jews who are geshrying about what is happening here in the United States of America but continue to give Israel and Bibi a pass. I may not share such a belief, but I do believe I have some understanding of the motivations and reasonings behind them, and believe they are, most often, well-intentioned, and based on rational concerns and fears.

I love Israel. I also love the diaspora – and I think we’ve allowed ourselves to develop a Jewish inferiority complex relative to Israel, and it’s time to look at that, and our role as a diaspora in the perpetuation of Judaism, and not leaving our survival totally dependent upon Israel as its burden.  Personally, I think we have passed many potential crossroads over the last few decades, and failed to even consider potential alternate paths. The time has come for exploring new options, new possibilities, new understandings of Judaism, Zionism, ahavat Yisrael, Colonialism, hasbara, Jewish Education, and more. We have to be willing to challenge all the underlying and accepted understandings and conventions. Reconsidering them doesn’t mean we will change them all, but if we don’t consider the entirety, it won’t be a thorough effort. I have thought and continue to think about these and related issues. I’ve started to come to some conclusions, but I have always been the kind of person who continues to study issues from every angle even when I have developed a particular opinion. I’m happy to discuss this with folks at any time.

וְהִזַּרְתֶּ֥ם אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִטֻּמְאָתָ֑ם וְלֹ֤א יָמֻ֙תוּ֙ בְּטֻמְאָתָ֔ם בְּטַמְּאָ֥ם אֶת־מִשְׁכָּנִ֖י אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

You shall put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them.

We’ve been warned.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Metzora 5774 – Go With the Flow
Metzora 5771 – Afflict This!
Metzora 5768 – Human Nature
Metzora 5765-Defiling the Tabernacle
Metzora 5763-Not So Irrelevant
Metzora 5760-Even Lepers Bring Good News

Tazria-Metzora 5778 – Excessive Prevention (Redux 5770)
Tazria-Metzora 5777 – The Overlooked Lesson (Revisiting 5767)
Tazria-Metzora 5775 – Singing a Song of Leprosy Again
Tazria-M’tzora 5773-Even Lepers Bring Good News-Redux, Revised, & Expanded
Tazria-Metzora 5772 – We Are the Lepers
Tazria-Metzora 5770 – Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M’tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 – Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Stuents
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Tazria-Shabbat HaHodesh 5779

Another Shabbat of rest for my fingers, so I offer this selection of previous musings for parashat Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh:

Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh 5774 – Fifty Fifty
Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh 5771 – It’s Good To Be the King
Tazria 5768 – Just Not Good Enough is Just Not Good Enough
Tazria 5765-If Naaman Can Be Forgiven…
Tazria 5760-Preventing Spiritual Rot

Tazria-Metzora 5778 – Excessive Prevention (Redux 5770)
Tazria-Metzora 5777 – The Overlooked Lesson (Revisiting 5767)
Tazria-Metzora 5775 – Singing a Song of Leprosy Again
Tazria-M’tzora 5773-Even Lepers Bring Good News-Redux, Revised, & Expanded
Tazria-Metzora 5772 – We Are the Lepers
Tazria-Metzora 5770 – Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M’tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 – Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Students
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy

Shabbat Shalom,


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Random Musing Before Shabbat-Shabbat Sh’mini-Shabbat Parah–Straw Clutching

So which is it, G”d, that upsets You more? You’re real unhappy with how Your people have behaved and acted in the land You gave them, so you drive them from that land in punishment.The native peoples of the land to which you have driven Your people are gossiping about You, saying what a weak and miserable G”d you must be, if Your own chosen people were so depraved that You had to drive them from the land You gave to them into their lands. You, yes You, G”d, are responsible for creating the first serious period of anti-immigrant fervor in the history of the world. Is it any wonder that Your creations continue to follow in Your footsteps? You set the example.

Vanity does not become a G”d, unless you are the little child god of the Star Trek episode “Squire of Gothos,” or the obnoxious, self-absorbed “Q” of ST:TNG (both of which, truth be told, do bear some resemblance to the way You have behaved.)

So, embarrassed by Your own favored people, you decide to be magnanimous – but not for their sake – but for YOUR sake. You’ll bring them all back to the land You gave them. You’ll purify them,  clean out their screwed up psyches, and give them new hearts and new spirit. The land will be restored, be fertile, and Your people will multiply in abundance. Thus the people of the other nations, who were laughing at You before, will now say how great You are for they will see how You have restored us fully.

This is the story told in the haftarah for Shabbat Parah, Ezekiel 38:16-38.

Who is Your PR firm, G”d? Who is giving You this advice? Who is telling You this isn’t about anybody but You? Fire them. They’re not helping You. This all just makes You seem small and petty. If you are truly Master of the Universe, You don’t need to deal with all this quotidian stuff. Emotions like jealousy and vanity are beneath You. Why stoop to humanity’s level? Why, you really could shoot a man right out on Fifth Avenue and You wouldn’t lose a believer. Is that what You think? Might be time for a reality check. (That is, if You are subject to the laws of the realities You create, which is a whole other discussion.)

Now, the next chapter in Ezekiel is the famous “dry bones” story. So I guess during this chapter, the shrooms hadn’t quite kicked in yet. So You have less of an excuse for this obvious display of Deific vanity.  David had you figured out – might be why he had to author that one book under the pseudonym of Qohelet. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, eh? Maybe the whole book of Qohelet is as much a message to You as it is to us?

We’re not easy to work with, are we, G”d? Did you give up and find an expedient way out? Did you impregnate some poor woman and have her bring forth a diversion? You threw that mess at us and watched us stumble through it for a few centuries. Deciding perhaps the fun had run its course, a few centuries later you have a conversation with that Muhammad guy. That’ll keep humans busy for another while.

But what you didn’t see coming (or maybe you did…) was that a lot of people starting asking if You were real, if humanity had outgrown the need for You, and if, in fact, humanity had actually created You rather than vice versa. through my head. Cat got Your tongue? We’re waiting.

C’mon G’d! Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah. People are laughing at You. Denying You. Making fun of You. Where’s Your response? No snappy comeback? No smiting? No abject lessons?

If even this appeal to Your vanity isn’t working, what are we to do?

And if he tarry, I shall wait.

Perhaps there will always be some who will wait, some who have perfect faith. Perhaps, in the end, they will be rewarded by You for their faithfulness. You make it hard sometimes, Very hard.

Sure. As I write these words, the apologetics run seamlessly – those I have come to terms with, and sometimes, those which I utterly reject yet still find rattling around in my brain. I grasp at these straws, hoping against hope to continue to find the faith to believe in the continually changing G”d of my understanding. Is it wrong to ask for just a little help?


Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musing on this parasha:

Sh’mini 5778 – Drops That Sparkle (5774 Redux and Revised)
Sh’mini 5777 – GEFTS 20th Anniversary
Sh’mini 5775 – Vayyidom Aharon (Revisiting Calm In A Crisis)
Sh’mini 5774 – Indubitably Delicious
Sh’mini 5772 – Collect Call
Sh’mini/Shabbat Parah 5771-So Say We All
Sh’mini 5770 – Don’t Eat That, It’s Not Kosher
Sh’mini 5769 srettirC ypsirC
Sh’mini 5767-Don’t Be a Stork
Sh’mini 5766-Palmwalkers
Shemini 5765-It All Matters
Shemini 5764-Playing Before Gd
Shemini 5763 – Belly of the Beast
Shemini 5762-Crispy Critters
Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5760-Calm in a Crisis
Shemini 5759-Porking Out

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Random Musing Before Shabbat-Tzav 5779-Utterances and Umami

וְהָאֵ֨שׁ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ תּֽוּקַד־בּוֹ֙ לֹ֣א תִכְבֶּ֔ה וּבִעֵ֨ר עָלֶ֧יהָ הַכֹּהֵ֛ן עֵצִ֖ים בַּבֹּ֣קֶר בַּבֹּ֑קֶר וְעָרַ֤ךְ עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ הָֽעֹלָ֔ה וְהִקְטִ֥יר עָלֶ֖יהָ חֶלְבֵ֥י הַשְּׁלָמִֽים׃

5 The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being.

אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶֽה׃

6 A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.

There is no Temple, no altar. Hasn’t been one for 1,949 years. Those ritualistic trappings were  modified, adapted, reconstructed, reshaped, and have slowly morphed into parts of the rabbinic model of Jewish worship as it is practiced today and has been for much of those 1,949 years.

However, before I talk about modern interpretations, let’s examine a basic issue with these commandments in their context. What happened to the fire upon the altar while the Israelites were on the move rather than encamped for a while?

Scholars do like to remark about the redundancy in verse 6. If it is a perpetual (tamid) fire, then of course it would not go out. Why, if the fire goes out, then technically two commandments have been violated – one, to have an eternal fire on the altar, and the second that it (the flame) should not go out. So clearly, keeping the fire on the altar burning AT ALL TIMES seems to a pretty clear requirement.

The majority of scholars suggest that the law only applied when the altar was stationary, and in later times, when it was a fixed location in the Temple. Not all of them, however. Chizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoah, a 13th century French rabbi) for example, suggests that the fire was kept lit and was covered by a metal dome while being transported. Nice try, Chizkuni, but depriving the fire of oxygen by covering it with a dome probably wouldn’t have worked so well, not to mention the difficulty in carrying a hot fire for long distances. Others commentators have hinted at a Divine solution – that the flame was kept going by G”d. (Many commentators have suggested that the flame itself was initially lit by G”d, so this wasn’t much of a stretch beyond that.)

I felt it was necessary to discuss this aspect of this because it impacts how we might understand these commandments in a modern context, in the absence of an altar.

Prayer has taken the place of sacrifices. Instead of bulls, we give the offering of our lips. What is it that takes the place of the eternal altar fire and consumes our words and makes them akin to a pleasant odor for G”d? At first glance, it would seem that we have obviated the need for this now missing step. Our words rise directly up to G”d as words, which G”d can hear, and understand. That was just as much the case for our ancestors. There were sacrifices, and words to accompany them. It is likely true that, over time, more and more words were added to the rituals around the sacrifices. Some of those words were the precursors of the prayers we still pray today. Nevertheless, some of the words we pray today must be prayers specifically intended to take the place of the physical sacrifices, n’est ce pas? Shouldn’t those prayers, those words “never go out?” Shouldn’t they be t’filot tamid, d’varim tamid – eternal prayers, eternal words-always present twenty-four/seven?

Matter is neither created or destroyed in our scientific understanding of this universe. Thus when sacrifices were consumed on the altar in ancient times, their mass was converted to other things: heat, smoke, liquids, ash, and the molecules and chemical compounds which we perceive as smells or odors. Fire is the agent which effected the change in the forms of matter that were once living animals. What can do the same to our replacement prayers/words? What takes words, breaks them down, and changes them into other things?

Prayers uttered are just that – prayers uttered. If the utterance is merely the keva, the fixed text, then what is there to be broken down and re-arranged? Aha, but there is something there. Baruch she’amar v’hayah ha-olam. Blessed be the One who spoke and brought the universe into existence. Thus, just the mere words we offer up to G”d can be useful to G”d. G”d might use them to create new universes, or G”d might need them to repair those one. We don’t know.

You didn’t expect that, did you? An embrace of the simple keva, the fixed prayer, uttered pro forma? Now, to be honest, there’s little doubt in my mind that prayer uttered with kavanah is preferred. Nevertheless, I have always believed that the mere recitation of the keva is valid prayer, and serves a function. There are times and places when we human might be incapable of summoning up more that a rote utterance of the keva.

Things are never simple in theology. Just the other day, I asked a group of sixth and seventh grade students about prayer, and its value. They all basically agreed that prayer isn’t something that G”d needs, necessarily. Prayer serves the needs of humans – serves the needs of those who utter them, and those who hear them being uttered. G”d has no need of prayers. (Now, that, in and of itself, is a simplistic notion that, when one examines it more closely, it doesn’t hold up as well as it might seem. Our relationship with G”d is, after all, covenantal. There’s that controversial statement by a 20th century scholar “If you are my witnesses, then I am G”d, but if you are not my witnesses, then I am not G”d.” But that’s deeper than the rabbit hole I want to go today, so we’ll save that for another time.

Given that, it is important that we understand that sometimes the keva is enough, and, theoretically, the keva just might be the replacement for the aish tamid, becoming the aforementioned t’filot tamid. Wow, I never expected to write that when I started this musing. I have to let that bounce around in my head for a while – the notion of the keva being the replacement for the perpetual flame on the altar. The words of the prayers are always there for use to use to lift our thoughts, or sacrifices to G”d.

Now I’m conflicted, When I started working through this musing, I wanted to reach the conclusion that it was kavanah, the intent behind the prayer, that is the modern replacement for the aish hakodesh, the eternal fire on the altar. I see now the basic flaw in that argument. Kavanah is not eternal, though perhaps we should always strive for our prayers to have some element of kavanah in addition to the keva. In fact, sometimes the kavanah is all there is, and it can be enough. Think of the classic story of the “Boy With the Flute.” He doesn’t know the words, but G”d hears his prayers. Perhaps, the youth’s prayers were the most meaningful of all.

Kavanah indeed helps lift our prayers, and is perhaps the catalyst that turns our mere words into the pleasing odors and offerings that G”d asks of us. This viewpoint, however, requires us to perceive the kavanah as superior to the keva, and we’ve already seen how this may not be so. So I’m scraping a lot of what I’ve already written and rethinking this musing.

Keeping our inner fires lit is not always the easiest task, and we must learn to forgive ourselves if we let our inner flames go out. Why set ourselves up for sinning by letting the fire on our altars go out? Why not consider that the replacement for the aish tamid starts with the keva itself. It’s is always there. Oh, we may fiddle around with it, re-arrange it, re-interpret it, gender-neutralize it, excise troubling parts and replace them with words that better reflect modern knowledge and reality, and all that jazz. The essence however, remains the same. Kavanah is perhaps an extra catalyst that makes our prayers smell even more pleasing to G”d than they already are, but the keva alone provides the aish hakodesh upon the altar. When we add ourselves saying the words of the keva, we are placing our sacrifices onto the fire and seeing it converted to heat, smoke, liquids, ash, and the molecules and chemical compounds that make odors pleasing to G”d.

I will always endeavor to pray with intent. Kavanah matters: kavanah enhances, kavanah sweetens, kavanah fattens. Kavanah is the MSG, the umami spice that takes the keva and raises it up a notch. Nevertheless, I am comforted in knowing that I truly believe that the keva itself can be enough – it is always the eternal flame burning on the altar upon which I can offer up my prayers.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5778 – After You, G”d
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5777 – Payback: An Excerpt From the Diary of Moses (Updated)
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5775 – Two Way Street (Revised)
Tzav/Shabbat Zachor 5774 – Does G”d Need a Shrink?
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5773 – The Doorway to Return
Tzav/Shabbat Hagadol 5772 – Not Passive
Tzav (Purim) 5771 – A Purim Ditty
Tzav 5769 – Payback: An Excerpt From the Diary of Moses
Tzav 5768 – Jeremiah’s solution (Updated from 5761)
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5767-Redux 5762-Irrelevant Relavancies
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5766 – Dysfunction Junction
Tzav 5765 (updated 5760)-Of IHOPs, Ordination and Shabbat
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5764-Two Way Street
Tzav 5763 – Zot Torahteinu?
Tzav 5761/5759-Jeremiah’s Solution

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Random Musing Before Shabbat – Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5779-And Virtue Is Triumphant Only in Theatrical Performances

To redeem, the irredeemable text…

Impossible dreams abound. Purim is coming. A lighter spirit is in the air. The spring is coming (at least in this hemisphere.) Purim. A holiday when those who have been threatened with harm, or feel threatened can have their hopes lifted by a tale of topsy-turvy, a reversal as stunning as any in history, as game-changing a turnaround as in any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. I mean, here’s a pretty how de do – if Esther comes for an audience with the King uninvited, she could well be put to death. Yet, like the discovery of Captain Cocoran’s and Ralph Rackstraw’s true birth statuses, it is when Esther’s hidden status (get it?) as a Jew is revealed that Haman’s evil plot is utterly foiled.

While there is an overall positive outcome that makes Purim a celebrative holiday, it is still a rather dark story. The turning upside-down aspect of the threat of death of Persia’s Jewish population darkly requires the Jews to pre-empt their own deaths by defending themselves, and, as needed, killing those who would have killed them. A simple adjustment to the plot devices used in this narrative would have allowed for a less murderous solution. G”d, who is missing from the narrative, could have perhaps provided a selective plague, earthquake, or other plot device to spare the Jews the necessity of offing their enemies directly. Or this whole nonsense about a King’s order being unable to be rescinded once issued. What utter folderol. What’s the point of being a King if you can’t change your mind?

That particular bit of fiddle-dee-dee is actually easily redeemed. We are mis-interpreting the King’s words. He is not implying that Persian law is immutable, and that there are no provisions of emendation once a edict has been made. (There’s no attestation to such policies in any source from the period, or earlier periods.) The King is being practical.  Based on the timeline we can glean from the Megillah, 70 days had already passed since Haman’s original deaths sentence for the Jews has been promulgated, and another 9 months would pass before its day of execution. That means that the edict had likely been promulgated extensively throughout the Empire’s 120 provinces, stoking the anti-Semitic fires that must have already been present. Even using the fastest horses and messengers to get the news out to rescind Haman’s order would not have sufficed. As it is, the Megillah tells us there was fighting in the provinces and in Shushan. So sending out a new edict, that basically informed everyone that attacks upon the Jews would not be monarchy-sanctioned, and that Jews were free to defend themselves would work just fine. So the King didn’t really mean what he said. Mr. Billy Flynn sings the Press Conference Rag. Notice how his mouth never moves-almost. There was no collusion. I did not have sexual relations with that woman. I am not a crook. When I’m a bad Bart I will tell taradiddles.

If you believe that particular piece of whitewashing apologetics (which is derived from Rashi, to some extent,) I’ve a deed to a bridge that might interest you.  So we’re still left with the question of why the story of Megillat Esther was constructed the way it was, with all the avoidable icky bits left in. Irrevocable decrees indeed. Irrevocable fiddlestick! But enough pandering to you Savoyards.

Strangely, Purim is not what I intended to write about. What got me started on this musing was my reaction to the special hafatarah we read this week for Shabbat Zachor (tied to Purim in its own way, of course.) It’s another difficult to redeem text about the story of Saul’s downfall as Israel’s first King. At least in the Purim story, G”d is absent, so we can’t blame G”d for instigating things (but we can blame G”d for not getting involved, and questioning why G”d was absent. An absent omnipresent G”d seems oxymoronic. Of course, G”d already has a history of that what with those 400 years of Israel in Egypt.)

Here, in this haftarah, G”d is directly responsible for the ugliness. (At least, if we believe Samuel is credible as a prophet.) G”d is strangely specific in that what G”d is tasking Saul with is meant to extract payback for how Amalek engaged in unethical war crimes against the Israelites when they were headed from the wilderness and into the land of Israel after their long wilderness sojourn. That’s a heckuva long time to wait for payback, but given G:”d’s time scale, perhaps not.

עַתָּה֩ לֵ֨ךְ וְהִכִּֽיתָ֜ה אֶת־עֲמָלֵ֗ק וְהַֽחֲרַמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ל עָלָ֑יו וְהֵמַתָּ֞ה מֵאִ֣ישׁ עַד־אִשָּׁ֗ה מֵֽעֹלֵל֙ וְעַד־יוֹנֵ֔ק מִשּׁ֣וֹר וְעַד־שֶׂ֔ה מִגָּמָ֖ל וְעַד־חֲמֽוֹר׃ (ס)

Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!”

Saul gathered his army and went to attack the Amalekites. He showed some discernment by allowing the Kenites who were among the Amalekites to leave since their quarrel wasn’t with them. Saul then proceeded to slaughter all the Amalekites, men, women, and children, but he spared King Agag and also spared the best of the animals. As the text says, Saul only proscribed the cheap and worthless.

G”d was displeased. Why was G”d displeased? Because Saul didn’t kill all the Amalekites as ordered, and didn’t completely proscribe all their property (animals, booty, etc.) So stop and think about that for a moment. Really, G”d?

וַֽיְהִי֙ דְּבַר־יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־שְׁמוּאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹֽר׃

10: The word of the LORD then came to Samuel:

נִחַ֗מְתִּי כִּֽי־הִמְלַ֤כְתִּי אֶת־שָׁאוּל֙ לְמֶ֔לֶךְ כִּֽי־שָׁב֙ מֵאַֽחֲרַ֔י וְאֶת־דְּבָרַ֖י לֹ֣א הֵקִ֑ים וַיִּ֙חַר֙ לִשְׁמוּאֵ֔ל וַיִּזְעַ֥ק אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה כָּל־הַלָּֽיְלָה׃

11: “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned away from Me and has not carried out My commands.” Samuel was distressed and he entreated the LORD all night long.

Doesn’t say what G”d and Samuel discussed all night long. Was Samuel trying to talk G”d out of it? That’s sort of the inference. Doesn’t seem to have mattered, for in the morning, Samuel was off to bring Saul the news.But Saul had already moved up, erecting a monument to his victory and Carmel, and then heading to Gilgal. When Samuel finds Saul, Saul’s first act is to boast how he has fulfilled G”d’s command. Samuel sarcastically asks “then why am I hearing all this bleating and lowing?”

Of course, Saul makes it worse, because he dissembles and gets all “I meant to do that.”. He says (i.e. makes up a story) that the spared animals were all intended as a sacrifice to G”d.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שְׁמוּאֵ֗ל הַחֵ֤פֶץ לַֽיהוָה֙ בְּעֹל֣וֹת וּזְבָחִ֔ים כִּשְׁמֹ֖עַ בְּק֣וֹל יְהוָ֑ה הִנֵּ֤ה שְׁמֹ֙עַ֙ מִזֶּ֣בַח ט֔וֹב לְהַקְשִׁ֖יב מֵחֵ֥לֶב אֵילִֽים׃

22: But Samuel said: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As much as in obedience to the LORD’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, Compliance than the fat of rams.

כִּ֤י חַטַּאת־קֶ֙סֶם֙ מֶ֔רִי וְאָ֥וֶן וּתְרָפִ֖ים הַפְצַ֑ר יַ֗עַן מָאַ֙סְתָּ֙ אֶת־דְּבַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה וַיִּמְאָסְךָ֖ מִמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ (ס)

23: For rebellion is like the sin of divination, Defiance, like the iniquity of teraphim. Because you rejected the LORD’s command, He has rejected you as king.”

Saul gets all Trumpian and doubles down, saying he was afraid of the troops. He entreats Samuel to go back with him and Saul will seek G”d’s forgiveness. Too late. Samuel starts to leave and Saul grabs at his robe and it tears. Quick on the uptake, like any good prophet, Samuel compares the tearing of his robe to G”d now tearing rule of Israel away from Saul. Then Samuel says another one of this inexplicable bits of text:

וְגַם֙ נֵ֣צַח יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֥א יְשַׁקֵּ֖ר וְלֹ֣א יִנָּחֵ֑ם כִּ֣י לֹ֥א אָדָ֛ם ה֖וּא לְהִנָּחֵֽם׃

Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or change His mind, for He is not human that He should change His mind.”

WTEverlivingF? I just can’t handle this. It’s totally irredeemable. (It’s also eerily similar to Megillat Esther’s insistence that Kingly edicts cannot be rescinded.) Those of you who know me, or have been reading my musings over the years have probably heard me say that “a god which cannot or will not change its mind is simply unworthy of being G”d.” G”d makes mistakes, G”d can be impetuous, G”d can act in anger, G”d can regret G”d’s actions and choices. That G”d makes mistakes is shown by this very story. Clearly, for G”d, making Saul King was a mistake! But there’s those pesky two rules. Rule 1: G”d is never wrong. Rule 2: When G”d is wrong, refer to rule #1. Sometimes, I think G”d (or at least G”d’s apologists) dissemble as badly as Saul did, falling back on “I meant to do that.” (Does this mean that G:”d is really a domestic cat?) I hold by the “b’tzelem anashim” reciprocal theory of G”d – if we are all in G”d’s image, then G”d, perforce, is like all of us. G”d can (and does)  have the very best and worst of human attributes.

The inability to be able to change one’s mind (as opposed to purposeful refusing to do so) is a horrible circumstance I wouldn’t wish on anyone, least of all G”d. Now, admittedly, perhaps changing one’s might about something before doing that something might be more meritorious than changing one’s mind afterwards, but it’s still meritorious either way. Not just meritorious. It’s necessary.

Speaking of changing one’s mind, perhaps I can go back and look at these two situations, in Purim and in this haftarah, and find something redeeming after all. In reality, there are things so heinous, so dangerous, so evil that perhaps force and even causing death are the only way to stop them.  It’s the dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki argument. It’s going to war to stop Hitler. Going to war to stop other genocides and atrocities. At Purim, we prevented an atrocity, but we had to fight to make that happen. The expunging of the Amalekites in this haftarah is not as clear-cut a necessity, though sometimes one must completely kill and remove a weed, roots and tendrils and all, to insure it never grows back.

[Ethics Sidebar: By the way, in the next chapter of the Book of Samuel, we start off with G”d telling Samuel to lie, or, to be a bit more generous to G”d, instruct Samuel to be somewhat disingenuous when he heads off to find David to proclaim him the new King. Samuel fears Saul might otherwise seek the means to stop (i.e. kill) him, so G”d proposes a ruse, a little decoy action. This is The Righteous G”d? G”d can’t just protect a prophet without this ruse?]

So just a hint, a whisper, of potential redemption here? Our Jewish history (as well as the entire history of our species) is replete with evils that might only be stopped by force. The Purim story reminds us to be ever vigilant, and also teaches us that sometimes we ourselves are the means of our own salvation. I’m not entirely comfortable with the concept, but I recognize that Judaism strives at times to limit our idealism and encourage some realistic practicality.

This haftarah for Shabbat Zachor? Eh. Not so redeemable. I suppose one can tweak the concept of being obedient to G”d’s commands being more desired by G”d than sacrifices into something sorta kinda useful. That’s really stretching it. There’s no true redemption here. My story is at an end for now.

The grating clatters open from above. I  ascend the staircase to my uncertain future, while about me my fellow prisoners sing about impossible dreams and unreachable stars. Though defeated yet again today as I tilted with the dragon of irredeemable texts, my heart strives ever upward to the far, unattainable sky.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayikra 5778 – Kol Cheilev (Revisited)
Vayikra 5777 – As G”d Is My Witness (aka Osymandias II)
Vayikra 5776 – Stuff That’s Still Bugging Me
Vayikra 5775 – Meaningful Gifts II
Vayikra 5773 (Redux 5761) – Mambo #613: A Little Bit Of Alef In My Torah
Vayikra 5772 – Confession: Not Just for Catholics
Vayikra 5771 – I’d Like To Bring To Your Attention…
Vayikra 5770 – You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time
Vayikra 5768 – Redux 5763 – Kol Kheilev
Vayikra 5767-Stuff That’s Bugging Me
Vayikra 5766 – Osymandias
Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 – Kol Cheilev
Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts
Vayikra 5764 and 5761-Mambo #613: A Little Bit of Alef in My Torah…

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayakhel-Shabbat Sh’kalim 5779-Ideas Still Worth Re-examining

Shabbat Sh’kalim is a Shabbat that moves around a bit according to the dictates of the Hebrew Calendar. It is designed to start the series of 4 special haftarot that are read preceding Pesakh, and it has to fall such that all the others line up in time.

So eight years ago Shabbat Sh’kalim corresponded with another Hebrew leap year just as it does this year, only then it corresponded with parashat Pekude, and this year it corresponds with parashat Vayakhel (in most non-leap years, Vayakhel-Pekude are a combined parasha, but there are some exceptions, the next one occurring in 2025. You think Common-Core math is confusing, try the cycles of the Hebrew Calendar. Wait, strike that – bad comparison. Once you see the underlying pedagogy of the new Common Core math standards for teaching things like multiplication and division, you’ll see that they actually are as sound, if not sounder, than the “traditional way.” Now every time I see one of those Common-Core-bashing memes, I cringe. You should too – do the research!!)

A special maftir is used for the Torah reading on Shabbat Sh’kalim, hearkening back to the opening 6 verses of parashat Ki Tissa which we read just a short while ago. It speaks of the half-shekel tax levied on the Israelites on the basis of the census, the funds then being used to serve a joint function – as expiation on the part of the Israelites, and as funds to support the needs of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting. Two birds with one half-shekel.

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

11 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַיהוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם׃

12 When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.

זֶ֣ה ׀ יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִ֤ים גֵּרָה֙ הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל מַחֲצִ֣ית הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃

13 This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to the LORD.

כֹּ֗ל הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מִבֶּ֛ן עֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וָמָ֑עְלָה יִתֵּ֖ן תְּרוּמַ֥ת יְהוָֽה׃

14 Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the LORD’s offering:

הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט מִֽמַּחֲצִ֖ית הַשָּׁ֑קֶל לָתֵת֙ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם׃

15 the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the LORD’s offering as expiation for your persons.

וְלָקַחְתָּ֞ אֶת־כֶּ֣סֶף הַכִּפֻּרִ֗ים מֵאֵת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְנָתַתָּ֣ אֹת֔וֹ עַל־עֲבֹדַ֖ת אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְהָיָה֩ לִבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל לְזִכָּרוֹן֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם׃ (פ)

16 You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before the LORD, as expiation for your persons.

Synagogues love this Shabbat, as it reinforces the obligation of Jews to help support the religious infrastructure. On the other hand, there are aspects of how this was done that may conflict with modern synagogue operations. (Additionally, how wonderfully ironic that this year Shabbat Sh’kalim also coincides with the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging. You know how I feel about that National Shabbat of Unplugging, don’t you? If liberal synagogues really took this seriously, don’t you think it should involve more than just asking congregants to not use their phones one Shabbat out of the year? Many of the ideas that Reboot originally promoted for the National Shabbat of Unplugging years ago rang true to me, and still do. However, it’s that primary thing about “unplugging from technology” that doesn’t work for me. In my case, technology enhances my Shabbat experience. But I digress.)

The biblical mandate is egalitarian when it comes to economic status – rich and poor alike pay just a half-shekel. Not exactly the way many synagogues are doing it these days, what with “fair share” and other types of programs designed to not conflict with our more modern sensibilities about the distribution of wealth. People who support a so-called “flat-tax” for income tax seem to have the Torah on their side. (However, if you care to do the research, there’s just as much support within Judaism for wealth equity and redistribution. That’s a discussion for another day. I’m reading some new books and re-reading some older books on Judaism, wealth, equity, business ethics, etc. with an eye to writing more about that this year.)

Here’s an interesting thought. What if every Jew, everywhere in the world, paid to a worldwide communal fund the modern equivalent of a half-shekel. This obligation would apply to every Jew, whether they belonged to a specific congregation or not. These funds are then divided up between all the world’s congregations and Jewish institutions. Not very practical, but an interesting thought exercise that at least gets us closer to the biblical mandate. (As the old joke goes, if Federation has their name, they’ll find them somehow.)  For example, synagogues could have no dues structure-operating solely on their portion of the half-shekel tax. (There are countries where government subsidizes synagogues, though often liberal synagogues have a harder tine getting the funding.) Jews could freely come and go between congregations, so long as they can demonstrate they paid their half-shekel. Pretty mind-blowing idea, huh? I’m not advocating this wholesale, but it has some interesting possibilities, especially in light of recent cries that what a 21st century Jewish community may need and want is the ability to move seamlessly between institutions, as they structure their own path of Jewish life. That “half-shekel” gets you in everywhere – any synagogue, any JCC or YM/YWHA, etc. Your kids get to go to get a Jewish education wherever you choose. (Yes, some adjustment between day-school and supplementary schools will be needed as the costs are very different – but we can figure these things out. In an ideal world, this “half-shekel” could guarantee a day school education for any Jewish child who wanted it.

Note that this still doesn’t eliminate our obligation to support charities. The “half-shekel” is to pay for institutional operations. Charities will still need separate support, as will other good and just causes.

The socialist in me has a little trouble with placing equal burdens on rich and poor alike, but there is a certain appeal to the idea, philosophically. Or we could find a way that Judaism allows us to modify the biblical half-shekel tax in a non-Temple reality that provides for a sliding scale, slightly easing the burden of those who can least afford it and shifting it to those who can easily afford to pay more. As I said, there are appealing aspects to both a graduated tax and a flat tax, though the socialist in means leans hard towards the graduated kind, and the social justice warrior in me leans hard towards greater equity in wealth distribution. But again, I digress.

The special haftarah we read for Shabbat Sh’kalim clues us in to something we already know about human nature. Money corrupts. (If you are reading this years down the road, February 27, 2019 was this week – the day of Michael Cohen’s open testimony before the House Oversight Committee. Here’s hoping it becomes an important historical date or at least a footnote.)  King Jehoash instructed the priests of the Temple that all donations received shall go for the upkeep and maintenance of the Temple. Twenty years later (slow on the uptake, or choosing to ignore, we’ll never know) he discovers that the priests had made no repairs to the Temple (surprise, surprise!) But what did they do with all that money? Torah is silent about that. (Hey, Yochi Brandes, want to write some historical fiction about that period? Not sure seeing it from the priests point of view would work, however.)

So King Jehoash comes up with an ingenious solution to get the Temple upkeep back on track. Money will no longer go directly to the priests, and they, in turn, will have no obligation for the upkeep of the Temple. All donations would be collected in common vessels, and then turned over to the staff (i.e. the workers who kept the Temple operating, fixed it, cleaned it, repaired it, etc.) This would insure the Temple’s upkeep (one might hope.)

To keep the priests from being totally unhappy with the deal (and possibly having him de-throned) he allows all money brought as guilt and purification offerings to go directly to the priests. Isn’t that special.

Flash Forward. Imagine what our synagogues might be like today if all donations went to pay for the staff and materials for building upkeep and maintenance, and the clergy relied solely on monies donated to expiate the sins of congregants. It worked for the Church, why not us-Jewish Indulgences. While I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I am qualifying it with the word somewhat. I really can imagine a world in which Jewish clergy receives income from the services they perform for individuals, and it is sufficient to also cover the communal work they do – so that the “halk-shekel” distributions really do only cover operational and upkeep costs for facilities, equipment, and programs. The Tanakh does seem to imply this is more than adequate for the priests. (Things get trickier when we start talking about other programming – supplementary school staff, clerical staff, etc. should they also have to draw from a different funding pot, or are these expenses just a normative part of operations? Clergy are part of normative operations, aren’t they? Aye, but there’s the rub. Tanakh does differentiate between the priests and the workman who service the Temple. Ordination is a hard-won honor, but like most honors, it ought to come at some cost. If we still had a hereditary priesthood, there’d be no issue. Maybe that’s what we need – a hereditary rabbi-hood. (Well, some Jewish sects do have that!)

On the subject of equity, I wonder how many synagogues have policies on the maximum salary differential permitted between the senior rabbi and the lowest-paid custodian or staff member? It’s an idea that many Jews cry out for in general society – capping CEO salaries, for example. Are we willing to try that in our own synagogues?

Now here’s something amazing. The haftarah for Shabbat Sh’kalim tells us that no supervisions or checks and balances were necessary for the people who oversaw the collection and distribution of the funds to the workers – for, as it says, they dealt honestly. (For the sake of comparison, let’s call this lay leadership in synagogues. maybe for institutions like JCCs it’s their Board members?)

The haftarah tells us the the high priest and the royal scribe were the ones who were to notice when the collections jars were full, count the money (De Monet, De Monet!) and then distribute it to those who distributed it on to the workers. The text isn’t clear whether the high priest and royal scribe were trusted and not checked upon, but my read is that the trusted ones were the next level down – those who actually took the funds and paid the workers and suppliers. What does it tell us that we couldn’t trust the priests but we could trust these people? Did the priests only keep payments resulting from guilt and purification offerings, or did they sometimes help themselves?

There’s another text here that, if taken at face value could vex modern synagogues many of whom have become “bar/bat mitzvah factories.” The age of Jewish communal majority has along history of being fixed at age 13 (12 for females) however if you examine Israelite culture and the Torah, you see that the half-shekel tax was only assessed to males age 20 and up. Now, there can be many practical reasons for this. Nevertheless, it does seem to call into question the rabbinic decisions to fix the age of becoming bar/bat mitzvah at a much earlier age. Seems to me if one can be a full member of the community with all the appurtenant obligations, they ought to be obligated to pay the modern synagogue equivalent of the half-shekel.

Imagine how well that would go over with both parents and children! So, do we change the age of majority, or start collecting dues from everyone over the age of bar/bat mitzvah? Radical? Perhaps. Worth contemplating, nonetheless, if for no other reason than, while it may not change things, it can influence and subtly affect our approach.

There are clear differences between our own times and those of Temple times and earlier. The synagogue may have taken the place of the Temple, but it is not quite the same thing. So comparisons aren’t entirely fair. Yet the values and ethics we read about in the Tanakh should surely remain applicable.

The rabbis were smart. They enabled Judaism to survive the destruction of the Temple by two millennia! Yet much of what they did, which they claim is based in and supported by the oral law, seems somewhat antithetical to what we read in the Torah. The things that the rabbis put into place may no longer be necessary, or may not work well in the 21st century. It’s equally true that the original teachings of the Torah might have the same problems. However, I’m willing to go back to the source without the cliff notes of the rabbinic interpreters to see if there are values and ideas we can re-adopt to our modern times. Issues of economic egalitarianism, how institutions are supported and paid for, how the donations are distributed, who are the people we can trust to distribute the communal funds without oversight – all are worthy of re-examination.

Though his views are a bit Libertarian for me at times, a futurist I often follow is David Brin (Sci-Fi author.) Focusing primarily on the impacts of technology, and in particular, on privacy, he maintains that the balance to surveillance by government and corporations is individual sousveillance back at them. We already see the impact that taking live videos with a smartphone can have on exposing the excesses of those with power and those who would abuse that power. Transparency is the key. Like government, synagogues should strive for the greatest possible transparency in all they do. (Sadly, among congregations around the world I find this is more often the exception than the rule, though often more a matter of stress/lack of time/urgency-induced failure to communicate rather than an intentional effort to hide things from congregants.) Transparency is hard. It’s even harder in a culture where “because I said so, ” or “it’s complicated, you wouldn’t understand,” or “we’ve always done it that way,” or “that’s just the way it is” are still common answers to a questioning “why?”

So I close this musing with one last question (and honestly, one last gadfly jab at this ensuing “National Shabbat of Unplugging.”)


Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian ©2019 (portions ©2011) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Vayakhel 5776 – An Imaginary Community (Redux & Revised 5768)
Vayakhel 5774 – Is Two Too Much?
Vayakhel 5771 – Giving Up the Gold Standard
Vayakhel 5765-The Wisdom of the Heart
Vayakhel 5763-Dayam V’hoteir

Vayakhel-Pekudei-Shabbat Parah 5775 – New Heart, New spirit
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778 – There IS Business Like Show Business
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777 – Bell, Pomegranate, Bell, Pomegranate
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773 – Craftsman. Artisan. Artist. Again.
Vayakhel-Pekude 5772 – Vocational Ed
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5770-Corroborative Detail
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769 – There Are Some Things You Just Have To Do Yourself
Vayakhel 5768-An Imaginary Community?
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5767-Redux 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5766 – So How Did Joseph Get Away With it?
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel/Pekude 5761 (Revised from 5758)-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel/Pekude 5758-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing

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