Parshat Tazria (5774)


Leviticus 12-13

Purity is About Having Awe and Humility

Does your spiritual practice still leave you struck with awe and wonder? Do you still approach your religious devotion in a way which shows humility? Essentially that is what the topic of ritual purity is about. And that is what we are going to discuss this week, ritual purity. As it will be the central topic these next few parashiot.

Pillar of Smoke and FireBut before we get there we need to catch ourselves up on this topic. The topic of ritual purity is certainly complicated, but it doesn’t need to be something that we avoid or shy away from. We just need to pick up this story where we have left off.

In last week’s parsha study we learned about the seven-day inauguration of the Mishkan (the tabernacle). And then we presumably stepped into the eighth day, the first day it is open for regular business. And on that day Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest), lay dead by an act of G-d. Just as fire had also consumed the offerings after the end of the seven days, so too fire came down and consumed these two men for bringing some sort of aish zara – extraneous fire – into the holy grounds, there on the eighth day.

In response to this the narrative is interrupted, and the kohanim (priests) are given laws to keep from also suffering the same terrible fate. They are taught regarding mourning, being urged to avoid impurity from contact of the dead. And also given the laws prohibiting intoxication during temple service, so that one should not die for this reason. (suggesting this might have been a contributing factor, see Parshat Shemini 2012)

Almost naturally the story progresses about issues of purity, so as to avoid another one of these cases. This also can make us suspect something they did jeopardized their purity or the sanctify of the sacred space. Therefore now the Israelites needed to be taught in detail how to avoid impurity. These two kohanim did something that wasn’t exactly forbidden, but it wasn’t appropriate and therefore they actually perished on account of their error. For this reason within the text the topic of purity from here on is going to be quite specific, leaving almost nothing to the imagination.

I want us to remember as we read this that the details are so intense because these laws are being given to a newly liberated slave people. These are the people fresh over the border, new to freedom and not so civilized yet. They are dusty migrants, they are not some sort of polished and manicured people on the grand tour. They are not so clean, and quite prone to the uncouth. From here on we are going to be taught everything from eating, to dealing with a discharge. Why? Because we didn’t know!

It’s hard for us to understand this, because Jews are often maligned as eternally being a prissy sort of people, born with a hyper-vigilance to sanitation. But understand the world comes to this conclusion after seeing how of our religion has progressed us in this matter, both biblically and rabbinically. But before that we were much like our neighbors, and it wasn’t pretty.

We talk a lot about fire in this book, fire is essentially needed for this temple service to be performed. But it’s something that is not really spoken about until this the story of Nadav and Avihu. But if we think about it, if they brought fire with them in a pan, where do we think there got it from? Where was this extraneous and alien fire from?  I have an idea. If we consider the common cultures of the time, we can get a pretty good idea what was wrong with the fire they brought.

It might come as a terrible surprise to modern people, but it’s quite obvious to people who have done much classical reading, that in the old days bonfires were often fueled with dung. Most commonly animal dung, which herding societies produce in bulk. But in many cases, people even use human dung. Use of dung in this way is especially true in dry and non-wooded regions, like a desert. To this day animal dung is still commonly used as fuel, except in the modern age it is industrially dried and processed first before use for maximum fuel output. Odd but true.

If we take the story of Nadav and Avihu literally and simply as an issue of purity, it is a good assumption that maybe these two erred when they failed to create a new fire or take from another sacred source in order to light the altar with. Instead they could have just taken a flaming chip (קיסם) from a dung fueled fire. They might have cut corners, and in doing so took something alien and putrid into the sacred space. Thus showing a disrespect and irreverence for G-d, and their sacred service.

A hint of this possibility seems to peak out to us from the text of a dramatic act from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, who himself was a kohen – a priest, descended from the line of Itamar. He is once told to bake cakes over a fire of dung and eat it in the presence of all the people to see:

“And as barley cakes you shall eat it, and they shall bake it with human excrement before their eyes.

“And Hashem said, ‘So will the children of Israel eat their bread unclean among the nations where I shall drive them.’

“And I said, ‘O L-RD G-d, behold my soul has not been defiled, neither have I eaten from an animal that died by itself and was torn [by beasts], from my youth until this day, and no loathsome meat has ever entered my mouth.’

“So He said to me, ‘See! I have given you cattle dung instead of human excrement, and you shall prepare your bread upon it.’”

וְעֻגַת שְׂעֹרִים, תֹּאכְלֶנָּה; וְהִיא, בְּגֶלְלֵי צֵאַת הָאָדָםתְּעֻגֶנָה, לְעֵינֵיהֶם.

וַיֹּאמֶר יְיָ, כָּכָה יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-לַחְמָם טָמֵא, בַּגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר אַדִּיחֵם שָׁם.

וָאֹמַר, אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי יְיָ, הִנֵּה נַפְשִׁי, לֹא מְטֻמָּאָה; וּנְבֵלָה וּטְרֵפָה לֹא-אָכַלְתִּי מִנְּעוּרַי וְעַד-עַתָּה, וְלֹא-בָא בְּפִי בְּשַׂר פִּגּוּל.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַירְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְךָ אֶת-צפועי (צְפִיעֵי) הַבָּקָר, תַּחַת גֶּלְלֵי הָאָדָם; וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת-לַחְמְךָ, עֲלֵיהֶם.

Ezekiel 12:4-15

Notice by the end of the First Temple Period, all these years later, Ezekiel is told to tell the people to get used to the ways of the nations, because this was what they were going to live like in exile. While Ezekiel is among the prophets who is most often willing to go along with G-d’s form of performance art, here he can’t get beyond his refined sensibilities in knowing this is vile. G-d still makes Ezekiel follow through. In the end with cow dung instead, but still it is something that is shockingly vile to the common people (not just to priests like himself) all these centuries later.

But notice when the prophet makes his objections he starts talking about the issues of purity that seem to very much march in step with the prohibitions of Leviticus. He starts with saying he has never defiled his soul in such ways. Not even with carcasses of animals which dropped dead on their own, nor animals which are torn apart by predators; nor has he ever consumed any other type of repulsive flesh (basar pigul).

Interestingly, starting in the sixth reading of Parshat Shemini we see these relating laws similarly laid out for us, right after all this drama with Nadav and Avihu is laid to rest. We begin with animals, and what is forbidden meat (basar) and what is proper. As the temple cult surrounded the offering of sacrifices, we start with the most obvious. We begin to define what animals are clean and which are not, to possibly ensure that they do not err in this matter as well. So that priests don’t bring treif into the sanctuary!

And next we follow-up with the details of purity regarding the human animal. Which is what we immediately begin to discuss as we open this week’s parsha. We get beyond purity which is merely based upon something extraneous, and begin to have to consider purity of our own person.

This weeks parsha makes us look at issues of purity within the realm of our own bodies, with impurity which at some times even bubbles and oozes from our own person. That is what this parsha discusses at length – the subject of tzara‘at, skin disorders. That is the one of the only thing which it discusses, really, except for in the first eight verses which discuss the birthing of humans. It touches on blood purity after birth, both of mother and child. And also details the sacrificial rituals that the mother is supposed to perform after the time of uncleanliness and rest has passed. (see Parshat Tazria-Metzorah 2013)

Certainly up until now we have been talking about an issue of laws and purity, and it is easy for us to assume that these laws are only in place for the Levites. But here we see laws which apply to everyone, all of us because we are all born. All of us, as we all have illness.

But these commandments, they are obvious that they apply to us. We would not dare say otherwise. As the first series of them is about a birth of a boy and lays down the law of the brit milah – circumcision. Our key verse for this week reads:

“And on the eighth day,

you shall circumcise

the flesh of his foreskin

| U’vayom hashemini

| yimul

| basar ar’elato

Leviticus 12:3

This is the highest mitzvah of all – the kick-off mitzvah of Jewish life. The mitzvah which literally embodies all the rest. A mitzvah, performed on the eighth day. Coincidence that this commandment comes down to us eight days into the story of this new temple worship in the Mishkan? Who can say, but it’s an interesting connection.

Indeed we know these commands are for all the people, because that is how our parsha opens. “Vayedaber Hashem el Mosheh laimor, daber el bnei Yisrael / And Hashem said to Moses saying, speak to the children of Israel…” And this isn’t the first place. The tone transitions from being mere commands to the priest back when we began to discuss the purity of animals in Parshat Shemini, there too G-d speaks to Moses, to tell Aharon and his sons, who is in turn to pass these instructions down to the Israelites. Just as we see here in this parsha as well.

After that eighth day G-d begins to give all the people instructions on how to safeguard this new form of worship. How to protect this new and sacred thing which returned the presence of G-d into their lives, so as not jeopardize it or themselves. Commands which needed to be observed by all the people, not just the priests in charge.

This Mishkan offered the people their connection to G-d, through the daily tamid offering. It provided a tangible way of knowing that G-d dwelt among them. It also additionally offered atonement for them through the additional offerings. But now that this new thing dwelt among them, they had to begin to act in a more appropriate way. They were now in the presence of Hashem, the King of all glory.

So staring from here on G-d begins to hand down laws which govern purity for the children of Israel, in both diet and in body.

When it discusses the issues of the body, as in our parsha this week, it starts out logically at the beginning with birth, then circumcision, etc. Almost chronologically touching on the ritual impurities associated with just living life itself, because life is messy.

Though this Mishkan was a way of connecting with G-d, it also came with a huge amount of responsibility. Though it offered them closeness to G-d, the people could not approach G-d when ever they wanted. Be they priests, or common Israelite. There needed to be a certain level of purity maintained. Not just in what they brought, but also in how they brought themselves.

With this holy service of the Mishkan in place, G-d commands the people going forward. We read this right at the end of chapter 11, in the summarization of when G-d tells them to keep away from the creeping things of the ground:

“You should not make your soul detestable with any creeping creatures which creeps. You shall not make yourselves unclean.

“For I am Hashem your G-d; you should sanctify yourselves, and be holy, because I am holy; so neither should you defile yourself with any type of swarming thing that moves on the ground.

“For I am Hashem that brought out of the land of Egypt, to be your G-d. Thus you shall be holy because I am holy.”

אַל-תְּשַׁקְּצוּ, אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ, הַשֹּׁרֵץ; וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם, וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם.

כִּי אֲנִי יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.

כִּי אֲנִי יְיָ, הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיֹת לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי.

Leviticus 11:43-45

Here we get several warming about ritual purity. First, don’t make oneself tamei – ritually impure. Why? It’s obvious to us, because if they do they cannot enter into the Temple complex. If they make ourselves detestable, they cannot approach G-d. Second, they need to actively sanctify themselves. And third, the children of Israel are commanded to be holy because they are G-d’s possession, and therefore by extension it is their duty to be holy.

I know this is a long study. I apologize, I feel like I should have stopped a bit ago. But I do need us to understand this before we move on, and I also want to try to touch on something that is inspirational, which is hard to do sometimes when we go systematically through the Torah. Especially when it takes us through some pretty foul places. But we need to touch on one point, something that is lost to us because our experience of worship is much different today in a post-temple reality.

The fact is that temple worship was not at all like synagogue service we have today. People could not just go when ever they wanted. And the primary reason, was because of issues of purity. The Rambam notes this in one of his classics:

“I repeat that the object of the Sanctuary was to create in the hearts of those who enter it certain feelings of awe and reverence, in accordance with the command,” You shall reverence my sanctuary” (Lev. 19:30). But when we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened, and the impression we have received of it will be weakened. Our Sages, considering this fact, said that we should not enter the Temple whenever we liked, and pointed to the words:” Make thy foot rare in the house of thy friend” (Prov. 25:17). For this reason the unclean were not allowed to enter the Sanctuary, although there are so many kinds of uncleanliness, that [at a time] only a few people are clean…”

Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed

In order for a person to go up to the Miskhan or Temple they needed to sanctify themselves. They had to wash themselves and keep themselves away from things which might make them unclean.

Washing before prayer at the Kotel

Washing before prayer at the Kotel

Rambam begins to note each one of these forms of impurity which are mentioned here in this part of Leviticus. And he notes that even if a person hasn’t made himself completely tumah (impure) by touching a dead body, there are many other ways we see here where a man can be defiled and therefore render himself disqualified to enter the sanctuary. By something we touch, or by something we eat. By sexual cohabitation, or by bodily affliction. The Rambam notes that even if one were to avoid all these things, a man can be made unclean by something as simple as being touched by creeping creatures (toads, lizards, rodents, etc; see Leviticus 11:29-31).

Fact is, the average citizen could not always be holy. The average Israelite wasn’t pure enough to come just any time. He had to make the effort, mindful of his ritual purity in order to enable him to approach the temple complex when he needed to.

The facts of real life are that people can’t always be completely ritually pure, because sometimes things cross our paths that jeopardize one’s cleanliness (like a creeping creature running over your foot), or having your food tainted. Or simple by something completely natural, like giving birth or if one is discharging. Nothing of no one’s fault at all. Nonetheless it restricted people from entrance.

This is noted by the Rambam as well, as he also gives us a reason why Israel should give heed and follow these laws of purity. He also spells out again what the intention is behind these laws:

“All this serves to keep people away from the Sanctuary, and to prevent them from entering it whenever they liked. Our Sages, as is well-known, said, ‘Even a clean person may not enter the Sanctuary for the purpose of performing divine service, unless he takes previously a bath.’ By such acts the reverence [for the Sanctuary] will continue, the right impression will be produced which leads man, as is intended, to humility.”

Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, Part III

If people expect to give an offering or even himself serve before G-d, he needs to wash himself up. Even if he thinks he is clean. He further needs to examine his habits and his person. One needs to examine themselves and ask if they are really in such a state of purity of being and intention. One is forced to continuously ask themselves if they are really coming to G-d out of reverence. The Rambam is of the opinion this is the intended purpose of the laws of purity to produce a conscious level of humility inside people.

Today for religious Jews do not live in the shadow of the Mishkan or the Temple. We do not have that embody our connection to G-d. In this new reality we perform a different avodah – a different type of service than that of the Temple cult. We don’t sacrifice. We don’t have that constantly burning tamid offering in the midst of our camp to stoke, to remind us that we are holy.

We have a different type of relationship before G-d, we offer up prayer and the words of our lips as our sacrifices. (Isaiah chapter 1) We offer our prayers in synagogues, and not in a sacrosanct Temple. We get to come daily if we want to, not just when ever we are found to be pure and therefore permitted. We have a tamid too – an eternal offering which we get to offer; an offering which we offer in prayer daily.

Though tamid has a different application today than it did during the Temple period, our duty to strive for purity along with our Holy G-d remains. And when we remember and keep the commandments of purity, instead of them focusing around an altar they most often focus around the dinner table. This is how this doctrine of purity has reached to us from then until now.

We don’t need to complicated the topic of offerings. We understand what the symbolism of tamid offerings (Heb. perpetual, continuous) is for, if we think about it. As our sages teach us this, that it is because our duty before G-d is a daily thing which takes constant work. Our spirituality is something we work at daily.

And like those who worshiped in the Temple, we need to be mindful to daily approach our service before G-d with humility and self-inspection. We can’t ever assume that we are just worthy. We also need to maintain the understanding that precisely because we have a duty before G-d, that is the reason we must constantly inspect the purity of ourselves and our ways. We can’t ever lose respect and humility in our daily service before G-d, or else our sense of sanctity is lost.

Our Point to Consider This Week: Part of showing respect for G-d is displayed through exemplifying humility. On one hand it might be logical that being humble as servants of such an amazing G-d as ours would be near impossible. After all, we are called to serve as laborers of Hashem in this world, with so many holy mitzvot to perform. However it is precisely because of this that we should show even more humility yet. We should ask ourselves this week: Do I perform my service before G-d with intentionality and with self-reflection, along with the awe and humility that should come with such an honor?

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Parshat Shemini (5774)


Leviticus 9 – 11

Because Creation is a Process

Life most definitely has its ups and downs. Even more frustrating to many of us is when we feel that we aren’t making progress, or even like we are going backwards from the goals that we most aspire to. This is common to most people, and that is what we are going to talk about. You aren’t alone in this, my friends.

The children are waiting for seven day's for the presence of G-d to appear. And so far nothing happened. How would you feel?As we get into this weeks lesson I want to start by reminding us that even though we are still early on into a new book of the Torah, Vayikra – the book of Leviticus – this is really a continuation of the story we were following in Shemot – in Exodus. Later books are often regarded as repetitions by scholars, but these are the original instructions. So in this book we will find many signs and hints to the basic groundwork of the ritual worship, and the philosophy driving them. I want us to keep this in mind as we read this book. There is so much we can learn if we slow down and just consider it.

Let us begin with the key verse we will focus on from this week’s parsha:

“Moses and Aaron went into

the Tent of Meeting,

and when he came out

they blessed the people.

And the glory of Hashem appeared

to all the people.”

| Vayavo Moshe ve’Aharon

| el-Ohel Mo’ed

| vayetse’u

| vayevarechu et-ha’am

| vayera chevod-Hashem

| el-kol-ha’am

Leviticus 9:23

In the previous verse we learned that Aharon lifts up his hands to extend the priestly blessing, he gives the birkat kohanim. “May Hashem bless you and keep you – May Hashem make His face to shine on you and be gracious to you – May Hashem lift His face unto you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26; see Rashi to Lev. 9:22; see Parshat Nasso 2012)

And then there is a second blessing that is also given, we aren’t exactly sure what that is. (see Parshat Shemini 2011) However, according to midrash we are given a suggestion of what the second set of blessings are. We discussed this a few weeks ago. (see Parshat Pekudei 5774)

Rashi repeats these blessings again in his commentary upon this verse as well:

Then they came out and blessed the people: They said: “May the pleasantness Hashem, our G-d, be upon us (Ps. 90:17); May it be G-d’s will that the Shechinah rest in the work of your hands.” [And why did they choose this particular blessing?] Because throughout all seven days of the investitures, when Moses erected the Mishkan, performed the service in it, and then dismantled it daily, the Shechinah did not rest in it. The Israelites were humiliated, and they said to Moses, “Moses, our teacher, all the efforts we have taken were only so that the Shechinah should dwell among us, so that we would know that we have been forgiven for the sin of the [golden] calf!” Therefore, Moses answered them (verse 6), “This is the thing Hashem has commanded; do [it], and the glory of Hashem will appear to you. My brother Aaron is more worthy and important than I, insofar as through his offerings and his service the Shechinah will dwell among you, and you will know that the Omnipresent has chosen him.”

ויצאו ויברכו את העם: אמרו ויהי נועם האלהינו עלינו (תהלים צ יז), יהי רצון שתשרה שכינה במעשה ידיכם. לפי שכל שבעת ימי המלואים, שהעמידו משה למשכן ושמש בו ופרקו בכל יום, לא שרתה בו שכינה, והיו ישראל נכלמים ואומרים למשה משה רבינו, כל הטורח שטרחנו, שתשרה שכינה בינינו ונדע שנתכפר לנו עון העגל. לכך אמר להם זה הדבר אשר צוה התעשו וירא אליכם כבוד ה‘ (פסוק ו), אהרן אחי כדאי וחשוב ממני שעי קרבנותיו ועבודתו תשרה שכינה בכם ותדעו שהמקום בחר בו:

Rashi to Leviticus 9:23

We see these two blessings repeated again for us, as they were in the commentary for Exodus as well. However, if you notice the order is actually reversed to what it was before. In the commentary for Parshat Pekudei we saw the lines of “Yehi ratzon / May it be Your will…” first, and then followed by a verse of Psalm. Here they are reversed. In fact the section of “yehi ratzon” is also truncated here, so I believe this text is just mentioning all this in passing. And therefore does not give much consideration for the actual decorum of the process. That or it is not defined firmly one way or the other because of speculation. One can’t exactly be sure.

As when previously discussed both then and also last week, when we have been talking about the Mishkan (tabernacle) we have most often been talking about the people having an outlet for their spiritual and creative expression. That they people felt the need to create this sanctuary in order to pro-actively do something about their need to feel close to G-d. We have talked about how we should thus encourage people to be active, and how to respond to people’s creativity. But we have really sidestepped around the issues of why they are doing all of this, only mentioning it in passing.

I want us to step back and remind ourselves once again. It is because there was a rift made between the children and Israel and G-d on the day that they made, and worshiped, the Golden Calf. The presence of Hashem which hung around and guarded them, it was no longer with them in that manner. They felt alone and exposed. They felt the shame and consequences of their error. Now they desperately wanted to feel that closeness to G-d once again.

There are some ironies of both to stories of the egel (the calf) and the making of the Mishkan. You don’t have to think too hard to come up with a few. Like how is that the people are this captivated with their construction of all of this, when they had previously been punished for also constructing items of worship? Then they made an egel of gold, and now they are making angelic figures and the like as well. Didn’t this get them in trouble before. So what’s the difference?

The difference was that they intended to make items to help them worship, but instead they made items which became idol focuses of their worship. Our rabbis tell us, as it is also pointed out in philosophical works such as the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and the Kuzari of Yehuda haLevi, that the people were not really constructing items to necessarily worship, but to help them focus their worship toward G-d. The eygel being a way to meditate upon G-d, not to worship as a god. But it got twisted around, in a most horrible way.

What the scriptures and our sages reveal is that the people fell into error when they could no longer be patient and wait for Moses to return with the instructions of Torah. Instead they constructed something of their own, according to a design they were already familiar with from past idolatry. They couldn’t wait for G-d or Moses, so they went at it themselves in a disastrous spectacle.

A spectacle which harmed this people and left them alienated from the presence of G-d. This guiding presence departs during the entire incident of the eygel.

Because the children of Israel couldn’t wait and be patient, they literally took matters into their own hands. And in doing so, they didn’t progress. They instead lost the presence of G-d which had guided them and comforted them.

Now that the Israelites had the instructions from Moses on how to do this worship right, this was what consumed them. And now in line with these commandments the Israelites are also desperately trying to atone for themselves as well. Something which can only be accomplished through a true act of worship, as described by Moses in the revelation of Torah. They need the temple worship, in order to atone for their sins.

This was the cause of anxiety. Not only were they waiting for the presence of G-d to return to them. Not only were they ready to show real acts of worship done right. But they were also desperately waiting for G-d to accept their gifts with a sign of His presence, so that they will know that their sins have been forgiven. This is what they are anxiously awaiting, for validation of their atonement and redemption.

What our midrash further tells us here is just amazing. We are told that the Israelite’s anxiousness and sense of disappointment became overwhelming over the week of the inauguration of the Mishkan. Not only did the presence of G-d not appear to them until the end of the seven days, we are told that on each of the seven inauguration days the Mishkan was reconstructed – as it was dismantled each day of this week of dedication.

How can this be, how is it that our sages suggest such a thing? Why would it be taken apart and set-up up again each of these days?

Remember how earlier I was saying how this book of Leviticus is a continuation of the story started in Exodus? In Exodus chapter 29 we learn that the inauguration is supposed to take seven days, that’s what the whole chapter is about.

But from where do we get the idea it was reconstructed and erected seven times? Keeping in mind this story as all one, the rabbis took notice that there are two times we see a plan given of the Mishkan  in Exodus (Parshat Tetzaveh; 25:10-30:38, 31:7-11) and five times in Leviticus (Parshat Pekudei; 35:11-19. 6:8-39:32, 39:33-42, 40:1-16, 40:17-33). Seven times in this long narrative over two books.

Our rabbis would suggest we have it repeated seven times because it was reconstructed each day, for seven days. And as we often mention, our sages are of the opinion that nothing is redundant and superfluous in the Torah, so each of these descriptions must have been useful for something. Thus there are seven descriptions, for the seven times it was reconstructed.

The number seven is mystically significant in our tradition. It has great symbolism for us. There are seven days in the creation story. And therefore there are seven days of the week. There are seven years in the shmitah cycle – which again completes its cycle with a fallow year for agriculture in Israel next year in 5775. And of course there are seven branches on the Menorah. There are many connections to the number seven found in the scriptures.

We can clearly see that two themes seem to run through them all. Creation, and the completion of a cycle.

When it comes to creation we understand what these people were doing now, they were trying to redeem themselves. They were trying to get close to G-d. Now they were trying to get their sins forgiven, and also beginning to worship the correct way. But nothing happened. G-d did not show up and accept their gifts those first few days, so we are told they felt nichlamim – they were humiliated.

Unlike the eygel (calf) which somehow got them immediate gratification, the creation of this tent of worship and all its service was taking time. But if we think about it, creation took time even for G-d – seven days to create the world. Should they not have expect that their own creative endeavors would take time to be full achieved as well? Is that not a lesson which we can take away from this?

And the constant construction and deconstruction of the Mishkan all these days, is this not something that is mirrored in our own daily lives? Do we not often put hard work into our endeavors, making so much progress, only to see setbacks? When we think we’ve gotten somewhere, we see our work and plans deconstructed right before our eyes.

What we learn is that the first six days were just dress rehearsals. In the end we are told on the seventh day fire came down from heaven and consumed the offerings. And thus the presence of G-d returned, the people were forgiven and the service began. (see Parshat Shemini 2011)

But why is it so important that we make mention of this?

The reason is because it serves as a lesson for us like it did for the children of Israel in the wilderness, that we need to keep at it until our mission is accomplished. And that we need to stick with the full cycle, because creation is a process. Often times we don’t get it all right the first few times, but eventually we will and it will be glorious. We just need to stick with it, and be patient as we see it through.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Parshat Tzav (5774)


Leviticus 6 – 8

Priests or Royalty, Everyone Needs To Be of Service

Today we are going to take a look at this parsha, and also touch a bit on the holiday of Purim since this season is once again upon us. I hope everyone is enjoying this time of celebration.

Another active Queen Esther would have probably been fond of. "After months of begging her father to let his heir pitch in, Elizabeth—then an 18-year-old princess—joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II. Known as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, she donned a pair of coveralls and trained in London as a mechanic and military truck driver. The queen remains the only female member of the royal family to have entered the armed forces and is the only living head of state who served in World War II."

Another active queen, one Esther would have probably been fond of. Queen Elizabeth II: “After months of begging her father to let his heir pitch in, Elizabeth—then an 18-year-old princess—joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II. Known as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, she donned a pair of coveralls and trained in London as a mechanic and military truck driver. The queen remains the only female member of the royal family to have entered the armed forces and is the only living head of state who served in World War II.”

The reason we need to enjoy these celebrations so much is because we don’t always have time of rest to enjoy. Most of us keep quite busy schedules, myself included. Despite illness and limitations, I find myself quite active. People often ask why I feel the need to keep industrious, even when I feel so low. The reason is simply because it’s a Jewish value to be active.

This is a thought I cant help but keep in mind in light of the Purim holiday. This holiday is very significant to me, because of the true heroine of the story; the beloved Queen Esther. The brave queen who can be thought of as the patron saint of crypto-Jews – the secret Jews of Spanish-Portuguese extraction, the hidden Jews who survived the Inquisition which raged across several continents. (see “Queen Esther: Patron saint of crypto-Jews”) As a hidden Jew herself, Esther’s story brings comfort to many of us. To all of us minorities who once hid it, but who are now braving to embrace our Judaism outwardly. On one side of my family I know I’m the first to be privileged to join in mainstream Judaism, since who knows how long.

One of the things that people often ask me is how it was possible for all those families to keep their sense of who they were throughout rough years, including the age of the Inquisition. We don’t often consider it, but Jews were even burned here in the Americas for practicing secretly as well. (see “Crypto Jews in Mexico during Spanish Colonial Era”) So keeping secret was essential, but so was passing on one’s sense of identity. As always Shabbat observance was the sign which both guarded identity and threatened to give people away upon inspection. Either keeping the sabbath, or doing things just slightly differently on that day to acknowledge the sabbath.

So too it was the case with Queen Esther, as we are told according to tradition. The scriptures teach us that when she was taken into the royal harem she was given seven servants from the house of King Achashverosh. (Esther 2:9) We don’t know if this was among the things she asked for, or if was just purely because the royal servant gave her this out of his kindness towards her as suggested. What ever the case, the next verse tells us she didn’t tell anyone about her family or her people because Mordechai told her not to. She kept her Jewishness a secret.

However, we are told that each of these servants she had assigned to a different day of the week. Though it might not seem apparent to non-Jewish people, the days of the week in Hebrew are named Yom Rishon (the First Day), Yom Sheini (the Second Day), Yom Shlishi (the Third Day), etc. – corresponding to the day of the week, starting over with Shabbat. She might not have been able to have kept noticeable count in the palace, our tradition says, but she was able to know it was Shabbat and act appropriately based on the servant who served on that day.

I am also of the understanding that our tradition gives the names of these seven servants assigned to Queen Esther. We don’t often give enough consideration to the ladies in our tradition, so I want to take a moment now. We should also pause to take notice, as I am told each of these names has a specific meaning. These women servants are named:

Cholta

Meaning creation, corresponding to the first day of creation

Rokaita

Meaning firmament, the days of the creation of the heavens

Ginonita

Meaning vegetation, as the plants appear on the third day

N’horita

Meaning illumination, corresponding to the sun, moon and stars of the heavens

Rochshita

Meaning crawling creatures, corresponding to the creation of animal life

Chorfita

Meaning, “the eve of” – meaning the the eve of Shabbat

Rogaita

Meaning calmness, which reminds one of the day of rest which is Shabbat

The names correspond to the seven day creation story. A name was assigned to each of the servants, so that she would remember each day of the week based upon the servant which attended her. (Targum Rishon) We are told that they not only helped her keep the days, but also helped her keep a kosher diet of vegetables like the prophet Daniel (Talmud Megillah 13a). In this midrash our rabbis reveal how understated practices, names, language, and diet have often been signs of one’s not so obvious uniqueness.

Now before we move on from this story, I want us to notice that even those who accept this midrash are a bit critical of this legend. Some asking questions, like what type of example is Esther to us working-class men? And if we think about it, what does a queen in a palace need seven servants for anyhow? With seven servants how does she even know that it is Shabbat at all, would not each day be a rest for her?

Some are of the opinion that this is really what showed Esther’s exceptionalness. If she was to keep a day or rest, she would have had to have taken preparations. And even more impressive, some of our rabbis suggest that she was more of an activist queen. She went about actively involving herself in welfare and aid for the six days, and then one day she rested. She staggered her servants out so that to six servants she looks industrious in public service, but only the seventh servant would think her merely a typically lazy queen who was waited on hand and foot.

The logic goes, keeping here secret wouldn’t be possible working them all each and everyday.

But in this lesson we also get an interesting picture of what an exceptional woman – dare we say an eishet chayil, a woman of valor – in the person of Queen Esther. (see Parshat Yitro 2013) In this midrash she exemplifies a person who shows that we need to work the other days of the week in order for the sabbath to have any real significance at all. It would be nothing worth acknowledging if we merely rested all the time. Shabbat is the reward for those who labor.

Just as much as we are demanded to rest on Shabbat, we are commanded to work when it’s not the sabbath. (see “Call of Torah” by Rabbi Elie Munk, Shemot 20:9)

Our tradition doesn’t state where she got her scheduling advice from. But I think I have a clue for us found in this week’s Torah portion. After that long sidetrack, let’s jump right into our verse now:

“And any meal offering

baked in an oven,

and any one made in a deep pan

or in a shallow pan,

belongs to the kohen who offers it up;

it shall be his”’

| Vechol-minchah

| asher te’afeh batanur

| vechol-na’asah vamarcheshet

| ve’al-machavat

| lakohen hamakriv

| otah lo tiheyeh

Leviticus 7:9

In this verse we learn that from these mincha offerings portions were taken by the kohen (priests), and we are commanded that it is to be consumed by the priests who offered it up and who are ritually pure. But regarding who could divide these portions, we learn of that here. The item which was offered up by that priest who did offering, it’s portions belong to him.

We have to remember that the people were giving grains, oils, meat, etc. which the Levitic priests depended on for their sustenance. In an agrarian society they had no land holdings, being dependent on their portion of the offerings and tithes. Even from certain sacrifices a portion was taken for them, a portion for themselves and the other priestly brothers to eat from.

Now how does this work? Where there competing priests at the entrance of the Temple waiting for you like car salesmen? Circling like sharks? Was their competition and turf wars? Were some families more well-recognized and favored in the Temple, so that some families did better off than others?

This is answered for us in the commentary by Rashi for this verse:

Belongs to the kohen who offers it up: One might think that it belongs to him alone. Scripture, therefore, states (in the next verse), “[And any meal-offering…] shall belong to all the sons of Aaron.” One might think, then, that it [indeed] belongs to all of them. Scripture, therefore, states (in the preceding verse), “belongs to the kohen who offers it up.” So how [can this be reconciled]? [It belongs] to the family of the day when they offer it up.

לכהן המקריב אתה וגו‘: יכול לו לבדו, תלמוד לומר לכל בני אהרן תהיה. יכול לכולן, תלמוד לומר לכהן המקריב, הא כיצד לבית אב של אותו יום שמקריבין אותה:

Rashi to Leviticus 7:9

In the Torah we see that there are two branches of families among the sons of Aharon, the house of Elezar and the house of Itamar. From each of these clans the original service order for temple service was assigned, shared between them. There being four service groups from Elezar, and four service groups from Itamar. They would be rotated each day of the week, and then all come together on the sabbath. Make perfect sense on how to organize a 28 day month, assigned them all over 24 days and once a week they all come together and work – this day being the sabbath. There coming together to work corporately also in effect on the other festival days, when the assistance of the entire priesthood was essential.

Eventually as the Israelite population grew and the kohanim grew commensurately, there became 24 of these family work groups (mishmerot). Their service then was shifted to week-long assignments. (Torat haKohanim) And this was the method that went into effect in the days of the prophets and the early Temple periods. Of all the service groups our tradition only knows of four that remained through the ages. These four were returned back to Eretz Yisrael from the Babylonian exile, where they were organized by Ezra haSofer (Ezra, the scribe for whom the book of the bible is named) to help establish another 24 mishmerot in the second Temple period.

Now many people don’t like the way that this system of priesthood, nor the ability of these priest to take from offerings. A cynic would say, why do these guys get to take from some of the best of our produce and meats? They barely work at all, some can say.

If we were to assign mishmerot, a family would be assigned to about one workday a week, with one sabbath day of service. Which translates to at most two days on duty per week, whereas us working-class people work 6 days a week. That’s not a lot of work, surely not enough to sustain oneself alone off this enterprise. For this reason we learn here through Rashi that they shared with their entire families so that no one was without.

So simply put, before the priestly system got corrupted in the Hasmonean days the priestly system wasn’t really thought of as a money-making system. People were still supported off of contributions of Israel, and the sharing among themselves. It wasn’t an occupation which people got rich off of.

So why would they be motived to engage in this service at all? If we even think about it long we enough, most of us can quickly think of more efficient methods of organizing labor as well. Why not just assign the best suited and most fit for service, and just get the job done and done right? Why go through all these complexities?

In the same manner that we can be critical of the midrash regarding Esther and her seven servants, we seem to follow the same critiques. Like we ask of Esther, how can we credit these priests with “avodah” (work) when these people seem to barely work at all?

Rarely do people consider all the things the kohanim do aside from just sacrifices, like also filling very social service roles such as inspecting the illness of the sick. The kohanim weren’t a sort of caste just stilling idly in their ivory towers. They contributed heavily, but in a different way than the average laborer.

But even in this assignment there is a lesson, I believe. I believe the reason for assigning these mishmerot in this fashion was not because it was economical or efficient, but because it simply gave each family of kohanim a chance to participate in priestly service – their avodah. It is that important that everyone be active participants in this culture of Torah living.

We also need to understand that it was the priests who needed this service, probably even more than the priesthood needed them. There were enough able-bodied kohanim to go around most of the time. But that is what community is about, us each doing our part. We don’t need to do the job the best, and we don’t need to do it all ourselves. In fact our contributions might be merely symbolic. But nonetheless it is a Jewish value that we all shoulder the burned of communal responsibility with one another. And that we all have the honor and pride of service.

As we continue to read through Vayikra – the book of Leviticus, I want us to remember the theme that has been carried over from Shemot – from Exodus. We are at a stage in the journey were everything becomes a discussion about the Mishkan – the so-called tabernacle. This was a powerful symbol, because it was the Israelite’s way of remedying a rift in the relationship with G-d the people felt since the Gold Calf – when they got impatient and refused to wait for instructions on what to do next and took matters into their own hands. The truth is Jews always feel they need to be industrious, and we can either use that for good or bad. Sometimes this can get us into trouble if not channeled correctly.

And that is what I am stuck by as I read the commentaries of our rabbis, including Rashi who is ever-present in our chumashim. One of the things that they keep pointing out is the people’s focus on their work being accepted so that it could provide an active ritual service which enabled them to feel close to G-d. This work wasn’t so much for G-d’s acceptance, as it was for their own. Indeed this was their way of also redeeming themselves as well.

All the people of Israel contributed for the construction and the ongoing offerings, and all the priests were included in the service to make it functional. Because we all need to feel like we have a place, and we all should feel like we have something to contribute to society.

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Parshat Vayikra (5774)


Leviticus 1 – 5

Purim In Light of Vayikra: A Message of Acceptance and Peace

As we come in to the Book of Viykra, as this word suggests, we begin with the book of Leviticus with G-d calling out. “Vayikra el-Moshe / And He called out to Moses.” (v.1) Now the English name of this new book of the Torah – Leviticus – it would suggest that we are going to hear of Moses receiving yet another revelation of laws, this time for the Levities.

Mishloach Manot (from Wikipedia): "The mitzvah of giving mishloach manot derives from the Book of Esther. It is meant to ensure that everyone has enough food for the Purim feast held later in the day, and to increase love and friendship among Jews as a counter to Haman's assertion that the Jewish people are characterised by strife and disunity."

Mishloach Manot (from Wikipedia): “The mitzvah of giving mishloach manot derives from the Book of Esther. It is meant to ensure that everyone has enough food for the Purim feast held later in the day, and to increase love and friendship among Jews as a counter to Haman’s assertion that the Jewish people are characterised by strife and disunity.”

This simplistic understanding might seem appropriate, given how many of the laws herein are about sacrifice and ritual law; matters under the jurisdiction of the Levitic priests. However, this is not the essence of this book for Jews of the rabbinic tradition. It’s time we get beyond this childish oversimplification and look for the living Torah in this, not just whine that we can’t comprehend the sacrificial cult.

Besides, the Torah itself, at the head of this book demands that we look at it as more than just a book of priestly rituals and dead animals. Indeed the book of Vayikra has Hashem directing the voice of Moses to relate something to all the common people, how they could also call upon G-d. How they could draw close to him.

This is why from the start our text we read, “Daber el-bnei Yisrael, ve’amrata aleihem, adam ki-yakariv michem karban l’Hashem… / Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When any man among you brings an offering for Hashem…” (v.2) These are instructions for all the everyday people of Israel, for all who want to karav – to draw close to Hashem.

This is why primitive people would offer sacrifices, in order to make a connection with G-d. To draw close to the Divine. Naturally, as animal sacrifice is the most dramatic form of offering, this must be addressed first. The severity of it demands that we touch on this point first, as we are looking into an age where sacrifice is the most common form of worship. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us.

But along with this point there is also reveals another truth, one which we need to grasp in order to understand what the people are trying to accomplish here. This is our key verse for this week:

“If his offering is a burn-sacrifice

from his flock,

a male without blemish

you shall bring to the entrance

of the Tent of Meeting,

bring it near

that he may be accepted before Hashem.”

| Im-olah korbano

| min-habakar

| zachar tamim

| yakrivenu el-petach

| Ohel Mo’ed

| yakriv oto

| lirtzono lifnei Hashem

Leviticus 1:3

Today we aren’t going to talk about sacrifices. We could talk at length about the word “im / if.” The factor of “if” that comes into play for bringing an offering. We could also take a look at the different type of sacrifices, and what the significance of each is. But I’ve actually done a lot of talk on that over the past couple years. I want us to focus on some other points, so I encourage you to look into the meaning of that for yourselves. There are some deep truths which are easily revealed if we just look with intent.

However, there is something that does need to be addressed before we move on. Even though we have also touched on this topic elsewhere as well. It is most important we address it again now, because we encounter it here at the start of Leviticus and will see it continuously repeated from here on.

Here in verse three we begin to see the use of the phrase, “lirotzono.” We need to understand that the people were sacrificing as part of their ritual to gain the acceptance of Hashem, and to signify finding favor in G-d’s eyes. Furthermore this act of public sacrifice also would reinforce for the community of Israelites that a person was now blameless and acceptable to stand in the congregation of Israel; a soul and citizen in good standing.

We also noted at that time that this verse also suggests to us that an offering must be given of free will. That is the other common way that we can understand the phrase, “lirotzono” to mean. That we offer something in keeping with ones own ratzon – ones own free will and desire. That one gives what they wish, as they see fit. That we should all freely give as we so desire. (see Parshat Kedoshim 2011)

So here we can likewise understand this verse to mean, “He shall bring it willingly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before Hashem.”

This use of the word ratzon (from which lirozono is conjugated) here is interesting for the Hebrew speaker. So I want us to take another look. Because most often when we hear words such as these used it is in reference to what people desire. If we consider the way people today use the related word rotzeh (or rotzah), more often than not people are talking about what they want as well. More often than not they are describing or ordering what they want. Asking for something they desire. Right?

Instead here in our parsha we have this come up in a discussion about giving, not about receiving something. That is a topic in and of itself, how our will should be for giving and not just focused on what we receive.

It is especially important for us to focus on our desire to give, and not just our will to receive during this Purim season. To think in terms of charity and communal giving, as many of us go out of way to give money to the poor and shalach manot baskets to one another.

Now to bring it back to the actual phrase itself, “lizrtzono.” We are talking about one’s ratzon, one’s own will and desire. But more broadly, to do something according to one’s ratzon means for a person to merely do what pleases them. Or more formally, to do what is appropriate in one’s own eyes.

The latter of these descriptions we understand well. As in our prayers, we recite the words, “Yehi ratzon milfanech Hashem Eloheinu / May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d…” Or we can even stylistically translate this as, “May it be acceptable before you, Hashem our G-d.” We recite this near the end of the Amidah prayers, asking that our prayers be found to be appropriate and pleasing before the eyes of our G-d, and the G-d of our forefathers. That what we asking for and desire also be in line with His ratzon.

And this is the most common use of this phrase, one that most religious people understand. And this is even more true in light of the Torah. Most often the word ratzon is attached to the will of G-d, and less often used when speaking of the will of men. We see it used several times when talking about the early rulers of Israel. But aside from that its is rarely used for men

Interestingly, two of these rare occurrences appear in Megillat Esther. We also have one similar reference in the story of Esther as well. So we are going to take a look at those instances in order to see what we can learn from them.

There are certain things we need to keep in mind when considering the ratzon of men. Whereas most people can accept the will of G-d being good and pleasing, we can’t just assume such a claim when it comes to will of humans. We are not always so honorable and lofty. Us mortals have a ratzon which can be directed for good or ill, and quite often if encouraged it will migrate towards the ill.

We see this presented in the first of the examples at the start of Megillat Esther. We read:

“And they gave them drink in vessels of gold – the vessels being diverse one from another – and royal wine in abundance, according to the bounty of the king.

“And the drinking was according to the law, and yet there was no duress; for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure.”

וְהַשְׁקוֹת בִּכְלֵי זָהָב, וְכֵלִים מִכֵּלִים שׁוֹנִים; וְיֵין מַלְכוּת רָב, כְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ:

וְהַשְּׁתִיָּה כַדָּת, אֵין אֹנֵס: כִּי-כֵן יִסַּד הַמֶּלֶךְ, עַל כָּל-רַב בֵּיתוֹלַעֲשׂוֹת, כִּרְצוֹן אִישׁ-וָאִישׁ:

Esther 1:7-8

The first of our examples is in the middle of the initial description of the feast ordered by King Achashverosh. We are not yet talking about the actual feast of Purim yet, we are talking about the initial feast which the King of Persia orders, (v.3) and of the matching feast arranged by Queen Vashti for the women (v.9). This is the feast of debauchery which starts off this whole story of Megillat Esther, it is not the nonintoxicating celebration of salvation yet. No, here this is the initial binge and orgy. The party which ended with a belligerent, and then headless Vashti. Thus staring the narrative of Purim, and the rise of Queen Esther and Mordechai.

In this first example we are presented with how King Achashverosh orders a feast and commands the people to celebrate. Now aside from ordering the celebration, the King made sure that every person was able to celebrate. He provided the party and the wine, and ordered his servants that they should do according to the will of each person (kiratzon ish-v’ish). That everyone’s personal pleasures were met. Thus no one was celebrating by force, each person freely reveled in their ratzon – in their own desires and pleasures.

This is a negative display of ratzon. (Intersting isn’t it, giving in light of how many of us today treat Purim, right? But I digress.)

And then later on in Megillat Esther we have another, display of ratzon. One that is also troubling, especially if we don’t put it into context. Our second reference is found in this verse near the end of the story:

“And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword and with slaying and destruction, and they did to their enemies as they wished.”

וַיַּכּוּ הַיְּהוּדִים בְּכָל-אֹיְבֵיהֶם, מַכַּת-חֶרֶב וְהֶרֶג וְאַבְדָן; וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם, כִּרְצוֹנָם:

Esther 9:5

This is supposed to be the good example. The example of righteous indignation, the fury of self-defense. The king and his princes cannot stop the orders of slaughter already issues against the Jews, so they aid the Jews to defend themselves. And in the clashes to come they destroy and slay their enemies. They are empowered with arms and allowed to fight back. Doing unto their enemies “ki-ratzon,” affording to their own desires. Carrying out what ever retribution they saw fit, they were allowed to do as they willed. As we see, these enemies armed by the evil decree Haman lobbied for were themselves destroyed. We are told the Jews slaughtered 500 men in Shushan, as well as the remaining 10 sons of evil Haman. This victory was repeated over and over in the other provinces as well.

Like I said, this latter example is supposed to be the better of the two. At least one of these displays of will is morally correct, that of the Jews to defend themselves in face of a decree calling for their inhalation. However, righteous or justified it might be, it is not necessarily the ideal. Not to most of us modern readers, we would first hope for a more peaceful resolution.

We would hope that their ratzon – that the will of the people would be more prone to show mercy, unlike Haman and the enemies of the Jews. Certainly in self-defense there is a time for fighting, a place for taking a life, and a need to do damage to the enemies who threaten the welfare our people.

Still we would hope that “ki-ratzonam / as they saw fit,” would have been something more merciful than a response of total annihilation in return. And I believe we do in-fact see an undeniable display of that here, which itself is clearly evident. Evident by how relatively low the number of casualties are for some supposedly huge battles and clashes of a grand scale.

I’m not at all just being overly progressive, and acting like a hippie by asserting this, I assure you. For those of you that also feel this way, your justification comes in looking at the moral example of the hero of this story. The example of Mordechi the Jew.

Yes it is true that in Esther chapter 9 we see that the princes of the land helped aid the Jews out of their fear for Mordechai, who was now well esteemed in the eyes of King Achashverosh. The sheer influence of Mordechai made the princes, governors and officials help the Jews. They aided the Jews in their armed response out of sheer respect (and fear) of Mordechai. And in the days to come Mordechai increased in greatness as his fame for the salvation of the Jews increased throughout the land.

In the final lines of Megillat Esther we will learn something about Mordechi and his awesome legacy. We are going to see what became of this Mordechi and what he choose to do with the greatness he acquired. And about what values he thought were important to hand down to his descendants.

Remember how we talked at the beginning that ratzon can also be understood as acceptance? We see a  form of this word appear similarly so in this final verse of Esther:

“For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Achashverosh, and great among the Jews, and accepted (Heb. ratzuy) by the multitude of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed.”

כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי, מִשְׁנֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, וְגָדוֹל לַיְּהוּדִים, וְרָצוּי לְרֹב אֶחָיודֹּרֵשׁ טוֹב לְעַמּוֹ, וְדֹבֵר שָׁלוֹם לְכָל-זַרְעוֹ:

Esther 10:3

As Mordechai’s popularity increased, not just with the Persians but also with his own Jewish brothers, he used his influence for something other than might. At the end of the story we do not have a depiction of a man of influence with an iron first. He is respected as such. But his legacy, in what he chose to focus his life’s work and message upon, was summed up in these last words. Mordechai didn’t seek recognition or power. What he sought was, “tov l’amo / good for his people.” When he selected his words of wisdom to follow he choose to, “daber shalom l’chol zaro / speak peace to all his seed.”

As we go on to celebrate our Purim celebrations of the miracle and salvations done for us at this time, and at this season, I want us to remember to focus on something other than just victory and might. I want us to remember the real message of this story is that we should do everything we can to use our influence to seek the good of the Jewish people. And instead of merely revelling in our victory, we need to continue to use our influence to instill the peace seeking mentality.

This Purim I want us to get beyond using this holidays as our annual chance to act out our ratzon – our pleasures and desires. Purim is much more than a time to just let it all hang out. We should intend that our ratzon be more in line with what is described here in this week’s Torah portion, that our ratzon – our will, our desire – should be to give. We should strive to be people who struggle with all our will to advance the good of the Jewish people. People who use their influence for the welfare of others. People who use their influence for the acceptance of others, unlike Haman. People who are like blessed Moredechia, with the will and desire to advance peace throughout the generations.

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Jewish Boyle Heights: The Past Meets the Future


Our tour of the Breed Street Shul and historic Boyle Heights

Of all the places in Los Angeles I enjoy, Boyle Heights is my favorite. It’s the place where I spend the most time by far. My closest friends were born and raised here, and being ever in their element this is my neighborhood by proxy. Not that I don’t have sentimental attachments myself, the roots of my family are dug deep in the community too. My grandmother often tells lovingly of her being born and growing up here. I now live a few miles down the road, but as this is the historic core of the Latino community it’s the place to be. This is beating heart of my native Eastside.

Congregation Talmud Torah, Boyle Heights. The Breed Street Shul, built in 1923.

Now don’t think low of us if we often define Boyle Heights as part of the barrio, or even dubbing it a “hood.” The community is 98% Latino today, so when we use such terms it is more lovingly and endearingly. In truth, we think of Boyle Heights as the Bel Air of East LA. Interestingly because the community is not exactly unaware of its history. The residents, never are they slow on correcting people who disparage their immigrant rich neighborhood, pointing out that this was once home to a prominent immigrant Jewish community as well.

Once people find out that I’m Jewish (which doesn’t usually take so long, all I have to do is talk for a while), people automatically ask their next questions of me. “So you know about the synagogue, right? Have you seen it?” I’m not exaggerating when I say with all my best friends in town, our first outings were to walk in front and admire the glory of Congregation Talmud Torah – or as we all lovingly know it, the Breed Street Shul. To us it is the jewel of Boyle Heights.

Over the years I have gone through the neighborhood countless times talking with people about the Jewish past of this side of town, piecing together information from stories told by friends that grew up here. Stories from both my own Latino family, and from the memories of many of my Jewish friends whose parents and grandparents were raised in Boyle Heights as well.

The corner of First Steet and Breed Street

The corner of First Steet and Breed Street

Boyle Heights has always been diverse. Not just home to Mexican-Americans and Jews, this side of town was also home to sizable Japanese, Russian, Polish, Italian and German populations. This was especially a heaven for people who weren’t allowed to buy land in other parts of the city, a fact few are aware of today.

My Hispanic grandmother talks of her grandparents doing business in trade and real estate with the Jewish families in the neighborhood, and also of her being named after the family’s sweet German housemaid. This is a side of town in which diverse segments of new immigrants became upwardly mobile.

Until recent years, when people have spoken of the Jews of Boyle Heights, it has mostly been in the past tense. The Jewish community which once thrived here has long since moved away. As the buildings which once served Jews are being reused to serve different minority communities now, the Breed Street Shul is widely considered the last link to the rich and interesting history of the Jewish residents of yesteryear.

It should be quickly noted that the neighborhood still holds many treasures to explore. But few of us locals are old enough, or have good enough memories, to really remember the locations of most things except vaguely. My friends and I have always wanted a chance to be led by people who know the way. And a couple of weeks ago we got that chance of a lifetime.

The Breed Street Shul, March 2014On a Sunday morning my friend Zero-Renton and I show up at the Breed Street Shul, drawn by an online posting and a buzz in the local synagogues. For a forum titled, “Boyle Heights Heroes: Conversations with Local Luminaries.” A discussion panel on what growing up in Boyle Heights meant to a few people, from both the Jewish and Latino communities.

We arrived early to see the gates of the shul open for once and a stream of mostly older people and their families. There was just a handful of younger people, two of them being these weird punk rockers; my friend and I. Greeted warmly we were asked if we wanted to go on a bus tour of the neighborhood. That day a bus ride had been graciously donated by the office of Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, for an hour-long bus tour to explore the area’s Jewish past.

People lining up to board for a bus tour of the historic Jewish Boyle Heights

People lining up to board for a bus tour of the historic Jewish Boyle Heights

No sooner were we in the bus and on our way when the President of the Breed Street Project Steven J. Sass began to brightly and frantically point out the sites to see along the way, asking different people to give their memories and connection to the site.

I have to say this was an unexpected and thrilling experience. You see, my friend and I are used to walking these streets. This is what we see everyday, the streets and buildings we far too often rush past without a thought. We consider it our home, we aren’t sight seers.

But neither is this group. No sooner does the bus roll in front of a location when the crowd excitedly yells out the name of what it used to be. People lovingly pointing out the details of each block as we pass. Their sense of excitement leaves both of us stunned, and their familiarity has us taking lessons.

It was truly impressive to have people briefly tell us about the sites of the former schools, hospitals, the history and legacy of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. The sites of the former community centers. The old synagogues, and the locations of the varied minyans (prayer quorums) throughout the neighborhoods.

Interior of the Breed Street Shul in her glory days

Interior of the Breed Street Shul in her glory days

But there was something that especially compelling about the guided tour. We were presented with a picture of the diversity of this old community. We got to see the truth that there wasn’t just one type of Jew here. We were impressed to hear some details of the varied social and political happenings of those days. The philanthropy and the activism started in that community, some of which people still benefit from today.

And it was even more illuminating because we got to revisit the obvious neighborhood sites to us, but hear people talk about them in ways that we have never heard before. Places we know very intimately, we got to hear people share their memories about them. And enrich them with something old to remember, but new for us to consider.

We got to imagine the smells of latkes in the hall of Hollenbeck Park and the picture of people doing tashlich at the water, with people who lived it. Simple flashes of memories which will forever change the way we see our favorite duck pond. I got to sit next to Zero-Renton on the bus, in front of Roosevelt High School, his own alma mater and hear people talk about their memories of going to school there.

Vandalism before the restoration of the beit midrash

Vandalism before the restoration of the beit midrash

And we got to hear a bit about the challenges of those days and the roles which race and war played in those neighborhoods, especially for the mistreated Japanese whose internment during WWII emotionally scars some to this day.

The bus tour was just an hour-long, and being rushed we were assured we got just a taste. Now I have to tell you, I normally do my best to keep up on the journalistic details. But this was such a unique and awesome experience, I was simply too excited to take notes or even have the good sense to take more pictures. But we were stunned. Just dumbfounded by how much we learned in one hour. And the main presentation hadn’t even started yet!

The panel was presented in the restored back hall of the shul. The group, titled “Boyle Heights Heroes: Conversations with Local Luminaries,” was moderated by Professor George Sanchez of the USC. The panel included notable guests Annette Shapiro, Daniel Hernandez, Donna Bojarsky and Gershon Lewis.

The talks that were given were invaluable, because the presenters really opened up about the people who once lived thrived here. And how starting from here, their loved ones built a legacy of social consciousness which still guides them in their pursuits.

All four guests brought something special to the table:

Annette Shapiro. For those of us in the wider Jewish community, she needs no introduction. One can’t help but be amazed by her philanthropic and loving personal involvement in the needs of the Jewish community, including the Beit T’Shuvah addiction treatment center. She can be found everywhere there is a Jewish or health and wellness cause. A legacy of community service she credits to her family. Among the notable family members of the Boyle Heights community is her grandfather of David Familian – of blessed memory – who served as president of the Breed Street Shul.

David Hernandez. He grew up in Boyle Heights facing all the various challenges of Latino youth, and today he is still facing them but now as the CEO of the Hollenbeck Youth Center. The youth center helps provide many programs which meet the need of the youth and teens in this densely populated and often harsh side of town. He presents us with a much-needed picture of the Latino community, his story being very common in that his experiences have been greatly influenced by his service in the US Armed Forces. Service to ones country, to this day it is still the only way many in our community can ever hope to afford a college education.

Donna Bojarsky. Her father Sol – of blessed memory – was a native of Boyle Heights and celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Breed Street Shul. She brought in tow his delicate little siddur which was presented to him at that time. Donna is a political consultant and active in various community forums. Among them being civic training programs for young Jewish leaders. She is also executive director of KCET’s Mosaic series, a program which gives a fresh and unique look at the diverse communities of Los Angeles.

Gershon Lewis. Now he has to be one of the most interesting people I have ever met. So much could be said about him from his success in his service in the army, business, finance and politics. However, to me he is most impressive as a native Eastsider and Roosevelt High School student, and leader among the Wabash Saxons. The Saxons started in the 1930s, organized by youth from Roosevelt and the other local youth centers. Among their aims and goals, raising money to fund the youth activities of Boyle Heights. He will once again be present to chair the upcoming Wabash Saxons reunion in June 2014.

After the presentation we took extra time exploring the back hall. It was filled presentations of the disrepair and vandalism which once covered the buildings, and commendations earned in the past 15 years of step-by-step preservation efforts. The start of a multi-layered restoration project to revive the entire facility for future active uses. A cultural center for the Jewish, Latino and the various minority communities.

To all involved, we have to say thank you! We are both grateful for this opportunity, and hope to visit with you again.

The restored beit midrash

The restored beit midrash

We also hope for more panel discussions. This type of talk was important not just for me but also for my friend Zero-Renton, who came along. Under the tattoos, leather and colored hair, is a person who tirelessly works for fair housing in Los Angeles. Assisting people at the Housing Rights Center, which works to enforce the Fair Housing Act. In his work he daily faces the challenges of the most needy in our community, and also most vividly sees the consequences of gentrification on the poorest sectors.

We all wonder, what is going to be the next demographic shift in Boyle Heights? We all worry about the future of our historic neighborhoods in which most of us have lived for generations, which are now getting settled by urban hipsters without children. People’s whose needs and means are vastly differently from our own.

In some ways this presentation puts us at ease, helping us realize that our town is just going through its own natural cycle. This was a side of town started by the working class of some means, the Latino community moved in the void left as Jews migrated to the westside. But now these decades later the white middle-class is returning in modest, but growing numbers. We might just have to accept much of this as being part of the the natural growth cycle.

But the questions remains for all of us who love and are dedicated to staying in the Eastside: What is the future for our community, what can we do to enhance and fortify the integrity of our resources as things begin their almost inevitable transition? As properties such as the historic Sears building with over 4.5-million gross square feet of space have been purchased to make way for a multi-use, loft based community, we cannot ignore this much longer. Even public housing is being subjected to urban renewal. Change is undoubtedly coming.

As president Steven J. Sass had to point out several times, the Jewish community in Boyle Heights fell apart because of a series of bad decisions, which together were terminal for the integrity of their once thriving district. The institutional hopes of consolidating and pooling resources led to their eventual collapse. Which further sped up the exodus to neighborhoods with more resources.

Even as I gazed at the exterior of the building which housed the main sanctuary many people reiterated this point to me. That the resources dried up, the people had to move out of necessity. Some were left shaking their heads, blaming themselves for quitting the community. Others a bit pessimistically point out their own truth, that there was also some racial and gang related issues which they regretted. Issues not unlike those we face today. Our side of town is still notorious for those problems to this day, and admittedly it’s much worse today as us Latinos have grown more insular and less accepting of other minorities moving in. This all comes as a social challenge which still very much needs to be addressed.

With all the challenges, the locals are optimistic. And we do see our future being here in Boyle Heights. And we also envision a glorious future for the Breed Street Shul.

Now a lot of the reason why Eastsiders see the Breed Street Shul as important is not just because it was important to the Jews who once lived here. We envision this as the site of where the new Jews of the Eastside will one day celebrate and worship. Not just Jews who will move this way with urban planning. But also for the Latino Jews of east Los Angeles. We want yidden coming back to Boyle Heights, to be greeted by a community of Latino Jews as well.

Latino Jews, we are a community that is growing as many convert to Judaism or discover their own historical roots to Judaism. When I was younger I was one of the only practicing Jewish Mexican-Americans in the area. Today you will find many locals from the area scatted in the synagogues throughout the San Gabriel valley, in shuls which often sport liturgy and services in Spanish.

For the Latino Jews of east Los Angeles, the Breed Steet Shul speaks of a Jewish future here which we too embrace. We also have a vision, of a vibrant Jewish community in which we are an integral part of as well.

The restoration of the main building, which houses the sanctuary

The restoration of the main building, which houses the sanctuary

So for people like me, the Breed Street Shul is important not just because I’m a Jew and this is part of Jewish history, but because I’m a Latino Jew and this is part of our future. Whereas in the past Jews and Latinos were often different sides of the coin in this community, now we are blending together. Today Jews of many different ethnicities are scattered around here, and I think we all tend to see the shul as a heritage and legacy we want to be part of. We are all enthusiastic about her, because this shul has something which charmingly brings us together.

And for the non-Jewish residents of the neighborhood it is also important that this be restored. In order to restore the pride of the community, to stand as a testament of an honorable and impressive past.

For people like my friends and their families. To serve as community center for the residents, so that the glorious halls are filled with celebrations again. And as a meeting and rallying spot for political and social activism, as it has been ever since it was made a national historical landmark by the Clinton administration in 1998. A notable event for the community, which drew First Lady Hillary Clinton herself. Now more recently the shul has even come to draw the entertainment community as well. Latinos also have a lot of reasons to need the “Queen of Synagogues” restored. People see a lot of promise in her.

As we left walking up the block on a stroll toward Brooklyn – excuse me Avenida Cesar Chavez, a slip that true locals don’t make by accident, Latino or Jewish we all still say it – we just grinned and sighed as we passed. Overwhelmed with the amazing stories we had heard.

Boyle Heights muralAs we wandered Gershon Lewis came and walked with us down a couple blocks for a bit. I got to express my thanks for his story and also for inspiring me with his example of community service. And I expressed how grateful we both were, Zero-Renton and I, because we don’t really get the chance to have a meeting of the generations in this way ordinarily. So we are willing to listen.

I asked him how us Latinos who are here now, how we can learn some of the spirit of social service that this side of town needs more than ever. What can we learn to build our own legacy. He pats me on the shoulder and says I need to come for the Wabash Saxons banquet and learn how it’s done.

He chatted with me about how many people talk about how much they love their Boyle Heights, yet few come. That it was nice for him to see a good crowd for a change. I joked with him, “Well, if I think about it, I also know enough local Latino Jews to bring together a minyan sometime. I can bring the party and a Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) if necessary.” Gershon laughed and shook my hand in delight, encouraging me to bring it on.

Tzedakah Opportunity: This Breed Street Shul Project is only in the first stages of the site’s restoration. While the back hall, the former beit midrash behind the large shul, has been beautifully restored the rest of the property is still in the early stages of renovation. The project has made great strides, such as bringing a ramp for disabled access to the hall, a first for this old site. At the same time they are still greatly challenged with having to remedy drainage issues which were never properly addressed before.

The project hopes to make this open house and discussion a part of a series. I think many of you will agree that these presentations and tours are an invaluable way to bring people together. We really need more people from the community to have the chance to learn about their neighborhood’s colorful history as well.

If this is something that you find meaningful. If you care about this heritage, and the future of Boyle Heights. If you would like to see more of these events. If you want to encourage more dialogue between the Latino and Jewish communities. If you want to help make the revivification a success, I urge you to donate to this project today:

BREED STREET SHUL PROJECT
PO Box 33411
Los Angeles, CA 90033-2902
 

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About the Author: Welcome to Hardcore Mesorah! My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am a writer and religious commentator from Los Angeles, California. As a blog writer, I enjoy talking about the challenging topics of Torah and Jewish life. Weekly I take an in-depth look into the weekly Torah portion. I also tackle topics of personal struggle as learned through my current struggle with HIV/AIDS. I also dedicate the focus of my work to displaying the cultural diversity within Judaism, often exploring the characteristics and unappreciated values of Chassidic and Sephardic Judaism. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.

More pictures from the shul:

The face and the black metal doors which guard her

The face and the black metal doors which guard her

Looking at the side of the main building, toward Breed Street

Looking at the side of the main building, toward Breed Street

The restored Aron haKodesh - the ark for the Torah scrolls. The murals also senselessly restored. It shows tablets of the Ten Commandents. Above is the words "Shivit Hashem Negedi Tadmi" which means "I will place [the name of'] the Lord before me at all times."

The restored Aron haKodesh – the ark for the Torah scrolls. The murals also seamlessly restored. It shows tablets of the Ten Commandents. Above is the words “Shivit Hashem L’Negedi Tamid” which means “I will place [the name of'] the Lord before me at all times.” Below is a depiction of the priestly blessing by the kohanim. The words “Keter  Torah” accompany the depicting picture of a crown for the Torah

On each side of this artistic display are two depictions of candelabras. This one says "Torah Ohr," or "The Light of Torah." The matching one says "Ner mitzvah," calling to mind the ritual lights of the sabbath and festival days.

On each side of this artistic display are two depictions of candelabras. This one says “Torah Ohr,” or “The Light of Torah.” The matching one says “Ner mitzvah,” calling to mind the ritual lights of the sabbath and festival days.

This says "HaRav" on it, so it must have been the rabbi's shtender - the personal stand from which he would pray or read.

This says “HaRav” on it, so it must have been the rabbi’s shtender – the personal stand from which he would pray or read.

Pictures from the neighborhood tour. This is Congregation B’nei Jacob on Fairmont street, originally a modern Orthodox synagogue. Today it is a church:

Congregation B'nei Jacob

Congregation B’nei Jacob the front doors to the main sanctuary

The side building of the Freemont street shul, looking towards Evergreen

Congregation B’nei Jacob – Est. Aug, 14, 1927

The Ten Commandments still hang above the main entrance. This is one of few former shuls which still has remaining remnants of it’s Jewish past after being converted.

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Parshat Pekudei (5774)


Exodus 38:21-40:38

What Moses Teaches Us About Blessing People’s Accomplishments

mosesblessingChagall

What is this blessing really for? The objects or the people? And why does Moses bless them at the end of their task, and not at the start?

Do you think our religious communities do enough to honor and encourage artistic contributions? What examples does the Torah have for us on how to respond to people’s creativity?

We are going to discuss creative artistry again this week. Are you proud of your craft and trade? Are you a person who takes pride in the beautiful and goodly things which you have helped create?

This week we are completing Shemot (The Book of Exodus), with the reading of Parshat Pekudei. We are also going to begin to look at our parsha from the point in which the people have just completed their work on the Mishkan – the Tabernacle sanctuary.

In the fourth aliya we read that after the people made everything, “now they brought the Mishkan to Moses, the tent and all its furnishings…” (Exodus 39:33) Everything, all the items, including the items to be housed inside. They are all accounted for as they are brought before Moses in this fourth Torah reading.

Now that these items are completed, the objects and the people are blessed, as our text reads:

“Moses saw all the work

and behold, they done it;

just as the Lord commanded,

so they had done it.

So Moses blessed them.”

| Vayar Moshe et-kol-hamelachah

| vehineh asu otah

| ka’asher tzivah Adonai

| ken asu

| vayevarech otam Moshe

Exodus 39:43

How notice it might appear that Moses was blessing the items. The people had made them just so, and now he blessed them – the items of the Mishkan. However, many of our rabbis contend that the final blessing is primarily for the people, and not necessarily for the items themselves. The people made good in actualizing the vision of the Mishkan as delivered through Moses, so he blessed them.

Their reason for seeing it this way is because this type of application of “vayevarech” is quite often used for people. From the beginning of the Torah, the phrase “vayevarech otam” is used in relation to people and living things; otam means them, them people. After man and woman were created, we see that G-d blessed the people. Our Torah reads, “vayevarech otam elohim vayomer lachem elohim peru urevu umil’u et-haretz / And G-d blessed them; and G-d said unto them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…” (Genesis 1:28) The “them” is the people, not the objects.

As students of the rabbinic tradition, we choose to see it this way because we are aware that we have a living Torah. When we look into the lessons of Torah, they are not just existent for one distant point in history. We are able to, and indeed we must find, an application for our lives today. In a post-Temple reality, the true focus is the building up of people and not shrines.

However, in all honestly I must point out that we do actually see the term vayevarech used to mean a blessing for people, as well as conveying a blessing upon their possessions by extension. We see this was even true already in the time of the Judges, and even in the presence of the Tabernacle items themselves: “And the Ark of G-d remained with the family of Obed-edom in his house three months; and Hashem blessed (vayevarech Hashem) the household of Obed-edom, and all that he had.” Because of their act of hospitality to the Ark they were blessed, along with their possessions.

Now just for a second, I want to hit on that topic of sacred space. Making space for G-d in our lives. In fact that is what the whole point of this Mishkan is for, in order that people make a dwelling place for G-d. As commanded, “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (veshachan’ti betocham).” (Exodus 25:8)

When we consider it, our understanding of the Divine is that G-d is beyond any understanding or representation. Nothing created, in fact not even all of creation, would be able to contain G-d’s type of raw energy. G-d is just that awesome and transcendent.

So why are they doing this? We actually don’t need to ponder too much. We act like what the Israelites were doing here is so strange and weird, making this Mishkan. When in reality they were just doing what we also do today, taking ordinary things of a mundane nature, then making something holy and extra-ordinary out of them. By taking what they had and making a mitzvah out of it, the Israelites elevated their possessions and raw materials to a level of sacredness that wasn’t there for them before.

The Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks calls our attention to the human element over the physical relics even more so:

“’Let them make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in them’ – not ‘in it’ but ‘in them‘ — not in the building but its builders, not in wood and metal, bricks or stone, but in those who build and those who worship. It is not objects, buildings, or places that are holy-in-themselves. Only acts of heart and mind can endow them with holiness.” [emphasis added; to show how the Rabbi is directing our attention to his understanding of the ב in this phrase]

G-d does not just ask us to make Him a place to dwell with us, but to dwell within us. G-d is not One to merely dwell in objects, He is manifesting in us through the creative acts which we dedicate to His service. In our handiwork we are able to create things of holiness and sanctity. We are able to make sacred space in ourselves, and through toil actualize it as a physical reality as well. The more we create, the more presence of the Divine we have in our lives.

Through our skills and creativity, we make a space for the Presence of G-d to dwell with and with-in us.

Now to bring us back to the blessing itself. As the people finish bringing forward all the fixtures, now Moses blesses the people and the items they have made for the Mishkan. Let us take notice of how Moses responded to their handiwork. He didn’t just give them a “thank you,” nor did he merely praise them. No instead, “vayevarech otam Moshe / Moses blessed them.”

Now what is the difference? And why does he bless them here at this point, after they created everything? This is actually a curious question, because as we know, in nearly all cases we bless before we perform a mitzvah. (Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Berachot 11:9; §7) One ought to bless first, but here we have their blessing last.

It’s even more curious to many of us Sephardim and Chassidm, as we are most often used to asking our Rav and Rebbe (our personal rabbi) for a blessing before we embark on any big venture or task. Seeking a sign of approval from our Rav, which also comes with a blessing to help us along in whatever our pursuits are. But this is something different here, when Moses blesses them last. So why is this?

First off, we should take notice of how G-d Himself blesses. As we spoke of in Genesis chapter 1 with the creation of people and animals, they are worthy of blessing upon their completion. Humans being blessed after their creation was complete. After they were completely formed, “vayevarech otam / [He] blessed them. Moses likewise blessed upon the completion of the Mishkan items. Something is especially worth of a blessing once it is completed.

Actually, if we consider it. The fact that we accomplish something is a reason in itself to bless. Many people, myself included, have put their hand at many projects. But few of them actually get completed in the end. Be it circumstance or just a matter of our own waning enthusiasm, completing a project is not as easy as starting. Many of us can look back over the years and see numerous half-built and incomplete endeavors along our journey. For this reason it is even more appropriate that we should also bless after a completed project. To start a great task is honorable, but to complete a task is really worthy of blessing.

As a community, we should recognize and receive the creative and artistic works of the people in our communities with our blessings. Taking notice of skill and complexity of people’s contributions. Embracing their imaginative forms of Jewish expression, especially through the arts. Honoring the dedication and skill that went into producing them. Blessing the items, but also blessing the people as well. But how should we then bless?

Though the Torah does not tell us how Moses blessed, Rashi tells what the rabbis believed he said. The commentary surrounding this reads:

So Moses blessed them: He said to them:

May it be His will that the Shechinah should rest in the work of your hands.

And may the pleasantness of Hashem our G-d be upon us and establish the work of our hands for us, and the work of our hands establish it.” (Ps. 90:17)

This is one of the eleven psalms in “A prayer of Moses” (Ps. 90:1).”

ויברך אותם משה: אמר להם

יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁתִּשְׁרֶה שְׁכִינָה בְּמַעֲשֶֹה יְדֵיכֶם:

וִיהִי נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ: (תהלים צ יז)

והוא אחד מאחד עשר מזמורים שבתפלה למשה:

Rashi to Exodus 39:43, from Num. Rabbah 12:9

As we look at these blessings we are presented with one phrase which was handed down through our rabbinic tradition, and we also have another verse from one of the eleven Psalms attributed to Moses.

Now what do we notice about these blessings? As I have asserted, they do also seem to apply to when one blesses actual items; mere objects. This is obvious from the use of the phrases “bema’aseh yadechem / in the works of your hands” and “uma’aseh yaddeinu / the works of our hands.”

But its is also completely logical for the rabbis to make the assertion that we are talking about a blessing primarily for the people right now, as later on the items are actually consecrated themselves. By looking at it this way, the tone of the statement changes. So that we are asking G-d to bless others and ourselves in our ma’aseh yadeinu – in the works (ma’aseh; the actions, the deeds; the positive actions) of our hands.

In such a blessing as this one is asking for a person’s creative abilities and actions to be blessed, so that we will see many more good deeds to come in the future. From Moses’ example we learn that we should spring forward to bless people for the works your hands. This is more than just a mere thank-you, and acknowledgement that one did a good job. When we bless a person we are doing so much more. We bless them with the hopes that G-d gives them the strength to continue to be a blessing to the whole congregation of Israel.

So now as we complete the book of Exodus, and move into the next book of the Torah, we say, “Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik / Be strong! Be strong! And let us strengthen!” May we take strength is our completion of this book of Torah and be strengthened with blessings for the journey yet ahead!

Things to Consider: Can you say that you truly take pride in the things which you have completed? Can you identify some projects and goals that you have not yet fully actualized yet? How do you keep momentum up while working on long projects? What helps you keep focus, so that you follow through until the end?

One of the reason it is important to complete our goals, and not just shy away from them because of distraction or even boredom, is because as we fulfill our goals our confidence increases. The feedback from our accomplishments and the pride we have in the final deeds, this nurtures our self-confidence. Just by virtue of completing what we start, we reinforce in ourselves that we have what it takes to complete our goals in the future. However, leaving incomplete goals scattered about can be demoralizing,

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Parshat Vayakhel (5774)


Exodus 35 – 40

What Grandpa Taught Me About Making Olive Oil

olive-press-capernaumThis week we are going to talk about inherited wisdom, while exploring the significance of the Menorah instruments and the precious oil with which the lamps were filled.

All throughout the detailed description of the creation of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) we have heard that G-d has given abilities to the chachmah – the wise-hearted, people of wisdom and understanding. (see Exodus 31; Parshat Ki-Tissa 2013) But what do we mean by wisdom? This is what we are going to explore, because wisdom is something more than mere “knowledge.” It is something that most often comes from personal experience. Experience which is often transmitted through our traditions.

Let us to jump right into text:

“The Menorah for lighting

and the implements,

and its lamps

and oil for lighting.”

| Ve’et-menorat hama’or

| ve’et-keleiha

| ve’et-neroteiha

| ve’et shemen hama’or.

Exodus 35:14

Here near the start of our parsha, during the listing of all the items that need to be constructed for the sanctuary, we have this description of a complete Menorah provided for us. It is right in between the listing of the components from which the Mishkan was to be built, and the mention of the sacred items such as incense and the anointing oil (which we discussed last week, see Parshat Ki-Tissa 5774).

As we see from the description offered here, this candelabrum – the Menorah – it was made of a huge mass of gold. Most of us can picture what is needed to construct a functioning menorah. We need the candelabrum and the lamps which need to be lit. We understand that they also need to have oil for it to function, which we will further discuss as we continue.

However, there are certain things which some people do not so quickly recognize in this description. Right along with the mention of constructing the Menorah we are told that G-d orders the making of the matching implements, the utensils (keilecha).

What are these utensils, and what were they made of? We are told later on in our parsha, in the sixth aliyah, when their creation is tallied:

“And he made seven lamps, and the wick-tongs and the ash-scoop, of pure gold.

“He made it of a kikar (a talent) of pure gold, including all its implements.

וַיַּעַשׂ אֶת-נֵרֹתֶיהָ, שִׁבְעָה; וּמַלְקָחֶיהָ וּמַחְתֹּתֶיהָ, זָהָב טָהוֹר:

כִּכָּר זָהָב טָהוֹר, עָשָׂה אֹתָהּ, וְאֵת, כָּל-כֵּלֶיהָ:

Exodus 37:23-24

All of the Menorah and its various parts were made of one huge chunk of gold. From it was beaten the candelabrum itself, as described in the previous verse (v.22); it is one entire piece, hammered into shape.

In Rashi's commentary for Exodus 35:14, here he used an interesting word to describe the lamps of the menorah. He used the word “לוציי"ש" – luzes (or maybe even, lozes) for lights. This word could be just another translation into old-French of the 11th Century, but also any other language as well (notice the wording, בלעז). Though it might seem easy to assume that because this word sounds a lot like a Spanish word, it is Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). However, this is not the case. It actually appears to be based on the Latin word for lamp – or a lucerna, as sown here. While Rashi did live in Iberia, he was a French Ashkenazi, of a different cultural and linguistic influence. Also, the Ladino translations of the bible most often use the word “קנדילאש” – candelas, which does not necessarily mean the same thing as our English term “candle,” but often lamp instead; the same as lucerna, in Latin.

In Rashi’s commentary for Exodus 35:14, here he used an interesting word to describe the lamps of the menorah. He used the word “לוציי”ש” – luzes (or maybe even, lozes) for lights. This word could be just another translation into old-French of the 11th Century, but also any other language as well (notice the wording, בלעז). Though it might seem easy to assume that because this word sounds a lot like a Spanish word, it is Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). However, this is not the case. It actually appears to be based on the Latin word for lamp – or a lucerna, as shown above. While Rashi did live in Iberia, he was a French Ashkenazi, of a different cultural and linguistic influence. Also, the Ladino translations of the bible most often use the word “קנדילאש” – candelas, which does not necessarily mean the same thing as our English term “candle,” but often lamp instead; the same as lucerna, in Latin.

Here this verse tells us about the additional seven lamps individually crafted to go on top of the candelabrum, and filled with pure olive oil. In order to position the lamps in the correct direction – with all the wicks facing inward toward the center of the Menorah – it was required to use the wick-tongs. And later when cleaning and redressing the lights after their use, the ash-scoop would be used to clear the burnt remains from the lamps. And then the lights are reset again using these wick-tongs.

One of the reasons why we miss the point of the usefulness of these items, is because we don’t have the presence of these items as part of our Chanukah menorahs. Also, today most often people use wax-candles instead of the original oil lamps. In the lack of practice, or experience with oil lamps, the actual usefulness of these items doesn’t really appear obvious to most people.

As we have previously discussed, Sephardim and Chassidim still hold by the custom to ideally light with oil lamps. Not just on Chanukah, but also on Shabbat and festivals as well! (see “Chanukah: The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash” and “Shabbat Lights: The Tradition of Great Scholars to Light with Olive Oil”)

However, even though these implements might seem practical for people who regularly utilize olive oil lamps, our lights are only temporary and so do not need to be constantly tended and trimmed like the Temple Menorah. Furthermore, on Shabbat we are not allowed to fix the wicks of our nerot (lamps, lights). If they go out or begin to smolder we must just let them go out, we are not permitted to tend them on the sabbath.

The need for these items is mentally superfluous for us. But the Torah and the rabbis harp on these points because we are not just talking abstractly about a sanctuary, as part of a mental exercise. We need them, because in a real world they are useful.

One of the reasons that these utensils are also not so necessary for our own sacred light sets is because we take special care regarding the oil itself, in order to make sure we do not need to tend our lamps or trim our wicks.

If we look in the halachic works, like the Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Torah, some of the most heavy discussions we have is surrounding is the quality of the oils (shemen; oils, or fats such as tallow-wax) and when one needs to use new wicks. We learn how it is that the finest and purest oil, the best grades of oil, burn steady without separating.

Also on special nights such as Shabbat and holidays we are instructed to additionally use new cotton wicks, as they are able to soak up a fine oil better. Use the best oil and wicks so they burn without incident, providing a steady and soothing light until they extinguish.

Lights which burn without flicker, which we think of as symbolic of competing and fighting which we want to also avoid during our sabbath’s rest. We consider the idea that we should burn steady and strong, without neither flaring up nor smoldering out. Aspiring that our names and honor be good, as good and fine as pure olive oil. (see Parshat Mikeitz 2012) For all these reasons, traditional people prefer oil lights.

I would encourage people to take a look at the many halachic works regarding the details of lighting of nerot – of lights. Their instructions offer us some practical life experience many of us miss today. This is also something helpful for my many friends who are also reclaiming the ancient tradition of lighting with oil lights for themselves.

The oil of the Menorah. It is last, but not the least, among the Menorah dressings that we will address.

Not only is it last mentioned here in our key verse above, but interestingly the shemen zayit – the olive oil – is also the very last item mentioned later on when we read of the actual completion of the Mishkan. It is the last item that is presumably made. Without it, the rest of this whole operation will not function. (see Exodus 37:29)

Now interestingly, most of the knowledge and wisdom I have to teach about olive oil doesn’t actually come from books. It comes through experience with making olive oil.

Though in our own books, in the very commentary of the Torah itself by Rashi, it is there that I am reminded that some things are only taught through a lot of hands-on experience. And that making olive oil is a complicated task reserved for the wise and most skilled, as it is just as hard as any other skilled craft. The commentary reads as follows:

And the oil for lighting: That too required wise-hearted [people] because it was different from other oils, as is explained in Menachot (86a): he picks it [the olives] at the top of the olive tree, and it is crushed and pure.

ואת שמן המאור: אף הוא צריך חכמי לב, שהוא משונה משאר שמנים, כמו שמפורש במנחות (דף פו א) מגרגרו בראש הזית, והוא כתית וזך:

Rashi for Exodus 37:14

Rashi asks us to remember the Talmudic discourse regarding this matter of making olive oil. We are taught there in detail, the olives are picked from the tree starting from the top. A tree is harvested from the sun-beat top olives, working your way down until you get to the bottom olives. Three harvests from a tree in total. Working your way down until all that is left is softened olives below, so soft that they must actually be sun-dried before they are pressed for oil. This systematic way of harvesting helps maximize the output of oil and reduces spoilage.

Furthermore, different grades of olive oil that are produced from each harvest. During the first pressing the olives are milled, basket-ed and drain of oil. The second is a pressing with a wooden mortar, a pressing beam made of wood. The third pressing would be once again through mill to get any last bit out.

Of course the first pressing is the best. This is oil of this purity and wholeness is akin to the claims of the extra-virgin olive oil grade of today. Then the purity and usefulness goes down from there, the more times you press the fruit. How can this be? Our Talmudic text doesn’t really elaborate. It just tells us not to soak the olives in water. But it’s not exactly clear otherwise. Only a skilled craftsmen of oil would understand the meaning of these instructions really.

When I think of the skill and complexity of olive oil making, the first person that comes to mind is actually my grandfather. He was the one who taught me how to make olive oil.

I think back to when my grandparents lived in that old small house, the pink one with all the olive trees in yard back in Mexico. My grandfather would lay down tarps under the trees, hand us baskets, and we would go up into these thick trees to pick the olives. The raw olives would then be taken and pressed almost exactly like the process described in the Talmud.

Olive Oil PressingThe olives would be carefully and throughly crushed, expressing everything held in the fruit. The pulp and solid matter being carefully retained, and only the oozing goodness of the olives would drip from the press to the vats. (see a demonstration of this process in a beautiful blog piece by the Emmett Family of their visit to an oil press in Israel)

Notice there is no previous soaking or processing that is involved or allowed in making of olive oil. As mentioned, we are not allowed to soak the olives. Soaking and brining them makes them edible, but it makes them impossible to press for oil. The reason is because as we juice the olives we are not just removing oil. Along with it we are also removing all forms of vegetable fluid from the fruit; water.

The more times you press the fruit in order to get the most out of them, the more of the pulps water is released and flows into the mix with the oil. Thus the last pressing of oil is the least useful, often separating between oil and fluid in use, making it inferior as a fuel for oil lamps. The fluid would eventually snuff out the oil lights. However it is edible, just not as tasty as the golden first pressing.

When we look at the Talmud in this light, it thus makes very obvious sense why we are told the first pressing is fit for the Menorah, while the second pressing is fit for the grain offerings. Not only was the oil used for lighting, it was an essential ingredient that was needed for the sacrificial offerings. Being mixed in with the grains offerings on the altar as well.

One of the reasons that we read of the mention of the olive oil first, when the items are ordered by G-d in the first account, is because the oil is a necessary prerequisite to making the incense and anointing oil that are next mentioned.

However, the olive oil is mentioned last during the account of the actual construction of the Mishkan, because it was the last and essential craft needed in order for this tent of light and offerings to function. Without it you didn’t just lack light, you also lacked the ability to sacrifice as well.

Many people get “bored” as they read through all the details of this. The points of all this, to mere religionists, is pretty dull and seemingly useless because they have no life application for it. It’s merely a mental game. All of this seems cold. And to the speculative its even demanding and cruel in their minds, that for some unknown reason G-d only wants the best oil for His Menorah. It’s easy to come to strange conclusions until someone has personally shown you the how and why of this craft.

The point of such descriptiveness is to demonstrate that there is a real practical nature of these Torah instructions. It’s about real deeds, not myth. We aren’t talking about abstract spiritual ideas, we are talking about a real lifestyle and its cultural ingenuity.

In light of all this, it makes sense to us when the Torah likewise says:

“And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring unto you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually.”

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִיתלַמָּאוֹר: לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד.

Exodus 27:20

And this is the point that I would like us to consider this week. Our sages further tell us that when the Torah commands the children of Israel regarding the making of olive oil to bring to Moses, it wasn’t because there was just a one time pressing. Indeed oil would be continually needed, it was regularly being made and brought forward to meet the needs of the congregation. (Sifrei, Parshat Chukat)

When we talk about these things, we aren’t talking about lessons that were useful at some point in the past. These lessons are here for “v’yik’chu elecha / for when you bring.” We focus on the “when,” as a future and continuous act that stretches to us today.

Our Discussion Point: I have learned so much from my family growing up. Most often from the eldest of my family, they loved to show me everything because I was always curious and easily engrossed in their activities. So I have so many good memories, and a lot of life skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise. In fact, I’m more knowledgeable about our culture and traditions than even my parents, who didn’t have the same space and time to explore their roots as I did. My grandparents were mindful to pass the language, the arts, the recipes, the crafts and the stories to me. Show me how it was done, so I could show the others.

We all should ask ourselves, are we passing on our culture and traditions? Are we passing on our cultural and religious know-how to others, so that it doesn’t just end with us?

One of the reasons we need to pass on our traditions is because often times once a craft is lost, it is not easily regained. My many ethnic friends often warm me against loosing touch with one’s own roots, as through ignorance and apathy many groups are left unable to reproduce their own beloved culture. I’m warned not to let the Jewish community also become accustomed to thinking of their native crafts and delicacies as, “Ahh… just like grandma used to buy.”

Can we reclaim culture over consumerism? What essential tasks or crafts do you want passed down through the generations, which your family and community would not be the same without? Though we are in an age were we are out of touch with hands-on cultural expression as in days gone by, can we reclaim some of that organic cultural diversity for ourselves? What have you learned and want to pass on?

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Parshat Ki-Tissa (5774)


Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Galbanum: Why include this vile fragrance?

Photo credit: Flickr, Lizzy Lane Farm

Photo credit: Flickr, Lizzy Lane Farm

This week we are going to explore Torah through our sense of smell. We are also going to discuss the different types of scents; good and bad, sweet and sour, pleasant and bitter. We will discuss the way that fragrance can inspire people’s moods. We will also discuss how at other times in our tradition a scent can be used as an example of certain type personality.

In this parsha we get beyond just the details of the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and now we get into the practical measures to make it a working reality. In last weeks parsha we had presented for us the instructions for making the Ketoret – the Temple Incense (see Exodus chapters 25 and 35). Now in the same vein, this week our parsha is discussing the making of the Shemen Meshechat – the fragrant Anointing Oil (שמן המשחה) which was needed for the inauguration. This parsha will also detail how the incense and oil are to be used.

Both of these discussions are very similar. They are both sacred compounds which were made of herbs, spices and resins; made into exclusive blend which could only be used for ritual purposes. They were also made of much of the same herbal products.

In Hebrew the term for herbs and fragrant spices is samim (סמים). A sam (סם) is any type of spice, be it used as a fragrance or as a medication. For this reason the word sam also means a drug or a narcotic. As we know, drugs and medications are often the exact same compound, it’s just a matter of whether or not people are using them properly, and to what concentration. (see similar topic for Parshat Re’eh 2012)

Actually, making perfumed and medication are quite similar in process. The active and fragrant ingredients, which are held in the essential oils of herbs and spices, can be released and collected. These oils from the herbs (samim) can be infused into regular oil (shemen). In this case, olive oil (shemen zayit). (Although it is also common for jojoba to be used as a carrier as well, see “Mystical Aromatherapy: The Divine Gift of Fragrance”)

This is the process which we read of in this weeks parsha:

“And you shall take for yourself top-quality spices: 500 [shekels] of pure myrrh; of fragrant cinnamon, half as much, 250; and of fragrant cane, 250;

And of cassia, 500, after the weight of the sanctuary; and a hin of olive oil.

You shall make it a holy anointing oil, a perfumed compounded after the art of the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.”

וְאַתָּה קַח-לְךָ, בְּשָׂמִים רֹאשׁ, מָר-דְּרוֹר חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת, וְקִנְּמָן-בֶּשֶׂם מַחֲצִיתוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם; וּקְנֵה-בֹשֶׂם, חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִ.

וְקִדָּה, חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ; וְשֶׁמֶן זַיִת, הִין.

וְעָשִׂיתָ אֹתוֹ, שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַת-קֹדֶשׁרֹקַח מִרְקַחַת, מַעֲשֵׂה רֹקֵחַ; שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַת-קֹדֶשׁ, יִהְיֶה.

Exodus 30:23-25

In the commentary by Rashi for these verses, we are reminded of the dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah regarding the way in which the fragrant anointing oil was made. There are two common method that could have been used to make such a perfumed substance. (also see the source, Talmud Bavli, Keritot 5a-6b)

The first being the boiling of the spices in oil, thus releasing the scent directly into the oil and then straining out the spices. This process I understand well, it is a process that people like myself commonly use for extraction of the medicinal substances from natural products like cannabis (As you know, I have been battling a life threatening illness. See a demonstration of medical marijuana extraction into fats in this video, “How To Make Cannabis Butter, Cooking With Marijuana). This is the method suggested by Rabbi Meir.

The second option is actual perfuming, in which you merely capture the scent of the spices alone through contact and exposure (thank you Rabbi Juan Mejia for enlightening me on this!). This is something new to me, but interesting to learn. In the old days perfume was most commonly made by taking fresh spices, flowers and hydrated barks and placing them directly into oil. (see this method explained “Making Essential Oils at Home”) Yet another method of perfuming still relies on contact transfer as well. It is when the herbs are placed in water to release the oils, olive oil would then be floated over the surface to capture the essential oils and fragrances of the spices, the mixed oils would then be skimmed from the mixture or distilled off; the water in the mixture is very slowly boiled off, leaving only the fragrant substance. This latter method is suggested by Rabbi Yehudah.

I find this topic fascinating, because it a good demonstration of how much knowledge we have lost in the consumer age. In days gone by, people readily knew how to made extracts and perfumes, but in the lack of practice the details are not understood by most of us today.

I’m not going to take on that debate at this time, as we don’t really know the final answer to the question of which method was used anyhow. Both methods compromise a certain precondition, either the purity (clarity) or the need to be throughly mixed. What we do know is that what ever method used had to get the essence of 75 pounds of spices into a hin of oil; about a gallon of oil. Either method is quite difficult and requiring great care, considering in most cases even anything over a 1% solution of cinnamon alone could burn the skin!

The creation of this composition, for now will have to remain a mystery. We are further told that we are not allowed to recreate this formula of anointing oil. We cannot experiment with it to find out. It is sacred, and should not be poured directly on to human flesh (al basar adam lo yisach, see verse 32). Do we mean it should not be poured, just rubbed on to a person? The next verse seems to clarify by suggesting we cannot place this on foreign, non-priest, (al zar, see verse 33); it can only be used for anointing the priests.

This is what we appear to observe concerning the oil, which was to be placed directly on to Aharon and his sons to sanctify them for their priestly service.

Now it is most obvious to many of us why it is so important that this anointing oil be fragranced, as in our tradition spices are of great significance. Spices are said to awaken the soul, and enlighten the eye. For this reason we use spices during Havdalah – to end Shabbat we inhale the spices deeply to reawaken our souls for the week of labor ahead. The pleasantness of spices moves us in a way that is inspiring.

But what about spices that don’t smell so good? In fact, many medicinal herbs do not smell nice. Notice it is their horrible smell which also makes them unpalatable, just too awful to want to be tasted. Things which are too bad to drink or even smell on their own.

Actually in our parsha, we are faced with just that. This discussion is also in close chronologically with the Talmud as well. This topic arises surrounding the equally sacred Ketoret incense.

And Hashem said to Moses:

Take for yourself spices;

balsam sap,

onycha,

and galbanum;

spices and pure frankincense;

They shall be of equal weight

And you shall make it into incense,

a compound

according to the art of the perfumer,

well blended, pure, holy.”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe

| kach-lecha samim

| nataf

| ushchelet

| vechelbenah

| samim ulevonah zakah

| bad bevad yihyeh

| Ve’asita otah ktoret

| rokach

| ma’aseh roke’ach

| memulach tahor kodesh

Exodus 30:34-35

In the production of the Ketoret, there are eleven spices that are used to create that blended compound. The spices and mixtures were prepared by grinding them down very fine, and then mixing them together by spatula blending. Turning over and over, utill mixed.

All the ingredients seem to make sense except for the galbanum. That is one of the substances that we understand the least, but which is the most discussed among the curious. There is a reason why we want to understand this, as our rabbis are also of the opinion that small amounts of all of the ketoret spices are placed into the anointing oil as well. Galbanum would have naturally have been one of the ingredients.

Today modern science sheds some light on the origins and possible usefulness of this herbal ingredient.

First off, we know that this that chalbena/galbanum comes for the east, deeper into Asia. Native to Iran and then spread through the regions of Afghanistan, it subsequently was brought west to Syria and Canaan. It likewise spread into India and China, who have the finest specimens we favor for medicine to this day. This plant has a bamboo-like cane stalk, and is commonly called “the giant fennel.”

What is it used for? More often than not, in literature it is used for burning, such as for making torches in classic Greek literature. It also most commonly used externally as a natural remedy. Whereas many items are applied to the skin, galbanum can also be used as an inhalant and a fumigant as well. It’s external uses are said to cure many things, but namely for releasing muscle spasms. It has also known to be used as a remedy for epilepsy, hysteria and giddiness, among other things. It is also useful as an insect repellent, when utilized as a fumigant (through smoke; interestingly that is one of the few observations about the Ketoret and Temple in our tradition, there were no presence of flying insects)

Galbanum can also be used internally, to treat a cough and asthma. When mixed with other compounds like myrrh it can be used as antidote for poison, with honey it can be used as a laxative and deobstruent. It’s apparently very good for the stomach, liver and spleen. Although today, much of the knowledge necessary for medicinal use is lost in it’s countries of origin. (see Encyclopædia Iranica: Galbanum)

However, today people still make extracts of galbanum and place them on neck, temples and on spasming muscles.

The problem with using galbanum is that it is terribly hard to use, since it smells so terrible. It‘s odor is described simply as “intense green,” by most people. A green and almost piny fragrance. However, raw and in its purer form, people merely describe it as smelling like turpentine.

There is no way around it, process it all you want, the stuff is awful. So why is it that we are asked to use something so foul and bitter smelling in the incense, and thus in turn also include it in the anointing oil?

Rashi brings up this point as well in his commentary regarding the smell of chalbana/galbanum. Rashi says:

And galbanum: A spice with a vile odor, called galbane [in Old French], galbanum. The Scripture counted it among the ingredients of the incense [in order] to teach us that we should not look with disapproval at including Jewish sinners with us when we assemble for fasting or prayer. [The Torah instructs us] that they should be counted with us. [from Ker. 6b]”

וחלבנה: בשם שריחו רע וקורין לו גלבנא, ומנאה הכתוב בין סמני הקטורת, ללמדנו, שלא יקל בעינינו לצרף עמנו באגודת תעניותינו ותפלותינו את פושעי ישראל שיהיו נמנין עמנו:

Rashi to Genesis 30:34

Here Rashi brings us back to the Talmud, to the same sections we were previously discussing. And in this commentary we have it reaffirmed for us, we are all in agreement that this substance smelled “ra,” it was a bad and dare we say “evil” smelling substance. It smells nasty, that’s what ra means. It doesn’t get much more descriptive than that.

And this is why we most often discuss galbanum, people want to know why this vile smelling ingredient needs to be included. Our rabbis, since as far back as any of us can remember, have taught that the reason we include the chalbana is because the mixture would be incomplete without it, it just wouldn’t smell right. The rabbis not just make the point that it needs to be mixed in with other substances to be acceptable. But that the other spices of the Ketoret would themselves not smell right unless this bitter ingredient was included in the mix. This re’ach ra – this evil smell.

You know more often than not when I talk to people about going to synagogue or joining in a Jewish event, I often have people tell me that they don’t belong. Few will tell me that they are just too much of a sinner. But that’s what many suggest. Instead many people instead suggest that they are just too bitter of a person to fit into a community. There is no place for them, they aren’t needed.

Our tradition would suggest that even if it were true, that one could claim that either themselves or some other Jew is just too bitter, in fact too sinful of a person to be part of the Jewish community; that is the very reason why that person needs to be included.

Just like mixing incense or perfumes, a really good fragrance is not just one type of smell. It’s nice, but that will never do. In a good mix, in a proper blend we have several smells mixed together, each complimenting each other. On their own they are lovely, but together they can be something amazing.

It’s no different when it comes to community, the personalities can often temper and compliment each other. It is good that we be in the mix with other Jewish people, even us sharp personalities like myself. Other people can help take the edge off us. Our friends and loved ones bringing balance to us.

But even more so, we need to all recognize that we as a community are incomplete if we don’t have some of those more intense and strong personalities that most people would rather avoid. Even those bitter persons. We need to have some of their sharpness and distinctive intensity, they accentuate us. They are needed to bring balance and wholeness to us all.

The Talmud, which Rashi is paraphrasing here in his commentary, actually takes it one step further. We are taught that we are not to look down on the person who comes to be included in the prayers of the Jewish people. When they come on holy and auspicious days like Yom Kippur, we don’t belittle them. Think about it, what point is a day of fasting and repentance if the sinners where not included? We need their prayers to be part of ours in order for our supplications to be complete.

The great Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”l clarifies on this for us, by taking us down a mystical route. So I quote the master:

The incense consisted of ten spices or perfumes with good fragrances, and an eleventh spice, Chelbenah-galbanum, with a vile odor… which alludes to the elevation of evil back into the realm of the holy.

Following the idea of the ten fragrant spices and the single unpleasant one, the Talmud (Keritot 6b) states: ‘Every communal fast that does not include sinners of Israel is not a fast.’ This is derived from the fact that the incense included Chelbenah-galbanum. Just as the Chelbenah was necessary to give the other spices exactly the right fragrance, a congregation is not complete without someone who has also fallen and who must re-elevate himself through repentance. In particular, when a difficult punishment has been decreed against Israel because of some evil deed, this very evil must be taken and elevated. Thus, the idea of transforming evil by elevating it back to its source in holiness is intimated in the incense. It is for this reason also that a communal fast must include ‘the sinners of Israel.’”

- Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Innerspace” p. 87

Are you bitter? Then you have a place with us! Are you an unpleasant person? The Jewish community needs you! Are you a sinner? Then we need you to be part of this as well. Maybe you feel like the 11th ingredient, the odd-man-out; but you aren’t useless, you are part of our essential make-up. We are incomplete without you. You are part of the blend that makes the Jewish people so unique and so intense. Your distinctiveness is needed to help elevate the spiritual and communal experience of the rest of us!

Do-It-Yourself Project Suggestion:

Want to experiment with some of what we have learned today about the production of oils and perfumes? As we have discussed, there are several ways of transferring fragrances into oil. If you can make iced tea, you can make perfumed oils. Learn how to make Lavender Scented Oil today from the video below.

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Parshat Tetzaveh (5774)


Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Jewish Tall Hats and Turbans

Today we are going to talk about hats. The hats we wear and the roles that hats play in society. We will be looking at the function that hats play in Jewish culture and ritual as well.

Jews in Jerusalem,1895

Jews in Jerusalem,1895

Even if you aren’t a hat wearer, we all take notice of hats. Some of us more than others. However hats and head dresses are something that are not just pervasive in our society, they are actually part of the uniform of many important people. From the earliest years most of us have looked to people’s hats as a symbol of who they are and the role they play in our world. We begin to identify the different notable people by their hats; police, firefighters, nurses, chefs, etc.

Hats can tell us a lot about a person. Be it a baseball cap, a sun hat, cowboy hat or a helmet. Sometimes we can begin to discern and judge a lot about a person based on hats. The hats we wear, and how we wear them.

We are also going to give a detailed look at the way that scholars have tended to color the text surrounding this, according to their own cultural norms and class structures.

As we all know, hats play a very special role in Jewish tradition. But when we talk about hats, we can be talking about any type of head covering. As we are not all accustomed in every country to wear a traditional cap, Jewish men have taken it upon themselves to cover their heads with a kippa or a yarmulke. We all know the reasons for the kippah today, to symbolize the presence of G-d above us and show reverence.

However, we know that historically this only came about after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome (in 70 CE), the then dispersed Jews were shipped across the empire as slaves. The cap in the Roman empire designated their role as slaves. In the face of this, even the free Jews of Rome joined in solidarity with their captive brothers and also took-up the symbolic head coverings. The reason we are told, is because all Jews are servants and slaves to Hashem. We are one across all classes, that is the lesson brought down to us by almost every pulpit rabbi of our age.

And they also point out that we must keep in mind that the yarmulke is a post-biblical symbol, and a rabbinic ordinance upon the congregation of Israel.

I ask us to remove ourselves from this frame of mind for a while, as we look into the ages of the Torah when head coverings are common, but not universally symbolic in the same fashion we think of today.

Though we are mostly going to be focusing on the text of our fourth aliya, we can see that this mentioning of caps and hats is something that begins early on in the parsha:

“And these are the garments that they shall make: a choshen [breastplate], an ephod, a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron and for his sons to serve Me as priests.”

וְאֵלֶּה הַבְּגָדִים אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּ חשֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד וּמְעִיל וּכְתֹנֶת תַּשְׁבֵּץ מִצְנֶפֶת וְאַבְנֵט וְעָשׂוּ בִגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וּלְבָנָיו לְכַהֲנוֹ לִי:

Exodus 27:4

As we see, the use of terms like “cap” are used for head coverings here. Now first we should take notice that the word which is used here, it is a seemingly generic word of sorts, as it means a hat or simply cap. The word for a cap is mitznafet, but it’s not exactly clear if this is a specific style of hat or a general term for a hat.

However, the archaic bibles of Europe most often use the word mitre. A strange and not so appropriate word. Though we will get back to that in a moment.

As we see from later on in the parsha, in our key verses for this week, more than one type of headdress is described and ordered. There is one for the kohen gadol – the high priest. And also a different style for his sons, the kohanim – the priests.

Let use take a look at the head-dress of the kohen gadol first. As the way they dress his mitznafet is different from the others:

“And you shall place the cap

on his [Aaron's] head,

and you shall place the holy crown

upon the cap.”

| Vesamta hamitznefet

| al-rosho

| venatata et-nezer hakodesh

| al-hamitznafet

Exodus 29:6

This mitznafet is unique because it is an integrated part of the garb of the kohen gadol. With ribbons and sashes which bound it around the neck and attached through the breastplate, all meeting around the nap of the neck. But its the crown of gold the with Havayah – with the holy Four-Letter name of G-d written upon it, that is literally the crowing piece.

What we apparently see is a conned or pointed sort of headdress, with a crown of gold that was placed and tied upon it. Together they were the official headdress of the highest priestly office, only worn by the person uniquely appointed to serve before Hashem.

Now regarding the assisting kohanim we read something different. Let me provide you the Hebrew text as well, and not merely a transliteration, so you can see what I mean here for yourself. Also, take notice of the odd Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation (a public domain text that is commonly used by Open Source communities):

“Vechagarta otam avnet Aharon uvanav vechavashta lahem migba’ot,

וְחָגַרְתָּ אֹתָם אַבְנֵט אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, וְחָבַשְׁתָּ לָהֶם מִגְבָּעֹת,

JPS (1917): “And thou shalt gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind head-tires on them

Exodus 29:9

Naturally, people wonder what this means. Many others find themselves amused and entertained by the thought of what this could mean. Who has ever heard of a head-tire? I certainly haven’t seen this before this mention here. So what are we talking about here?

Most clear and modern translations of the Torah (such as the latest Judaica Press, Kol Menachem, Kaplan, etc.) instead translate the phrase, “vechavashta lahem migba’ot” as, “and dress them with high-hats.”

Now I know I like to roll with the chassidish hat-lovers, but even I get amused as people perk up their ears and take pride in their fedora or shtreimel at this point. I have met some really cool kohanim and plenty of leviim with some pretty tall hats in my day, but that’s not exactly what it’s talking about.

Well, it might be to them, but that’s not exactly the way I see it. To me, when I hear of mitznafet, in my mind’s eye and according to my cultural mindset, for some reason I first think of the word “turban” instead. But maybe that is because I’m simply used to seeing pictures of tzaddikim (righteous men) in turbans as much as I am in dress-hats. In turbans and head wraps according to the custom of Sephardic Jews and the near-eastern classical age. This is the manner of the Rambam, the Ben Ish Chai, Baba Sali, the chief Sephardic rabbis, etc.

And there are differences still if we draw comparisons and make assumptions based on our own cultural application. It is certainly true that for Sephardim today, the symbol of a turban is a sign of honor and respect. Not just everyone wears a turban in this day and age. So when it is applied, it says something about the dignity of the person.

Now how can I suggest that this is a turban spoken of here? What sources do I and other modern translators have to use this term? As the Torah and our sages seem to display, a mitznafet is a hollow piece of fabric, like most hats. However, they were also twisted and rolled around ones head, forming a hollow interior. (see Exodus 39, and relating commentary) Each layer upon the other appearing like tires, just as the JPS describes without using the then “oriental” word turban.

The Cyclopaedia – Chambers of 1728

One can certainly ask, what’s the difference anyhow? It’s just a hat! You see it your way, I see it my way. And one can also ask, why should we care that rabbis have obsessed over this point? They obsess over every detail anyhow!

However, it isn’t just rabbis and their talmidim that have obsessed over this point. Even the non-Jewish scholars and thinkers of Europe deeply struggled to understand what the form and meaning of all this was.

If you noticed, back in Rashi’s commentary for Exodus 28:4 he states that in old French this type of hat – the mitznafet, it is “kemin kiphat / it’s called a cipha.” He also gives the Aramaic word according to the Onkelos, kovain.

However, this old term cipha in Rashi’s 11th century French dialect is very close to the late-Latin word for this style hat, called a cofia. From this we get the middle-English coif and the Germanic kupfe. But often times when it gets time to translate into formal English, Europeans most often use the word mitre here.

Interestingly, this topic also has pretty detailed references in some fine classic works. As in the premier book of wisdom and knowledge of the early-1700s, the “Cyclopaedia: or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences” of Epharim Chambers. Except we will not get anywhere looking under the Latin cofia. We will find our reference under the Greek term “cidaris (kedaris),” the Greek work for crown that is akin to the Hebrew word “keter” (crown).

Chambers, as a scholarly Englishmen of his day, was not unread and unlearned when it came to the classics of the rabbis. His understanding of the text and the rabbis seems to agree with that of the average Hebrew reader. He says:

The rabbis say the same thing is meant by both these terms [mitznafet and mitgbaot], and that the bonnet used by priests in general was made of a piece of a linen cloth fifteen yards long, which covered their heads like an helmet or a turban: and they allow no other difference to be between the high priest’s bonnet, and that of other priests, than this, that one is flatter, and more in the form of a turban, whereas the other worn by ordinary priests wore something more in a point.”

However, interestingly. The first thing that one notices about Chamber’s contrast between the turbans of the kohen gadol and the kohanim, is a description that is purely based in status. In the opening lines to his entry we read:

The mitre used by the Jewish high priests. When- ever there is mention of the high priest’s mitre, the Hebrew word made use of to express it is always miznepheth; and myg-baoth is used to signify the bonnet belonging to common priests.”

As an Englishmen in a society of roles, status and nobles the idea of social status and level of influence is always at the forefront of his mind. He touches on that first.

Feeling old-school this Shabbat? Go turban!

Feeling old-school this Shabbat? Go turban!

Likewise, he also flavors the status symbols after the model which he knows. That of the pope and the arch bishops; he sees the priestly high hats, their turbans as mitres. Pointed hats with a flat face. The guy with the tallest and firmest hat was higher in the caste, and the priest with the crown was the final authority; kind of like the Pope (or archbishop) in his mitre.

Chambers explains to us that this term is derived from the Hebrew translation of migbaot by the catholic St. Jerome, who chose to use the Latin term mitra to express this, which hints at the shape of a helmet.

Interesting to see how different people and cultures look the same concepts differently, but at the same time they also subtly or sometimes exaggeratedly apply the mindset and structure of their society into that interpretation as well. In a time when the Bible was still considered a book of civic law and understanding, it was interpreted in a way that few of us would relate to today.

Of course, Chambers as an honest scholar admits the limitations of his understanding here. He states early on that their function and descriptions of these headdresses are “so various and different” that they are not well understood. Maybe today, we have a much clearer understanding, or at least a healthier understanding of this than in his day.

However, even then we should keep in mind that progress can also be lost over time as well. In a scholarly view of the past, one can’t help but notice that by the early 20th century the simple use of the word turban was no longer palatable anymore. Not in an age when the British Empire suppressed, instead of honored, people with turbans in places like India and the near-east. The scholars of that day rather refer to tires on peoples heads, before elevating the symbol of the turban.

Now before we give up on Chambers, I would also like to note that he did give us one other insightful and maybe practical application of hats in Jewish culture. At the end of the entry, in the second paragraph:

It is to be observed, that the Hebrew priests never appeared in the temple without covering their heads. And still at this day it is reckoned an incivility in the East, and a mark of con- tempt, for any man to pull off his hat or turban to another, or to hew his naked head before any one.”

He brings it back to the idea of head coverings as signs of reverence. And to be without a head covering, and to flash ones head by choice or by force is considered a sign of contempt.

Modern Use of Hats as Keys to Layered Consciousness

To bring this to a head, let us take our own practical look at hats and what they tell us. It is obvious that kippot and hats are a sign of religious devotion among Jews. Yes, it is a sign of reverence. Ask a religious Jew why they wear one, they will reply like Rav Huna, “Because the Divine Presence is always over my head.” (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 32a) Today all holy minded Jews cover their heads in prayer, as this is common among all Jews of every “class” and background. And for traditional people a kippah is often worn all day long.

As each Jews covers their head, they designate for themselves that the One G-d of all is resting above their head. Jews therefore seek to elevate their mind as they cover their head, in order that one might be inclined to act dignified and without contempt.

In our current, modern age we have no stratus levels set by how tall or firm your hat is, as seemed to be suggested regarding this text by all of the commentators stretching back to ancient times. For modern Jews, a hat will not tell you how important a person is. Any person can wear a kippa or a hat, so of course it doesn’t in any way suggest one is a priest or a rabbi. This is the symbol for all the people, common and otherwise.

That is not to say that wearing a certain style of yarmulke does not tell us a lot about a person. Though it might mean little to the outside world, a kippa will tell a person a lot about your religious affiliation.

The orthodox and chassidic often prefer the most modest colors, are you a black velvet type of guy? Or are you more kippa sruga – do you go knitted, are you more Modern Orthodox or even Religious Zionist? Maybe you’re a friend of the Nachs, the Breslovs and wear a Rebbe Nachman cap as you dance in the middle of traffic. Are you a kabbalist who wears white? Or maybe you’re more exotic and wouldn’t mind davening in a Bukharian kippa or fez.

The way one covers, and the style they prefer on their head, can say a lot to others. Does one wear it well, or just awkwardly? Maybe you are in protest, and don’t wear one at all. Either which way, in many cases the way one wears a yarmulke speaks loudly about the person. Much more than the outside world appreciates. But they mean something different according to their application in each custom or persuasion.

And hats for the religious Jew are no less telling. Take just orthodox Jews alone. They all seem the same to the outside world, but to the Jew a person’s hat can tell us a lot about them.

Whats interesting is that often times I will be with friends around town or I’ll be working a job, and as I have people come up to me and start talking I can quickly mention the community or background of this person I’ve just met. Jews tend to brighten up, that I “get it” and they don’t have to explain themselves. But my friends and coworkers often look at me strangely wondering how I “profiled” a person. Well, its nothing mental and it’s certainly not clairvoyance.

As our new friend walks away, I can then begin to explain what everyone else missed, but that speaks subtly to me. This man is saying something, be it with a Brooklyn-style hat or even an old world shtreimel. And if one wears a hat, what type and how do they wear it? Maybe you’re a Spanish-Portuguese Jew in top hat. The style and brand, the shape or the bend in the bill, a pinch or no pinch, dimpled or not dimpled, black or gray? Little touches and accents to your hat can most often tell a person a lot about who you are and your temperament.

You know right away what sect or school of mind a person is from by this. Different schools have a different “uniform” and “cap.”

And for each person it fits differently as well, not every person is identical even if they are similarly styled. Each shows his own character in the way he fashion and handles himself.

These days I’m not really into looking very religious, not that I’m against it. It’s just not where I’m at in my life right now. I’m more interested in doing religious, than looking like it. I’ll admit, aside from prayer and learning I don’t wear kippot often enough. I do when I engage in soulful stuff, as I feel the need like any other Jew does. Much more often at home than when out of the house, oddly enough.

But when shabbat comes, I find myself more intensely getting back into the old mindset of my younger days. Sometimes I just slip back to that mood for no reason, just because that is where my head is today. I take out my hat, clean it and get ready to slip into the comfort of the sabbath.

One may also wear a hat during prayer, to increase this sense of awareness of G-d’s presence. I take it out for that purpose more often these days as well.

Shmueli GonzalesEven more so, like many people of the chassidic philosophy, I especially make special note to wear a hat on the sabbath. As we are mystically taught in the Talmud, on the day of Shabbat we are given a second soul. (Bavli Beitzah 16a) We are given an additional soul, in order to have a double helping of Shabbat joy. To symbolize this many wear a second hat; meaning a kippah and a dress-hat, both. Since each living soul should wear a hat, we deck ourselves with two; one for each soul that we are dressing for the occasion.

Even then as I don my hat, I also keep in mind that I’m not taking on a costume. Nor am I conforming or being nostalgic. But only people who have lived that experience would know what I mean. Recently a friend saw a picture on Facebook of me going out in my hat. Being that we both came out of the same chassidic sect and schools of though, he takes notices of things that only another travelers would notice and also take comfort at the sight.

As I’m walking out the door one day I get a message. Taking notice of the make and color of the hat he texts back excited. And in response I begin to reminisce of the old days, when we were younger and supposedly more level-headed. I talk about the years before this hat was rained on, rusted on, moth bitten, stomped on, and then restored to be worn proudly with scars. But I love my roughed-up hat, because it’s a lot like me. And it says a lot about me. And it also says a lot about what has been put into my head as well. The examples and mindset I follow. He gets excited at the special appearance of the old gray hat as much as I do:

CHAIM: “Same color as the Lubavitche Rebbe before he was the Rebbe! Nice!”

SHMU: “I loved it, being so young and already well hatted. you know, the hat is the sign your serious. but it was cute. the old guys would be all, “look at this hat, how much did it cost? only a Yid would buy such a fine hat, im telling you… feel it… right, like i said…” hahaha and then someone’s father comes in from Kfar Chabad with a shtreimel that puts us all to shame. heheheh but something as simple as a hat sometimes says a lot about a persons temperament and influences that few outsides appreciate.”

And in that way, a friend who knows me as close as a brother can point out to others how I’m of a certain philosophy, while also appreciating my less than dogmatic approach regarding my chassidut. He sees the uniqueness and personal styling lost on the untrained observer who just sees another one of “them.”

Ever since then my head has been wrapped around this topic (no pun intended). The topic of hats and turbans. The elegance and gracefulness of them. The poised way a fine and fitted hat makes one feel. Not just how warm its keeping me this winter. But also the gentle and refined spirit that they can bring over a person who understands and values the symbolism. The person who wants to not just look his best, but also think and feel his best.

This shabbat, maybe you want to give it a try. Do you feel a second soul welling up? Is there double the joy inside that you just want to dress up and celebrate? Maybe you should try wearing a hat. It just might be something that simple that can help set your head into shabbat mode.

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Parshat Terumah (5774)


Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

G-d Asks for the Work of the Artisan

This parsha is about beauty and closeness to G-d. It is displayed for us through the story and details surrounding the creation of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle – as well as the holy ritual objects of the sanctuary. Today our chumash reading explains the work and artistry that went into the creation of the first temple compound. So this week’s lesson is about the work of the artist as well.

This iotti tailors one of the most loved of the parashiot for the artists and the craftsman. This parsha lays out the details of the holy place and items that were to be constructed. We read not just of the holy tent, but also learn the details concerning the most sacred and precious items such as the Ark of the Covenant and Menorah. For this reason architects and artisans alike have often turned to this parsha for grand inspiration.

So I come looking for something to speak to that creativity deep in me. And most surprisingly I find myself lingering here in our fifth reading.

At the top of our text it presents us with the instructions for certain items that needed to be woven for the mishkan. Among them are the parochet and the masach – the dividing partition and the screen-door to the inner-sanctuary.

This reading begins by detailing the first of these items that secure the tent sanctuary. It starts with the parochet – the cloth partition wall, the so-called “veil” of the tabernacle. We read:

“And you shall make a dividing curtain

of blue,

purple,

crimson,

and fine twisted linen –

the work of a master weaver.

And woven on to it shall be cherubim.”

| Ve’asita parochet

| techelet

| ve’argaman

| vetola’at

| shani veshesh moshezar

| ma’aseh choshev

| ya’aseh otah keruvim.

Exodus 26:31

Near the end of our reading we have an almost identical verse as it describes the masach. Here we also read:

“And you shall make a screen

for the door of the tent

of blue,

purple,

crimson,

and fine twisted linen –

the work of an embroiderer.”

| Ve’asita masach

| lefetach ha’ohel

| techelet

| ve’argaman

| vetola’at

| shani veshesh moshezar

| ma’aseh rokem

Exodus 26:36

These verses may not seem very deep, but they speak a lot to me. Of course for the scholar and the masters there are many deep and amazing things that can be brought down for these verses. About the colors spoken of (tichelet!), about the use of linen and the use of wool, or even the glory of G-d that they are supposed to be shrouded within. But today I’m not talking to scholars or tzadkim – I’m talking to the ben-oni, the common man like me, who face the everyday hardships and sorrows. I’ll tell you what I see.

When I look at this verse, even in my very common ways, I can’t help but be struck by the beauty of these verses. Me of all people, who is known for being rough. Yes, the punk exterior of me and my pals often comes off as boorish and untamed to some people. And then I sit and ask strangers to entertain the beauty of weaving and needlepoint. That’s just my way.

They listen to me because of my sincerity as I ask them to practically consider crochet and doilies. With an attention to the delicacy that is so polar opposite to the role I’m supposed to play in their mind.

I can talk about it with passion because in this I see more than the facts and the Talmudic connections that slice through this text in my mind as I read. I get caught in the colors and the texture of it all.

And truth is, this text also touches me in a way that even I least expect. Not just because of the frilly and froufrou nature of these works. But also because these verse talk about division and separation. The protecting of the sacred space, by shrouding its inner sacredness from the outside. My rebel nature doesn’t like the idea of not being let in, I want to see it all and right now. That is how my anxious and curious nature normally works.

And so it is in the minds of many anxious and inspired readers as they read this parsha. We notice of all the wonders of the holy space and the sacred objects, and just when we get to the good parts, we then read about the partitions and screens that only the priests would be allowed to pass through.

Now notice these partitions are of wool threads and the screens of linen. The parochet is woven, the masach is likewise of cloth though it is embroidered. On the parochet we are told there were keruvim – cherambim, the forms mystical creations – woven into it.

What extra details can our tradition give us about this type of craft? The Talmud, and Rashi in-tern, describe this type of work more clearly when expounding upon verse 36. We are taught that the embroidery of the screen-door was blue, purple and deep-red like the parochet, but here Rashi also tells us that the needlepoint was done on the face and on the reverse as well. Both sides of the screen were covered with matching embroidery running through them, made of the richest threads they could produce. This wasn’t just a hollow-set or poster approach, it was adorned and decorated for appreciation outside and within, both front and back.

Yes, my restless mind wants to go inside, as there is something yet to be seen. So what stops a person here? Nothing more than the beauty of the threads and boldness of their colors. Even though one’s mind should tell them to rush forward in curiosity, the patterns catch my attention and mentally draw me back. You see the body and spirit wants to rush forward, but the soul stops it all at the patterned threads. And so in the face of these holy, royal and cautious colors I stop to consider the art instead.

Now there is a part of us all, which in the face of this type of example, wants to ask, “Why?” Why can’t I go inside to see what it looks like? Is it really the same? What are they hiding in there? We can’t help but ask why this is so, as the tabernacle veil is the archetypal example of spiritual barriers and limitations.

So what is this partition which drapes the sanctuary? We don’t really need a difficult explanation delivered to us. We know what is being protected. And when we consider it, the Holy of Hollies isn’t being protected from us. Quite to the contrary, we are being protected from the wonders within. From the amazing glory of Hashem. We are all aware of the safety measures taken for the priests, for when they are allowed to go there, and of their care in order to preserve their lives.

Yet our master Rashi, always in his tone as personal teacher, points this out again with care. He demystifies the masach as being a viylon – a curtain or a drape, not much more. Citing Job 1:10, Rashi tells us that this is like a hedge of protection; he uses his understanding of a mutual meaning as shared by the similar sounding, yet differently spelled, root words. By focusing on this thought, he asks us to consider the protection that G-d sets around those whom He blesses. This is what we understand as he says this, that by masach (screen-door) we are actually talking of lishon magen – a term for a protection, a shield.

Does art bring out the softer side in you too?

Does art bring out the softer side in you too?

These screens and partitions bore symbols of warning blazoned on them in brilliant threads. But not the “magen David” – the Shield of David, the “star of David.” No, instead they bore the symbols of the cherubim, the angelic creatures which guarded the inner chamber. This artistry was a warning to the outsiders of the danger and the glory within. Inside and out, they were woven and embroidered in this matching way to scream this in shocking colors.

However, as I look over the text I can’t help but entertain a thought. Could it be that there another reason still? Another reason to give a vision of this wonder on these partitions, one aside from warning people?

It appears to me that G-d did not just shut out the people from the Holy of Hollies without giving them a glimpse of the amazing and terrible realities within. On the very barrier instituted as a safety, on it G-d asked for the artisans to display a presentation for what was inside. These patters mirrored the golden standing cherubim within the Holy of Hollies and over the Ark of the Covenant.

For those who were not able to go inside and witness for themselves, it was displayed on the exterior. So that the average Israelite wouldn’t be left wondering and ever longing to see the deeper things.

In these so-called veils, we see the most exquisite craft works of the finest materials. Of the highest quality, and of the most delicate skill. But for as rich and precious as these works are, they are not really made for the benefit of G-d. They are made for us, for the benefit of the people. To protect us, and give us vision.

G-d doesn’t really need yarn crafts and needlepoint. It’s for people like you and me.

So when I see this barrier instead of wanting to mentally yank it down and march on in philosophically, I get stopped by the texture of the brilliant threads. The gentle artist in me demands I consider the layers of truth symbolized through these many loops and pulls woven into the pattern.

Now the artist in me also finds his eye lingering and his mind settling around another point. One which we first notice in the wording of verse 31, and that is then rightfully touched upon in the commentary for verse 36. Rashi’s commentary brings our attention to the final word of verse 36, and reads:

An embroiderer: Heb. רֹקֵם, the name of the craftsman, not the name of the craft. Its Aramaic translation is עוֹבַד צַיָיר, work of an artist, but not עוֹבֵד צִיוּר, work of artistry.”

רקם: שם האומן, ולא שם האומנות, ותרגומו עובד צייר.

Rashi to Exodus 26:36

Our teacher points out to us here, that when Hashem gave this command to the people He did not ask them to make art works for Him. Nor did He asked them to make crafts. What He asked the Israelites to do is make “maaseh rokem,” – works of artisans, the works of craftsmen. It mentions rokem – craftsmen, though not the craft itself.

In this view G-d is actually more interested in the artists, more than the art itself. After all, it wasn’t really for Him anyway. Though this artistry and toiling was done for the honor of Hashem, it was primarily prescribed in order to give us security and inspiration. G-d calls people to do this work, creating these screens and adorning them. He wants the works of artisans and craftsman – but the crafts are just the product, though not the impetus.

Here in the most unlikely of lessons, one seeming as exciting to a grown man as talking about frills and lace, we end up getting a touching lesson on how to reach the hearts of the restless masses.

I wish more of us were like Rashi and able to understand art in a deeper away. But not just “art for arts sake”, but art for the sake of the artists. For the interest of the people. Art which displays both the wonders and dangers of spiritual exploration. Here we are challenged to use ones skills and gifts to take people mentally and spiritually beyond what the physical limitations normally allow. A closeness to the spiritual other-side that can’t be safely achieved by any other way. In vivid and stylized forms, G-d asks the artisan to give his art.

In this lesson the Torah reaches out to people like me who are tough, and often hard to reach by any other means aside from art. And likewise, Rashi as a wise teacher reaches out to the seeming “youth at risk” and gives us art to display our creativity through, as opposed to rushing to do damage.

So now I hand this over to you. Take a good look for yourself. What do you see in the pattern?

Art Project Possibility: After I posted this lesson I came across this project in the newsletter of my hometown synagogue, it’s a communal art projects called “Torah Stitch By Stitch” started by Canadian artist Temma Gentles.

She explains the project this way, “Torah Stitch by Stitch is a project of ordinary people who want to experience the purpose, rigour and spirit of producing the holy texts. Rather than quill, ink and parchment, cross-stitch embroidery is used – a traditional method in many cultures for teaching young women to sew and to read.”

Their mission is described as follows: “It is possible – with 1463 volunteer stitchers plus fabricators and other helpers – that we will will produce the text of the Five Books of Moses. When these are assembled into 248 columns that comprise a Torah scroll, the artwork will occupy a space approximately 2 meters high by 86 meteres long. That would be a spectacular sight! And one tha tis sure to interest several prestigious museums.”

 See their website to sign-up for the $18 registration starter-kit!

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