While discussing Moses’ ordination of Aaron as high priest, this week’s portion mentions something called a “wave offering”. (Exodus 29:24). Rashi explains that this means that Moses must wave his hands in all directions to acknowledge Divine supremacy over the four quarters of the Earth. So what is the Torah trying to tell us? Maybe that when we think of closeness to God, we shouldn’t think of it as that hard: God is, so to speak, in the air.
Incidentally, this sounds a lot like what Jews do with the etrog and lulav during Sukkot.
In this week’s portion, God gives Moses a variety of directions for the Tabernacle. Among other things, God tells Moses to get “acacia-wood” (Exodus 25:5).
Where does this wood come from? Rashi writes “Rabbi Tanchuma explained that our father Jacob foresaw with the holy spirit that the Israelites were destined to build a Mishkan in the desert, so he brought cedars to Egypt and planted them. He commanded his sons to take them with them when they left Egypt.”
By contrast, according to the Soncino Chumash Ibn Ezra says the Jews “found this wood in a forest near Sinai.”
This illustrates a common distinction between Torah commentators: some prefer to spin fabulous tales of prophecy and miracles, while others prefer to limit miracles to those obvious from the text of the Torah. I prefer the latter view, since I believe that there is already a larger world religion that seems ideally suited to people who are willing to fall for absolutely anything (hint: it is as big as Islam and isn’t Islam).
Although I am often tempted to dismiss fairy-tale midrashim as completely worthless, I have to admit that there is probably some value in wild-eyed legends: they hold the attention of children of all ages, and are sometimes useful for making broader ideological points.
Last week’s Torah portion says that if a fire on one farmer’s property causes corn on another’s land to be destroyed (Exodus 22:5) the first shall compensate the second. So I made cornbread.
And since I was out of town with no cooking facilities, I had a lot of prepackaged food:
canned eggplant with rice
mackerel with peach yogurt (I was going to get soy protein in honor of 18:19, the milk-meat prohibition, but I couldn’t find a full service grocery store in the limited time I gave myself)
chocolates for dessert
matzoh instead of challah because the portion mentions Passover
In this coming week’s Torah portion, as in a few others, the Torah warns against oppressing strangers (Exodus 23:9). At first glance, I thought “yawn- what else is new”? But Rashi has an interesting spin on that, pointing out a reason for this principle: he comes from an idolatrous environment, and any injustice done to him may impel him to return to his former ways.
In other words, Rashi is arguing that oppressing strangers is especially bad because religious conversions are fragile. If you are born Jewish, you probably aren’t going to leave Judaism just because some Jews are jerks – you kind of assume that’s just part of life. But if you are newly Jewish (or if you move from one version of Judaism to another) you are probably doing so because of relationships; you have met a bunch of Jews (or frum Jews, if you are a baal teshuva) who seem like super people. So if these Jews suddenly stop seeming so great, the basis for your religious evolution is crushed, and it is relatively easy to revert back to your former self.
Also: tofu w.yellow curry
leftover fruit from Tu’b’Shevat (kiwi, a plum, peaches)
attempted crepes made from said leftover fruit (I say “attempted” because the crepes weren’t heavy enough to hold them, so they wound up being a kind of incoherent mix)
frozen snickerdoodle fudge
Yitro comes to the Hebrew camp after the war with Amalek. At first glance, it looks like he is motivated by the defeat of Egypt. But this makes no logical sense; how would a Midianite tribal chief have learned about a battle at the Red Sea in the days before newspapers and television and mail.
My email dvar Torah from Yeshivat Har Etzion has a more plausible spin: “but it seems very likely, on the basis of the juxtaposition of the two episodes in the text, that as Amalek’s neighbor… Yitro comes to make peace with Israel after Amalek’s defeat at Refidim.”
At the start of this coming week’s portion, Yitro (Moses’s father in law) tells him to stop dispensing justice single-handedly, and to appoint “rulers of thousands” (Exodus 18:21). I had always thought this meant “one judge for every thousand men”, and Rashi agrees.
However, Ibn Ezra has a different slant. He says that these should be people who (in Soncino’s words) “possess a thousand slaves or paid servants, and their actual number was twelve.” Given that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt , it seems hard for me to imagine them collecting that many slaves themselves, let alone persuading them to join them in leaving Egypt.
Why would Ibn Ezra imagine any Jew having 1000 slaves? Here’s a hypothesis: Ibn Ezra wandered throughout Europe and the Middle East, so maybe he saw big cities with immense wealth, and thus found it easier to imagine someone who could afford 1000 servants/slaves. By contrast, Rashi spent all his life in small towns (Troyes and Worms) and so perhaps was less likely to imagine such large-scale wealth.
At any rate, the judges don’t eliminate all of Moses’s workload. According to Nachmanides, they merely judge civil disputes while Moses teaches Torah. Here we see the evolution of a state: it begins with a priest-king (Moses) and as life gets more complex, we start to see a division of labor.
The Haftorah mentions Yael feeding Sisera milk (Judges 4:19), so I decided on a pretty milk oriented meal today: polenta with milk (both pan fried and baked). Why polenta? I just had it lying around.
Also some ice cream for dessert (with snickerdoodle fudge mixed in)
And a sort-of kosher poutine: sweet potato fries with cottage cheese (as a kind of substitute for the curds in a real poutine).
And because the manna tasted like wafers mixed with honey (Exodus 16:32), I made honey matzo brei- matzo (the wafers) mixed with date honey and bee honey (because when in doubt why not try both)?
And finally soy chicken because the Jews yearned for the flesh pots of Egypt (16:3) so I thought I would have pseudo-flesh. (Why not real meat? (a) because of the dairy part of the meal and (b) because there’s a midrash saying they didn’t actually eat the flesh, so soy flesh seemed more appropriate anyhow!)
Also lentils w/diced tomatoes, yellow curry* just because I realized this was not a super nutritious meal, as well as some waffle fries that were just lying around.
*Thai Treat sells kosher yellow curry
After producing some water, Moses says to the Hebrews: “If thou will diligently hearken to the voice of God, and wilt do that which is right in His eyes… I will put none of the diseases upon thee, which I have put upon the Egyptians” (Ex. 15:26).
Nachmanides points out that this language means (as paraphrased by the Soncino Chumash) that “if a man is honest in his business and gains the esteem of his fellows, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had fulfilled the whole Torah.” In other words, commonsense morality and getting along with others is implicitly part of the Torah, even beyond the letter of the law.
This rule relates to one difference between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. Some Orthodox commentators believe that Conservative Jews are too willing to change halacha based on secular morality (e.g. Conservative support of egalitarianism, gay rights etc). But I’m not sure people who make this argument quite understand the Conservative case. It seems to me that what Orthodox Jews see as “secular morality”, Conservatives see as the sort of commonsense morality implicit in Ex. 15:22. In other words, because Conservatives see equality as part of “what is right” generally, they see it as something like being “honest in business and gaining the esteem of one’s fellows”- that is, as part of the broad general principles underlying the Torah’s rules.
Having said that, there is also a legitimate counterargument. Let me begin with an analogy to the Constitution. Some constitutional scholars rely on the “general intent” underlying the Constitution- that is, on broad values such as liberty and equality. But if the general intent of the Constitution overrides its specific words, what’s the point of having a Constitution? Similarly, one could argue that an overemphasis on the “general intent” of halacha risks watering down Judaism into “being a good person”, thus eliminating what makes Judaism distinctive.
On the other other hand, if we ignore those general values and focus exclusively on who said what 15 centuries ago… that way madness lies (See, e.g. Islam, Radical).
This week’s Torah portion mentions the Passover sacrifice of unleavened bread with lamb (Exodus 12:8). (Also bitter herbs, but I think I accidentally got radish instead of horseradish-Ibn Ezra says that there is an Egyptian custom of mustard as a bitter herb, so I am having that too).
So I am having matzoh for hamotzi instead of challah.
And because the portion includes the plague of locusts, in which the locusts ate “every green thing” (Ex 10:15) I am having a couple of green vegetables (cabbage and peas) .
Because the Jews plundered the Egyptians’ gold and silver (12:35) I am making a “gold and silver” salad of pumpkin and corn (gold) and herring (silver).
Finally, the Jews go to a land overflowing with “milk and honey” (12:5). Since I have a meat meal I can’t use real milk, but am mixing almond milk and date syrup and freezing the mixture, to create a kind of “date ice”. And for a more boring sweet I also have blueberry blintzes (which are kind of “gold” when cooked, see gold and silver reference above).