This week’s Torah portion is all about various diseases that render one ritually impure. One of the first passages refer to someone who has a white “blotch, a creamy blotch, or a spot” (Lev. 13:2).
Miller says that one way of looking at these diseases is as variations on an inflated ego. A blotch is “a swelling underneath the skin… the veiled ego which other persons do not notice.” The “creamy blotch” is a more moderate “form of ego [that] will make you feel superior to other people, but not over those who exceed you in wisdom or stature.”
In other words, Miller is setting a pretty high ethical bar, suggesting that we should not feel superior even to those who do not “exceed you in wisdom or stature.” But this begs the question: why not?
On the one hand, people who are below me in wisdom or stature might have suffered from disadvantages that I don’t (e.g. poverty, a poor home environment in other ways).
On the other, shouldn’t I feel superior to Himmler?
Pesach is over; the second half was very nice in its own way. I spent chol hamoed being a tourist (visiting the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens) instead of working, and had my second yom tov meals in all kinds of places (one home with food from Pomegranate, another from Kosher Marketplace, one at shul, and another being hosted by someone from another shul).
At any rate, back to normal life. Miller’s Chumash writes that when Aaron inaugurates the Tabernacle with various sacrifices, “no trace of that sin [the Golden Calf] could still be attributed to Aaron, and he was totally forgiven” (commentary to Lev. 9:11) and that “God had already forgiven the people for the Golden Calf” (9:22). This kind of surprised me, because I’m pretty sure I’ve read somewhere that the Golden Calf has been a continuous source of punishment in some sense. Are these two views in conflict or is there a way to reconcile them?
I’ve had relationships where there were wrong turns- and sometimes even when things are repaired they aren’t quite as before; after things went wrong I was a little wary of the other person, a little less trusting. Maybe that’s the best analogy I can think of.
For the first time since I moved here in 2011 (which is to say my first time ever) I’m spending Pesach in NYC; my sister in law had recently been ill and I wasn’t sure she wanted to host the seder (to summarize a complicated scenario briefly).
Since I have advantages in NY that I don’t have in other places (an employer giving me chol hamoed off, plus kosher restaurants etc that are open) I’m trying to treat it as sort of resort like instead of just eating canned mackerel for every meal: I had stuffed cabbage from Mendy’s over yom tov, pastrami from Mr. Broadway for lunch today, and dinner from Colbeh (better than either) tonight. I am not sure whether to just have Colbeh leftovers tomorrow or something else as well.
“This is the law of the guilt-offering. It is most holy.” (Lev. 7:1).
Miller writes: “The verse can be read as follows: this is the law regarding what makes a person guilty of sin- he feels that he is ‘most holy’. If you feel that you are perfect, you are most likely to sin.”
In other words, pride goeth before a fall. Yet I constantly have read over the years about why we should be proud to be American, proud to be Jewish, etc.
And the people most likely to favor making wars on other countries also tend to be the ones blathering about “American exceptionalism”- the idea that we are really great. The more exceptional we feel as Americans, the more likely we are to support bombing the dickens out of the rest of the world.
This week’s portion is all about the details of sacrifices. One of the most puzzling offerings is the guilt offering in case of doubt – that is, when one “is uncertain if he sinned” (Lev. 5:17). In that case, one offers a ram. Miller suggests that this is one of the more expensive offerings.
Why? “If you are uncertain if you have sinned you are in need of more atonement. When you know that you have sinned, you are sure that something needs correcting, which will probably lead you to act on your feelings. But if you are uncertain that you have sinned, you are likely to take the matter less seriously. Therefore a more powerful- and more expensive- atonement is necessary.”
I wonder how this worked out in practice. It would seem like anyone at all prone to self-doubt would be bringing a few rams a day. Or maybe that’s just me.
Maybe its harder to move on when you aren’t quite sure whether you did the right thing, and maybe the offering reflects this.
My usual guest isn’t coming and there isn’t a shul dinner this week, so I get to plan my own menu.
The Torah portion of the week that just ended mentions that the Tabernacle was made of gold, silver, and blue, red and purple yarn (among other things) (Exodus 35:6). So I’ll have
purple cabbage with red eggplant dip
pumpkin with schmaltz herring (that’s my gold and silver)
pizza from Calabria’s in Crown Heights (more gold)
cheese blintzes (ditto)
blue cotton candy (blue)
and multicolored marshmallow (all kinds of colors!)
The portion also mentions pomegranates on the priests’ robes (39:24) and that the menorah is shaped like almond blossoms (37:24) so there’ll be some pomegranate seedes and almonds in the cabbage salad.
The book of Exodus concludes with the construction of the Tabernacle. One midrash on this event is that Moses assembled and disassembled the Tabernacle every day for seven days in a row.
What’s the point of this weird story? Miller notes that the Tabernacle and its successors shrines were dismantled seven times over the centuries (including the Two Temples). He adds that this story of building and dismantling “is true in our personal experience. God gives us the power to rebuild our spiritual lives and inner sanctuaries, again and again. Although we may stumble or even collapse, we are always able to rise again.”
Kind of a Hallmark-card ending, but it does make the midrash make more sense.
This week’s Torah portion mentions that Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands before entering the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 30:19). This phrase may be the root of the modern custom of washing hands after waking up and before eating bread.
What’s the purpose of this? Miller writes: “Any cleaning process is the removal of impurity. Here the ‘impurity’ which the priest fears is any inappropriate motives that might creep into his worship… This is the very same purpose of our ritual washing every morning upon awakening, and before eating bread. When we begin to fulfill the needs of our body we pray to God that if our dealings with the world bring us into contact with something which God does not want, He should remove (“wash away”) any desire wewmight have to do that inappropriate action.” In other words, ritual washing is a kind of prayer for purity and go0dness.
This week’s Torah portion discusses the clothing of the High Priest, including pomegranates and bells on the bottom of his robe. The Torah states that the bells’ “sound should be heard when he enters the Holy Place before God” (28:35).
Miller responds that this verse is a lesson to everyone in a leadership role.. Just as bells make noise, “in a leadership position, you must speak forcefully… so that the people will be inspired by your words.” This, of course, doesn’t seem very related to the Torah portion.
But it is related to our time. The nation and the Republican Party is lead by a President who seems increasingly unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. If this had happened decades ago, the leaders of the Republican Party might have spoken forcefully about the problem, and found a way to make him retire. But ever since Trump won the Indiana primary, the leaders of the Party have been afraid to take him on: starting with Ted Cruz (who prematurely withdrew from the contest rather than fighting for an open convention) to the Republican National Committee (which could have stacked the Rules Committee to ensure that delegates could vote their conscience, which might have caused hundreds of delegates to switch from Trump to Cruz) to the Establishment Republicans who failed to mount a credible third-party alternative, to the Republican press lords and talk-show costs who rolled over (and continue to roll over) for Trump, to the Congressional Republicans who refuse to stand up to him.
Everyone who can lead is afraid to lead- the elected officials, I think, out of fear of Republican primaries; the Republican wing of the press out of greed (because let’s face it, Trump is good for ratings). Admittedly, the Democrats are pretty aggressive*- but they are the minority party, so they don’t have any power to speak of.
*Too much so, in my opinion. But that’s another discussion, and since this page is more about religion than about politics I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to discussing it.
At Shabbos dinner, one guest complained that Jews don’t act with enough kavanah (intentionality, or pure intentions) and said that doing mitzvah by rote is worthless. I wondered if this means I had to have kavanah for not, say, committing incest. Rabbi Miller actually addresses the point.
This week’s Torah portion begins: “Speak to Bnai Israel and have them dedicate to me a contribution.” (Exodus 25:2). Miller divides these contributions into two parts: (1) the act of donation by the donor and (2) the act of collection by the Tabernacle.
Miller engages in some fancy footwork here to make a moral point. He writes that donation is analogous to abstaining from evil, because just as a donation removes property, abstaining from evil removes something negative from yourself. By contrast, collection is analogous to doing good, because it elevates the world towards perfection.
He then writes (citing the Lubavitcher Rebbe): “the act of donation did not have to be accompanied by holy intentions, whereas the act of collection did.” (I’m not sure where this idea comes from). Thus, kavanah (pure intention) is not required for abstaining from negativity, but is required for positive action. So Miller’s opinion is that kavannah is not required for abstaining from incest, but might be necessary for something positive such as prayer.
Am I persuaded? From a supernatural perspective, I think the question is unanswerable; there is no way of knowing what God thinks, and the Torah is unclear.
From a naturalistic perspective, I sort of disagree, because I think kavannah and non-kavannah are more intertwined than a simple good-vs-evil dichotomy suggests. If I do a mitzvah (for example, prayer) regularly, it seems to me inevitable that I will think about what I am doing at least occasionally. So it seems to me that if you think of mitzvot with kavanah as a positive, and mitzvah without kavanah as a nullity, the latter is still positive insofar as it at least now and then leads to the former.