This week’s Torah portion is another dry discussion of sacrifices. Commenting on the priests’ duties, Rashi writes that God tells Moses to “win them over [Aaron and his sons] with fair words”, implying that the priestly duties, rather than being an honor that Aaron should be happy about, are maybe not such a great thing. Rashi may believe that just as Moses was afraid of the responsibility of leading the Hebrews, Aaron was afraid of the responsibility of priesthood (understandably since the Torah keeps telling us that priestly slip-ups could lead to death).
More broadly, this sort of remark makes me appreciate Rashi (who I often am not moved by). Although Rashi’s interpretations often seem fanciful to me, maybe a little fancifulness is necessary to make some parts of the Torah seem interesting to an audience thousands of years removed from Temples and sacrifices. On the other hand, I don’t appreciate this style as much when I read the parts of the Torah that are already pretty interesting even without midrash.
This week’s portion, the first in Leviticus, focuses on various sacrifices, including the peace-offering (Lev. 3:1). Rashbam* writes that because “the owner [of a sacrificed animal] and the officiant [that is, officiating priest] receieve portions from this sacrifice, its effect is peace and harmony.” In other words, sharing brings peace.
The issue of sharing is actually relevant to this week’s headline news: the Israeli elections. It seems to me that the Israeli political system promotes this value of sharing in a way that the American system miserably fails to do.
In the US, there are two political parties, each of which is so homogenous that a legislator must usually toe the party line nearly 100% of the time to get renominated. Thus, power cannot be effectively shared. If one party wins both the Presidency and Congress, they are virtually a dictatorship until the next Congressional election; President Bush could have probably nominated Osama bin Laden for a federal judgeship and gotten 51 votes for him. On the other hand, if control is split (or if the minority party uses the filibuster to tie the Senate up in knots, as has occurred in recent years) the system virtually breaks down, as government routinely comes close to shutting down or even defaulting on its debts.
In Israel, by contrast, elections are decided based on proportional representation, which in turn leads to so many political parties that one party never has a majority. To get power, the leaders of the dominant party (currently Likud) must share power with other parties. Although negative campaigning occurs, each party’s leaders know every other party’s leaders may eventually be its colleagues in government. Even Likud and Labor (now Zionist Camp), the two leading parties, have occasionally shared power in a national unity government. In short, Israel’s system promotes the idea of sharing- and coalition governments are usually reasonably effective until they dissolve, it is also more effective in preventing gridlock than the American system!
*Or more precisely the Soncino Chumash paraphrasing him.
This coming week’s Torah portion is about the construction of the Tabernacle (as opposed to the directions for such construction in earlier portions, which of course is very similar to this portion). Early in the second of our double portions, the Torah states that “All the gold… was twenty and nine talents” but does not mention what was done with the gold (Exodus 38:24). By contrast, a few verses later the Torah mentions that silver was “for casting the sockets of the sanctuary, and the sockets of the veil” (38:27). Why doesn’t the Torah mention the practical use for the gold donations?
Ibn Ezra suggests that the gold was brought merely as an atonement for the golden calf. How should we feel about this? On the one hand, there’s something distasteful about money being used as a get-out-of-free card; it seems to similar to medieval Catholic indulgence-selling.
But I think the Torah is trying to give us a dose of irony here. The sin of the golden calf was committed with gold- so in a way, it makes sense in a “measure for measure” way for Jews to use gold for more useful purposes.
Since last week’s Torah portion was primarily about the Golden Calf, I had a golden calf themed meal: soy burgers with corn and mustard (all more or less golden foods).
Also pumpkin, peaches, apricots, hamantashen and a bit of chocolate left over from Purim
This coming week’s portion involves the notorious Golden Calf Affair, which raises numerous questions:
1. Why would the Jews be dumb enough to fall for the whole thing?
2. Afterwards the Levites kill a few thousand people (Exodus 32:28)- but if the sin is as universal as the portion implies why that few?
Exodus 32:4, as translated by the Soncino chumash, contains a possible hint: “they said ‘This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” Who is the “they” in question? One might think it is the people as a whole.
But Rashi notes that the words were addressed to Israel as a whole, which implies that not everyone is making this statement. Also, if the entire people had proclaimed the calf as a deity, they would have said “This is our god…” Thus, it appears that only a minority of the people were making this proclamation.
Rashi infers that this minority is “not the native-born israelites … but the mixed multitude who came out of Egypt with them” (quoting the Chumash). In other words, the mixed multitude said “this is your God” to Israel, which certainly sounds right grammatically. And it would make sense that non-Hebrews would be less invested in the whole monotheism concept than Hebrews.
Also, Rashi’s explanation solves the difficulty of why 3000 people get killed later on- only a minority were openly polytheistic, so only a minority got whacked.
Because the Torah portion mentioned the priests wearing pomegranates (Exodus 28:33) I had a somewhat pomegranate themed meal: pomegranate yogurt, pomegranate juice to drink, pancakes made with pomegranate juice (not that good, I could barely taste the fruit), pomegranate sorbet (very interesting- made it with fudge mix and pomegranate juice, tasted just like regular sorbet).
pizza salmon (with feta sheep cheese, since the portion mentions sacrificing rams, 29:19, and pizza sauce to have something red since Aaron’s breastplate is scarlet, 28:15)
bread without yeast w/some oil (since the portion mentions unleavened cakes mixed with olive oil, 29:2)
blueberry purple cake (since the portion mentions that Aaron shall wear a purple/blue breastplate, 28:15)
Also BBQ salmon, for no particularly good reason
and oreo fudge mix with water (not as good as the pom juice version or last week’s goat milk version)
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.