A few nights ago, Mr. Hitler showed up in my dreams. We were just driving around an interstate highway in my home town (actually he was driving) and he was feeling depressed and slightly suicidal. We didn’t talk about Jews or war though (let alone my dozens of relatives who were murdered by his followers).
This week’s portion is primarily about skin diseases. However, it begins by discussing childbirth, ruling that if a woman has a baby boy, she is ritually impure for seven days (Lev. 12:1). Rashbam writes that after the first week the “impure blood” surrounding the boy has been eliminated, and so on the eighth day, the child is fit for circumcision.
This strikes me as a bit similar to the last portion. Last week in shul, the rabbi pointed out that the building of the Mishkan is a bit like creation: a lot of the terminology is similar, and it ends after seven days. And just as on the eighth day man starts creating the world on his/her own, the Mishkan was inaugurated on the eighth day. Just as the creation story ends with a sin and man’s awareness of death, the Mishkan story ends with the death of Nadab and Abihu (who apparently may have sinned in some way, as discussed in last week’s dvar).
Similarly, the first seven days of the child’s life are a part of creation, in the sense that the child is not fully part of the Jewish people. Just as the people didn’t really act during the first seven days of the Mishkan (leaving everything up to God and Moses), the mother doesn’t participate in Jewish ritual life during her child’s first seven days (because of ritual impurity).
Just as Jews recreated the world (after seven days of leaving everything up to God) by using the Tabernacle, they recreate a baby boy (in the sense of changing his body, and eliminating the mother’s ritual impurity) on the eighth day.
After two weeks of Pesach, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
This week’s portion includes the story of Nadab and Abihu, two sons of Aaron who, after burning incense at the Tabernacle, “offered strange fire” (Lev. 10:1) before God and then die.
What did they do wrong? What is this strange fire? The Talmudic sages offer lots of homiletic explanations, some of which sound a bit like lashon hara (e.g. speculating that the two young priests were drunk). On the other hand, Ibn Ezra gives a narrower halachic explanation, suggesting that they should have relied on the fire from heaven rather than putting fire on the alter themselves. This explanation reminds me of something I read in Richard Elliot Friedman’s Torah commentary about a decade ago: that to the ancient mind, ritual precision was really, really important.
At first glance, it may seem that the past is another country. On the other hand, I have just been through a week of ritual precision; I devoted my kitchen and half of my living room to eating and food preparation (and thus to chametz-free life) while I merely checked for chametz in the non-food half of my living room. When I went from the non-food half to the food half I washed my hands, just in case there were chametz crumbs in the non-food half that might spread into the food half. Although I’m sure many people didn’t think of this, on the other hand many people keep stringencies I don’t. In any event, Pesach’s emphasis on ritual precision seems to fit nicely with this week’s portion.
I spent the first few days of Pesach in my parents’ hometown and this week living on canned sardines and nuts. My last few meals should be a bit less austere, but still probably more austere than most: I didn’t want to be bothered with lots of cooking, so I covered up all my burners etc. (I did get a crockpot but when I was immersing it in the mikveh* the main part of it shattered; I can still use the bottom layer to heat food for a few minutes but it is not safe to leave it on for 48 hrs.) .
But still I have plenty of cold food (some of which I will heat up using the remains of the crockpot and/or yom tov candles: corned beef, pastrami, mackerel, blueback salmon for meat, also nuts, bananas, avocado/ground walnut salad. For dessert, chocolate marshmallows, cotton candy and vanilla icing. Also I think there will be food at shul which should take care of Fri and Sat lunch if I am lucky.
*See here for an explanation of this mitzvah.
After the fact notes: I was unable to go to shul Saturday due to bizarre circumstances (charity run closing off several miles of a street that I couldn’t go into suburbs without crossing). On positive side, it turns out that there is a spot in my apartment where, if I place food on the right table at the right time, the sun will warm them up just in time for lunch- worked today for marshmallows!
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)