Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

Always Be People

In Exodus on February 29, 2012 at 8:43 am

I get up at dawn
and look to the new daylight
with trepidation.

What am I to do?
Where am I to go?
Why do I not look inward?

What is strange worship?

Parsha Tetzaveh

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.

Exodus 27.20-21

Does our parsha teach us simply to keep a lamp burning in synagogue all the time? Or is the Torah trying to say something else here? Is the onus of this statement on the Israelites, the priesthood, or both?

Look at Saul in our special Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor (1 Samuel 15.2-34). How does he let the fire go out?

Precious Stones

In Exodus on February 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm

What is more precious?
Gemstones, giving gemstones, or
men giving gemstones?

Parsha Terumah

You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. These are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.

Exodus 25.2-7

These are the gifts that God requests of the people as a free-will offering to build the sanctuary in their midst. All of them would be quite valuable in the barter and trade economy of the time. Why does God request these things?  Why does God request them only from every person whose heart so moves him?

Our haftarah says of the house Solomon built, With regard to this House you are building — if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel. (1 Kings 6.12-13) Solomon’s house was built using forced labor (ibid. 5.27). What does this tell us?

What does it mean that the precious stones are meant for the ephod and breastpiece of the priest? (Exodus 28.4) What does it mean that the stones represent the people of Israel? (ibid. 28.9-12,15-21)

Isaiah says thou art precious in My sight, and honourable, and I have loved thee.  (43.4)  How does this inform our view of the parsha?  Does generosity relate to honor?  How?

Does the punishment fit the crime?

In Exodus on February 14, 2012 at 8:20 am

Walking down the street
looking left and right
one leg leads the other one.

Parsha Mishpatim

He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death.

Exodus 21.17

Why does our parsha ascribe harsh penalties for offenses such as this?

Democracy from Without

In Exodus, Midrash on February 10, 2012 at 7:39 am

I observe the world

and ponder it silently

as people pass by.


They make oblations

And words of thanksgiving.

I am cold and hungry.


Parsha Yitro

And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening. And when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said: ‘What is this thing that thou doest to the people?’

Exodus 18.13-14

Moses and the Israelites have left Egypt, survived war with Amalek, and begin the business of peoplehood. Yitro is there. Is Yitro of the people, or with them? It is not clear if Yitro is a monotheist. He talks about other gods plotting against God in verse 11. Is it made clear that Yitro has accepted something to do with God. What do you suppose that is?

Yitro was a priest of Midian. He was Moses father-in-law, but an outsider. He worshipped idols, and likely engaged in despicable rites (child sacrifice?) before he made his statement in 18.11. Now we see him lecturing Moses on democracy. How’s that for a complete 360? How can this be?

Look at this from Yitro’s perspective. Where he came from: gods asked, people did. It didn’t matter what the gods asked for. They could ask for compassion, or for your wife or your first-born to be burned alive. People served gods, even when those gods where fellow humans, like Pharoah. So, with this in mind, how do you think Yitro felt when he saw the people, Moses among them, behaving this way?

Is Yitro a prophet? Does it mean anything that he is a ger?

What does this parsha say about our society?

Midianite Fire

In Exodus, Midrash on February 6, 2012 at 12:12 am

I have Christian friends
who celebrate Passover
with me, and I’m glad.

They sit on cushions,
read the wine, drink the stories,
and journey with me.

We both recollect
all the good things, and give thanks.
Who am I to judge?

Parsha Yitro

Yitro, priest of Midian…
Exodus 18.1

And Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt-offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.
Exodus 18.12

Jethro and Moses, as in Exodus 18, watercolor ...

Jethro and Moses, by James Jacques Tissot

What is Yitro, a priest of Midian, doing with a bunch of Israelites? Why does he offer sacrifices to God? Why does God allow Yitro, priest of Midian, to make the offering in the first place, when Nadab and Abihu, pedigreed Israelites themselves, are later killed in the process of making their own?

The text says this about Nadab and Abihu.

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
Leviticus 10.1

An obvious interpretation would seem to be, “The laws in Leviticus were given after Exodus, and therefore Yitro couldn’t be faulted for making his own offering. Besides, he converted.” See Rashi on Exodus 18.1. The second supposition is contradicted by our passage in Leviticus. Yitro’s religious and genetic status is irrelevant. If it weren’t, Yitro of Midian would have been destroyed, and Nadab and Abihu of Israel would have survived. Things didn’t happen this way. And did Yitro convert in Rashi’s (or our) sense of the word? because Yitro says, Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods; yea, for that they dealt proudly against them. (Exodus 18.11)

What about the first supposition? “The laws in Leviticus were given after Exodus, and therefore Yitro couldn’t be faulted for making his own offering.” This is the easy way out. How can you assert this, and at the same time assert that Onan, who spilled his seed rather than father children on his levirate wife (Genesis 38.8-10) met with his just desserts when levirate marriage wasn’t mandated as law until Deuteronomy 25.5-6? How can you assert this, and at the same time assert that Cain, who murdered Abel (Genesis 4.8) got his just desserts when the murder wasn’t explicitly prohibited until the Ten Utterances in Exodus 20.1-17?

In the case of Onan, Onan is told by Judah to do his dead brother’s duty by Tamar, and raise children in his brother’s place. This makes it clear that some social standard dictated this behavior before it was ever set in the Torah. Note that Onan did not just spill it [seed] on the ground, but he knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother. (Genesis 38.9) In spite of Judah’s initial command, Onan’s behavior is not prohibited by Godly decree at this point. Why then is Onan punished in verse 10?

In the case of Cain, God offers Cain comfort (If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up?) and counsel (and unto thee is its [sin’s] desire, but thou mayest rule over it.) (ibid. 4.7). What does Cain do? And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him (ibid. 4.8). Cain is made a wanderer and fugitive (ibid. 4.12). In spite of God’s advice, as big a deal as that may be, God made no prohibition. Cain was given an open choice. Why then is Cain punished for his actions?

In the case of Nadab and Abihu, the text clearly states He had not commanded them. Why then did they do what they did? There is no preamble to this story. Aaron had just completed the rituals described in Leviticus 9. All of Israel was gathered to watch the ceremony. What were Nadab and Abihu doing? What makes fire strange (zara): the fire (aish), or the what’s done with it (vayikrivu lifnei ” aish zara – asher lo tziavooh otam)? Note in our text that the fire wasn’t strange until after they’d put fire therein and laid incense thereon and offered it. Were they honoring God, or themselves? Incense offering was mandated by God in Exodus 30: to Aaron.

So the first supposition is contradicted. None of these events are subject to an explicit prohibition at their time but all of the characters suffer consequences for their actions.

These events also have this in common: strange intent. Onan decided to deny his brother a share in the world to come. Cain planned to lure his brother into a field and kill him. Nadab and Abihu prepared their coup d’état as a fait accompli in advance. And if you’re not satisfied on this point: if Nadab and Abihu weren’t given this ritual to perform, why did they have their censers there in the first place?

What did Yitro do? He praises God, makes thanksgiving for the well-being of his children, and shares a meal with his extended family. Our families should all be so ideal.

What does this teach?  Laws define finitely.   Intentions define infinitely.

Does any one person or thing hold the monopoly on good and bad ideas? Who or what judges a thing to be “good”: You, Me, God, Life? Are all laws of morality determined subjectively, or are some axiomatic? Is it one thing to willfully live life, and another to willfully manipulate religion?

Parents and Children

In Exodus on February 3, 2012 at 8:00 am

You sit there in the
corner, red-rimmed eyes, gasping,
shuddering, afraid.

You know, this hurts me
more than you can ever know.
How do I teach you?

I love you, child.
This estrangement, punishment.
You will know one day.

Parsha Beshalach

The Lord, the Warrior — 
Lord is His name!

Exodus 15.3

Our parsha emphasizes God the Warrior who protects who he chooses and smites everyone else.  A masculine image.  Deborah in our haftarah has this to say.

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother,
Behind the lattice she whined:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”
The wisest of her ladies give answer;
She, too, replies to herself:
“They must be dividing the spoil they have found:
A damsel or two for each man,
Spoil of dyed cloths for Sisera,
Spoil of embroidered cloths,
A couple of embroidered cloths
Round every neck as spoil.”

Judges 5.28-30

Why doesn’t our Torah text say this of the Egyptians killed in the Red Sea?  Why do the Israelites sing so joyously at the Egyptian’s deaths?  Or, put another way, why do the Israelites celebrate the death of fellow human beings?  Is God supposed to be a lion, a manly destroyer of his opponents, or a lioness, a feminine defender of her cubs?  Is one mutually exclusive of the other?  Are they supposed to be?

For I the LORD change not (Malachi 3.6).  Can they be?

Do mothers cry when they discipline children?