Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

D’var Torah given at Shacharis, Nissan 8 5772 – Tzav Parsha

In Exodus on March 31, 2012 at 1:02 pm

And now for something completely different.

The Book of Joshua, the first of the prophetic writings following the Torah, is the story of the Israelites’ initial conquest of Canaan.  Its a very violent book, being ostensibly a list of wars and genocides, enumerating in surgical detail the nations the Israelites conquered and the people they killed.  Its sterile tone makes the book seem callous at times, lending Joshua and the Israelites an cavalier and piratical attitude towards the land and the lives of the peoples in it.  Certain Rabbinic literature mentions “Joshua the Pirate.”  Sincerely playful, yes, but sincere first.

Let’s look at Joshua another way, a way we aren’t aware of, a way that has been lost in the West that modern man needs to study desperately.  It was introduced to me in an essay by Andre Neher, a gift to me from a beloved friend.   A Rabbinic derivation, invented by people who were as shocked by the text as we should be, this interpretation contends that Joshua sued for peace, not war, with the Canaanites.  Joshua’s story in a nutshell:  Moses is dead, Joshua is commanded by God to take the Israelites and conquer Canaan.  Joshua and the Israelites dwell on the shores of the Jordan for three days before crossing over and encamping on Jericho’s border, where Joshua has the people circumcised.  Joshua then sends spies into Jericho, before following God’s command to ride around the city for a week before the city walls fall.  The rest of the conquest takes place quickly.

Now for the questions.  How can the Torah assume a tone of peace and justify dispossessing people of their lives and land?  Why did Joshua hesitate on the banks of the Jordan for three days?  Why does Joshua wait to have the Israelites circumcised in hostile territory?  Why send scouts to Jericho, and parade around the city for a week?  Does this deviate from the previously straightforward command go into the land and possess it?  Why take all of this extra time when victory was divinely assured?  Was Joshua girding his people for war?  Or was Joshua giving the people every possible chance to build trust, have a dialogue, and find understanding, after precedents set by Moses and Abraham?

Does the Aleinu, attributed to Joshua in legend, read like a warrior’s ode to a fallen foe, or a peacemaker’s lament, caught between personal ideals and the real flesh and blood implications of divine expectations?  It is our duty to praise God and ascribe greatness to Him who has made our destiny different from theirs.

Does this have anything to do with our parsha?  We’ve just finished reading about the ritual of the sacrificial offerings, a portion we look at and say……why does God need a barbecue?

Let’s consider the matter seriously.  What were the Israelites trying to achieve here?  Every motion of the ceremony is described in such theatric detail that one can ask if the sacrifice itself is truly the point.  Could the idea be less about killing animals, and more about drawing the community together into a common religious language and identity?  Or is the whole thing an elaborate show?  Perhaps a little of both.  Judah Halevi notes that everyone in those days worshipped images, and Maimonides points out that sacrifice was the religious language of the time.  In other words, people believed with their eyes, and needed something to see and participate in.  (Have things really changed so much?)  Archeological evidence shows that Egypt worshipped a pantheon of images, and if the Israelites were as fickle as the episode of the Golden Calf suggests, did they worship a multitude of images too, each with their own rites and expectations?  Before monotheism could be substantively addressed with the community, did the individual tastes of the religiously cosmopolitan Israelites-in-Egypt need to be reconciled?  This idea is woven into the haggadah itself, which says Blessed are you, Adonai, who has gathered us from all people.  All of us, with our own unique customs, ideas, needs, hopes, desires, and prejudices come together at the Pesach table.  If the sacrificial rites drew the Israelites together, did the sacrifices themselves make their differences go up in smoke?

Two Temples were built.  Two Temples were destroyed.  Both perpetuated a decadent and out-of-touch theocracy, engaged in political intrigue, and promoted irrational self-interest.  Both were dedicated to God and idols, and both fueled family feuds and bloodshed.  Cattle sales boomed.  Does this sound like a house of prayer for all people, the sanctuary of a reconciled, harmonious community?  Or just another little house?

So barbecue wasn’t the answer, and guilt offerings weren’t our strong suit.  What else is there?  Does this make our tradition incomplete, as others wish we’d believe?  Or, as Nachmanides suggests, do the sacrifices have their own inner meaning?  Like the wise child on Passover, we ask ourselves “what does this all mean?”

Malachi, our haftarah prophet on this Shabbat Hagadol, begins by saying then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old.  But first I will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me:  Who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert the cause of the widow, orphan, and stranger.  He then talks about everything else we’ve done wrong.  This is comedy.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert teach us that comedy is prophetic.

Jeremiah is more succinct, saying for when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices.  Walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you … For I (the Lord) act with love (chesed), law (mishpat), and righteousness (tzi’dakah) in the world; I delight in these.

God herself is the most succinct of all in 1 Kings, saying to Solomon of his temple, about this house you’re building, (can you think of a man who’d say that?) before referring Solomon back to the Law, which includes the command in Leviticus, you will bear no grudge against your kinsman, love your neighbor as yourself.  Why is this expression of love found at the heart of Torah, at the heart of the book about sacrifice?

So what will be our Passover offering?  Here are some final thoughts.

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, a Spanish Rabbi and 15th century commentator, taught that the Tabernacle, the sanctuary for the tables of the covenant, is an expression of the world.  God made the world in the beginning, with a willing heart, and saw that it was good.  We are to make the world now, with a willing heart, and see that it is good, for ourselves and everyone else in it.

Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a Polish Philosopher in the 16th and 17th centuries, wrote that the tablets given to Moses by God were blank in the middle, waiting for our help filling them in.  Let’s make the story a good one.

The Fathers of Rabbi Nathan, compiled sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries, offers a midrash.  This is Judah Goldin’s translation.  Once as Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was coming forth from Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua followed after him and beheld the Temple in ruins.  “Woe unto us,” Rabbi Joshua cried, “that this, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste!”  “My son,” Rabban Johanan said to him, “be not grieved; we have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it?  It is acts of lovingkindness, as it is said, ‘For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

It seems to me, if we’d really lost something important, we should grieve.  But we are instructed not to.

We are taught to search out and burn our chametz before Passover, and for a week we learn to do without bread.  If the goal is to sanctify time by ordering our inner worlds as we order our outer worlds, can this be a spiritual Spring Cleaning too?  Can you identify something about yourself, something dear to you, something that gets in the way of lovingkindness, that you could give up for a week?  I challenge us all to do this.  We may find, together, that we can sue for peace, like Joshua did, and make our differences go up in smoke.

Perhaps we’ll find that our precious, silly ideas preventing us from loving each other are the most holy sacrifices of all?

Is this why we must never let the fire go out?

This is my “I Have A Dream” speech.

Gut Shabbes.

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A Bad Sacrifice

In Exodus on March 21, 2012 at 5:57 pm

A man and his partner ran a business,
and they hired a clerk to prepare papers
for them.
The clerk was happy.

One day,
the partner came to the clerk at the end of the day
and said, “I need you to prepare some papers for a meeting
I have in the morning.”  The clerk obliged
and stayed hours past his usual time to fulfill the request,
and make sure the partner had everything
he needed,
before going home to his family.

The next day,
the partner arrived to his meeting
and found he left the papers at home.
He went to the man and said, “that clerk of yours, he’s lazy!
He’s never here on time, and now
I don’t have what I need
for my meeting this morning!”
The man had the clerk beaten
when the clerk arrived
at the usual time.

Parsha Vayikra

How does this parable compare with the parsha text, found here?

Identify the sacrifices in the passage. Are any of them choice or without blemish?

Community or Country Club?

In Exodus on March 18, 2012 at 9:43 pm

I dine with my friends
We eat, drink, and laugh a lot
Others build castles

Parsha Vayakhel-Pekudei

Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them — gifts for the Lord.

Exodus 35.5

Is a voluntary offering really voluntary, or is it mandatory? Are we community because we want to be, or because we just are? Is lovingkindness a choice, or an obligation?

It also says, thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. (Exodus 35.29)

Shabbat for All?

In Exodus on March 17, 2012 at 7:15 pm

I go to Temple
and my neighbors go to Church
We rest together

Parsha Ki Tissa

Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying: Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you.

Exodus 31.13

The Hebrew can be translated to know I am the LORD who sanctify you.  Mekhilta says that had the Torah simply stopped at keep my sabbaths we might understand Shabbat to be binding upon everyone, but the statement to know means the commandment applies to those that have understanding only, and those that do not are excluded.  Does this mean that the covenant is only open to a select few who have this understanding?  Is understanding genetic, or can it be attained? What must one understand to observe Shabbat?

Is Shabbat open to everyone? If observing Shabbat is the sign of the covenant, is the covenant open to everyone? What does this mean?

Stone Hearted

In Exodus on March 4, 2012 at 11:59 am

You shall make a breastpiece of decision…

Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones…

They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes.

Exodus 28.15,17,21

Parsha Tetzaveh

What does it mean that the breastplate is lined with semi-precious stones named for people?  Does it mean being stone-hearted towards our fellows?  Or does their placement over the heart mean to put others’ hearts before our own?  Does this mean to acquiesce to others’ desires, or to do what we know is best with others’ best interests in mind?  Is this informed by our perceptions, or theirs?  This brings us back to the question:  whose heart comes first?

Saul is unambiguously commanded by God to destroy Amalek and everything that belongs to him (1 Samuel 15.3).  Saul disobeys this command, sparing everything of worth (ibid. 15.9) and taking of the spoils (ibid. 15.15,21).  Why?  Saul admits his mistake, and says he yielded to the desire of the people (15.21) to offer sacrifices to God.  How does this strike you?

There are two possibilities here.  The first, the stated motive to sacrifice was the truth.  The second, the stated motive was a lie, the true motive being greed.  What is the difference between 1 Samuel 15.15 and 15.21?  How does it strike you?

What difference does this make in the big picture?  Samuel’s statement in verse 22:  Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command?  Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice.  Does this refer to the body of Jewish Law (halacha) or the 613 commandments of Maimonides?  Or something else?

What is obedience?  According to the dictionary, obedience is the act or practice of obeying.  In other words, obedience involves doing for others.  In Joshua, chapter 7, Achan takes of the proscribed spoils from Jericho, and God lets Ai defeat the Israelites.  Joshua asks God, what will you do for Your great name? (Joshua 7.9)  Rashi teaches that God’s name is part of our own name, for our name, Yisrael, is comprised of the word sar (prince) and El (God).  This is the derash.  So, does this make God’s name also our name, or our name also God’s name?  Is Joshua calling out God to be obedient to God’s own name?  What does that mean?

This leaves us with two big questions to think on.  What does it mean to be obedient to our given names?  What does it mean to be obedient to our family name Yisrael?