Student Teaching in the New Millenium

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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