Outsider: Parashat B’ha`a lot’kha

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Parashat B’ha`a lot’kha
Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

The arrangements for moving on have all been made. The time has come. Israel’s encampment around Mount Sinai will be dismantled and begin their march to the Promised Land. This move has the potential for creating chaos among the young nation. Therefore great care has been taken to keep everyone in an ordered environment. Each tribe has been assigned its place in the encampment. And, when the camp breaks up to move on, the tribes are told exactly where they fit in the long procession trekking forward.

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Critical Mass: Parashat Naso

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Parashat Naso
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The three clans of the Levite tribe are charged with various aspects of service and maintenance of the Tabernacle.  Last week the clan of Q’hat was counted and given its work orders. This week’s reading continues this set-up by counting and assigning jobs to the other two clans, Gershon and Merari. For both Q’hat and Merari we read that those to be counted are “all who come to the host (tzava – crowd) to do work in the Tent of Meeting.” (Num. 4:3,  30)  For the clan of Gershon, however, there is a slight change in the wording. The count is to be of “all those who come to create a crowd (litz’vo tzava) to do work in the Tent of Meeting.” (Num. 4:23)

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Swallowed Up: Parashat B’midbar/ Shavu`ot

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Parashat B’midbar/ Shavu`ot (5779 – 2019)
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

This Shabbat we prepare to leave Mount Sinai. As soon as Shabbat ends we find ourselves right back at Sinai, encamped around her, eagerly awaiting God’s appearance. At Sinai we experienced an overwhelming revelation of God’s Presence. And every year, at Shavuot, we celebrate that miraculous Divine manifestation. But our Torah portion tells us that we are destined – commanded – to leave Sinai. When we leave that place of revelation we embark on an experience of the Divine in concealment.

In this portion we are given our marching orders for moving away from Sinai. We are told that the Levites are charged with carrying the Tabernacle components. I have pointed out in the past (- see Sparks for 2014) that the holiest pieces of the Tabernacle had to be covered up before the Levites were allowed to carry them. They were prohibited from seeing these holy implements. The Levites could feel the weight of the holy, but could not see it.

A closer reading tells us a little more. The last verse of our portion reads: “And they shall not come to see as the holy is swallowed up, for then they would die.” (Num. 4:20) This means that the Levites were barred, not only from seeing the holy vessels, but even from seeing the process of packing up those vessels with their protective coverings. The phrase used to describe the act of covering the ark, menorah and other sacred pieces is “swallow up the holy.” The holy is literally swallowed up when the Tabernacle is dismantled and each piece is stuffed in a bag. The sacred aura is dissipated and it is swallowed up in the darkness.

This is a frightening image to contemplate. It shows us the holy as being  ultimately vulnerable and fragile. It is so easily swallowed up! The Levites were called upon to believe in the ongoing power of the sacred. They were commanded to bear the sacred from place to place, so that it would be eternally present within our midst. But how would the Levites be able to maintain that faith if they continually witnessed the defenseless submission of the sacred to the dark power of the mundane, swallowing it whole? In order to protect their own hold on the holy, they had to be prevented from witnessing how easily the holy could be swallowed up. If they were to witness that dark truth they, or their mission, would surely die.

Because we are given the task of reading this text, or of listening to it as it is read to us, we are placed in a very challenging position. We are vouchsafed the grim truth that the Levites were spared. We witness the swallowing of the holy as we read the text and as we look all around us. Yet we are commanded to be stronger and more faithful than the Levites themselves, for we are called to overcome our knowledge that the holy is easily swallowed up, and to keep carrying the holy forward.

Shabbat Shalom v’Hag Same`ah
Rabbi David Greenstein


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image: “untitled” by Rob de Vries, is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Who Did Not Know Joseph: Parashat Sh’mot

Embed from Getty Images  Parashat Sh’mot Exodus 1:1 – 6:1  Each people is responsible for telling its own story. With this new book of the Torah we begin telling our own story as a people. But in telling our own story we necessarily  make use of another people’s story. And, as we tell our story, we come to witness the trajectories of two nations, one on the rise and one in descent. The children of Israel multiply and increase and flourish for a time, becoming ever stronger. Although they must suffer persecution and oppression, they endure and their spirit miraculously survives. This is an inspiring story and it is our story as the Jewish people, a story we tell and retell in our Torah readings and at our festival gatherings. Mostly we are interested in telling the story of the other nation, Egypt, only as it bears upon our own. We are neither Egyptians nor Egyptologists. The once mighty empire that was Egypt has not survived and it is of relevance for us only for the role it plays as the villain in our own story. Continue reading

Gathering In: Parashat Vay’hi

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Parashat Vay’hi
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

And Jacob finished charging his sons, and he gathered his feet to the bed and he expired and he was gathered to his people. And Joseph fell upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. 
(Gen. 49:33 – 50:1)

Jacob has completed what he needed to do. He has given his sons much to remember and much to think about. Then he both gathers himself together and lets himself go. He draws his aged body up onto the bed and then gives up his life. The narrator tells us that his own “gathering” (va-ye’esof) of himself – perhaps into a fetal ball – is paralleled by the “gathering (- va-ye’asef) to his people.” Jacob is somehow accepted into the overarching collectivity of  those connected to him who have preceded him into death and those who will follow him in life and death. In Auden’s phrase about Yeats’ death, “The current of his feeling failed; he became. his admirers.” There is a sense of deliberate acceptance of death as a moment in an ongoing flow of time and memory.
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Sons and Fathers: Parashat Vayigash

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Parashat Vayigash
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

What would Father do?

This is a question that sometimes faces a person when they need to make an important and difficult decision. The influence of a father on a child can be enduring, overcoming time and space and even life itself. In a time of need a son or daughter – no matter how old they are at the moment – may reach back toward their parent for guidance and support.

After Joseph and his brothers are all reunited and reconciled in Egypt, it is time for the beloved son to be reunited with his beloved father. So Joseph sends for his father Jacob, beckoning him to descend to Egypt so that he may enjoy Joseph’s support and protection.
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Fly on the Wall: Parashat Miqetz/Hanukah/Rosh Hodesh

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Parashat Miqetz/Hanukah/Rosh Hodesh
Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

What makes a person speak up instead of keeping silent? What makes a person remember after years of forgetting? What makes a person keep a promise when it is so easy to betray it?

The Chief Butler in Pharaoh’s court has been silent and forgetful. It has been two years since he was restored to his position of authority and since he made a promise to use his restored position to benefit the forlorn Joseph, stuck in a dungeon. It has been two long years for Joseph, waiting to be remembered, while, for the Butler, time has just breezed by as he has gone about his duties to the monarch and the court.

But, when Pharaoh has a dream that he cannot understand, this somehow changes the Butler’s consciousness and brings him to remember Joseph and speak up on his behalf. What was it that changed the Butler’s mind and soul?
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Overcoming Jacob: Parashat Vayeshev

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Parashat Vayeshev

Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

The longest story of any of our early founding ancestors, the story of Joseph and his brothers, begins in this week’s Torah portion and continues to the very end of the book of Genesis. It is a very rich and complex story, with many parts. After Joseph is disposed of by the brothers, sold into slavery, conveyed down to Egypt, the Torah’s attention shifts to tell of an adventure – or mis-adventure – of Judah. (We have dealt with this story before. See Sparks for last year and for 2012.) This episode seems to be a tangential sub-plot. After telling this episode will the Torah return to Joseph’s story in earnest.
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Hammering it Out: Parashat Vayishlah

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Parashat Vayishlah
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

And he said, ‘No longer will your name be said to be Jacob, but, rather, Israel. For you have striven with the Almighty and with people and you have prevailed.
(Gen. 32:29)

Jacob’s name is changed to “Israel” by a heavenly angel, who seems to say that the name Jacob will fall away and be replaced. Yet, immediately following that dramatic statement our Patriarch is referred to by the name “Jacob,” and the text continues to use the Jacob-name for quite a stretch of narrative. I have suggested (- see last year’s Torah Sparks for this portion) that the effect of getting the name of Israel is to change the meaning of the name Jacob. The name no longer connotes deception. Jacob/Israel is the one who struggles and prevails.

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Two Camps: Parashat Vayetze

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Parashat Vayetze 
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

The beautiful story of Jacob’s dream, in which he sees a ladder reaching from earth all the way to heaven, with God’s angels streaming up and down upon it, has captured the imagination of readers for millennia. That story opens our Torah portion. Less noticed is the story of Jacob’s meeting with angels that closes our portion. After Jacob endures a stressful encounter with his father-in-law, Laban, he is able to resume his journey home: “And Jacob went on his way, and angels of the Almighty encountered him (va-yifg`u bo). And Jacob, when he saw them, said, ‘This is the encampment of the Almighty!’ And he called that place Mahanayim (Two Camps).” (Gen. 32:2-3)
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