Our Torah portion continues its narrative of the meticulously planned out process for the dedication of the Tabernacle. God has delineated everything – each detail of each ritual. And the rest of the Torah portion includes a thorough-going treatment of dietary laws. Indeed, the bulk of this text is comprised of orderly ceremonies and regulations.
Parashat Tzav/Shabbat Ha-gadol/Passover
This year I will place a new item on my seder plate – a nearly used-up roll of toilet paper. It will serve as a reminder and a prod to appreciate a person, an act and a tradition of holiness.
Our Torah portion continues to give details about how to perform the sacrificial rites. The simplest of sacrifices is the flour offering, the minhah – literally “the gift.” This simplest of gifts – “The Gift” – is one that even the poorest person could bring to God. And it includes in its ceremony the lifting of a small portion of flour, spices and oil that is burnt on the altar. This small amount is called the “azkarah – the memorial.” (Lev. 6:8) This term is never used for any other gift. None of the other types of sacrifice has any of its elements characterized as a reminder. But this simple sacrifice does. Commentators (see, for instance, Ibn Ezra to Lev. 2:2, where this term first appears) link remembering here with scent and aroma, the pleasing aroma that signifies God’s happiness in this simple offering, above all else.
The book of Leviticus – Vayiqra – begins by giving rules for the offering of sacrifices in the newly constructed sanctuary. Today we find these rules difficult to pay attention to. They seem so far from our experience. Yet, for the Torah, these sacrifices are the means by which a person might hope to draw close to God. The clear implication of this text is that it is here – in the sanctuary space and nowhere else – where sacrifices should be offered if they are to be acceptable to God. It is meaningful to follow some of the details of these instructions to see better how this concept is driven home.
Parashat Vayaq’hel-P’qudei/Shabbat Ha-Hodesh
The national effort to build a sanctuary for God has concluded. The Divine Dwelling Place (mishkan) is finished and put together. Each piece of it had been meticulously and lovingly fashioned by the men and women of Israel. How they must have yearned to walk through the finished structure in its completed state! Yet, what they had once handled and manipulated they were now prevented from touching. The end result of their magnificent accomplishment was to create a space so filled with Divine energy that it made their entry into that space both legally and physically impossible. Not even Moses, God’s most intimate interlocutor, could step inside the Tabernacle: “And Moses could not enter into the Tent of Meeting because the Cloud was dwelling upon it and the Glory of the Eternally Present One was filling the mishkan.” (Ex. 40:35)
Parashat Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah
The Israelites are commanded to each give a half-shekel. This tax serves two purposes: it is a means of counting everyone, creating a census, and it is also the way the annual budget for the upkeep of the new Sanctuary will be met. But the Torah is not content to leave it at that. This levy is characterized in a very special way. It is called “money of atonements (kippurim).” (Ex. 30:16) This is the same word used for the Day of Atonement – Yom ha-kippurim. The Torah demands that “each person shall give the atonement of his self/soul.” (v. 12) And a few verses later we read: “The wealthy shall not increase nor the poor decrease from half a shekel, to give the gift of the Eternal, in order to atone for your selves/souls.” (v.15)
Parashat T’tzaveh/ Shushan Purim
The focus of this Torah portion is the investment and initiation ceremonies for the Tabernacle functionaries, the priests. Special costumes must be created for them, by master artisans who are “wise of heart, who have been filled with [the Divine] spirit of wisdom.” (Ex. 28:3) They are to take some of the gold and special fabrics and dyes and turn them into the specified articles of clothing that the priests must wear when they are serving in the sanctuary.
A new House of Meeting, a meeting place between God and the Children of Israel, is introduced in this Torah reading. Many elements – its structural components and its furniture – are described here.
The most awesome element is the Ark of the Covenant, to be ensconced in the Holy of Holies. That ark is composed of a box, in which the Tablets of the Testimony are placed, and a covering lid. The lid is made of gold and is shaped to present the forms of two angels – cherubs – who stand facing one another, their wings outstretched over the box. And their placement thus creates an open space between them that hovers above the box. Continue reading
Parashat Mishpatim/Rosh Hodesh/Sh’qalim
The cruel and immoral institution of slavery is allowed to continue to function within limits established in our Torah portion. We have discussed some ways of seeing our Torah as paving the way to its eventual elimination (- see Sparks for 2015 and 2017). Most of us have thankfully moved forward to see slavery as the evil that it is. Yet the abolition of slavery in this country, over 150 years ago, has not washed away its stain or its human and societal damage. Indeed, some segments of our nation have repeatedly – and often with great success – tried to obstruct the full acceptance of people of color into our communities in various deviously conceived ways, enshrined and supported by new laws. Continue reading
Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law comes to meet Moses, bringing with him Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, and their two sons. We are told that one son was named Gershom (- “stranger there”) “for I was a stranger (ger) in a foreign land.” (Ex.18:3) And the younger son was named Eliezer (- “My God is my help”) “for my father’s God was my aid and saved me from Pharaoh’s sword.” (v. 4)
Parashat B’shalah/Shabbat Shirah
This “Shabbat Shirah” – Sabbath of Song – tells of the great song the Israelites poured out in celebration of their salvation at the Red Sea. When synagogue services were held in person this was a Shabbat that was marked with extra opportunities for singing together. Alas, this year will not allow for that kind of joy.
But there is a beautiful custom that has arisen for this Shabbat and it is very much available to us this year. The custom is to put out breadcrumbs or other food for the birds who are wintering with us. Various reasons have been given for the aptness of this custom. One central explanation is that we recognize the birds as nature’s masters of song. The birds sing out instinctively their clear and sweet songs. So we offer them gifts in gratitude for the beauty that they add to our lives.