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.
After Moses instructs the Israelites concerning the rituals they must perform while staying in Egypt for the very last night of their servitude, he commands them to preserve these ritual acts for the future, for when the people will eventually enter their own Promised Land. Moses adds that it is not only the ceremonies that must be preserved, but it is crucial to be able to explain these rites to the following generations: “And you shall say, ‘This is a paschal sacrifice for the Eternal, for having protectively hovered over the homes of the Children of Israel in Egypt while smiting the Egyptians, and saving our homes.’” The verse further reports that, on hearing these words, “the people kneeled and bowed down.” (Ex. 12:27)
Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh again. Aaron throws down his staff and it turns into a crocodile. Apparently, this is meant to impress Pharaoh with Aaron’s and Moses’ God-given powers. Yet Pharaoh is not impressed at all. Instead he summons his magicians and they conjure up staffs and they throw them down and their staffs also turn into crocodiles. Even though Aaron’s staff swallows up the others, Pharaoh in unmoved. (Ex. 7:8-13)
We embark on the story of Israel as a people by being introduced to a series of courageous women. It is only through their bravery and decency that we exist. I have written before of the righteous midwives who defy Pharaoh’s orders to kill all Hebrew male babies. (See Sparks 2012) They are not only courageous; they are also wily enough to talk their way out of trouble when Pharaoh confronts them. (Ex. 1:15-21)
The last verses of this last portion of the book of Genesis have Joseph, on his deathbed, making his brothers swear that, ‘As the Almighty will surely remember you, you must take my bones up with you from this place.’ The narrator then reports that Joseph died and was embalmed. The book closes with a dark image of closure: ‘And he was placed into a coffin chest in Egypt.’ (Gen. 50:25-26)
But, of course, this is only an apparent image of closure, since we are meant to wonder whether Joseph’s brothers or their descendants will remember Joseph’s bones and retrieve them when redemption arrives.