Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Readings for Fast of Esther, Purim, Megillah Esther, thru Saturday, March 23, 2019

Torah Readings for Wednesday, March 20, 2019 (13th of Adar)

Fast of Esther - Shacharit (Morning Service)
32:11-14; 34:1-10 Shemot (Exodus)

This is the standard reading for minor fast days.  During the year, this material is part of the weekly portion called Ki Tissa.  The reading from chapter 32, which is the first of the three aliyot, relates to the Sin of the Golden Calf - specifically the plea of Moses that the Lord not destroy the Israelites.  “Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people…And the Lord renounced the punishment he planned to bring upon His people.”  The readings from chapter 34, which comprise the other two aliyot, describe the creation of the second set of stone tablets which replace the first set - the ones Moses shattered against the Golden Calf.  The reading actually ends with a statement by the Lord renewing the Covenant, “He said, ‘I hereby make a covenant.…’”  This is an appropriate reading for a fast day.  It concerns itself with the worst sin of the Israelites - the episode of the Golden Calf.  The first reading shows that God does hear us when we repent and is willing to “avert the evil decree.”  The second two readings are a reminder that from something bad - the Golden Calf - something good - the renewal of the Covenant and the second set of tablets - can come.

Fast of Esther - Mincha (Afternoon Service)
32:11-14; 34:1-10 Shemot (Exodus)

These are the same readings and reasons as the morning service.

Fast of Esther - Mincha (Afternoon Service)

55:6-56:8 Isaiah

The reading is from the Second Isaiah, the Isaiah of the Exile.  In moving, poetic terms, the prophet offers a vision of forgiveness for the truly penitent.  First the penitent person must accept that the Lord is calling the shots, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways, saith the Lord.”  And then the penitent person must change behavior, “Keep ye justice, and do righteousness…Happy is the man that does this…that keepeth the Sabbath from profaning it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil.”

The Fast of Esther normally falls on the 13th of Adar and is observed in memory of the fast mentioned in the Megillah Esther.  Their fast was a three day fast.  Ours is only a one-day affair.  This fast also reminds us of a theme that runs throughout Judaism - the bitter and the sweet or darkness always gives way to light.  The Fast of the 13th gives way to the Feast of the 14th.  In other words, we should not be too disheartened by moments of defeat because, with the help of God, they are merely the prelude to an even greater joy.

There are exceptions when it comes to observing the fast.  According to Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “If the 13th falls on Shabbat, we don’t fast that day, due to the honor of Shabbat.  The fast is not even held on Friday, since this would adversely affect Shabbat preparations.  Rather, we observe the fast on Thursday, the 11th of Adar.”

Readings for Purim, Wednesay Night, March 20, 2019

Megillah Esther

This reading fulfills the first half of the rule that “Each person, man and woman alike is obligated to hear the reading of the Megillah at night and during the day.”  This is the “central observance” of Purim.  While laws pertaining to the holiday may be found in the Talmudic Tractate known as “Megillah,” the simplest compendium of the rules is in Chapter 141 of the Kitzur Shulchon Oruch, copies of which are available in very readable English translation.

Torah Readings for Thursday, March 21, 2019 (14th of Adar)

Purim - Shacharit (Morning Service)
17:8-16 Shemot (Exodus)

The Torah portion describes the battle between that Amalekites and the Israelites that took place in the Wilderness after the Exodus.  According to tradition, Haman is a descendant of the Amalekites, specifically Agag, who was an Amalekite King.  The reading is one verse short of the standard ten usually required, so the last verse is repeated.

Megillah Esther

The Megillah is read after the Torah has been returned to the ark and half-kaddish has been chanted.  This reading fulfills the second half of the rule that “Each person, man and woman alike is obligated to hear the reading of the Megillah at night and during the day.”

Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar.  In preparation, here are a few customs and ceremonies related to the holiday.  The emphasis is on the word few.  This is not intended to be a complete compendium of the customs, ceremonies or the reasons for the observances.  I will leave that to the professionals in the community.  The rules concerning Purim cover nine pages in Volume II of the Kitzur Shulchon Oruch (a code of Jewish ritual law).  The material is found in two chapters called respectively, “The Reading of the Magillah” and “Sending Presents of Food, Giving Gifts to the Poor, and the Purim Feast.”  These chapter headings should give you an idea as to the thrust of the holiday observances.

The Half-Shekel
We always remember the poor at Purim.  It became a custom to give three half-shekels or in our case three half-dollars to the poor so that they could enjoy the holiday as well.

Shalach Monos (Yiddish)
Purim is a time for giving gifts.  Traditionally the gifts consist of two consumable items that do not require further preparation.  These may include hamantaschen, other kinds of cookies, cakes or candy as well as grape juice or wine.  In some communities the making and delivery of Shalach Monos baskets has become a Sisterhood fundraising activity.  At any rate, these treats are delivered by a third party.  Frequently children get to play the part of gift deliverers.

Reading the Megillah
Everybody, regardless of sex, is to hear the reading both in the evening and again in the morning.  There are numerous rules about the proper way the reading is to take place.  Interestingly, the name of G-d does not appear in the Megillah.

Eating and Drinking
Purim is a holiday of great joy.  Traditionally a festive meal, including meat, is to be consumed during the day of Purim.

Two Scrolls - Two Women - Two Outcomes
Two of the five scrolls are named for women - The Scroll of Esther and The Scroll of RuthRuth tells the story of a convert who chooses to move to Eretz Israel, who observes the commandments including caring for the widow, gleaning and chalitzah.  Her merit is such that she becomes the Matriarch for the House of David which includes David, Solomon and ultimately the Moshiach.  Esther tells the story of a Jewess who marries a non-Jew.  Yes, she does it as part of the Divine Plan and yes she does save her people.  Of course she does this by using the skills of the courtesan and the harem girl.  Furthermore, according to tradition, her son is King Darius of Persia and Darius is no Jew.  In other words, the line of the born Jew - Esther - disappears from view.  The line of the Jew by choice - Ruth - is with us to this day.  In the 21st century, questions have been raised about the on-going viability of the American Jewish community.  According to some, it would behoove us to look at the lives of these two great women for a clue as to what action steps need to be taken.  First, they would say, we must tap into the zeal of the Jews by choice, embracing them, educating them in the ways of our people while acknowledging their worth and contributions.  At the same time, we must reach out and hold on to those who feel themselves to be at the outer rim of house of Israel.  We must provide them the education that goes with being an Ashish Chayil in the truest sense of the word.  We must draw them back so that Darius will join David as Jews ensuring the future of our people.

Torah Readings for Friday, March 22, 2019 (15th of Adar II)
Shushan Purim

In certain ancient walled cities - Jerusalem is the primary example - Purim is observed not on the 14th of Adar (the date of its observance everywhere else), but on the 15th of Adar.  This is to commemorate the fact that in the ancient walled city of Shushan, where the battles between the Jews and their enemies extended for an additional day, the original Purim celebration was held on the 15th of Adar.  The 15th of Adar is thus called “Shushan Purim,” and is a day of joy and celebration also in those places where it is not observed as the actual Purim.  (As described by Chabad Org.)

Torah Readings for Saturday, March 23, 2019

Tzav (Command)
6:1-8:36 Vayikra (Leviticus)

Tzav is the second sedrah in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus).  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word of the second sentence in the reading.  “Command (Tzav) Aaron and his sons saying…”  As the Stone Chumash points out, up until now “commandments regarding the offerings were introduced with ‘say’ or ‘speak’” since the entire nation was being addressed.  Here the Torah uses the word “command” in terms of the sacrifices because God is addressing the Kohanim directly and instructing them in the duties that they must carry out with zeal.  Tzav is a highly repetitious portion since the first part of the sedrah deals with the sacrifices already described in last week’s sedrah, Vayikra.  One of the major differences has to do with the order in which the sacrifices are presented.  According to Etz Hayim, the sacrifices in Vayikra move from voluntary to involuntary while In Tzav; the sacrifices are listed in the order of their holiness.  The second part of Tzav deals with ordination or consecration of the Kohanim.

Olah or Burnt Offering (6:1-6)

Minhah or Grain Offering (6:7-11)

Chatat or Sin Offering (6:17-23)

Asham or Guilt Offering (7:1-10)

Zevach Sh’lamim or Offering of Well-Being (7:11-34)
Tzav amplifies the information offered in Vayikra about this sacrifice.  Tzav specifically mentions two different types of, and reasons for, offering the Zevach Sh’lamim.  One was a “Todah” or Thanksgiving Offering (7:10).  The other could be a “Nedavah” or Freewill Offering (7:16).  Apparently included in the second group was the “Neder”, a sacrifice brought upon fulfillment of a vow.  The Hebrew word Neder means vow.

Ordination or Consecration of the Kohanim (8:1-36)
If you think you have read this already, you are right.  In chapter 29 of Shemot (Exodus), God tells Moshe how to conduct the service of consecration.  In Tzav, the ordination process actually takes place.  The consecration takes seven days.  The next sedrah will pick up with the eighth day.

131. The obligation to remove from the altar the ashes of offerings (6:3-4).
132-133. The requirement to kindle a “perpetual” fire on the altar and never let it go out (6:5-6).
134-135. The commandment that priests are to eat the remnants of meal offerings but not cook them so they become leavened (6:9-10).
136. The Specification of the daily meal offerings brought by the High Priest - beginning when he is anointed (6:13).
137. The requirement that the priest’s meal offering should not be eaten (6:16).
138. The specification of how priests are to offer the Chatat or Sin Offering (6:18).
139. The prohibition against eating the offering if any of the animal’s blood has been brought into the Tent of the Meeting (6:23).
140. The specification of the Asham or Guilt Offering (7:16).
141. The specification of the Shalmim or Peace Offering (7:11-14).
142. The specification against leaving overnight any remains of a Todah or Thanksgiving Offering (7:15).
143. The requirement to burn remnants of sacrifices on the third day after they are offered (7:17).
144. That a sacrifice becomes invalidated because of failure to obey the relevant regulations (7:18).
145-146. The prohibition against eating the meat of a defiled offering and the requirement to burn such meat (7:19).
147. The prohibition against eating Helev, or Forbidden Animal Fat (7:23).
148. The prohibition against consuming an animal’s blood (7:26).
From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Some of the Laws of Kashrut (keeping Kosher) have to do with dishes and how to purify them.  In reading 6:21, we see some of the Torah underpinnings for the rulings about kitchenware made of different materials.

In the days of the Temple it was customary to bring offerings of Thanksgiving for the joys of life.  With the demise of the Temple, the custom was established of giving a person an aliyah (calling them up to the Torah) to celebrate moments of deliverance or joy.  The Gomel or Thanksgiving Blessing is recited at the end of the reading.  While Psalm 107 lists four specific reasons for reciting Gomel, the most common one today is recovery from a major illness or successful surgery.  Additional moments of joy could include a groom being called up on the Shabbat before the wedding or a father being called up after the birth of a child.  In this last example a special prayer is said for the well-being of the mother.  This is just one more example of how our religious practices are rooted in the Temple service of old.  According to some sages, once the Moshiach has come, all of the sacrifices will disappear except the Sacrifice of Thanksgiving.  The other sacrifices have to do with our shortcomings, which will no longer exist in the Messianic Era.  But even after the coming of the Moshiach we will still be thankful for enjoying the blessings of the Lord.

Appropriate Attire
The Kohanim only wore their special garb while performing their duties in the Tabernacle (6:3).  When away from the Tabernacle, such as when they carried out the ashes (6:4), the Kohanim put on ordinary clothing.  In keeping with the spirit of these references to dress, a tradition of wearing one’s finest garments on Shabbat and Holiday developed in many communities.  So well-known was this custom that in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, spies would report to the authorities any time they saw Marranos dressed up on days corresponding to Jewish holidays.  This was considered a sure sign that their conversion to Christianity was less than sincere.

The Ordination of the Kohanim
Why did God have Moshe dab blood on the ridge of Aaron’s ear, the thumb of his right hand and the big toe of his right foot?  Nobody knows what this particular ritual meant to our ancient forefathers.  However, the sages have provided us with some interpretations that might be meaningful to us in our daily lives.  According to some, the three parts of the body mentioned are “an abbreviated code” for the entire person.  To serve God, we must serve him with the entirety of our personage.  Blood is a symbol of ritual transition.  In the Brit Milah, the drop of blood is a symbol of transition into the Covenant that God made with Abraham.  At Pesach, the blood on the doorposts marks the transition from death (for the Egyptian) to life for the Israelites or the transition from slavery to freedom.  Here the blood marks the passage of Aaron and his sons from being private individuals to being the Kohanim, the public officials responsible for the ritual well-being of the Israelites.  Others have said that the ear reminds us to always listen to God, the thumb (being part of the hand) reminds us to always reach out to God and the toe (being part of the foot) reminds us to move quickly to carry out the will of God.

The Torah repeatedly commands us not consume blood.  So why are we commanded to put blood on the altar of atonement?  The Israelites were commanded not to consume blood because the pagans consumed it as part of their sacrifices.  Also, animals drink blood.  The commandments are intended, in part, to differentiate us from the pagans and to help us control our animal soul.  At the same time, blood is the life force.  That which is prohibited to man, is not prohibited to the Lord.  “The holiness of the blood is demonstrated by putting it on the altar as something only for God and not for humans.”

The Five Senses
The sacrifices appealed to all five of our senses.  Since we can no longer offer sacrifices we have customs and ceremonies to engage all five of our senses:
Sound - The chanting of our prayers and the blowing of the shofar;
Sight - The public display of the Torah and its ornaments;
Smell - The spices of the Havdalah Ceremony;
Taste - Matzah and Bitter Herbs; and
Touch - The Lulav.

In Place of Sacrifices
Since the Temple has been destroyed, we cannot offer sacrifices.  The Sages looked to the TaNaCh to find substitutes.  We have already seen that in the words of Hosea, “Let the offerings of our lips and tongue replace the animal sacrifices of the Temple” they found the justification for prayer standing in the place of the sacrifices.  Verses in Tzav provided further evidence for this transition.  “In the Talmud Rabbi Isaac asked, ‘Why does it say This is the law of the sin-offering, (Vayikra 6:18) this is the law of the guilt-offering? (Vayikra 7:1).’  To teach us that when one studies the law of the sin offering, it is considered as though he had actually brought it on the Altar, and when one studies the law of the guilt-offering, it as though he actually brought it on the altar.’  Rather than merely recite these portions, study them and attempt to learn about the laws and significance of the various sacrifices.”  Furthermore, in the opening words of this week’s sedrah, they found the justification for having the study of Torah stand in the place of the sacrifices.  “Tzav Ah-haron.zoat torat ha-olah.”  “Command Aaron…This is the law (torat) of the burnt offering.”  The Rabbis seized on the word torat, a form of the word torah and concluded:  “In our day, the study of Torah takes the place of bringing animal offerings.”

The Permanent Fire
The Kohanim were commanded to keep a “permanent fire aflame on the Altar” (6:5-6).  There are those who contend that the Sanctuary (be it the Mishkan or the Temple in Jerusalem) has its spiritual counterpart within the personage of each Jew.  And the heart of the Jew corresponds to the Altar.  Just as the Kohanim were to keep a permanent fire burning on the altar by tending to it and feeding it wood, so we are to keep the permanent fire burning in our hearts by studying Torah and publicly manifesting our faith.  Sometimes the flame of the fire may burn low.  Sometimes our attachment to our faith reaches a low ebb, but the spark is always there in the heart of the Jew waiting to be nourished so that it may roar again with the light and the warmth of God and his mitzvoth.

“Steak and Sacrifices” by W. Gunther Plaut
(The following comes from the pen of one of the leading rabbis of the Reform Movement. You might be a little surprised by what he has to say about animal sacrifices.)

“Being civilized, modern people, we are likely to shudder at the idea of slicing up animals to express our devotion to God.  Of course, we see nothing wrong with a good steak for dinner, unless perhaps the cardiologist advises against it.  But we leave the killing of animals to others and are not inclined to improve our children’s education or our own by visiting a slaughterhouse.  Yet whole chapters in the Torah are devoted to animal sacrifices; the part of Tzav consists of little else.  What are we to make of instructions elaborating how the animal is to be slaughtered who may eat of it, what disposition shall be made of the fat, and who shall keep the skin?  Or of the rule that the elders of the community will expiate an unwitting error made by the people through laying their hands on a bull and slaughtering it?  The whole notion that the merciful Creator demands the killing of innocent creatures as a sign of human obeisance seems at first glance to be an obvious contradiction.  Yet we would do well to look a little further.  First, we should consider the times and circumstances to which this legislation addressed itself.  The Israelites in the Promised Land were almost all farmers, and therefore had a special relationship to their animals and often would know them by name.  They were not accustomed to a daily diet of meat, and in that respect were no different from the vast masses of humanity then or now.  Animals were domesticated for sale or for the milk or wool they produced.  They represented capital that one did not eat up lightly.  Consuming meat was reserved for special occasions.  Chief among these were visits to the nearest shrine and, later, to the central sanctuary in Jerusalem.  These pilgrimages were acts of festive celebration, expressed as thanksgiving or expiation for sins committed, and marked major events in life.  The pilgrim would take an animal along and slaughter it in the holy precincts.  As an act of worship, sacrifice had two important side effects.  For one, it served to lessen the guilt a farmer felt (and feels) when he killed a creature he had from its birth.  This guilt was attenuated when the killing was done to honor God and when the meal was shared with others.  In balancing the desire to eat meat and the moral problem of killing animals, sacrificial ritual was an extension of the wider dietary laws.  Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, one wrote that all the laws of Kashrut are devised to remind us constantly that we are eating the flesh of once-living creatures.  For that reason, for instance, we do not consume animals’ blood, which in biblical tradition is considered “life itself.”  Another side effect of bringing the offering in a holy environment was the deep impression the ritual was sure to make.  This was not just killing for the sake of pleasurable feasting; it was done for God’s sake.  One came closer to God through voluntary giving of one’s possessions, through sacrificing something.  (The word “sacrifice” combines the Latin word facere which means ‘to make or render’ and the Latin word sacer which means ‘holy.’  It is a translation of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, which literally means ‘bringing close’ as in ‘bringing close to God.’)  And what do we do today?  We buy meat at the butcher’s or in grocery store already cellophane-wrapped.  Small children have no real inkling of where the meat came from.  Any connection to the living creature is totally absent.  These animals are to have been “harvested” in some mysterious way, which even adults would rather not know about.  In contrast, our biblical ancestors never reduced animals to the status of things.  Yet we tend to feel smugly superior to those ancient times.  We do so with little reason.”

7:21-8:3; 9:22-23 Jeremiah

The Man:  Jeremiah was one of the Three Major Prophets.  He lived during the final years of the Southern Kingdom and experienced the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C.E.  (See earlier guides for more details.)

The Message:  The bulk of the haftarah (7:21-8:3) is the second half of Jeremiah’s so-called “Temple Sermon” which begins with the first verse of chapter seven.  In these opening verses, the prophet warns the people that God will not spare them because the Temple stands in Jerusalem.  The Temple is just a building.  God will only let us live the land he promised to our forefathers if “you execute justice…if you do not oppress, the stranger, the orphan and the widow, if you do not shed the blood of the innocent; if you do not follow other gods” (7:5-6).

In the haftarah, God commands Jeremiah to warn the people that they are wasting their time with sacrifices if they do not combine ritual with righteous living.  He also tells Jeremiah that they probably will not listen but that he must warn them anyway.  In the end, Jeremiah describes an awful destruction of the land, where the bones of the disloyal Israelites shall parch beneath the sun and the moon they worshipped and become “dung, fertilizing the ground.”  But a haftarah is not allowed to end on a grim note, so the sages attached verses 22 and 23 to the reading.  It is the promise of redemption because the Lord practices “kindness justice and righteousness.”

The Theme-Link:  The sedrah concerns itself with sacrifices.  In fact it begins with “This is the law of the burnt offering.”  The haftarah also talks about sacrifices.  It also begins with a reference to the burnt offering.  “Pile your burnt offerings upon your peace-offerings and eat flesh.”  But the Torah reading references the sacrifices as a source of joy and holiness.  Jeremiah references them as a source of divine contempt.  For the people have not brought the sacrifices to the Temple in the spirit of God which has rendered them meaningless.  The prophet is not against ritual.  He is speaking out against ritual in a society that lacks righteousness.  The prophet knows that it takes ritual and right behavior to makes us “a nation of priests.”

Copyright; March, 2019; Mitchell A. Levin