Thursday, June 23, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday, June 25, 2016 Beha’alotcha (“When you light” or “When you kindle”)

Torah Readings for Saturday, June 25, 2016

Beha’alotcha (“When you light” or “When you kindle”)
8:1-12:16 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Beha’alotcha is the third sedrah in Bamidbar (Numbers).  The reading takes its name from a phrase in the second verse of the sedrah, “Speak to Aaron and say to him:  When you kindle (Beha’alotcha) the lamps….”

The sedrah can be divided in two main parts - Final Instructions and Ceremonies Before Beginning the Journey (8:1-10:10) and The Journey From Sinai to Canaan Begins (10:11-12:16).  The sedrah begins and ends with Aaron.  The fortunes of Aaron mirror the fortunes of the Israelites as presented in Beha’alotcha.  The sedrah starts on a note of spiritual exhilaration involving Aaron and the Jewish people, but it will descend into a description of a series of rebellions against God and Moshe, the last of which involves Miriam and Aaron.

The Menorah
The sedrah opens with Aaron being instructed in the rituals related to the Menorah.  The ceremonials relating to the Menorah may be seen as the capstone to the offerings described at the end of Naso.  The rituals relating to the Menorah are for Aaron and his family the equivalent of the offerings made by the leaders of the Twelve Tribes (See Themes for more on the Menorah).

The Levites
There is a pattern in the Torah of God telling us what He plans to do in one sedrah and then describing the implementation in a later sedrah.  Previously God had told the Israelites that the Levites would be consecrated to Him and would be assigned to serve the Kohanim.  In Beha’alotcha, the Levites actually go through the rituals that ordain them in these dual roles.  When the earlier census was taken, the Levites ranging in age from thirty to fifty were counted.  At the time of their actual consecration, the ceremony involves Levites ranging in age from twenty-five to fifty.  According to some commentators this five year discrepancy allowed for a period of apprenticeship before the male Levites actually assumed their duty.  Regardless, retirement came at fifty.

With the first anniversary of the Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to observe Pesach for the first time as free people.  The Pesach Offering is to be made “in its appointed time.”  This is interpreted to mean that the Pesach Offering is so important that it can even be made on Shabbat.  Now comes one of the most diverting little tales in the Torah.  Apparently there was a group of men who had been with a corpse at Pesach, which meant they could not participate in the Pesach Offering.  They complained to Moshe that this was unfair.  They were being denied participation in this important ritual because they were performing another mitzvah.  In responding to this dilemma, it was almost as if Moshe were saying, “Golly gee, God and I just didn’t think about this possibility.  Wait here a minute and I will get a ruling on this from God.”  Thus was created Pesach Sheni, the Second Pesach.  Pesach Sheni comes a month after Pesach and participation is limited to those who have become contaminated by a human corpse or are too far away to participate in the sacrifice at the appointed time and place.  Everybody else is still supposed to observe the holiday at its appointed time.

Traveling Signs
There are three signs to tell the Israelites when to travel and one sign to tell them when to stop.  Three are visual.  The fourth is auditory.  A cloud will hover over the Tabernacle by day and a pillar of fire by night.  When the cloud arises, the Israelites are to break camp.  When the cloud comes to rest, the Israelites will encamp.  The pillar of fire is the nighttime version of the cloud.  Since it is the motion of the cloud and not the pillar of fire that determines travel, there are those who assume that the Israelites only move during the day.  What is important is that God Himself, and no one else, determines the Israelites’ travel pattern.  In addition to these three visual signs, God commands Moshe to make two silver trumpets which are to be sounded each time the Israelites are to start traveling.  The Trumpets are also supposed to be blown when going into battle and at various times of joy.

The Journey Begins (10:11-12:16)
·        The First Stage - On the 20th day of Iyar in the second year after the Exodus, the Israelites follow the Cloud from Sinai to the Wilderness of Paran.  They follow the previously prescribed line of march.  At this point, Moshe’s father-in-law announces his plans to return to his home.  Despite Moshe’s entreaties, Jethro, or as he is called here, Hobab son of Ruel, is determined to leave and go back to his people.  As we shall see, this is not the last time we shall encounter the Midianites or the Kenites, the kinsmen of Jethro.
·        The First Rebellion - No sooner do the Israelites make camp than the chronic complainers begin making noise.  This so enrages God that he kills a group of them with a “fire” that was probably some form of lightning bolts.
·        The Second Rebellion - Now another group complains about the food.  They want meat.  They yearn for the delicious foods of Egypt.  They are tired of manna even though the text reminds us of what a perfect food it is.  Now Moshe seems to be almost rebelling against God.  He cries out that these people are too much for him.  He reminds God that he did not ask to be the leader.  God forced the job on him.  And if this is the way things are going to be, Moshe tells God to just kill him right now.  God responds in two ways.  First he takes care of the leadership and spiritual void by creating the Sanhedrin, the Council of Seventy Elders.  Then he sends the quail to meet the demands for meat.  But the gift becomes a punishment as the gluttons die with their mouths filled with unchewed meat stuck between their teeth.
·        The Third Rebellion - In what must have been one of the most painful moments in his life, Moshe now must face a rebellion by his sister and brother.  “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe regarding the Cushite woman he had married…They said, ‘Was it only to Moshe that God spoke?  Did He not speak to us as well?’”  In other words, first they gossiped about Moshe’s treatment of his wife and then they challenged his position, claiming to be his equal because they had also spoken with God.  Moshe is too humble (and probably too hurt) to respond to the charges by his siblings.  So God intervenes telling the sister and brother of Moshe’s unique relationship with Him and reminding them of his virtues.  Having chastised them, God drives home the point with physical discomfort.  Miriam is stricken with a skin disease.  Since Aaron is a Kohein, he knows the diagnosis and begs his brother to intervene.  Possibly remembering how she had saved him when he was a baby, Moshe intervenes with God.  God agrees to spare her, but she must be quarantined for seven days.  Was the separation only because of her physical impurity or was it in part also punishment for speaking evil against her brother?  The text is mute and we are left to speculate.  Once her seven days are over, the people renew their journey moving from Hazeroth to the Wilderness of Paran.


380. The obligation of one who was unable to bring a Passover offering at the appropriate time to do so exactly one month later on the 14th day of Iyar (9:10).
381. The obligation of one who is able to bring the Passover offering on the 14th day of Iyar to eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (9:10).
382. The prohibition against leaving over any of the Second Passover sacrifice until the next day (9:12).
383. The prohibition against breaking any of the bones of the Second Passover sacrifice (9:12).
384. The obligations to sound a trumpet when an enemy attack occurs and during joyous celebrations at the sanctuary (10:9-10).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

There are several commentaries about the importance of this ancient artifact.  Some commentaries portray the Menorah as a symbol of God’s light.  The light of the Menorah becomes fused with the concept of studying Torah, which is a manifestation of God’s light in our world of darkness.  Others see the episode described in this sedrah as prophecy and relate it to the Menorah of Chanukah.  In that time of spiritual darkness, the Hasmoneans, descendants of Aaron, will protect the Israelites from the Hellenists.  While the Menorah of the Torah has seven branches, the Menorah of Chanukah will have eight branches, possibly indicating the need for additional “light” in a period of greater spiritual darkness.

Some numbers seem to have mystical quality.  While these numbers may have non-Jewish significance, we shall look at the meaning only within our tradition.  The seven lamps of the menorah correspond to the Seven Days of Creation.  The bride circles the groom seven times.  Mourners sit Shiva for seven days.  Pesach was originally seven days long.  The Omer is counted for seven weeks.  The Days of Awe come in the Seventh Month and Sukkoth was originally a seven-day observance.  The Sabbatical Year is every seven years and Joshua circled Jericho seven times.  And the membership of the Sanhedrin was seven times ten.

This time of the year provides us with two views of non-Jews and their relationships with the Jewish people.  On Shavuot, we read the story of Ruth, the Moabitess who accepts God and His Torah with the famous lines, “thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.”

This week we read of the “mixed-multitude” or “riff-raff” that went out of Egypt with the Israelites.  These were non-Israelites who supposedly attached themselves to our ancestors to escape Egyptian slavery.  According to some, they were the ones who instigated the rebellion of the Golden Calf.  In this sedrah, they are the ones who complain about the food in the Wilderness (11:4-6).  They crave the fish and meats of Egyptian slavery while sneering at the Manna from God.  Unlike Ruth, this mixed-multitude attached themselves to the Jews for their own selfish purposes, not for the sake of God and Torah.  Once we had satisfied their needs (getting them out of Egypt), they made trouble for us.  This is to be a common thread in our history.  Up to our own time, there have been plenty of groups who have attached themselves to the Jewish people and sought to use us for their own agenda.  But when we have rejected their agenda, they have turned on us and become bitter foes.

Pesach Sheni
The story of the Second Pesach serves two purposes.  First it points out the importance of observing Pesach and the seminal nature of the Exodus in Jewish history.  Second, it points out the importance of interpretation.  Based on the events described, the goal should be to help people find ways to observe the mitzvoth even if that takes a little creativity.  On the other hand, that “creativity” needs to be consistent with the Torah, which means those making such decisions must be fully knowledgeable about all aspects of Jewish law.

The Torah appears to give very specific names for the different places through which the Israelites journeyed on their way to Canaan.  However, it is difficult, if not impossible to find places in the Sinai or Negev that correspond to them.  Those who are concerned about this might want to look at Walking The Bible by Bruce Feiler.  Does our inability to locate the places named in Bamidbar mean that the trek across the Wilderness did not take place?  From the point of view of traditional Judaism, the answer is “no,” it does not matter.  For others the historicity of the journey is open to question and may even be rejected as mere myth.

The Sanhedrin
A Council of Seventy Elders is a recurring theme throughout Jewish history.  Although the term Sanhedrin appears frequently, it refers to different institutions.  In an oddity of history, Napoleon Bonaparte convened a Sanhedrin to determine the role of the Jews in post-revolutionary France.  According to some, the creation of the Sanhedrin is proof of God’s (Judaism’s) commitment to diversity.  But this pluralism takes place within the framework of respect for the Torah.  Jewish literature is replete with Rabbinic debate, but these debates are “disputes for the sake of Heaven” i.e., like those between Hillel and Shammai, not like those led by Korach.  Why Seventy Elders, as opposed to any other number?  One commentator cites Maimonides as saying that number included all opinions that are permissible in a given case.

Customs and Ceremonies
As we have seen before, the Torah and the events it describes are a source for different prayers and practices in our various worship services.  This week’s sedrah provides some of the utterances found in the Torah Service.  The words in 10:35-36 are intoned when we take the Torah from the Ark and when we return it to its resting place after reading from it.

Gossip and The Evil Tongue
Miriam and Aaron’s rebellion against Moshe began with gossip.  As we have said before, Judaism takes a dim view of those who “speak evil” about another.  There are many cautionary rules and commentaries warning us about being careful with our words.  This episode is so important that in Devarim, it becomes the source for one of The Six Remembrances, which are recited daily at the end of the Morning Service.  Why is Miriam the one who suffers physical harm?  The text says, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe…”  By putting her name first, it would indicate that she was the leader and Aaron merely went along.  Unfortunately, this would be consistent with Aaron’s behavior of just “going along” as we saw with the Golden Calf.  Aaron’s punishment is twofold.  First, he must watch helplessly as his beloved sister suffers.  Then he must beg his brother, whom he sought to supplant, to intervene with God to save Miriam.  While we have talked about Moshe’s anger, here he shows compassion and understanding by praying for his sister’s recovery.

In Humility of a Prophet, Yeshayahu Leibowitz examines Miriam and Aaron’s challenge to the leadership of Moses.  He draws our attention to the statement that “the man Moses was very humble, more than any other man” (Num.12:3).  He points out that the Torah provides us with no descriptions of Moses’ personality.  All that we know of him we deduce from his behavior with the exception of this direct mention of his humility.  From this we can deduce that humility must be a human trait of great importance - possibly more important than being wise, witty, compassionate, etc.  Why is humility of such importance?  What is the nature of humility?  Is there more than one form of humility?  We do know that Jewish sages place more emphasis on presenting the message than they do on taking credit for words of wisdom.  The literature is replete with sages who credit their teachers for the words they are speaking.  With several of the prophets, we have their wisdom not their biographies.  The ultimate example of this is unknown person who wrote the words that we ascribe to the “Second Isaiah.”  Leibowitz finds part of the answer to the questions about humility in Rashi’s commentary about Moses.  Remember, Moses is the one to whom God spoke “face to face.”  Yet Moses knew that truly understanding God was beyond the comprehension of man.  “All the prophets looked through a murky glass - and thought that they saw; our Master Moses through a clear glass - and knew that he had not seen Him to His face.”  If humility was important for Moses, how important a role should it play it in our own lives?

Meat and Milk
There are a myriad of laws prohibiting the mixing of meat and milk.  These all stem from the injunctions that we not cook a calf in its mother’s milk.  So, it is asked, why can we not eat dairy products when we are consuming chicken, turkey or other fowl?  After all they produce no milk so there is no way one could cook a baby chick in its mother’s milk.  In this week’s portion, the people demand “Ba-sar” which is translated as flesh, or in modern parlance, meat.  God tells Moses that He will send “Ba-sar” - meat.  And when God sends Ba-sar, what does he send?  He sends an unlimited supply of quail - fowl.  Now if God considers fowl to be Ba-sar, meat, who are we to risk eating chicken parmesan?

Travel Plans:  Divine and Human
This week’s reading reminds us again that when it comes to matters of this world, God has a role to play but so do human beings.  When it came to travel in the wilderness, God had his way of providing guidance, “And as the cloud arose from over the tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where they could abode, there the children encamped” (32:17).

But Moses must have felt the need for some human guidance since when his father-in-law announced his plans to leave the Israelites, Moses responded, “Do not leave us, I pray thee; since thou knows how we are to encamp in the wilderness and thou shall be to us as eyes” (10:31).  Is this an extension of that aphorism, “Pray as if everything depends on God; act as if everything depends on you”?

Travel Plans:  Predestination and Free Will
In this week’s reading we see that the Israelites had a path to follow on the way to Eretz Israel and that God, through the signs like the cloud and the pillar of fire showed them the way.  Many Jews believe that God has a plan for each of us.  This is the pre-destination part.  But we have to figure out what the correct signs are so that we will choose the path that will lead to the successful journey which is the Free Will part of the equation.

Jewish Journeys
Once again, we are reminded that for Jews life is a journey.  Starting with Abraham, generation after generation of Jews have had to take a physical journey which is matched by the spiritual journey.  This week’s journey from Sinai towards the land beyond the Jordan is just one more example of this.  As we know from the Golden Calf tale, many of the Israelites making this trip would not complete it - they would not reach Eretz Israel and they knew it.  Yet they made the trip anyway.  This might serve as a reminder for us that the important thing is to make the journey, learned the lessons along the way and not worry whether we complete it.  As the Cunard Shipping Lines said, “Half the fun is getting there.”

Line of March
Previously we have read about the positioning of the various tribes around the Mishkan and the positioning of the Levites within the precincts of the “Divine Dwelling.”  This week we actually read about the tribes heading down the road, with each of them assuming the positions assigned to them by God.  For anybody who has ever orchestrated a move, you can imagine the amazement our ancestors must have felt when they saw the whole thing working smoothly, just as had been commanded.  Leading the line of march was the Tribe of Judah - a fitting positioning for the tribe that would produce the Davidic Kings and would essentially survive as The Jewish State until the Destruction of the First Temple.  One can imagine the sense of pride that filled them as they stepped off.  But let’s look to the rear of the line at the Tribe of Dan.  For those of you acquainted with 19th century cattle drives, this corresponded to “riding drag.”  These were the people who spent each day “eating the dust” of those marching ahead of them; the last to drink at the waterhole, the last to eat the evening meal.  But drag riders played a crucial role.  They were the ones who picked up the stray cattle and brought them back to the herd, thus helping to insure the economic success of the cattle drive.  Based on the commentary of Rashi, the Danites gathered up the belongings of the other Israelites as they dropped them and returned them to their owners.  They also brought back those of their co-religionists who strayed from the Israelites.  There are plenty of people who want to play the role of Judah - strutting their stuff for all to see.  But we need the Danites, those willing to labor in the background who do the necessary work of bringing back those of our fellow Jews who, for whatever reason, have wondered from the “herd.”  Just as no cattle drive could afford to lose even one cow, so the House of Israel cannot afford to lose even one of its members.

2:14-4:7 Zechariah

The Man:  Zechariah is the eleventh of the so-called Twelve Minor Prophets.  Along with Haggai and Malachi, he is one of the three Post-Exilic Prophets.  In other words, these prophets were active after the Babylonian Exile.  The destruction of the First Temple took place 586 B.C.E. and marks the beginning of the Babylonian Exile.  The descendants of the exiles started returning from Babylonia in 538 B.C.E. during the reign of the Persian King, Cyrus.  We have few facts about the life of Zechariah.  According to tradition, he began preaching about 520 B.C.E. and he was a younger contemporary of Haggai.  The Book of Zechariah consists of fourteen chapters.  As far back as the time of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, there has been some question as whether the “book” really had two authors.  There is a distinct difference in the tone and style between the first eight chapters and the last six chapters.  The first eight chapters contain a lot of visionary material complete with the appearance of angels.  The last six chapters contain no references to angels, focus more on messianic visions and mention Greece.  There are those who contend that the reference to the Greeks means that the last six chapters were written some time after the death of Alexander the Great, which would have been about two hundred years after Zechariah was supposed to have begun preaching.  On the other hand, as at least one commentator points out, the reference to the Greeks could have been as a result of the battles of Marathon (480) and Salamis (490).  If Zechariah had been a young man when he began his mission, these last chapters would have been the work of an older man, prophesying about a future world where the menace of Greece had replaced the comparative comfort of Persia.  Zechariah may have been a member of the priestly class since he was either the son or grandson of Iddo, one of the priests who returned from Exile with Zerubbabel and Joshua.  Zerubbabel was a descendant of the House of David and was the governor appointed by the Persians.  Joshua was the Kohein when the exiles first came back to Jerusalem.

The Message:  Zechariah began preaching during the reign of Darius.  He called upon the returning exiles to finish rebuilding the Temple.  The original returnees had laid the foundation, but work on the Temple had been stopped due to a variety of political and economic problems.  He urged the Jews to complete the work as part of a larger effort, “the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.”  He saw the need for proper ritual to go hand in hand with just and merciful behavior to reach that goal.  The first four verses of the haftarah are an almost messianic vision of the joyful return of the people and God’s presence to Jerusalem.  The tone then shifts to a confrontation with Satan, the accuser, assaulting Joshua, the high priest, as being unworthy of his exalted position.  But God intervenes, describing Joshua as an ember plucked out of the fire.  In other words, whatever his shortcomings, Joshua is a survivor of the Babylonian Exile.  If Joshua and his companions will faithfully obey the laws of God, He will forgive them whatever sins they may have committed.  The haftarah finishes with a visit from an angel and a vision that includes a menorah with seven lamps.  When the prophet asks the angel what the vision means, the response includes the famous quote “Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit said the Lord of Hosts” (4:6).

Theme-Link:  The sedrah begins with commands concerning the seven lamps and the menorah.  The haftarah ends with reference to another menorah with seven lamps.  While it is obvious from the Torah portion that the menorah is important, it takes the words of the haftarah to give explicit meaning to the importance of the seven lamps.  The message of the seven lamps must be extremely important since this haftarah is read twice during the year.  The haftarah is also read on Shabbat Chanukah since Chanukah is the festival on which we light the lamps of the menorah.  Why use the same haftarah twice?  Why not use another prophetic reading that deals with the “seven lamps.”  According to some, it is because of the paucity of mentions of the seven lamps in any other prophetic writings.

Copyright; June, 2016; Mitchell A. Levin

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday, June 18, 2016 Naso (Count)

Torah Readings for Saturday, June 18, 2016

Naso (Count)
4:21-7:80Bambidbar (Numbers)

Naso is the second sedrah in Bamidbar (Numbers).  Naso takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the second sentence of the sedrah, “God spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Count (Naso) the heads (i.e., take a census) of the sons of Gershon.…’”  With 176 verses, Naso is said to be the longest sedrah in the Torah.  For me, it is difficult to provide meaningful categorization to its seemingly disparate parts.  Broadly speaking we can break the sedrah into three sections:  The Completion of the Levitical Census, Laws of Purification and Personal Conduct and Completion of the Tabernacle.

Completion of the Levitical Census (4:21-33)
Last week we ended with Moshe counting the first of the three groups of Levites, the Kohathites, and assigning them their duties when the Tabernacle was in its traveling mode.  This week we pick up with the other two groups of Levites.  First Moshe counts the male Gershonites ranging in age from thirty through fifty and assigns them their duties.  Then he counts the male Merarites ranging in age from thirty through fifty and assigns them their duties as well.  At the end, we find a total of 8,580 eligible Levites, which reminds us, again, of how small this most important of tribes was.

Laws of Purification and Personal Conduct (5:1-6:27)
The next two chapters contain an array of loosely connected ceremonies dealing with individual situations seemingly all tied to the need for purification.

A.  Removal of those who have been contaminated in certain specified ways from the camp (5:1-4).  When it says removed from the camp, the Torah does not mean thrown out.  It merely means moved to the edge of the encampment away from the Tabernacle.

B.  The requirement to confess when one has done wrong (in this case theft) and the requirement to make full restitution (5:4-10).  We previously dealt with this in Vayikra 5:20-26.  This represents a great lesson in ethical behavior in the truest sense of that term.

C.  Rituals pertaining to the Sotah or the Woman Who Goes Astray (5:4-31).  While the rules are quite specific, the role of the Bitter Waters remains a mystery to the modern reader.  Israelite law had specific definitions of adultery, which we might find offensive in our egalitarian society.  Some commentators contend that the ceremony described here was intended as much to put to rest the groundless fears of the husband as it was to punish the woman involved.

D.  The Rules of the Nazir or Nazirite (6:1-21).  While Judaism does not look with favor on asceticism, it acknowledges that some may feel the need to pursue that path on a temporary basis.  According to the text, either a man or a woman may take the vow.  However, all the rules concerning the Nazir are addressed in terms of the male.

E.  The Priestly Benediction (6:22-27).  These are the most famous words in Bamidbar.  Why does it come after the section on the Nazarite?  To be a Nazir, one must give up some of the very things that God said we could enjoy.  Possibly this was God’s way of reminding us that we could enjoy His blessings by following his ordinances and without having to make any further sacrifices.

Completion of the Tabernacle (7:1-89)
This chapter begins on the day that Moshe finished setting up the Tabernacle.  We may have a bit of problem with chronology here.  The Book of Bamidbar begins on the first day of the second month of the second year.  However, according to what we read in Shemot 40:17, Moshe finished setting up the Tabernacle on the first day of the first month of the second year.  This means the events described here took place a month before the census with which Bamidbar begins.  It will be interesting to see what explanations various commentators offer on this point of apparent dissonance.  Be that as it may, this rather lengthy and repetitious chapter describes the voluntary offerings brought by each chief or leader of each of the tribes of the House of Israel.  According to at least one Midrash, Moshe was reluctant to accept these voluntary offerings lest they be construed in the same manner as the “strange fire” brought by Aaron’s two sons.  However, God assured Moshe that because of the purity of their intentions, they would not suffer the fate of Nadab and Abihu.  Each leader had his own day for bringing his gifts.  While some say the order of giving was random, others contend that the leaders brought their offerings in the same order as their tribes marched through the Wilderness.  (Do you see why the above mentioned anomaly becomes of some importance?)

While the offerings of each leader had the same physical characteristics, there is a great deal of commentary on the truly individual nature of the offering based on the character of the individual donor.  Nachshon of the tribe of Judah was the first to make an offering.  This is the same Nachshon who, according to tradition, was the first Israelite to start crossing the Sea of Reeds at the time of the Exodus.  The offerings must have been quite important because they were allowed to be brought on Shabbat.  Normally, personal offerings were not brought on the seventh day.  The chapter ends with Moshe going into the Tent of the Meeting and hearing the voice of God.  According to some, this was a sign that the Shechinah, which had gone out the world after Adam and Eve, had returned to dwell in the Tabernacle.  More importantly, the Shechinah could dwell in the Tabernacle because all 12 Tribes had participated in its dedication.

362.      The commandment to send ritually unclean Israelites out of the Israelite camp (5:2-3).
363.      The prohibition against ritually unclean Israelites entering the sanctuary (5:2-3).
364.      The obligation to verbally confess one’s sins and to undo the wrong one has done (5:6-7).
365-366-367. The specification of the procedures to be taken with a suspected adulteress:  She is brought before a priest, who puts no oil or frankincense into the sotah’s meal offering (5:12, 15).
368.      The prohibition against a Nazarite drinking wine (6:2-4).
369.      The prohibition against a Nazarite drinking other liquor (6:2-4).
370.      The prohibition against a Nazarite eating fresh grapes (6:2-4).
371.      The prohibition against a Nazarite eating dried grapes (6:2-4).
372.      The prohibition against a Nazarite eating grape seeds and skins (6:2-4).
373.      The commandment forbidding a Nazarite to shave his hair (6:5).
374.     The commandment for a Nazarite to let his hair grow long (6:5).
375.      The prohibition against a Nazarite entering a place containing a dead body, even one of a close relative (6:6-7).
376.     The prohibition against a Nazarite allowing himself to become defiled by a corpse (6:6-7).
377.     The requirement that a Nazarite should shave his head and bring offering when his period as a nazir is complete (6:13-20).
378.      The specification of the priestly blessing (6:23-27).
379.     The commandment that the priests were to carry the Ark containing the Ten Commandments on their shoulders (7:9).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Literally it means “indwelling.”  In spiritual terms, the Shechinah refers “to the divine presence of immanence of God.”  According to some, the Shechinah was present in the Tabernacle and the First Temple, but not in the Second Temple.  The concept of the Shechinah is best left for those with real expertise in mysticism and the Kabbalah.  I mention it only because some commentaries use the expression and if you are unfamiliar with its meaning it only adds to confusion.

Chapter 5, verses 5 through 10, deal specifically with theft.  But we have broadened the application of the concept.  First one must admit his or her guilt and then he or she must make complete recompense to the person whom he or she has wronged.  If the victim is not around anymore, the penitent must find some other way of making full and public restitution for the wrong.  This drives home the point that in Judaism part of seeking forgiveness includes making amends for the harm done.  This commandment also applies equally to women as well as men - “When a man or woman commits any wrong…."  While there are many instances of what 21st century people would call “sexism” in the TaNaCh, in this case the Torah acknowledges that members of both sexes are capable of violating the law and that the path to repentance is open to all, regardless of sex.

Customs and Ceremonies
The Priestly Benediction has become a part of the prayer ritual.  Among the Orthodox, the recitation of the Priestly Benediction is a high point of the High Holiday observances.  The Priestly Benediction is also recited during the reader’s repetition of the Amidah.  Last but not least, the actual blessings without the introduction are part of the morning service and are recited to ensure that one “studies” Torah every day.

The Kohanim were not providing the blessings.  They were uttering words describing the blessings that come from God.  Most commentaries seem to agree that the threefold blessings refer first to material prosperity, second to Torah knowledge and inspiration and third to God’s compassion which we do not deserve and which takes the form of peace in the truest sense of that term.  The overriding importance of peace is a constant theme in Jewish prayer.

Nazir and Asceticism
Judaism believes that we live in the world and that we are to enjoy God’s bounties according to His rules.  The most famous Nazarites were the Prophet Samuel and Samson, both of whom were committed to the role of the Nazir from birth.  Considering what happened to Samson, being a Nazir is not a guarantee of piety.  At best, this may have been a way of letting those who feared that they would be a victim of folly avoid the pitfall that leads to ruin.  The laws of Judaism are intended to help us enjoy the fruits of the universe without becoming slaves to them.  At the same time, with all the laws that we do have to follow, there are those who look askance at the Nazir who creates additional duties that are not really required by God.  You might want to consider the writings of Rabbi Artson who offers a countervaling and modern approach for using the zeal of the Nazir.  In The Bedside Torah, he contends that the Kohanim and Levites had additional duties that let them come closer to God.  But the rest of the Israelites were left out in the cold.  The rituals of the Nazir gave them a way to do something extra, if even for only a small period of time.  In the modern era, Artson suggests that this desire still exists among lay people in Jewish communities.  He urges these people to find an outlet for their zeal by becoming active members in their congregations.  According to Rabbi Artson, no Rabbi or Cantor would turn away somebody who wanted to be more involved in the life of the congregation.

The Wayward Wife
The ritual here takes on a different meaning when we consider that in Jewish literature, the Israelites are seen as the bride of God.  Just as the wayward wife turns away from her husband, so do we turn away from God.  But the avenue of return is open for God will never divorce us.  Also, there is a similarity between the Hebrew word for “goes astray” as in the “If any man’s wife goes astray” and the Hebrew word for folly.  Just as a woman going astray is an act of folly as opposed to a rational, premeditated act, so is all sin begun in folly.  Hence we have the Rabbinic injunctions to enjoy life but to avoid folly.

Cain and Abel and the Priestly Benediction
According to Micha Odenheimer, events in Naso mark the culmination of what he calls history’s first religious war which was fought between Cain and Abel.  Based on various Midrash and Talmudic commentaries Odenheimer contends that Cain and Abel were having a dispute over whose field would be the site for the building of the Temple.  This traumatic episode is never again mentioned in the Torah and “it appears to disappear without a trace.”  Not so says Isaac Luria, the 17th century master of the Kabbalah.  “The relationship between Aaron and Moses, the two brothers who worked in harmony and concert to bring the Israelites out of bondage is a “tikkun,” a repairing of the damage caused by the disharmony between Cain and Abel which led to history’s first homicide.  The 8th verse of the 8th chapter of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the exact middle of the Torah.  In this verse we see Moses put the breastplate of the priesthood on his brother Aaron, marking him as the Kohein Gadol.  According to Rashi, he gets this honor because of the “joy in his heart” (Ex. 4:14) when he learned that his younger brother Moses had been chosen to lead the Israelites from bondage.  This was the exact opposite of the jealous rage

displayed by Cain when God showed acceptance of Abel.  The Priestly Benediction found in this week’s Torah portion is the final act of the repairing begun by Aaron and Moses.  Aaron’s progeny, the future generations of priests, are to bless the children of Israel but this blessing must always be done “with love.”  Turning again to the Talmud, Odenheimer points out that a priest who has killed a man, for whatever reason, may never offer the Priestly Benediction.  The Priestly Benediction itself is a tripartite incantation designed to overcome the human shortcomings that led Cain astray and that bedevil us to this day.  “The Lord bless you and keep you” is the base line of repair on the simplest level.  “The Lord make his face to shine upon you.”  When Cain sinned the divine spark that shines in all of us grew dim; this blessing seeks to return it all people.  “The Lord lift up His countenance to you and grant you peace.”  God promised Cain, as He promises all of us, that if he “would overcome his anger and his sadness” he would be spiritually uplifted and would then find the peace that comes with being in harmony with God.
Based on “War Damage” by Micah Odenheimer

Various Ways of Counting
Last week, we read about a tribal census that counted all the males “age twenty years and over…all those in Israel who were able to bear arms.”  Then there was a census of the Levites “every male among them from the age of one month up.”  Finally, another census of the Levites, which continues in Naso that counts those between the ages from thirty to fifty.  The different methods of counting indicate the different purposes of the counting.  The first census is a headcount to determine how many men will be available for combat.  Interestingly, a minimum age for military service is set, but the maximum age is “hazy.”  The next census of the Levites is tied to the Redemption of the First Born as “payment” for being spared the consequences of the Tenth Plague.  The final census is to determine how many men will be available to take part in moving and protecting the Tabernacle.  Here the ages are very specific.  It starts with those who are thirty, ten years older than the age for military service.  This might indicate that a certain amount of maturity and learning, and not just brute strength were required to fulfill these duties.  Apparently after fifty, one was thought to deserve a rest.  This may be the first recorded mandatory retirement in the history of the world.  The point is that in God’s eyes, we all count; each person matters.  But we count in different ways.  In other words He has different purposes for each of us.  The challenge is to discover that purpose and then to fulfill it.

13:2-25 Judges

The Man/The Book:  We should be saying The People since the Book of Judges includes references to thirteen men and one woman.  (According to some commentators the list includes fifteen people.)  However, they count Barak and Deborah as one entity.  They also include Eli, the Priest, and Samuel, both of whom are not mentioned in the Book of Judges, but in the Books of Samuel.  Judges or Shoftim is the second book in the section of the TaNaCh called Prophets or Neviim.  It is preceded by the Book of Joshua and followed by the Books of Samuel.  This is appropriate since the book covers the two to three hundred year interval between the death of Joshua and the birth of Samuel.  This is hardly a time of glory for the Children of Israel.  You might think of it as a period like the Dark Ages, that period of history between the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance.  There was no national government.  Each tribe existed in its own little world.  As the text says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his eyes.”  Furthermore, the Israelites had lost the religious purity with which they had entered the Promised Land.  They fell victim to the temptations of the local deities and began to worship them.  As the text says on more than one occasion, “And the Children of Israel did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.”  Finally, this was a period of intermittent warfare.  The different Israelite tribes found themselves under attack from a variety of enemies including the Philistines.  In other words we have a period of religious and political chaos where there was little in the way of law and order either in the realm of spiritual or temporal affairs.  During this time of anarchy, individuals would arise to provide leadership to some or all of the tribes in the face of various calamities.  It is these figures including Deborah, Samson, and Gideon, to name three of the more famous Shoftim, who provide the literary structure and historic content for the Book of Judges.  The Hebrew term used for Judge is Shofet.  This does not refer to a judge in the sense of a judicial official or an officer of the court.  Shoftim did settle disputes but they also served as administrators, political leaders and military chieftains.  They were “defenders, deliverers and avenging punishers.”  This week’s haftarah concentrates on Samson, the son of Manoah.  Samson was the thirteenth and last of the Judges named in Shoftim.  He was from the tribe of Dan and “judged Israel” for twenty years.  While dates are difficult to fix, Samson lived about one hundred years before the reign of King Solomon.

The Message:  The haftarah describes the events prior to the birth of Samson.  It includes two visits by an angel of God.  He first appears to Manoah’s wife.  He then returns and visits both Samson’s future father and mother.  The boy is to be a nazarite.  Both the infant and his mother are to eschew wine, other intoxicants or unclean foods.  Additionally, the boy is never to have a razor touch his head.  This is another in a series of tales about barren women that have included Sarah, Rachel and Hannah, the mother of Samuel.  In this case, there is no prayer to relieve the bareness.  It is merely stated as a fact and then divine relief is provided.  The youngster is to have a special purpose in life.  He “shall begin to save Israel out of the hand of the Philistines” (13:5).  In other words, we have two visions of prophecy.  The soon to be born Nazarite will begin the work of deliverance.  But it will be left to others to complete the work i.e., Saul and David.  Some might say that the haftarah is as important for what it does not say as what it does say.  The haftarah begins with the second verse of chapter thirteen.

Why do we not read the first verse that sets the stage for the unfolding events?  “And the children of Israel again did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years” (13:1).  Why does the haftarah deprive us of the words that set the stage for the upcoming events?  Furthermore, the haftarah ends with the simple statement “The boy grew up and the Lord blessed him.  The spirit of the Lord first moved him in the encampment of Dan…” (13:24-25).  No mention is made of chapters 14, 15 and 16 which provide the details of what many would view as Samson’s misspent life.  When a scholar as great as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz devotes a chapter of his book Biblical Images to Samson it should encourage us to look for meaning in his and not dismiss him as merely some wastrel playboy partying his way across Canaan.  By selecting chapter 13 for the haftarah, the Sages might have been providing us with an entry point to study this mystifying figure without bringing undue shame by mentioning his shortcomings.  (Remember, shaming another is something we are taught to avoid.)  Samson’s name in Hebrew is Shimshon.  His name may come from the Hebrew word Shemesh, meaning “sun” and might have meant that he was a person with a Sunny Countenance or a Sunny Disposition.  Those of you who have read Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev might remember that the youngster’s favorite toy was a Shimshon doll i.e., a Samson doll.

Theme Link:  The sedrah describes the laws pertaining to one who chooses to be a Nazir.  The haftarah describes the birth of somebody who is to be a Nazir from the moment of conception until his death.  There are differences in the rules given in the sedrah and in the haftarah.  For example, in the sedrah, there are prohibitions about being with a corpse.  No mention is made of that in the haftarah, which is just as well since Samson will slay his share of Philistines.  But there is a greater difference than just those of a few rituals.  The Torah is describing the voluntary, temporary obligation of one who is seized by a sense of zeal to be “closer to God.”  The haftarah is describing something that is thrust upon a person at birth and from which there is no escape.  The outcome of Samson’s life might be related to the origins of his becoming a Nazir.

Pirke Avot Redux
While some Jews confine their study of Pirke Avot to the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, others repeat the cycle for the entire summer, studying a chapter a week until Rosh Hashanah.  Others take advantage of the longer daylight hours for Shabbat to begin studying other Jewish texts including the teachings of Maimonides on a weekly cycle.  Your congregational rabbi should be able to help you with this.  There are several websites you might want to look at including, or try reading a chapter a week from books by Joseph Telushkin such as A Code of Jewish Ethics, Biblical Literacy or Jewish Literacy.

Copyright; June, 2016; Mitchell A. Levin


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday - Monday, June 11 - 13, 2016 Bamidbar Shavuot Book of Ruth

Torah Readings for Saturday, June 11, 2016

Bamidbar or Numbers is the fourth book in the Torah.  It takes its name from the fifth Hebrew word in the opening sentence of the book.  “And the Lord spoke to Moshe in the Wilderness (‘Bamidbar’) of Sinai.”  At one time, the book was called Sefer Va-yedaber, taking its name from the very first word in the book, “Va-yedaber” which literally means “And He spoke….”  The name change was probably adopted because so many verses in the Torah began with the word “Va-yedaber.”  Using this word to name a sedrah might have led to confusion.  In English this book is known as Numbers because it begins with a census and ends with a census.  As a matter of fact, the Talmud refers to Bamidbar as the Sefer Ha-pedkudim variously translated as the Book of the Counting or Book of the Census.  Bamidbar is divided into ten weekly readings.  However, in some years there are two occasions where two of the weekly readings are paired so that the ten readings are covered on eight Sabbaths.  From the point of view of the narrative, The Book of Bamidbar picks up where the Book of Shemot left off.  It covers the last 38 years that the Israelites spent in the Wilderness moving from Mount Sinai to the east bank of the Jordan River.  The term Wilderness refers to an area that comprises the Sinai Peninsula and part of the Negev.  Commentators divide the material covered in the text in various ways.  The editors of Etz Hayim see a pattern of eleven groups of laws, followed by narrative, followed by law, etc.  The Plaut Chumash divides the material into four sections:  Regulations Promulgated at Sinai (1:1-10:10); Events during the Travels (10:11-20:1); The Story of Balaam (22:2-24:25); and Preparation for Entering the Promised Land (25:1-36:13).

If Bamidbar were a Patriarch, it would be Isaac, the Patriarch of Continuity.  Just as Isaac was the link between his dynamic father and his dynamic son, so the material in Bamidbar is the link between the amazing events of Shemot and the excitement of crossing the Jordan into Canaan.  In Bamidbar the Israelites must leave Sinai in all its glory and begin the daily task of living.  Instead of such splendid events as the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea or the Revelation at Sinai, we read about rebellions, lack of faith, talking animals, death-dealing zealotry and the death of a generation.  In Shemot, we read of the excitement of building the Tabernacle.  In Bamidbar, we are faced with the drudgery of packing and unpacking the sacred dwelling.  But in reading Bamidbar we see how our ancestors dealt with the challenges of life.  We see how they persevered despite doubt.  We see how they bounced back after each apparent setback.  We see the promulgation of some very practical law in a book that is not “thick with the law.”  And yes, there are some sublimely spiritual moments, which have become part of our daily morning service.

Bamidbar (In the wilderness)
1:1-4:20 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Bamidbar is the name of the first sedrah in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers).  This follows the naming pattern for the first sedrah in each of the Five Books of Moses.  Thematically, the material divides into three basic parts - The Census, The Encampment, and Matters Pertaining to the Levites.

The Census (1:1-1:54)
In the second year after the Exodus, on the first day of the month we now call Iyar, God tells Moshe to take a headcount of all the males of military age i.e., from twenty until sixty.  The count is by family, clan and tribe.  The count was taken by having each of those eligible contribute a half-shekel to the Tabernacle.  This is not the first census in the Torah, nor is it the last.  But this census has a very practical purpose.  The Israelites are going into hostile country and Moshe needs to know how many fighters he has.  Moshe tallies each of the tribes separately and comes up with an aggregate figure of 603,550.  As always, Moshe counts twelve tribes, but as we know, the twelve are not always the same.  Here he gets to twelve by counting each of the half-tribes, Manasseh and Ephraim, as separate tribes.  Per God’s instruction, Moshe does not count the Levites.  In effect, they get one of the first exemptions from military duty in history.  The Levites are to be responsible for the Tabernacle and all that it contains.  They will not join the regular encampment since they will be camped around the Tabernacle serving as its protectors.

The Encampment (2:1-2:34)
God tells Moses and Aaron how the tribes are to be positioned while in camp and when traveling in the Wilderness.  The camp was rectangular, with the Tabernacle in the center.  The tribes were grouped into four divisions of three tribes each which were called “d’galim” (banners).  In other words each group probably had some sort of standard or banner marking its place.  Judah's Division camped on the east and included Issachar and Zebulun.  Reuben’s division camped on the south and included Gad and Simeon.  Ephraim’s Division camped to the West and included Benjamin and Manasseh.  Dan’s Division camped to the north and included Asher and Naphtali.  This layout would also provide the line of march when the Israelites traveled.  Once again, the headcount is given and the text announces that the Levites were not counted.

Matters Pertaining to the Levites (3:1-4:20)
Following the pattern of taking care of the Israelites first and their leaders second, God now turns to the Levites and the Kohanim.  Having acknowledged the lineage of the House of Aaron, God tells Moshe that the Levites are to serve in the Tabernacle under the direction of the Kohanim.  The Levites will serve an extra purpose.  God will take them in place of all the first-born Israelites who are His special possession because He spared them at the time of the Tenth Plague.  Moses is to take a count by house and clan of all the male Levites over the age of one month.  The total came to 22,000 which made them the smallest of all of the tribes.  In the process of counting each ancestral house, Moshe was instructed to tell each group what their duties would be in and around the Tabernacle.  The last part of the sedrah begins with a process that will carry into the next sedrah.  God tells Moshe to take another census of the Levites.  Once again it is to be by ancestral house, but this time only men ranging in age from thirty to fifty are counted.  As Moshe counts each ancestral house, he assigns them their duties when it comes time to move the Tabernacle from place to place.  Bamidbar ends with a description of the packing chores to be performed by the Kohathies.  We will have to wait for the next sedrah to find out the chores of the rest of the Levites.

There are none in this sedrah!

The prefix “Ba” is translated as “in the” and “Midbar” means “wilderness.”  Why is it so important that the narrative is taking place “in the wilderness?”  According to some, the term “Midbar” or wilderness connotes a place devoid of resources and shelter.  This meant that the Israelites were dependent upon God for their sustenance and physical well-being.  We dwell in a spiritual “Midbar” where God’s Torah is the source of our sustenance.

Customs and Ceremonies
Pidyon ha-ben - Redemption of the First Born
The custom of redeeming the first born male has its origins in Bamidbar 3:13, “Every first-born is Mine.”  To be eligible, the male child must be at least thirty days old, he must be the first issue of his mother’s womb and neither parent can come from the tribe of Levi or the House of Aaron.  The ceremony consists of giving a recitation of two blessings by the father in the presence of a Kohein to whom the father gives five coins.  A party usually follows the ceremony.  At least one sage, the Vilna Gaon, went through this ceremony with every Kohein he met since he did not trust the purity of anybody’s lineage living in the Diaspora.

“God spoke to Moses and Aaron saying…” (2:1 and 4:1).  According to one Midrash, the Torah contains 18 passages where God speaks to the two brothers equally.  This is one of the explanations for the Amidah containing eighteen blessings.  Also, as Rabbi Schneerson points out, when the text invokes the two brothers at the same time, it is reminding us of two ways in which the world becomes spiritual.  One is the bringing down from above as represented by Moshe.  He brought down the law from the top of the mountain into the world of men.  The second is raising up from below as represented by Aaron.  For as the Kohein Gadol, he would raise high the offerings to reach to the heavens.

The Calendar
The sedrah of Bamidbar is always read prior to Shavuot.  Why?  After all the events described took place after the Revelation at Mount Sinai, which is part of the reason for celebrating Shavuot.  According to some, the juxtaposition exists to remind us that we received the law in the Wilderness.  The challenge of the Israelites was to carry that Law through the Wilderness and take it to the Promised Land.  The challenge of the Jew is take our commandments in the wilderness of the “every day” world and use them to make our lives a “Promised Land.”

The Numbers in Numbers
The figures seem awfully large.  Based on the count given, some estimate that there would have been two million Israelites moving through the Wilderness.  In an attempt to harmonize the text with what seems to be reality, there are those who suggest that in ancient times the Hebrew word “elef” did not mean the number 1,000.  Instead it referred to a unit of military command that may have been more like a squad or platoon in modern military parlance.  This would have meant a fighting force number of more than 3500 men but less than 7000.  There is an on-going debate as to whether or not a migration such as the one described in Bamidbar could have taken place.  While there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other, we do know that there were several major population movements going on at this time throughout the Mediterranean World including the one that would bring the Philistines to Canaan.  For those who read the Torah seeking an explanation of history and not as literal history, the question of actual head-count may be of secondary importance.

The Leaders
In Bamidbar Moshe names twelve leaders, one for each tribe.  How did they come to be chosen for this honor?  Do you remember the story of the Splitting of the Sea?  When Moshe calls out for God’s help, He says, “Why do you cry out to Me?  Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth” (Shemot 14:15).  According to Midrash, Nahshon plunged into the waters followed by eleven others.  It was their act of faith and leadership, which provided the human dimension to our escape from the Egyptians.  Their courage at the Sea of Reeds earned these twelve men the leadership positions mentioned in the opening lines of Bamidbar.  There is a Divine Plan but man must act for the Divine Plan to come to pass.

The Missing Sons
Everybody seems to be counted or mentioned in Bamidbar.  Even the names of Aaron’s two sons who died “by strange fire” are cited.  But Moshe’s two sons, Gershom and Eliezer are conspicuous by their absence.  If they are not worthy of an honor, are they not at least worth a mention?  Their disappearance from the narrative continues to puzzle me even if does not bother anybody else.

“To The Wilderness” by Micha Odenheirner as edited and revised
Revelation came in the wilderness, the first sentence of the Book of Numbers stresses:  "And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, from the Tent of Meeting ….”  And, says the midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah, wilderness is a necessary condition for every revelation, for every true internalization of the Torah's teaching:  "Whoever would wish to acquire Torah, must make himself ownerless like the wilderness."  What does it mean to be ownerless?  Why wilderness?

For Maimonides, writing in the twelfth century, wilderness represents the means of escaping the seductive influence of an evil society, an influence powerful enough to "own" you.  "If all the countries he knows or hears of follow evil ways, as is the case in our time," he says in his Mishneh Torah, then one must "go out into the caves, the clefts of mountains, and the wilderness" to save himself from a degenerate society's mores.  But how does one escape, even momentarily from a world like ours; a world where materialism, wealth, social status and power dominant our existence?  One escapes through prayer.  Prayer, real prayer, prayer that is the private conversation with the Divine Being is the only way to shift from a world centered on things to a world centered on God.  Prayer is the antidote to society's obsessions because it alone has the power to lift consciousness out of the web of socially conditioned desires into a new matrix whose center is God.  “Prayer, the effort to reach out and in - toward the transcendent, to stand before the One, creates a wilderness within, where a person can be alone with God.  Even during public prayer, the crescendo of intensity is reached during the whispered Amidah (called by some The Silent Devotion) whose sound should not be heard by another human being.”  “To become a master of prayer involves breaking, at least for a few precious moments, the norms for ‘proper’ behavior, whose first principle is the constant, vigilant awareness of oneself as a social animal.”

For most of us real Wilderness has been replaced by theme-park visits to nature complete with RV hook-ups and all the comforts of home.  For most of us prayer has become some stylized group activity called “going to services.”  Yet we need prayer.  We need to ground our identity in the hope of the absolute.  Only through prayer can we “acquire the Torah,” find meaning in language, and receive transmitted truth.  This concept does not mean shouting Allahu akbar while detonating a car bomb or reciting Sim Shalom and then assassinating a Prime Minister.  It means praying for peace and then working for peace.  Real prayer takes to Bamidbar, the Wilderness, a place where our definition “things” weigh down the traveler and life is stripped to its essentials where only that which of true value has any value.

Counting Who Counts
According to some, counting men and not women for the minyan stems, in part, from the census in Bamidbar which only counted males.  The headcount in Bamidbar was taken to determine how many people would be available to serve as soldiers.  Men were counted because at that time only men served as soldiers.  In the modern state of Israel, women serve as soldiers which would indicate that if availability for fighting is the criteria for being counted, then women should be counted for the purposes of the minyan.  Furthermore, since there are groups of men in Israel who refuse to serve in the army, does this mean they should not be counted in the minyan?

2:1-22 Hosea

The Man:  We have only limited knowledge about the historic figure of Hosea.  He probably lived during the middle of the eighth century, B.C.E.  He preached between 750 and 720 B.C.E. in the Northern Kingdom, also called the Kingdom of Israel.  The leading Israelite monarch at the time was Jeroboam II.  This was a turbulent period of moral decay when the leadership of the Northern Kingdom was divided between those who wanted to make an alliance with Egypt against Assyria and those who wanted to come to terms with Assyria.  Hosea warned against doing either.  Instead, he called for moral and religious revival with the people putting their faith in God as a solution to their temporal problems.  In the end, the people failed to heed his words and the Israelites were exiled in 721 B.C.E.  In the collection of the Minor Prophets, Hosea is the first of the Twelve.  From a chronological point of view, this is misleading since Amos lived and preached before Hosea did.  Hosea is listed first because his fourteen chapters of writings are larger than Amos’.  It is the size of the text that gives him precedence.  Understanding the message of Hosea can be quite difficult.  As one commentator puts it, “The style of Hosea is highly poetic and difficult to follow.  Many passages…are not clearly understood because we are no longer fully acquainted with certain events to which they allude.”  The first three chapters of Hosea describe how he came to prophesy.  The last eleven chapters alternate between admonishments and words of hope.  There will be punishment but ultimately God will redeem us.

Hosea married a woman named Gomer.  How this marriage came to be is open to some question.  But the fact is that she betrayed him.  He took her back and forgave her. 

In delivering his message, Hosea portrays the Israelites as the wayward wife. God is portrayed as the long-suffering husband who always loves her and who forgives her and redeems her.  Hosea refers to the Northern Kingdom as Ephraim.  This is because the tribe of Ephraim led the original revolt against the House of David.  Hosea did not approve of the revolt and saw Jerusalem as the holy place, thus placing a permanent cloud over the Northern Kingdom.  I mention this only so that you will understand that when Hosea talks about Ephraim he is talking about the Kingdom of Israel and not just one tribe.

The Message:  In Chapter 1 of Hosea, the chapter that precedes this week’s haftarah, Hosea obeys God’s command to marry a harlot.  He marries Gomer who bears him three children.  In chapter 2, this week’s haftarah, the imagery shifts between the harlot-wife, Gomer, and the harlot-nation, Israel.  Just as Gomer looks to other men for her sustenance (2:11) so do the Israelites turn away from God and seek other gods.  And just as the harlot suffers for being unfaithful to her spouse, so will the Israelites suffer the same shame, humiliation and exile visited upon Gomer.  But just as Gomer repents, so do the Israelites repent.  Just as Hosea takes her back because he always has loved her, so will God remain true to His marriage with His people.

Keeping in mind the husband-wife, God-Israel metaphor, there is an interesting play on words in verse 18 that carries a message both for domestic relations and our relationship with God.  Bear with me since it takes a little bit of explaining.  According to verse 18, in the future, the wife-Israel, will refer to her husband-God as my “Ish” and not my “Baal.”  Both of these words may be translated as meaning husband.  “Ish” literally is translated to mean man or mortal.  It would carry the connotation of a partner.  On the other hand, Baal is the name of a Canaanite god whom apostate Israelites worshipped.  (You may remember him from the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel.)  Baal also is translated as master, so a husband who is a Baal is the master to a wife who plays a servile role.  In the future, the Israelites will no longer follow Baal.  In the future, while God will still be God, the Israelites will accept the pro-active role that they have for bringing the message of the divine into the world of the mundane.

Theme-Link:  The sedrah begins with a counting of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness.  It is filled with the references to the number of our ancestors.  The haftarah opens with a reference to “the number of the children of Israel” which “shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered” (2:1).  Also the sedrah lists the head or “Rosh” of each tribe while the haftarah describes a future time when the Israelites will select a head or “Rosh.”

Customs and Ceremonies:  “And I will betroth you to Me forever; and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, with justice, with kindness and with mercy; and I will betroth you to me with fidelity and you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:21-22).  These are the last two sentences in the haftarah.  They are also the lines uttered when wrapping the tefillin around the left hand.  This wrapping spells “Shadai” which is one of the names of God.  This is also reminiscent of the groom placing the betrothal ring on the bride’s finger.  So when we put on tefillin we are symbolically recommitting our betrothal to God.

Pirke Avot is a collection of sayings, teachings, and ethical maxims.  A popular and eminently quotable work, it is one of the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah.  The Mishnah, consisting of centuries of oral teachings passed down from one generation to the next, was finally codified by Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi in 200 C.E.  Pirke Avot is unique among the tractates of the Mishnah in that it doesn't contain any Halachah (law), only aggadah (stories or legends).  Its popularity is reflected in the fact that it is included in most prayer books (including, in part, in Gates of Prayer).  Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut one of the great teachers of the Reform Movement suggests that Pirke Avot "teaches us the essentials of what life might be at its best."  It deals with some of life's most basic and important questions:  What is our purpose and destiny?  What is sin, and how do we conquer it?  What is wisdom?  What is my relationship to God?  Pirke Avot is divided into chapters, and each chapter is further divided into individual statements, each called a Mishnah.  It is customary to study a chapter of Pirke Avot starting with the first Shabbat after the end of Pesach (Passover).  Since Pirke Avot consists of six chapters, the work may be completed by the start of Shavuot.  However, other groups of Jews follow a cycle where they study and re-study each of the chapters until the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.  Regardless of the format you choose, each week the Torah page will include one or more verses from the chapter of the week with a few comments from a variety of sources.

Rabbi Chananyah ben Akashyah says:  “God desired to grant merit to Israel; that is why He gave them the Torah and the commandments in such abundance.  As it is said:  ‘The Lord desired for the sake of His righteousness to make the Torah great and glorify it.’”

This statement is actually not a part of Chapter Six.  Rather it is the verse recited when concluding each of the six chapters of Pirke Avot.  The term “His righteousness” is interpreted to mean “the righteousness of Israel.”  For when the Israelites behave in a righteous manner, they are behaving in a manner that brings honor to the name and the teachings of God.  Rabbi Chananyah lived in the middle of the second century C.E.  The simple message of the verse is that the study of Torah and the performance of good deeds are each a “Divinely conferred privilege.”  On a more sophisticated level, he may have been asserting that there was no greater proof of God’s love for the Israelites than the multiplicity of mitzvoth that He had bestowed upon them.  This statement is found in the Mishnah.  Specifically, it comes from the last paragraph in Makkot (Lashes), the Fifth Tractate of Nezikin (Damages), which is the fourth of the sixth Orders in the Mishnah.  Avot, which we are studying as Pirke Avot, is the Ninth Tractate in Nezikin.

Chapter six is a little different from the first five chapters of Pirke Avot.  It is not from Avot, a tractate of the Mishnah.  Rather it collection of “baraisos.”  This is a plural form of the word “baraisa,” which means outside.  It refers to teachings that were not included in the Mishnah “but were preserved ‘outside’ of it.  They were written in the style of the Mishnah and supplement it.”  This collection of baraisos into a sixth chapter made it possible to have six readings for the six Shabbatot between Pesach and Shavuot.  “This chapter is studied on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot, the Festival commemorating the giving of the Torah because it deals with acquiring Torah knowledge.”  When not otherwise acknowledged, the verses in this chapter are credited to Rabbi Meir, the Rabbi mentioned in the opening words of the first verse.  Little is known about Reb Meir’s early life.  According to some, he was from Caesarea and was the son of a family of converts.  There is some credence to this since Caesarea was a seaside city in Israel built by the Romans who preferred the cooling breezes of the Mediterranean to the heat of Jerusalem.  What we do know is that Meir was the most prominent of Rabbi Akiva’s students and his successor.  Meir was known for his unconventional and mystical interpretations.  When asked “whether the Shema must be recited aloud or whether it may be recited inaudibly, Meir replied:  ‘In accordance with the concentration of the mind, so the value of the words.’  In other words, it doesn’t matter whether it is said silently or aloud; what matters is the sincerity with which it is recited.”  The household of Meir must have been a lively place since he was married to Beruryah, the daughter of a famous sage and a Torah scholar in her own right.

(6:4) “Seek not greatness for thyself, and court not honor; let thy deeds exceed thy learning; and crave not after the table of kings; for thy table is greater than theirs and thy crown is greater than theirs, and thy Employer is faithful to pay thee the reward of thy work.”

This is another pithy statement on the value of study and the need to avoid what the sages called “worldly ambition.”  It is consistent with other admonitions we have read about keeping your distance from those with temporal power.

(6:5) “Do not seek greatness for yourself and do not covet honor; let your performance be more than your learning.  Do not lust for the table of kings for your table is greater than their table, and your crown is greater than their crown; and your Employer is trustworthy to pay you’re the wage of your labor.”  ”Do not seek greatness for yourself and do not covet honor” is another reminder that one should study Torah for the sake of studying Torah, not to gain fame or fortune.  It is a continuation of the concept that the reward for performing a Mitzvah is the performance of the Mitzvah itself.  “Do not lust for the table of kings” is a repetition of the previously seen admonition of not compromising one’s values for temporal gain.  As we have seen before, the “Employer” is God who is more reliable than any temporal figure of power be it a King or CEO.

(6:9) Rabbi Yosei ben Kisma said, “I was once walking by the way, when a man met me and saluted me, and I returned the salutation.  He said to me, 'Rabbi, from what place art thou?'  I said to him, 'I come from a great city of sages and scribes.'  He said to me, 'If thou art willing to dwell with us in our place, I will give thee a thousand thousand golden dinars and precious stones and pearls.'  I said to him, 'Wert thou to give me all the silver and gold and precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere but in a home of the Torah'; and thus it is written in the book of Psalms by the hands of David, King of Israel, 'The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver'; and not only so, but in the hour of man's departure neither silver nor gold nor precious stones nor pearls accompany him, but only Torah and good works, as it is said, 'When thou walkest it shall lead thee; when thou liest down it shall watch over thee; and when thou awakest it shall talk with thee'; 'when thou walkest it shall lead thee' - in this world; and 'when thou awakest it shall talk with thee' - in the world to come.  And it says, 'The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the Lord of hosts.'”

According to some traditional commentary on this verse, the sage is reminding of us how much more valuable the study of Torah is than earthly wealth.  Furthermore, he is cautioning us not live in a community that does not value the study of Torah since the inclination to study might be overwhelmed by the prevailing communal value.  One might deduce a different lesson from this if one considers the history of the author.  Rabbi Yosei ben Kisma (Joseph the son of Kisma) lived at the time of the Bar Kochba Rebellion.  Reportedly he cautioned his fellow Rabbis not to take part in the war against Rome.  He was not involved in the fight and, unlike the Martyred Rabbis, was left alone by the Roman authorities.  In other words, he played it safe.  The question that his statement raises is what part of the world should not be a place for the study and practice of the Torah?  If we are only to live where Torah is already studied and practiced, how do we explain outreach programs such as that performed by the “Lubavitcher Lamplighters?”  Questions like this are appropriate when the accompanying Torah portion is from Bamidbar (Numbers).  According to some, the generation that left Egypt and listened to the advice of the Ten Spies did not want to go into the Promised Land because they felt close to God in the Wilderness.  They were afraid that they would lose that affinity by going into Canaan, a dwelling where there was no Torah.  Consider what the world would be like if the Rebbe had not sent out a Shaliach or if a Chalutz had not made Aliyah, or if a Rabbi would only serve in a city with a large Jewish community instead of being willing to serve in a place with lone, small synagogue or temple like Cedar Rapids, IA.

Torah Readings for Shavuot

Shavuot is traditionally a holiday tied to study.  Some say this is because it commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments, and by extension, the entire Torah.  As if to emphasize the point, in addition to readings from the Torah and the Prophets, the Book of Ruth is also read on the holiday.  Finally, the old custom of staying up all-night and studying on the eve of Shavuot has become quite trendy among congregations in many major metropolitan areas.

Torah and Haftarot Readings:  Shavuot is celebrated for two reasons.  It commemorates the Revelation at Sinai.  It is also one the Three Major Harvest Festivals.  Each Torah reading traditionally connected with holiday reflects one of these two causes for our celebration.  According to the Babylonian Talmud there was a dispute over which Torah portion should be read.  One group favored a reading from Shemot connecting the holiday with the giving of the Ten Commandments.  The other group favored a reading from Devarim that connected the holiday with its agricultural origins.  In a display of the Jewish genius for compromise, when the observance of Shavuot was extended to two days, each of the readings could be used thus satisfying the competing parties.

Torah Readings for Sunday, June 12, 2016

First Day of Shavuot
First Scroll
19:1-20:23 Shemot (Exodus)

The first special reading describes the arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai and the giving of The Ten Commandments.  This material is part of the sedrah of Yitro, which we read in its entirety earlier in the year.  All ten of the commandments are read while the congregation stands.  In creating this special reading, the Rabbis did not end with the Ten Commandments.  They included an additional eight verses.  This includes “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking...” (20:15).  “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray” (20:16).  “Thus the Lord said to Moses:  Thus shall you say to the Israelites:  You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens…” (20:19).  Why not just stop with the Ten Commandments?  Why include these eight verses?  These verses are a statement of personal experience.  They serve as a reminder that God gave each of us the Torah and that each of us is responsible for obeying its teachings.  In other words, Shavuot does not commemorate some distant event in the Wilderness.  Instead it is a reminder of the on-going gift of Torah which is the birthright of every Jew.

Second Scroll
28:26-31 Bamidbar (Numbers)

The second reading for the holiday covers material we read in the sedrah of Pinchas during the year.  It describes the special offering that was to be brought to the Temple in honor of Shavuot and includes the command to “not work at your occupations” (28:26).  Since the Temple has been destroyed we cannot bring the sacrifices as commanded and must content ourselves with merely reading about them.  But each of us can at least make an effort to refrain from our occupations and observe the holiday.

Haftarah (Traditional)
1:1-28; 3:12 Ezekiel

The Man:  Having encountered him so many times already, regular recipients of the guide probably feel like they are becoming Ezekiel Experts.  Briefly, Ezekiel was one of the three Major Prophets.  He was a younger contemporary of Jeremiah.  He lived at the time of the destruction of the First Temple.  He probably was exiled to Babylonia before the destruction of the Temple.  So his writings break into two basic parts - predictions of calamity before the Exile and messages of consolation and future redemption once the Exile has become a reality.

The Message:  According to the commentaries of Gunther Plaut, “Despite the fact that (the first chapter of Ezekiel) was the most exhaustively studied text in the TaNaCh, its message is not at all clear.”  Well, if this one stymies the experts, you can imagine how confusing I find it.  In fact, the haftarot for both days of Shavuot leave me confused and mystified.  For real depth, you need to look beyond the meager explication.  The haftarah is a vision.  The first three verses are pretty straight forward, providing us with time, place and person.  And then it gets wild because the prophet proceeds to describe the Merkavah, the Chariot.  There are wheels.  There are faces.  There are wings.  There are all manner of things.  Ezekiel apparently had an ecstatic experience and he has tried to describe the indescribable in the language of man.  We have already read of Isaiah’s Vision in a previous haftarah.  Tradition has tried to fuse the two Visions.  In the Kedushah, the third benediction of the Amidah, we recite “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh… (Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is filled with His glory)” which is from Isaiah’s Vision (6:3).  The congregational response, “Baruch k’vode Adnoai mim’komo… (Blessed is the glory of the Lord from His Place)” is from the last line of today’s haftarah (3:12) which is Ezekiel’s vision.  Part of Ezekiel’s Vision has made it into American culture.  If you have heard the Spiritual that proclaims, “Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up in the middle of the sky.  And the big wheel run by faith and the little wheel run by the grace of God.  A wheel in a wheel, way up in the middle of the sky” you will know exactly what I am talking about.

Theme-Link:  According to tradition, the Torah concerns itself with the Theophany at Sinai.  The haftarah concerns itself with the theophany experienced by Ezekiel.  The Torah reading for Shavuot comes from the same part of Shemot as the sedrah of Yitro.  When we read Yitro during the year, the haftarah is the Vision of Isaiah.  It is not just wheels within wheels, but Visions within Visions.

Torah Readings for Monday, June 13, 2016

Second Day of Shavuot (Traditional)
First Scroll
14:22-16:1 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

The material for the Second Day of Shavuot is covered in the sedrah of Re’eh during the annual reading.  Chapter 16 contains a description of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, including Shavuot.  According to the Torah, you are to count seven weeks from Pesach and then celebrate the holiday.  Shavuot is the Hebrew word for Weeks and the holiday takes its name from the fact that it is celebrated at the end of this seven-week cycle.  Shavuot is the only festival for which a set date on the calendar is not given in the Torah.  Of course, it is always observed on the same date each year.  However, this holiday calendar is preceded by laws relating to Tithing, the Sabbatical Year and treatment of the less fortunate.  “If, however, there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman…” (15:7).  “…Open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs…” (15:8).  “Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so…For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you:  open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land” (15:10-11).  Why did the Rabbis include these laws with the readings about ritual observance for Shavuot?  Possibly it is a reminder of the lesson that Social Justice and Ritual are mutually inclusive.  Possibly it is a reminder that one way to show our gratitude for God’s bounty is to share it with the less fortunate.

Second Scroll
28:26-31 Bamidbar (Numbers)

The reading is the same as on the First Day of Shavuot.

2:20-3:19 Habakkuk

The Man:  Habakkuk is one of the Twelve Minor Prophets.  There is little that we can say about him with any certitude.  We are not even sure of his name.  The word Habakkuk comes from the ancient Akkadian word for flower or might come from the Hebrew word meaning to embrace.  According to various sources he may have lived as early as the 8th century B.C.E. or as late as the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.  The Talmud assigns him to the time of the evil King Manasseh in the 7th century B.C.E. making him a contemporary of the prophet Joel.  Habakkuk’s writings consist of fifty-six verses divided into three chapters.  And he may not have even written the third chapter, which is the source of the haftarah on the Second Day of Shavuot.  In the late 1940’s, a scroll attributed to Habakkuk was found in a cave near the Dead Sea.  The scroll appeared to be intact and contained commentaries on the writings.  But it only contained the material in the first two chapters.  However, the third chapter, which has been credited to Habakkuk over the centuries, is in his literary style.  Lacking evidence to the contrary, we shall continue to accept the traditional belief.  Habakkuk was troubled by the apparent triumph of evil over the righteous.  The message from God was that this was merely illusory.  “Though it tarry, wait for it.” (2:3)  Ultimately, good will triumph over evil.  Various prophets and sages are supposed to have reduced all commandments to one.  In the case of Habakkuk we find this in the statement “But the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4).  The Hebrew word translated as faith is “emuhah” which is understood as steadfastness or faithfulness.  As Rabbi Lehrman points out in his commentary, “the righteous Israelite, who remains unswervingly loyal to the moral precepts, will endure, although he has to suffer for his principles; whereas the wicked who enjoy a temporary ascendancy through their violation of right, are in the end overthrown and humbled.  ‘Moses gave Israel 613 commandments.  David reduced them to 10, Isaiah to 2 but Habakkuk to one: the righteous shall live by his faith.’”

The Message:  The haftarah starts with the last sentence in the second chapter.  The prophet is appealing to God in His Temple.  The next verse, the first verse of chapter 3, establishes that this is a prayer offered in the manner of the Psalms sung by the Levites in the Temple.  The rest of the haftarah is a “lyric ode” in which the prophet “again begs God to intervene on His people’s behalf and visualizes his petition as granted in a graphic picture of the march of God and His retinue to overthrow the enemy.”  The last verses are a declaration of the prophet’s unswerving faith in God and His judgments, no matter what hardships may be suffered.

Theme-Link:  There are at least three.  First is the statement about the “Lord in His temple” at the beginning of the reading.  Observance of the Pilgrimage Festivals, including Shavuot, required the people to bring sacrifices to the Lord in the Temple.  Second, according to Rashi, the third verse in Chapter 3 is a reference to the Sinaitic Revelation, which is one of the reasons for celebrating Shavuot.  Third, the haftarah is a description of a future theophany while Shavuot is a celebration of the Theophany at Sinai.

Book of Ruth (Special Reading for Shavuot)
Brief Q & A

Is the Book of Ruth part of the Bible?  The Book of Ruth is found in the third section of the Bible, which is called Kethubim in Hebrew and Writings in English.  Some other books of the Bible in Kethubim of which you may have already heard are Psalms and Proverbs.  Included in Kethubim are five books which are known collectively as the Five Megilloth or the Five Scrolls.  Each of the five is read on a specific holiday.  The most famous example of this is the Scroll of Esther, which is read on Purim.  The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot.

Why is the Book of Ruth read on Shavuot?  There are many answers to this question.  Here are a few.  The story takes place during the barley and wheat harvests, which is the time of the year during which Shavuot is celebrated.  Shavuot commemorates the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which was a reaffirmation of the covenant between the Israelites and God.  The Book of Ruth is a story of one person’s entrance into that same covenanted relationship.  According to some, the birth and the yahrzeit of King David both occurred on Shavuot.  Since the Book of Ruth is the tale of David’s great -grandparents, it is only proper that it is read on Shavuot.

When does the story take place?  No one is sure.  Based on statements in the book itself, the story probably takes place during the time of the Judges.  This is the period after the conquest of Canaan described in the Book of Joshua and prior to the time of Saul, the first King of Israel.  Some authorities say it took place about one hundred years before the birth of King David, who lived sometime around the year 1,000 BCE.  The Book of Ruth was not written at the time that it is supposed to have occurred.

Who wrote the Book of Ruth and when was it written?  Like many Jewish texts, there is no clear answer.  Traditionally the Prophet Samuel was thought to be the author of the Book of Ruth.  Some scholars have assigned the authorship to an unknown writer living in the Kingdom of Judea prior to destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C.E.  Others contend the book was written after the Israelites had returned from the Babylonian Exile during the period of Ezra and Nehemiah.  The lack of a clear-cut answer as to authorship has not kept people from enjoying and learning from this brief tome.

Where does the Book of Ruth take place?  There are two major settings for the story.  One is the land of Moab, which is on the eastern side of the Dead Sea opposite the land of Israel.  The second is Bethlehem and its environs.  Bethlehem was a town in the land assigned to the tribe of Judah.

Who are the major characters in the Book of Ruth?  The major characters in the book and their relationship to Ruth are:
Ruth - the heroine whose name has the same root as the Hebrew word for friendship;
Elimelech - the father of Ruth’s husband and the husband of Naomi;
Naomi - Ruth’s mother-in-law;
Machlon - Ruth’s first husband;
Chilion - Ruth’s brother-in-law;
Orpah - Chilion’s wife;
Boaz - Ruth’s second husband; and
Obad - Ruth’s son.

What are the basic elements of the story in the Book of Ruth?  Since the Book of Ruth is actually a short story lasting only seven pages, it is difficult to summarize the plot without re-telling the tale.  However, the major elements are:
Ruth becomes a wife and then a widow.
Ruth returns to Bethlehem with Naomi.
Ruth works in the fields, supporting Naomi and meeting Boaz.
Ruth’s relationship with Boaz ripens, leading to an engagement.
Ruth marries Boaz and gives birth to Obad, the grandfather of King David.

What is the most famous statement in the Book of Ruth?  It is Ruth’s statement to Naomi, “…whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God…” (1:16)  It is a statement of ultimate love and loyalty.  And, read in context, it is certainly a statement of conversion.

Shavuot:  Comments, Customs and Ceremonies:  There are numerous excellent resources on customs and practices of the holiday.  These are but a few random comments to get you going.  Shavuot has largely gotten lost in the shuffle.  It lacks the definitive ceremonial symbols of Sukkoth or the foods of Pesach.  It even lacks a definite date on the calendar.  It would appear that more than one attempt has been made to add luster to this Festival.  One was the decision to tie the giving of the Torah to Shavuot since otherwise it would have lost its meaning once the Temple was destroyed.  Rabbi Alfred Kolatch describes a custom known to the contemporaries of Rashi.  During the Middle Ages it was customary in some communities for youngsters to begin their studies on Shavuot.  The young boy would be dressed in his finest clothes, wrapped in a talit and taken to the Synagogue to hear the Torah read on the first day of the holiday.  After services, he would be given a tablet with the Hebrew alphabet and verses of Torah (usually Vayikra).  This was covered with honey, which the child was allowed to lick off as a reminder that the study of Torah was sweet.  A more recent attempt was the decision by Reform (and later Conservative) Judaism to tie Confirmation to Shavuot.  Both events happen in the late spring.  Both events are tied to study.  And in some services, the youngsters are actually referred to as “bikurim”, first fruits of the offering.

Names:  This festival has a variety of names.  It is called Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks because we count the Omer for forty-nine days or seven weeks and then celebrate the holiday on the fiftieth day.  The holiday is also called Matan Torah or Giving of the Torah.  According to tradition, this was the festival on which God gave the Israelites the Torah at Sinai.  Note that the holiday celebrates the giving of the Torah, not the receiving of the Torah.  The holiday is also called Chag Hakatzir or the Holiday of the Harvest because it celebrated the Barley Harvest.  Additionally, the holiday was called Chag Habikurim or the Holiday of the First Fruits because the Israelites were commanded to bring the first fruits to the Temple.  The Kohanim would keep a tenth and the rest would be given to the poor.  More than anything else, the different names may reflect different aspects of the holiday and different periods of time in our history.

Dairy Foods:  Nobody really knows why we eat dairy products on Shavuot.  According to some, the ancient Israelites did not eat meat during the three days preceding the giving of the Torah.  According to others, Israel is referred to as the Land “flowing with milk and honey” and we eat dairy products because of this.  Then there are those who say that just as milk nurtures the infant, so does Torah nurture the Jew.  And if milk is nature’s most perfect food, should we not consume it on a holiday when we celebrating the giving of God’s most perfect teaching, the Torah?  At any rate, we have a holiday where we can eat blintzes, ice cream or pizza and feel holy about filling ourselves with butter fat and cholesterol.

Got Milk?  Liel Leibovitz offers a “mystical connection between Shavuot and dairy.  Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days.  Add up the numeric value of the Hebrew letters for milk - Het, Lamed, and Bet - and you get, you guessed it, 40.  Even better:  The Torah, we’re told, has 70 facets, and if you add up the numeric values of the letters making up the Hebrew word for Cheese - g’vina - you get, drumroll, 70.  Another name for Mount Sinai is Har Gavnunim, meaning the mountain of peaks but sharing an etymological connection with the word for cheese.”

Services and Ceremonies:  In the Diaspora traditional Jews observe the holiday for two days and Reform Jews observe the holiday for one day.  Candles are lit in the evening of the holiday on each night it is observed.  On the first night, Shehecheyanu is recited when blessing the candles and making Kiddush.  A special Yom Tov or holiday Kiddush is recited.  In the United States, Orthodox and Conservative Jews have special Shavuot Services for two days.  (Reform Jews have services on one day.)  Hallel is recited on both days.  There is a Mussaf Service on both days.  Traditional Jews recited Yizkor on the Second Day of Shavuot while Reform Jews recite it on the one-day of the holiday they observe.  In some synagogues a special Piyyut or liturgical poem called Akdamut is recited responsively after the Kohein has been called to the Torah but before the Blessing is recited.  Akdamut means “In introduction” and takes its name from the first word in the first line of the poem.  It is ninety verses long and written in Aramaic.  Rabbi Meir Ben Yitzchak who lived during the eleventh century in Worms, Germany composed Akdamut.  It is written as a double alphabetic poem the initial letters of which make up sentence in Hebrew that means “Meir, the son of Rabbi Yitzchak, may he grow in Torah and in good deeds.  Amen.  Be strong and of good courage.”  The poem itself is filled with mystical illusions that hearken to some of the themes in the visions mentioned in the Haftarot above.  I mention this little known poem (to us) to help broaden our knowledge of our faith and to make you aware of the mystical nature of some of our writings and customs.  Lest you get too curious, this is an area well beyond my depth so do not expect much more than this.  One final note; in the Kitzur Shulchon Oruch, the Code of Jewish Law, there is no section on Shavuot.  There are separate sections on each of the holidays - major, minor, solemn, joyful and fast days.  But there is no separate section on Shavuot.  Could it be that writers of Rabbinic law were so overwhelmed by the Holiday of the Giving of the Torah, that they could come up with no laws of their own?  Or is up to each of us to observe the Torah as the ultimate way of observing Shavuot?

Karaite Counting and Shavuot:  The Karaites are sect of Jews that did not recognize the divinity of the Oral Law and looked to the TaNaCh as the only binding legal source for their practices.  Among these practices, was the manner in which the Omer was counted.  Rabbinic Judaism starts counting the Omer on the second night of Pesach.  The Karaites read the Torah literally and start counting the Omer from the first Shabbat during Pesach which means their observance of Shavuot does not coincide with that followed by most Jews.  For example, in 2014, Shavuot is observed on the 6th of Sivan or June 4.  But for the Karites  it is observed on the 10th of Sivan or June 8.  That is because the Karaites began counting on Sunday April 20, 2014 or the 20th of Nisan.  In their day the Karaites were a major force in the Jewish world as can be seen from the fact that the famous Alleppo Codex was kept in a Karaite Synagogue in Jerusalem before it began its fateful journey that took it to Syria and ultimately back to Eretz Israel.  For more about the Karaites and their observances see

Questions:  What good is a holiday without questions, especially a holiday that emphasizes the need to study?  Aren’t questions the basis for real learning?  So why not take a crack at these as you eat your blintzes, cheesecake or ice cream?

Jewish Identity:  The holiday of Shavuot provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the ancient view of this.  Do the story of Ruth and the Sinaitic Experience provide conflicting or re-enforcing views on this matter?  If the Book of Ruth was written during the early days of the Second Commonwealth with what concept of Jewish identity was it competing?

Historicity of the Sinaitic Experience:  There is no archeological or easily identifiable non-Biblical evidence that the Sinaitic Experience ever took place.  Is there any way to establish the historicity of the event?  Why is the historicity of the event important to understanding Jewish history?

Shavuot and the Crusades:  1096 (6th of Sivan):  In one of the few instances of individual courage, the local Bishop of Cologne and some of the local Burghers offered the Jews protection in their own houses. The Bishop later escorted them to towns under his protection.  Crusaders reached Cologne and found the gate to the city closed by order of the bishop.  Of all the Jewish communities in the path of the Crusaders, Cologne's Jews were the only ones to escape total destruction.

1096 (6th of Sivan):  Isaac of Mayence committed suicide on Shavuot two days after he had he submitted to forced baptism to save the lives of his mother and children.  According to legend, he set the synagogue on fire to keep it from being turned into a church.

Copyright, June, 2016; Mitchell A Levin