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