Monday, March 13, 2017

Torah Readings for Saturday, March 18, 2017 Shabbat Parah Sabbath of the (Red) Heifer

Torah Readings for Saturday, March 18, 2017

Shabbat Parah
Two scrolls are used on this Shabbat.  The first is for the regular weekly portion.  The second is for the special reading for Shabbat Parah.

Ki Tissa (When you take)
30:11 - 34:35 Shemot

Ki Tissa is the ninth sedrah in the book of Shemot.  The sedrah takes the name Ki Tissa from the second sentence of the sedrah:  “When you take (Ki Tissa) a census of the children of Israel…” (30:12).  Ki Tissa can be divided into three main parts - Additional commands pertaining to the Sanctuary, the Golden Calf and Reconciliation and Reaffirmation.  We have only two more sidrot before finishing Shemot.

Additional Commands Pertaining to the Sanctuary (30:11-31:18)
The first portion of Ki Tissa picks up where last week’s reading left off; with more rules relating to the Sanctuary.  First is the command tying the taking of a census with the giving of a half-shekel.  All those counted are to give the same amount and the money collected is to be used to support the Sanctuary.  According to the commentators, the equal contribution is a guarantee that all, rich and poor alike, will have the same stake in the holy activities of the Priests.  No person can own the Tabernacle and no person can be dispossessed.  This is one more way of reinforcing the concept of the People of Israel or the Whole House of Israel.  Moshe is told to make utensils, which the Priests are to use for washing when entering the Tabernacle.  This is one of the many sources for the customs of ritual washing that we follow today, including washing with a blessing before starting the Morning Prayers and washing with a blessing before eating bread.  Next is the instruction concerning the Incense.  The severe penalty proscribed for misuse of the incense gives an idea of how important God (and our ancestors) considered this.  (See Themes for more.)

Moshe will not have to build all that God has commanded by himself.  Instead, God appoints two craftsmen, Bezalel and Oholiab, to lead the project.  Bezalel means “in the shadow of God.”  There are numerous legends about him.  The Torah does tell us that Bezalel is the grandson of Hur, one of the two leaders Moshe named to serve in his stead while he was on Mount Sinai.  While Bezalel was from the large tribe of Judah, Oholiab was from the small tribe of Dan.  Everybody is needed to help build the Tabernacle (and the House of Israel) from the least to the greatest.  This section continues with yet another recitation of rules pertaining to observing Shabbat.  These Shabbat rules are placed here to remind us that observance of Shabbat is of the greatest importance, greater even than building the Tabernacle.  The section concludes with a tantalizing literary bridge:  “When He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moshe the two tables of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.”

The Golden Calf (32:1-35)
Since this is only a summary, we can only hit the highlights of what is one of the most confusing episodes in Shemot.  There are numerous explanations for the events described.  A common one is that the people panicked and reverted to idolatry.  Others feel this is a misreading.  Yes, the people panicked when Moshe did not appear at the promised time, but this meant they had lost what they perceived as their intermediary with God not their God.  So they had Aaron build them another intermediary, this time in the form of a Golden Calf, which was a throwback to their Egyptian experience.  Regardless, God and Moshe are both upset about what they are hearing from the encampment at the foot of Mount Sinai.  In keeping with the tradition of Abraham at Sodom, Moshe argues with God to spare the Israelites.  But Moshe goes Abraham one better.  If God is going to blot out the Israelites, He might as well take Moshe with them.  Moshe shows one of the signs of a great leader.  He takes total responsibility for his people and identifies with them totally as well.  While God has promised not to destroy the Israelites, He has not said they will escape punishment.  Moshe hurries down the mountain to become the instrument of that punishment.  First he shatters the Tablets.  Then, in short order, the people are forced to drink of the ashes from the Golden Calf, the Levites put the apostates to the sword and finally a plague is visited on the Israelites.

The drinking of the liquefied ash is reminiscent of the rules pertaining to the unfaithful wife.  The image of Israel as the unfaithful bride of God is an oft-repeated theme, especially by the prophet Hosea.  The scene of the sword-swinging Levites should remind you of Levi avenging Dinah.  The same behavior that is wrong when used for personal vengeance can be rendered righteous when used for the service of God.  Hence Jacob curses Levi while the Levites gain their prominent role from this time forward for what appears to be the same sword-wielding behavior.

There are those who contend that the story of the Golden Calf was placed here by later writers.  It was part of a contest between the Northern Kingdom (Israel) that had golden bulls at its two sanctuaries and the Southern Kingdom (Judea) that had the Temple at Jerusalem.  It is also viewed as an attempt to discredit the House of Aaron, which supplied the priests for the Temple at Jerusalem.  I am not advocating this point of view, but want you to be aware of it as one non-traditional explanation of the events.  Certainly, Aaron does not come off as a stellar leader in the text.  According to Midrash and other commentaries, Aaron was stalling for time.  He really did not think the people would give up their valuables.  Also, Hur, the other leader named by Moshe to settle disputes while he was on the mountain, had been murdered by the people.  When Aaron saw how out of control they were, he sought to placate them to avoid adding to their sins with another murder.  Before we are too harsh in our judgment of Aaron, we should consider God’s view of it.  Like Moshe, Aaron will be punished by not entering the Promised Land.  But Moshe is punished for the sin at the rock, not the Golden Calf.

From the point of view of narrative, the Golden Calf episode is out of place.  It should have come after the end of Mishpatim (24:12-18) where Moshe ascends the mountain.  Then skip ahead to 31:18 where Moshe gets the stone tablets.  This is followed by the events of the Golden Calf and the second set of stone tablets.  With the Golden Calf, the Israelites had shown that they were not ready to deal with a totally spiritual concept of God.  They needed tangible signs of Him at all times.  It was this need that caused God to command the building of the Tabernacle and establish the sacrificial system.  Hopefully this interpretation will help make sense of the events covered over the last several weekly readings.  Please note; this is one interpretation, it is not the only one.

Reconciliation and Reaffirmation (33:1-34:35)
Like children who have angered their parent, the Israelites are waiting for “the other shoe to drop.”  Will God abandon them or will He accept their repentance and keep them as His people?  God repeats His promise to take the Israelites to the Promised Land.  But, like a very angry parent, God tells Moshe that it is better if He is not among the Israelites lest He forget His promise to spare the people.  Moshe communicates with God at the tent at the edge of the encampment.  (This is not to be confused with the previously mentioned Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting.)  Just as Moshe had tried to gain insight into God at the Burning Bush, so now once again he pleads to know more of God.  While God agrees to reveal more of Himself, not even Moshe can see God face to face.  While we all seek to draw near unto God and God seeks to draw us near unto Him, there is a limit between the human and the Divine, even when that human is Moshe.

As a sign that the Israelites are still the Chosen People, Moshe will again bring down two tablets.  But this time it will be different.  Moshe must carve the tablets and bring them up the mountain.  Here we see a repetition of the Garden of Eden theme.  God gave Adam and Eve everything in the Garden.  They rejected His gift by sinning.  They got a second chance but this time around they would have to work for what God had once given them freely.  The first set of tablets were hewn by God and waiting for Moshe.  This time he would have carry the stones up that mountain to receive the law.  Considering Moshe’s age, this was quite a task.  For the purists among you, this time the writings on the tablets are called the Ten Words (literally) or Ten Commandments (New Jewish Publication Society Translation) (34:28).  God repeats His covenant.  He reminds the Israelites that He will drive out the inhabitants of Canaan so that we will not follow their practices.  He then lists the practices we are to follow - the Festivals and Shabbat.  Moshe returns after forty days and forty nights.  But this time the people have learned their lesson.  There is no Golden Calf; just the people waiting patiently for Moshe to return.  How do we know if we have been forgiven for our sin?  One rabbinic response says that if, when given the chance to repeat the sin, we do not do so, then we know we have been forgiven.  Why?  Because by not repeating the sin, we have shown that we have truly repented.  This action packed sedrah ends on a spiritual note.  Moshe’s face is now bathed in a strange radiance that requires him to wear a veil when in the presence of the Israelites.

105. The requirement that every Israelite give a half-shekel annually to support the sanctuary (30:13).
106. The requirement that priests wash their hands and feet when ministering at the sanctuary (30:19-21).
107. The commandment to anoint the High Priest with specially prepared oil (30:25, 26, 30).
108. The prohibition against using the special anointing oil on someone other than a High Priest (30:32).
109. The stricture against replicating the anointing oil described in the Torah (30:32).
110. The prohibition against using for private purposes the formula described in the Torah to make ritual incense (30:37).
111. The stricture against eating or drinking food or liquor that had been offered before an idol (34:15).
112. The prohibition against laboring on Shabbat even during plowing and harvesting times (34:21).
113. The stricture against eating milk and meat together (34:26).
From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Using Telushkin as the source, there is only one more commandment in the book of Shemot.

This week’s sedrah provides us with four readings for the Prayer Book:
30:17-21 The reading concerning washing with the copper laver opens the section called Korbanot (Sacrificial Offerings) found at the start of the Daily and Shabbat Morning services among traditional Jews.
30:34-36 The reading concerning the making of the Incense opens the section called Ketoret (Incense Offering) that follows the recitation of the Korbanot section.
31:16-17 These two verses are referred to as the Veshamru.  They are part of the Shemoneh Esrei (Eighteen Benedictions or Silent Devotion) for Shabbat and also recited as part of the Shabbat morning Kiddush.  Just as the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, so has Shabbat kept the Jewish people.
34:6-7 These verses are called the Thirteen Attributes of God.  They are chanted on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkoth after the Torah has been removed from the ark.  For those who have heard it, you know that the chant is a haunting one that is repeated three times in an increasingly beseeching tone.  According to Plaut, The Thirteen Attributes are as follow:
1 and 2. “Adonai, Adonai” The Lord, The Lord - Mercy twice over (repeating the name gave rise to the interpretation of it being “twice over” - God is merciful before man has sinned and after man has sinned and repented.
3. “El” (God) God is most high, the supreme ruler
4. “Rachum” Compassionate
5. “Chanun” Gracious
6. “Erech apayim” Slow to anger
7. “Rav Chesed” Abounding in kindness
8. “Emet” Truth
9. “Notzer chesed la-alafim” Extending kindness to the thousandth generation
10,11,12. “No-se avon vefesha ve-chata-ah” Forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin
13. “Ve-nakeh lo yenakeh” Yet He does not remit all punishment.

Nobility of Labor
Judaism does not take a dim view of the concept of those who work for a living.  The commandment concerning Shabbat tells us that we shall work for six days.  Furthermore, in naming the craftsmen who are to build the Tabernacle, the Torah is pointing out the value of all work, including what some call derisively, manual labor.

The Torah has survived, in part, because it speaks to the human condition.  This week’s reading offers a textbook case in leadership.  Notice how Moshe identifies with the Israelites and how he takes responsibility for their behavior.  If they are to be punished, then he is to be punished in the same manner.  Compare this with the penchant for the double standard shown by our leaders (the Wall Street Bankers and so-called “Captains of Industry” are two modern examples) today and see if maybe the example of Moshe shouldn’t be the one taught at the Harvard and Kellogg schools of business.

Timing of the Tablets
Moshe went up to get the second set of Tablets on the twenty-ninth day of Av.  He actually received them on Yom Kippur.  According to some, the second set of Tablets is a sign of God’s forgiveness and His acceptance of our atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf.

Levi, Dinah and the Golden Calf
In Bereshit, Levi drew his sword and killed those who had defiled his sister Dinah.  Levi had used a basic commandment from God, circumcision, as part of a plot to take the lives of others.  In other words, he had corrupted God’s word for his own purposes no matter how noble he may have thought they were.  As we can see from the blessing at the end of Bereshit, Jacob never forgave Levi for this.  In Shemot, the tribe of Levi draws its sword just as their progenitor had.  However, this time Levi drew its sword to defend the commandments of God.  According to some, it is because of this zeal for the Lord, that the tribe of Levi is accorded its special role as described in the Torah.  It is not always the deed that counts.  Sometimes it is the motive for performing the deed that counts the most.

The Sacred and the Profane
“You shall sanctify them (i.e., the utensils to be used on the altar) and they shall remain holy of holies; whatever touches them shall become holy.” (Shemot 30:29).  This is a thought provoking statement about the power of that which has been consecrated to the Lord.  And the statement is counter-intuitive.  Normally, one would assume that when something that is not holy comes in contact with something that is holy, the holy object becomes unholy.  Yet, here it is the other way around.  The holy object does not lose its holiness when it comes in contact with that which is not holy.  Could this be a ritualistic formulation of the concept we see later in this Sedrah?  The Children of Israel, the holy people, do not lose their holiness even though they have strayed and built the Golden Calf.  Once chosen by God, the Jewish People are always chosen.  The Jew may stray, but God is always there waiting for him or her to return to the path of righteousness.  It may not be Rashi, but it is something to think about.

This week we find a repetition of the injunction about milk and meat.  Echoing the words of Exodus 23:19 we read, “thou shalt not boil a kid in the milk of its mother” (Exodus 34:26).  There are several reasons given for this injunction.  Some contend that this was part of the recipe for a drink used by some pagans in the idol worshipping ceremonies.  So this would be another example of seeing to it that the Israelites did not engage in any activity that even approximated the behavior of those who bowed to graven images.  Another explanation is that this is part of the conditions that God placed on the Israelites for letting them eat meat.  According to this explanation, God had not intended people to be carnivores.  Once He realized that there was a propensity for eating meat, He allowed the Jews to do it but with restrictions.  Since all life was sacred, including the lives of animals, certain rules were imposed as part of the tradeoff for the pleasure of eating animal flesh.  One last explanation has to do with the concepts of mercy and human decency.  If you must eat meat, do not be so barbaric as to figuratively consume the child in a sauce made from the very liquid of the mother that gave that child life.  Like all dietary laws, in the end, this one too falls under the category of Chukat - a commandment whose real purpose we will only understand with the coming of the Moshiach or Messiah.  Regardless, for those who want to try keeping kosher a little bit, this provides an easy entrée point.  Order the hamburger instead of the cheeseburger.  Have chicken instead of chicken parmesan.  And if you are having ice cream for dessert, eat a tuna or grilled cheese sandwich instead of a hot dog or burger.

In speaking of how we should observe the three pilgrimage festivals - Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkoth - the Torah says “None shall appear before me empty-handed” (Exodus 34:19).  One of the reasons given for reciting Yizkor, the Memorial Service, on these three holidays is to fulfill this command.  Each of the formularies for remembering the departed contains a promise to give charity in the name of the deceased.  For example, “May God remember the soul of … who has gone to his world, because I pledge (without vowing) to donate to charity for his sake.”  The idea is that if the person were still alive he or she would be the kind of righteous person who would be giving the charity.  At any rate, just as we do not come empty-handed to celebrate the three festivals, so do we not come empty-handed when we remember those who have gone before us.

Enjoy what I have or Have what I enjoy
Our tradition offers numerous lessons on this topic or its variants.  This week we read “And I will be gracious to whomever I will be gracious” (Exodus 33:19).  In the Talmud, the sages extended this to read “And I will be gracious to whomever I will be gracious:  Even to the undeserving” (Tractate Berachot).  To illuminate the point, the Chassidim tell the following tale.  A wealthy merchant would visit Reb Zusya (one of my favorite Chassidic characters)  and leave him gifts of food or wine or a bag of coins to help this wise but poor Rebbe.  One day he visited Zusya but Zusya was not at home.  When the merchant asked where Zusya was, he was told that Zusya was visiting his Rebbe.  The wealthy merchant pondered this matter.  If he had been blessed in his business dealings because he had been making donations to Zusya, just think how much more he would be blessed if he started making those donations to Zusya’s Rebbe (climbing the corporate ladder so to speak).  So the merchant stopped giving to Zusya and started giving to Zusya’s Rebbe, a man he assumed to be of greater merit than Zusya.  But lo and behold, instead of his business improving his business took a turn for the worse.  Realizing that he must have done something wrong by ignoring Zusya, the merchant went to visit the Rebbe.  “Why,” he asked,” is it when I used to visit you my business throve, but when I started visiting your Rebbe - who is presumably a greater Rebbe - success deserted me?”  Reb Zusya replied, “It is all very simple.  I am not a tzaddik at all and that is why when you used to give me money, even though I was unworthy of receiving it, the Heavenly Court was not particular with you, either, and you were granted prosperity even though you did not really deserve it.  But the moment you started being particular about evaluating people precisely, and decided to visited my Rebbe - who really is a Tzaddik - the Heavenly court decided to start being particular about evaluating you; and when they found that you weren’t in fact deserving of that prosperity, they withheld it.”

The Role of Aaron
If you are puzzled by the role of Aaron in the story of the Golden Calf, do not think you are the only one.  Abarbanel, the Sephardic sage, raises a number of questions on this matter.  “Why did Moses ask Aaron what the people had done to him to force him to make the calf?”  “In a case of idolatry,” isn’t one “supposed to die rather than let oneself be forced to sin?”  “Why are the people punished, and many of them killed, for making the calf that was actually made by Aaron?”  Why is it that Aaron, “is never punished for” making the calf “and is even made the High Priest, who will atone for the Israelites?”

Who Made the Calf?
God tells Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have acted basely.  They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them.  They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it.”  The Torah is quite explicit about God being the one who brought the Israelites out Egypt.  So who are these people who Moses brought out of Egypt?  According to the commentators, they were “the mixed multitude,” non-Israelites whom Moses allowed to join the Jews on their way out of Egypt.  But if this were true, then why punish the Israelites for building the calf when it was non-Israelites who did the deed?  Could it be that God was so angry with the Israelites that he disassociated Himself from them and referred to them as the people of Moses?  Since we already know that God was angry enough with the Israelites to destroy them, it takes no great leap of logic to believe that He was angry enough to disown them and palm them off on Moses.  If we accept this explanation then punishing the Israelites makes sense since they were the ones who indeed built the calf.  (You see, there are a lot more than Four Questions when it comes to the whole Passover Story.)

Tablet Tantrum
“…and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount.” (Exodus 32:19).  Moses came running down the mountain, saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf and he smashed the tablets.  The tablets contained the words of God - words that God had intended for the children to hear and to obey.  God did not tell Moses to deny His words to the people.  Moses made that decision.  While Moses’ angry response is understandable, it might be seen as yet another example of his hot temper.  And while Moses gets high marks for interceding on behalf of the Israelites when He threatens to destroy them, it would seem that his smashing of the tablets was an ultimate act of Chutzpah.  After all, who was he to deny the word of God to the Children of Israel?

Second Scroll
Special Reading for Shabbat Parah (Sabbath of the (Red) Heifer)
19:1-22 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Shabbat Parah - Sabbath of the (Red) Heifer is the third of the four special Sabbaths (not counting Shabbat Ha-Gadol) that precede the holiday of Pesach.  Each of these special Sabbaths has a special connection with the story of the Exodus or the preparations for observing the holiday.  On Shabbat Parah two scrolls are taken from the ark.  The first scroll is used for reading the sedrah of the week.  The second scroll contains the special reading for the holiday, the first 22 verses from chapter 19 of Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers).  This passage deals with the ritual of the Red Heifer.  In Hebrew, the Red Heifer is called the Parah Adumah.  Parah is translated as cow or heifer.  Adumah is the Hebrew word for red.  Hence the name of the Sabbath is “Shabbat Parah.”  The ashes of the Red Heifer were used for ritual purification.  In the days of the Temple, those who were unclean could not participate in the sacrificial process.  This reading reminds us of the importance of cleansing oneself prior to taking part in the sacrifices for Pesach.  We do not offer sacrifices.  Nor are we able to use the ashes of the Red Heifer.  So the reading provides a symbolic method of connecting us with the ancient ritual.  It also can remind us that Pesach is a time of new beginnings and that the time prior to Pesach can be used to cleanse ourselves spiritually just as we cleanse our homes of chametz.

A Tale of Two Bovines
At this time of the year we read the stories of two forms of livestock - The Golden Calf and the Red Heifer.  In the material world, a calf made of gold would certainly fetch a higher price than a cow that has not shown that it can produce a calf.  But in the spiritual world, the world where the word of God dominates, the red heifer is of the greater value because, unlike the Golden Calf, it serves His purpose.  When we measure the true value of things, it might help us to remember that the ultimate Judge is the one who determines worth, not the Wall Street Financiers or the gnomes of Zurich.

Special Haftarah for Shabbat Parah
36:16-38 (Ashkenazim)
36: 16-36 (Sephardim)

The Man:  Ezekiel was one of the three Major Prophets.  He was a younger contemporary of the Prophet Jeremiah.  He was part of the Jewish population that went into exile after the destruction of the First Temple.  He preached to the Jews of Babylonia in what were some of the darkest days in ancient Jewish History.

The Message:  Ezekiel assured the people that they would return to their homeland after the Exile.  Here he stressed the importance of obeying a strict moral code once they had returned to the Promised Land.  Exile had been punishment for disobeying the commandments.  Redemption would only be successful if the commandments were followed.

Theme-Link:  Usually there is a connection between the haftarah and the weekly Torah portion.  This is not one of those times.  This week the connection is with events on the calendar - namely Shabbat Parah.  The emphasis of the special Torah portion for Shabbat Parah is on the need for ritual cleanliness.  This is tied directly to preparing for the observance of Pesach.  The haftarah serves to reinforce a similar message of the need for purity in all of our actions.

Copyright; March, 2017; Mitchell A. Levin

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