This week, we read the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar. This is a clear case in which meaning is lost in translation: The book is entitled "Numbers" in English based on the census that is related in the opening chapter of the book, but in Hebrew the title "Bamidbar" means "wilderness" . . . as the book relates the saga of the Israelite journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.
This is also a week in which the whole world is watching the spiritual wanderings of the residents of modern Israel.
The Christian Science Monitor, The Arab News as well as The Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and every other Jewish news source has covered the turn of events at the Western Wall this week.
One month ago, at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Iyyar, police arrested (for the umpteenth time) women who were participating in a participatory women's service celebrating the new month . . . for disrupting the peace. Following these arrests, a series of Israeli justices have ruled that it is not the praying women who have disturbed the peace of this significant historic sight (the Western Wall is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, the height on which the long-destroyed First and Second Temples stood).
Today, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Sivan, saw a new development in the wake of the court decisions. This month the women returned to pray . . . but instead of arresting the women, as ultra-Orthodox Jews threw chairs, water and worse at them, the police restrained the outraged onlookers.
Since 1948, with Jewish sovereignty over Israel established, a significant dynamic of wandering came to an historic resolution. We are, in the words of Israel's national anthem: am chofshi b'artzeinu . . . a free people in our land.
But in other profound ways, we have not yet arrived.
The tendency to self-righteousness and even contempt between Jew and Jew is not limited to the conflicts within Israel around the Western Wall. Although generally less violent, there are those within the Jewish community who label other Jews as violaters of Torah, abductors of innocents, sabotagers of our tradition.
In my view, we will remain at the very beginning of our spiritual growth as a people as long as we foster theological one-upsmanship and self-righteousness. I await the spiritual milestone at which all of us who identify with our Torah and our people and our God and our tradition will be able to address each other with theological humility and say: your path may not be mine, your interpretation of Torah may not be that which is practiced in my community, but we are all the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel and we share the same God, the same values and deserve the same respect.
Every year, within a week of emerging from Passover's journey from slavery to freedom, we gather together as a community to remember and to mourn on Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Memorial Day.
The proximity of these two days is thought-provoking: truly for neither our ancient Israelite ancestors in Egypt nor for our more immediate forebears in Nazi Europe did "Arbeit Macht Frei" . . . did work generate a state of freedom.
For much of the last half of the 20th century, Jews all over the world (although less so in Israel) suffered from a form of collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were well and truly traumatized by the truths revealed about the Nazi campaign to create a Judenrein Europe . . . a Europe stripped of any Jewish presence. The truths revealed by the mountains of human hair and eyeglasses and suitcases . . . the emaciated prisoners liberated by Allied Forces . . . the testimony recorded at the Eichmann trial . . . it was all stunning, shocking, too much to take in.
In the Torah, in the books of Shmot/Exodus and Bamidbar/Numbers, we are witness to some dramatic expressions of faith, doubt, fear, backsliding and commitment coming from the released slaves following Moses through the wilderness. Considering all that they had been through, and no doubt suffering from some PTSD themselves, our ancestors who did not die at Egyptian hands had a lot of processing to do before they could formulate a new, coherent, positive Jewish identity and commitment to the Torah and the covenant with God.
Two thousand years later, there was a wide spectrum of reactions within the Jewish world as we emerged from World War II: some Jews found their faith reinforced . . . only a caring God could have succeeded in seeing any remnant of the targeted Jewish communities survive. Other Jews lost their faith . . . there could not be a God after all if a horror like Auschwitz could have come into existence. Yet others simply remained angry at God for the rest of their lives . . . how does the God described in Deuteronomy as אל רחום וחנון . . . as a merciful and caring God . . . remain silent and inactive as that God's covenantal partners, the Jews, are brutally enslaved, tortured, slaughtered, traumatized for life, marked for life . . .
As a Jewish kid in New Jersey growing up in the 50s and 60s, I was being educated as a Jew at a time when the adults in my community were still figuring it out: they were figuring out what really happened; they were figuring out how to take care of the survivors and their families; they were figuring out what this horrific attack meant for us as a people; they were figuring out what to tell us kids. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the sanctuary of my New Jersey synagogue as an elementary school student, watching a film about the Holocaust that no Jewish educator today would be allowed to show to anyone under the age 16. Those images seared themselves on my brain . . . perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. I can't say I was traumatized by those images more than I was traumatized by other events in my life; but I did "get the message": being Jewish from now on was going to have to involve living with the shadow of the Holocaust.
It is 2013. World War II started almost 75 years ago. Like our ancient ancestors who came back home to Canaan after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we are a generation informed by, but not directly touched by, our experiences of slavery. We are about to celebrate the 65 anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. We are making history in East Greenwich opening up the town's first synagogue since the town was established in 1677. We are comfortable and safe here . . . more comfortable and more safe then our ancestors were when they followed Joshua into Canaan.
Our journey has led us into and out of Egypt, into and out of Auschwitz . . . and where will our journey take us next? What need we take with us from our history as we create our renewing identities as Jews today?
Twenty, thirty years ago, we were still talking about the importance of preserving Jewish tradition and community and observance in order not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory. It was a compelling image at the time, but I find that I need much more than the specter of Hitler to inspire me as a Jew. Hitler's dead, we're still here. Pharaoh is dead, we're still here. Titus is dead, we're still here. Stalin is dead, we're still here.
Surviving is great . . . but it is not enough. As we gather as a community to contemplate the incomprehensible chapter of Jewish history called the Shoah, let us also come together to integrate our past experiences into a positive Jewish identity that inspires us and infuses our lives with "kedushah" / holiness and "simchah" / joy.
This week, our Torah portion contains the opening chapters of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus. In Leviticus, we will generally be taking a hiatus from the engaging narratives of Genesis / Breishit and Exodus / Sh'mot . . . and we will take up the narrative again in a few months when we embark on the book of Numbers / Bamidbar.
In the meantime, we will immerse ourselves in a book of the Torah that is refered to in our traditional sources as "Torat Kohanim" . . . basically an instruction manual for Aaron and his descendants, the Israelite priests / kohanim. What kind of sacrifices need to be brought to the Mishkan / the Tabernacle? Who shall bring those sacrifices? When?
The Kohanim function with the absolute authority of God behind them and their role in the community is established by birth: Aaron, his sons, their sons for all generations constitute the priests, the kohanim of Israel.
Rabbi Stephen Parness
Rabbi Marc Bloom
The Torah sets out parameters for priestly behavior and dress. Unique garments were created embodying the sanctity of their tasks.
The artist's rendering above is based on the descriptions in the Torah of the garments and accessories worn by Aaron and the High Priests who followed him.
Today's rabbis look a lot different ... and the roots of our office are also very different.
Rabbi David Rosen
Rabbis, as you see from my photograph above and the photographs of my three immediate predecessors at Torat Yisrael, come in all shapes and genders. We have no garments which embody the sanctity of the tasks we perform. We wear kippot and tallitot as do the members of our congregations because our role is not established by birth, we are not the descendents of anyone chosen by God.
In fact, the roots of the rabbinate can be found in something of a populist revolution beginning in the last century or so before the Common Era. Through the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem, the priestly caste had evolved into a sort of Israelite aristocracy . . . a closed circle with an essential power base, the Temple and its sacrificial cult. To be a priest, a kohein, your father had to be be a kohein. That was the only way in.
In houses of study around the Land of Israel, scholars were gathering to study the Torah and ask existential questions about the nature of Jewish practice in an economy and a cultural setting that was fundamentally different than life in the wilderness during forty years of wandering. These sages began to ask a question that we are still striving to answer today? "What is our 'best practice' as Jews in this time and this place?"
Unlike the kohanim, the only thing you needed to become a rabbi, one of these sages, was a good head on your shoulders, the willingness to study Torah with an open mind and a profound commitment to the survival of the brit, the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
These are the roots of the rabbinate which I share with Rabbi Parness, Rabbi Bloom and Rabbi Rosen . . . it has nothing to do with who our fathers were, it has nothing to do with being invested with esoteric divine powers like a priest . . . or a pope . . . it is about dedicating our lives to keep alive the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. And that, my friends, is a privilege.
This opening verses of this week's Torah reading / parashah present a core principle of Jewish tradition that, truthfully, has confused many people for a long time:
"And Moses assembled all of the congregation of the children of Israel and said to them, "These are the things that Adonay has commanded, to do them: Six days work shall be done, and in the seventh day you shall have a holy thing, a Sabbath, a ceasing to Adonay. Anyone who does work in it shall be put to death. You shall not burn a fire in all of your homes on the Sabbath day." (Exodus / Sh'mot 35: 1-3)
The passage then continues in a direction we would not expect. Instead of continuing to define "work," instead of listing the activities that are "holy enough" for Shabbat, we move on to a mitzvah/commandment directed to our Israelite ancestors in the wilderness to collect certain rare and expensive items to donate to the construction of the Tabernacle: the walls, the accessories, the priestly garments, the food items to be sacrificed . . .
The effect of this "turn without signalling" has been to spark the rabbinic imagination. A 2nd century rabbinic text, the Mishnah, connects the two passages and concludes that the "work" that is prohibited in verse 2 is defined by the human activities required to construct and create all of the pieces of the Tabernacle described in the ensuing verses. Thus, building, hammering, planting and sowing, creating fire, cooking, carrying items back and forth, weaving, cutting to measure . . . all of these become prohibited as "work" on Shabbat.
There is another derivation of "work" that is hinted at in verse 2: just as the seventh day was a day of "ceasing" to God--in Genesis/Breishit God rests on the seventh day after creating light and dark, dry land and oceans, plants, animals, stars and moon and humanity--so the seventh day should be a day of "ceasing" from creating for human beings as well.
What is it that we humans create? Our human endeavors, over the ages, have largely been focussed on providing food, clothing and shelter for ourselves and our loved ones. It is certainly the case that today, few of us are directly engaged in wielding a hammer, weeding a vegetable garden or cutting a sewing pattern . . . and when we are, it is more often a hobby or personal passion than a direct, compelling imperative to put clothing on our backs, food on our tables and a secure roof over our heads.
In today's complex economy, we provide food, clothing and shelter for our families by going to work and earning a paycheck and by shopping.
It may be physically challenging to carry a carton of books from the basement to the attic, but it isn't "work" in the Shabbat sense . . . that act of "shlepping" is not contributing to the creation of food, clothing or shelter. It may provide a sense of peace and accomplishment to pull out our knitting on Shabbat afternoon . . . but knitting is a human activity that literally creates clothing and, as such, is an activity proscribed by this definition of Shabbat.
For the majority of us, who have not made the commitment to turn to Jewish law / halachah to guide our actions, why should we turn the week's most convenient errand day into a day that produces no progress in the "food, clothing, shelter" department?
The rabbis of 2000 years ago suggested that Shabbat can be "a taste of the world to come." If we were to project ourselves into an existence where all that toil and worry about food, clothing and shelter were no longer necessary, what would our lives look like? No wallets. No watches. No ATMs. . . . an existence infused with peace and health and security and time to bask in the presence of our loved ones.
That is the potential of a "work-free" Saturday . . . a weekly opportunity to taste the world that might be.
This week's parashah / Torah portion continues the revelation at Sinai begun during last week's dramatic, shofar-blasts-smoke-and-thunder forging of the brit/covenant between God and Israel.
This week's chapters of Torah settle down to the task of laying out our responsibilities as we fulfill our commitment to maintain our covenant with God. The scope and diversity of the mitzvot / commandments delivered in our parashah, Mishpatim (which literally translates as "laws") is are tremendously comprehensive. As we look through laws that outline our relationships with other human beings, with God, with other elements of creation, like animals and plants, the realization dawns that our tradition is holistic . . . our thoughts, our actions, our aspirations can all be elevated and bring holiness to the world if we turn to the Torah and the covenant for guidance. "One who steals a man, and has sold him, or he was found in his hand, will be put to death." (Exodus/Sh'mot 21:16) "And if an ox will gore a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall be stoned, and its meat shall not be eaten--and the ox's owner is innocent. And if it was a goring ox from the day before yesterday, and it had been so testified to is owner, and he did not watch it, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox will be stoned, and its owner will be put to death as well." (21:28-29) "You shall not bring up a false report. Do not join your hand with a wicked person to be a malevolent witness." (23:1) "And you shall not oppress an alien--since you know the alien's soul, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt." (23:9) "And six years you shall sow your land and gather its produce; and the seventh: you shall let it lie fallow and leave it, and your people's indigent will eat it. You shall do this to your vineyard, to your olives." (23:10-11) "You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (23:19)
Few of us in East Greenwich have fields to leave fallow (and anyway, that particular mitzvah is reserved for Jewish-owned fields in Israel) or have to worry about the behavior of our ox. But the values couched in those ancient middle-eastern realia find expression in our own practices, traditions and standards today.
This past Sunday morning, our third, fourth, and fifth graders, their parents and even a few grandparents gathered at the Frenchtown Road Stop and Shop for a "Mishpatim Moment." After having studied about kashrut in class with teacher Joie Magnone, our students and parents met at the supermarket to put theory into practice. Armed with a booklet showing a variety of kosher symbols and a shopping list of ten items to find that sported those symbols, our kosher shoppers took off: salad dressing, pasta, breakfast cereal, prune juice, crackers, canned peaches . . . we spread through the store collecting kosher non-perishibles.
Lesson #1 learned: It's actually pretty easy to eat kosher. Most of our favorite national brands are kosher!
After checking everyone's basket and purchasing our 10 items per family, we arrived at Lesson #2: We met Susan Adler, Director of the Jewish Seniors Agency, which runs the Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry. Sue accepted our kosher offerings with enthusiasm and promised to stock the shelves of the pantry for the over 125 clients of the JSA who are food insecure . . . who do not always know where their next meal is coming from.
Our Mishpatim Moment: We learned a bit about what kosher food is and how to find it . . . and we got it into onto the tables of those in our community who need it most.
This week's parashah / Torah portion includes one of our people's defining moments: the revelation at Mount Sinai.
With a real sense of the dramatic, the Torah describes this moment:
"Now Mount Sinai smoked all over, since Adonay had come down upon it in fire; its smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace, and all of the mountain trembled exceedingly. Now the shofar sound was growing exceedingly stronger--Moshe kept speaking, and God kept answering him in the sound." (Sh'mot/Exodus 19:18-19)
I've often tried to imagine what it was like to stand at the bottom of that mountain, hear what our ancestors heard, see what our ancestors saw. It must have been overwhelming to all the senses . . . intense and awe-filled.
In the summer of 1979, I had the opportunity to travel to the site referred to today as Mount Sinai. Even though I was engaged as one of four counselors leading 80 teenagers through the Sinai desert, I still had the time to pick up my head and look where we were: a vast, stark, unchanging landscape. Not a vestige of fire and smoke, not a hint of thunder, shofar and the voice of God. The stage was empty. My surroundings conspired to teach me the limitations of my mortality.
Today the mountain referred to in the travel books as Mount Sinai (the site of the the Santa Katarina Monastery) is indistinguishable from the surrounding mountains in the Sinai wilderness. If ever the pyrotechnics described in Sh'mot/Exodus did take place on that mountain, if ever God's voice was somehow sensed by the Israelite former slaves huddled at the foot of the mountain, there is no perceptible trace today. Mount Sinai looks like any other height in that neighborhood of awe-inspiring, beautifully tinted hills.
What a perfect setting for God's definitive collective revelation to an entire people. The message of that venue is that there is not one locale to which we must return in order to receive God's message to us. We don't really know which height was the height of Sinai. There is no trace because we should not be able to trace a path back to that place. God met us, as a people, in the middle of nowhere because God can be accessible to us in the middle of anywhere.
In Psalm 119 (verse 126) we read:
עֵת לַעֲשׂוֹת ה', הֵפֵרוּ תּוֹרָתֶךָ
It is a time to act for Adonay, for they have violated Your teaching.
When 1 in 4 renters in Rhode Island spend 50% or more of their income on housing, we have violated God's teaching.
When 275 veterans in Rhode Island are homeless, we are violating God's teaching. http://www.yeson7.org/HousingFacts/ForHomes/tabid/202/Default.aspxWhen Rhode Island's homeless shelters need to accomodate growing numbers of people in need: families, singles, children, we are violating God's teaching.
Question 7 on our Rhode Island Ballot this coming Tuesday will provide the resources for our state to provide 600 new, affordable, respectable housing units. The construction of those housing units will provide jobs for Rhode Islanders. People moving into those housing units will support the local businesses in their new neighborhoods--grocery stores, gas stations, laundromats and more.
In my estimation, this is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of principle: Our tradition elevates the care for the needy in our community to a mitzvah, a commandment: "When there is among you a needy person from any one of your brothers, within one of oyur gates in the land that God is giving you, you are not to toughen your heart, you are not to shut your hand to your brother, the needy one. Rather, you are to pen, yes, open your hand to him, and are to pledge, yes, pledge to him, sufficient for his lack that is lacking to him. You are to give, yes, give freely to him, your heart is not to be ill-disposed in your giving to him, for on account of this matter Adonay your God wil bless you in all your doings and in all the enterprises of your hand! For the needy will never be gone from amid the land; therefore I comman you, saying: You are to open, yes, open your hand to your brother, to your afflicted one, and to your needy one in your land! (Deuteronomy/D'varim 15: 7-11).
Republican, Independent, Democrat: we can all vote "yes" on question 7. This is an issue that goes deeper than any political affiliation.
I have downloaded a basic information page from the "Yes on 7" website. Please read on. Please vote for the candidates of your choice. And vote "yes" on question 7.
Yes on 7
What is a Bond?
Ballot Question 7 requests voter approval for the State of Rhode Island to issue General Obligation Bonds to finance the construction of affordable homes. Financing long-term capital assets, like homes, over the long-term is more feasible than paying for it all in the year of construction. The bonds will likely be repaid in less than 20 years and the homes will remain affordable for more than 30 years.What Does Approval of Question 7 Do?
Approving this critically important ballot question would provide for $25 million to finance the construction of long-term affordable homes for Rhode Islanders. It will likely be matched by $125 million from other public and private sources generating over $150 million for the construction of more than 600 affordable homes and supporting more than 1,000 construction jobs over the next few years. How Will the Money Be Spent?
The $25 million in bond funding will be allocated over two years. The funding decisions will be made by the Housing Resources Commission (HRC), a 27-member housing policy-making board that includes representatives from a wide range of public, philanthropic and private sector housing and business organizations. The HRC sets program priorities, solicits applications and makes decisions through a competitive and transparent process. The funds will be administered by the Department of Administration with technical assistance provided by Rhode Island Housing. Why do we need a bond issue now?
- Affordable homes are assets that provide a long-term benefit to the state. Homes constructed with funding from the Housing Bond will benefit Rhode Islanders for more than 30 years.
- Most homes, whether publicly or privately financed, spread the cost over the long term
- For renters, the need for affordable apartments is even greater now than when the recession began. The foreclosure crisis, combined with high unemployment, has left Rhode Island far short of the affordable homes it needs to meet the State’s housing needs.
- Homelessness, among families and single adults, has increased in each of the past four years.
- Rhode Island especially needs more affordable homes for its senior citizens, returning veterans and residents with special needs.
- There has never been a better time to borrow. Interest rates are at historic lows, allowing the state to maximize its investment at the lowest possible cost.
- Rhode Island needs to put our construction workers back to work now. With the unemployment rate continuing to hover around 11% with significantly higher rates in the hard-hit construction sector, we cannot afford to wait.
- Rhode Island contractors need the work now and prices are highly competitive.
We Jews tend to be a little territorial about the Torah. After all, on a daily basis we acknowledge that the gift of Torah was an expression of God's love for the people who entered into the covenant of Sinai.
But the Sinai covenant is not the first in the Torah: in this week's parashah/Torah portion, we read of the covenant God forged with Noah: the waters of the flood had receded, Noah and his family and the animals they had saved in the ark had emerged. God paints the sky with a rainbow and declares:
12 God said, This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13 I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14 It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, 15 and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh.16 When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. 17 And God said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth. Genesis 9
This is a covenant between God and "all flesh". . . not just Jews, not just human beings either. God's commitment is to "all flesh that is on the earth."
At this moment, the horizons of the Torah are as broad as the horizons of our world: we are encouraged to drill down to the core of our identity: yes, we Jews are the descendants of Jacob and the Jewish tradition we practice today is rooted in the relationship between Jacob and his progeny and God. We are the descendants of Abraham and through our first patriarch we share common ground with our siblings-in-faith, those who practice Christianity and Islam. And we are all, ultimately, the children of Noah . . . we are all the sentient "flesh of the earth" and are thus, in all our diversity of appearance and practice, created in the image of God.
Rabbi Brad Artson concludes, in an essay on this week's Torah reading in his wonderful book The Bedside Torah:
"A righteous Gentile [anyone who is not Jewish] is a full child of God, to be cherished by all who give God allegiance, regardless of their religious affiliation. What matters according to traditional Judaism, is goodness. That same requirement binds Jews as well. After all, we, too, are "Children of Noah."
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Yes, I do. I love Torah.
If you know me at all, or if you peruse my writings over the years in this blog, you know I am not a Torah-thumping fundamentalist. But I do love Torah.
That makes Simhat Torah one of my favorite holidays.
So, why do I love Torah so much?
Here's my big 5 countdown:
5: Genesis/Breishit 9:16-17 -- "And the rainbow will be in the cloud, and I [God] will see it, to remember an eternal covenant between God and every living being of all flesh that is on the earth." And God said to Noah: "This is the sign of the covenant that I've established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth." Torah teaches us that every human being stands before God on equal footing . . . no human soul is holier than any other or is created any differently than any other. All living creatures are treasured as creations of God.
4: Genesis/Breishit 11:5-8 -- "And Adonay went down to see the city and the tower that the children of humankind had built. And Adonay said, "Here, they're one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they've begun to do. And now there will be no challenge to anything they initiate together. Come, let's go down and babble their language so they won't understand each other's language. And Adonay scattered them from there over the face of the earth. . . " God blesses our diversity, our different approaches to life and expects us to exercise our intellectual and spiritual and creative gifts. God does not intend for us to be homogenous and of one opinion or one outlook. (Which is a good thing considering the "two Jews three opinions" principle!)
3: Genesis/Breishit 15: 9-10, 12-14, 17-18 -- And God said to Avram, "Take a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a dove and a pigeon for Me. And he took all of these for God and split
them in the middle and set each half opposite its other half . . . And the sun was about to set, and a slumber came over Avram . . . and God said to Avram, "You shall know that your seed will be alien in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will degrade them four hundred years. But I'll judge the nation they will serve, and after that they'll go out with much property. . . . and the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke, and a flame of fire that went between the pieces. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram, saying, "I've given this land to your seed . . . . " This takes a little "unpacking." Scholars of ancient near eastern history tell us that when neighboring local landowners made a treaty, they would take an animal, cut it in half, spread the two halves apart, and then each landowner would walk between the parts of the severed animal. This was ancient near eastern choreography expressing: "May my fate be like that of this severed animal if I do not keep up my part of our treaty." With that insight, the flame of fire passing between the pieces becomes a breathtaking divine declaration and commitment to Avram: May My fate, God is saying, be like that of these animals, if I do not keep My part of this covenant with you and your descendants, Avram." God is with us for the duration.
2: Exodus/Sh'mot 4:25 -- And Zipporah took a flint and cut her son's foreskin.... This is part of one of the most abstruse and puzzling passages in the Torah, but the one clear element of the story is that Zipporah, Moses' wife, took the transmission of the covenant into her own hands by ritually circumcising their infant son. Women's spiritual insight and religious initiatives are just as much a part of our tradition as are the spiritual insights and religious initiatives of the men of our communities.
1: Exodus/Sh'mot 24:7 -- And Moses took the scroll of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, "We will do everything that Adonay has spoken, and we will obey/listen." This is the moment we made the transition from a collection of individuals and extended families to a people, to a community. In an unprecedented (and yet-to-be-reproduced) moment of consensus, our entire people committed to the covenant offered to us by God at Sinai. נעשה / na'aseh: we will do it. נשמע / nishma: we will hear/internalize the terms of the brit/covenant. And here we are, three thousand years later, celebrating the eternity of our covenant with God. Wow.
Ok. I admit, there are way more than 5 reasons I love Torah . . . maybe I'll share another 5 with you next year in my pre-Simhat Torah blog . . . but there is so much to celebrate in our Torah, and I can't wait to celebrate it with you. The wisdom, the perspective, the compassion, the eternal values, the roots of community, our very identity . . . it's all in our Torah.
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
"You are [nitzavim] today, all of you, before Adonay your God"
[D'varim / Deuteronomy 29:9]
This phrase is the beginning of the first verse of this week's parashah/Torah portion. Moses is addressing the people one last time: they are about to enter the Land with Joshua as their leader, Moses knows he will die before that happens. These words introduce a renewal of the covenant originally made at Sinai (about 39 years before this moment) and Moses is setting the stage, emphasizing the significance of the presence of the people before God.
The verb is a telling one . . . for it has consequences for us today: נִצָּבִים / nitzavim. A simple translation would be "standing." You are standing today, all of you, before Adonay your God." That would work. But a lot would be lost in this translation. Moses could have easily said: you are עוֹמדִים / omdim, you are standing.
Nitzavim implies steadfastness, not-going-anywhere-ness, stability . . . Moses telling the Israelites that they are "nitzavim" is a statement that implies eternity, "nitzavim" means that we, two thousand years later, are just as "nitzavim", just as steadfast in relation to God as were our ancestors so long ago.
Our participation in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services during these Days of Awe constitutes our confirmation that yes, we are indeed, nitzavim. We are as eternally a part of the covenant as is God. Two thousand years later, we are no less a source of frustration and joy and disappointment and delight than were the generations of our ancestors in the wilderness who stood at Sinai, who rebelled, who gathered declared "we will do, we will obey," and who complained, who drank from Miriam's well and who built the Golden Calf.
The same Hebrew root that forms the basis of the word נִצָּבִים / nitzavim also forms the basis of the word מָצֵבָה / matzeivah. A matzeivah is a monument, the term used in modern Hebrew for a cemetery monument. The connection is clear, of course: the cemetery monument is as permanent an object as we can create. Through stone and engraving we attempt to make a steadfast, unmoving statement of love and loss and respect.
Our very presence, as we are נִצָּבִים / nitzavim is our statement as a living monument: unlike the cold stone, we are constantly renewing, bringing life and joy to our meetings with God . . . challenges as well. A stone monument can't pose too many challenges, either.
We are nitzavim before Adonay our God and our participation in services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur make it clear that we are committed in our "not-going-anywhere-ness." Indeed, we ourselves can declare God:
אנחנו נצבים היום כולנו לפניך . . . . anachnu nitzavim hayom kulanu l'faneicha . . . we are all steadfast, not going anywhere, today, all of us, before You . . .