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The fast of Esther and Purim and remembering and being joyous and silly, as preparation to the Tahor ritual. Ritual versus ceremony.
The Fast of Esther is one of the public fast days on our calendars. The best known fast day is, of course, Yom Kippur (10 Tishrei), which is also a day of no work and great introspection. The next most serious fast day is Tisha b'Av (9 Av), which commemorates the destruction of both Temples and is linked to other tragedies in our history. [For a significant discussion of this fast, see "Some thoughts about Tisha b'Av" on my website] Both of these fasts last typically for 25 hours.
Other fasts last from sunrise to sunset. There are three other fasts associated with the destruction of the Temple in one way or another: Tzom Gedaliah (Fast of Gedaliah - 3 Tishrei), Asara b'Tevet (10 Tevet) and Shiva Asar b'Tamuz (17 Tamuz). There are two other "special" fasts in the calendar --the Fast of Esther (the day before Purim) and Ta'anit Bechorim (Fast of the First Born - the day before Pesakh for "openers of the womb").
Fasts are a popular topic in Talmud with over 600 references, which deal with public fasts, private fasts and related issues. Two interesting citations are from the book of Berachot:
When R. Sheshet kept a fast, on concluding his prayer he added the following: Sovereign of the Universe, You know full well that in the time when the Temple was standing, if a person sinned he used to bring a sacrifice, and though all that was offered of it was its fat and blood, atonement was made for him therewith. Now I have kept a fast and my fat and blood have diminished. May it be Your will to account my fat and blood which have been diminished as if I had offered them before You on the altar, and favor me. (Berachot 17a)
Raba did not order a fast on a cloudy day because it says (Lam 3:44), You have covered Yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through. (Berachot 32b)
And there are many interesting discussions of how long to fast, who fasts and who doesn't, which towns and communities do what and so on.
Most of time on a public fast day, I am where people are not even aware of a fast on the calendar. For two fasts, this year, it was the end of a special week of study and the "return home" day was the fast. [Again, see my website for more discussion about these days] Sometimes I am where a "completion of a book of study" is scheduled since the celebration of this even supercedes the fast (Typically done on the Ta'anit Bechorim - the day before Pesakh), and this makes it easier on the people who would otherwise be expected to fast.
This week's fast was a growth/learning opportunity for me. I was taking a medication to clear up a rash on my hand that required eating, so I knew I would not be fasting this public fast this year. That did not concern me because, as I said, I am typically where public fasting except for Yom Kippur is not common or there is a very wide range of observance. And that was the problem for me. This day, I was in Cleveland attending classes, one of which was taught by a local Orthodox Rabbi for whom I have considerable respect. It was a class on Haggadah and the halachah (guidelines) of Pesakh. I have studied Talmud with this Rabbi before.
His lecture this day was about things that we do to enhance mitzvot and the implications of this concept. He was applying the concept to the specifics of a Brit (circumcision) that is conducted on Shabbat and therefore carries with it various implications. And the conclusion reached was that the enhancement of the mitzvah is indeed part of the mitzvah.
And I, not fasting, took a hamentaschen that I had been given out of my coat pocket and set it on the desk in front of me, only to see the Rabbi's eyes as they registered surprise and worked to cover that. I did not eat it, but slid it behind some books on the desk. At the class break the teacher disappeared and I went into the canteen and purchased a can of juice with which I took my medication and I ate a corner of the hamentaschen and put the rest back in my pocket. Some of the other students were eating snacks as well. One student who was fasting ask me why I wasn't and I explained about the meds.
And then, as I walked back into the classroom, I had one of those "washes of learning" otherwise known as "lightbulb", etc. The talk about mitzvah enhancement, prior Talmud study about the damage we do to ourselves when we do something that appears "wrong", other "damages" associated with this concept, the hamentaschen on my desk and my "position" as a student rabbi all came crashing together. OY! And it wasn't that I am not aware of this status in what I consider public places (like a restaurant, a park, shul, etc). It was that my awareness of "being fully present" was ratcheted up a notch along with the difference of being a "public" person as a future rabbi. I had talked about this aspect/role with my mentors on various occasions -- but the integration into my awareness of the issues is now at a whole new place. Blessed is the One who gives our sekhel (intelligence, intellect, understanding, wisdom, savvy, reason, brain, sense) the power to differentiate and to learn.
JOIN ME IN AUGUST!! I will be speaking at the Children of Abraham Journey Together Interfaith Chautauqua at Lakeside Ohio (Aug 17-24, 2002). It is a beautiful site and the conference was fantastic last year. Check out the website: http://childrenofabraham.homestead.com/index.html and join us!
1. Parsha details: Ex 30:11-34:35, Num 19:1-22 [Haftorah Ezekiel 36:16-38 (Seph end on 36)]
2. Questions and a few observations
Summary: The census (or mustering) tax, anointing oil, the naming of Betzalel as the master craftsman for the ark and other accessories/furniture, a few words about Shabbat (the v'sham'ru of liturgy), the completion of the first set of tablets, the calf incident, Moshe's return and the breaking of the tablets, the killing of the 3,000, Moshe's pleading with God, Moshe 'sees' the back of God, the attributes, the second set of tablets, some more details and three holidays, Moshe's face radiating.
Extra: the ritual of the Red Heifer and the preparation of the water and ashes, the uncleanness of those who touch the dead.
What a Parsha! This one could fill an entire course and then a lot more. Pages typed single-spaced. The details are rich, the insights powerful and the subtleties incredible. And that doesn't even touch the parts left unsaid. In this format, we can only nibble -- and even that will be more than a meal.
Let's start sequentially -- the words of Shabbat that we include in the liturgy - 31:16-17. La'asot et haShabbat -- to do Shabbat. The Hebrew clearly says 'DO Shabbat' -- because on the seventh day, YHVH did Shabbat and yinafash -- that is also a verb meaning to give life, soul. So for seven days we worry about the furniture, the details, who does what -- and then we DO Shabbat. Within the One's wholeness and our understanding of that Oneness, we give ourselves life, soul. This is a covenant forever.
To DO shabbat, to remember it, to protect it. Shomeyr et haShabbat -- this it the same thing we ask the One to do for us, for Yisrael. Why is it so valuable? What is there about a few hours a week that they are so precious? What is so magical, so wonderful about Shabbat?
We are told that we get an extra soul, and extra Neshama at Shabbat -- a breath. Just a little breath -- a few pasukim in a long Parsha. When I was in the military we were always reminded that what we were doing was very serious, a matter of life and death for who-knows-how-many -- and yet, we were also told that it was not that serious. I think that was the military's way of reminding us to do a little Shabbos work (yes, Shabbos work) now and then. Reb Marcia is fond of reminding us that Shabbat is not a time of no work -- it is a time of Soul work.
Torah is the betrothal gift from the One to Yisrael and Ma'asay Tovim make up our renewing betrothal gift to the One. And Shabbat is the time for the ritual of presentation, so that we may both acknowledge and appreciate the gifts of the other. The breath is a moment to refocus our own energy so that we can all connect with the Holy One.
So the moment of joining, of coming together is an OT, a sign. A token of the everlasting longing between the Holy One and the people in whom the Presence dwells. It is moment in time that we can step back from the "stuff" of our lives and recognize that the Holy One longs for us and must as we long for the One, to feel that Presence within us and to know that we are loved and that we can and do return that love.
3. Some Observations
We go from Shabbat to tablets to broken tablets to golden calves. And from calves to civil war to Moshe getting as close as he will ever get to seeing and being with the One.
The discussion between God and Moshe as the sounds of the people rise is an interesting one. Aharon has announced that the day after the calf is fashioned will be a holiday to YHVH. And they make offerings and feast (so far so good) and then they get up to mock, to play, to get carried away as it were. And the sounds reach up to Moshe. And the One says, go to them, they are worshipping the calf. Moshe counters with a plea for God's mercy and face-saving for God. That is an interesting argument -- but then Moshe was a lot more brazen than I could ever be. And as he descends, Yehoshua, who has been waiting for him talks about the sound of war from the camp. Moshe says no, it is not that and they start down.
When Moshe spots the egel, the calf, Torah says Moshe's anger burned within him. He throws down the tablets, breaking them. We could do a course-worth of work just on this little point and the Rabbis certainly have.
Moshe grabs the egel (just how big was it?), burns it and grinds it, mixes it with water and gives it to B'ney Yisra'el. I used to do a lot of work with gold and I have seen what we called "burnt" gold -- and this is still a lot of work. Three castings done without "refreshing" the gold could lead to burnt gold, especially if the temperatures were not well managed. (1 -- to form the ear rings, 2 -- Aharon's casting, 3 -- Moshe's burning of it.) So what did the people do during this time? Were they drunk or potted?
After all this, Moshe chastises Aharon for his role in the affair, getting less than outstanding answers from him. Then he looks at the people whom Torah describes as unruly. The word has the same root as Pharaoh.... and then Moshe calls out for enforcers and the tribe of Levi steps to his side, killing 3000. Oy the details NOT here....
This is much more than a golden calf. I have to believe that the people looked at the calf as a "seat" for God, rather than as being the One. That understanding fits with their words. I see the discussion between the Holy One and Moshe as more a test of Moshe -- would he grab at the chance to have a nation from himself rather than from Yisra'el? No, he is devoted to the concept/plan of the exodus and growth into a true people. (He will need to be)
And yet there is something truly dangerous going on in the camp. It becomes apparent to Moshe when he sees it -- this unruliness is a threat to the people because of how it will be perceived by Yisra'el's enemies. 600,000 men came out of Mitzrayim -- 3000 are killed here. 0.5%. One out of every 200. For something they did at the feast to YHVH. The egel does not get a name of any kind and outside of Moshe's mountaintop discussion, there is not an obvious indication that they are, in fact, worshipping it. But they are doing something very wrong in what they ARE doing. The egel is the center of their actions, but it is the symbol of that action. It is a political statement against the leadership of Moshe.
That is why the discussion with the One on the mountain -- The Holy One wants it CLEAR beyond words in Moshe's mind that his job is to turn this rowdy bunch of ex-Goshen dwellers into a great people -- and it will not be easy. What had been whining and complaining was taking shape in this feast. The people were looking for leadership and Aharon was not capable and Moshe wasn't there -- so new cohanim were rising to the front. And the gold-water, so reminiscent of the bitter water (as many Rabbis have noted), is administered to the people. What did Moshe say to them? Was it some sedative that, when drunk, would knock them out? Did Moshe warn the people that it would make it obvious who was guilty of the rebellion such that the perpetrators did not drink it and thereby remained conscious?
And just how did the Levites play into this scenario? Oy, what Torah leaves in the white spaces.
4. Balancing Grounding
Shabbat is a special part of this Parsha and that is appropriate for a Parsha about Balancing Grounding. This Parsha has Malkhut in Tiferet, which is very much about Shabbat. And the calf incident is very much about the balance between the One's mercy and the strength of discipline needed to grow this unruly child of a people into a nation, a Kingdom in which Beauty is evident.
Sometimes it is hard to see the balance in seemingly harsh acts -- certainly Aharon had difficulty seeing it. Moshe was not afraid to take harsh swift action when he saw a need for it -- Aharon always had trouble doing that. Aharon is typically seen in majesty, while Moshe is seen in both endurance and in beauty or balance. Sometimes breaking up a rebellion harshly and swiftly is the most compassionate thing to do for a people -- but it is never the easy thing.
And yet, Moshe is a man of anger -- but the act of anger was breaking the tablets, the gift of Khesed without Gevurah, unbalanced. And while Moshe was a man with a violent temper which flashed periodically, it never lasted. And he was certainly no longer in a fit of temper after burning and grinding and administering gold-water to 600,000 men (plus however many women were or were not involved in the incident). So the killing of the 3000 men (?? women?) was done with the icy-cold calm Moshe could command when the situation called for it. This might not have been as obvious a choice for balance, for Tiferet.... perhaps that is why so much of the detail has been left to the white space?
5. Special Shabbat
This week, Shabbat is Shabbat Parah (Red Heifer). The mysterious ritual that baffled even King Solomon according to tradition. How does something that is used to bring people to a state of Tahor (purity) cause all the people involved in its preparation with becoming Tamey (distracted or otherwise occupied -- wrongly translated as "unclean")?
My husband's recent illness gave me an interesting view of Tamey. When he was in danger of not surviving, I was doing a lot of talking with the Holy One (Thank you so much Reb Daniel and so many others for the wonderful prayers we said together during that time). And yet, I was not able to be "with" community. One or two people, great. I could handle that -- and then only for brief periods of time. Other times I wanted to be alone with my feelings and emotions and other times just being. I understood Tamey in a way I never had before.
As he recovered and life became a matter of dealing with recovery and life, I found tremendous power in the ritual of mikvah. I even made a point of having clean clothes to get dressed in afterwards. I can only try to imagine how much more powerful the ritual would have been with the Parah water. Maybe the people who made the Parah water understood this and that understanding made them do some processing that made them Tamey for a short time? Just how does a little water do so much? Wouldn't handling something so powerful make you feel just a little Tamey?
1. Trees: Find a tree with no leaves. Study the tree and feel the life within it. Sense the buds not yet showing on the branches. Hear the leaves not yet grown as they rustle in the wind that will be. See the cycle of leaves and bareness, leaves and bareness as the tree grows from year to year and recognize the spiral of cycle within growth and growth within cycle.
2. Water: Place a bowl of water before you, preferably in partial daylight with only natural light on it. Look at the water in detail. Is it clean? Is anything floating in it? Watch it move as you put your finger in the bowl and move it around. Trace one hand with a finger that has been dipped in the water. Do the same for the other hand. Take a piece of paper and write LOVE on it and burn the paper, collecting the ashes. Sprinkle the ashes on the water and watch what happens. Swirl the water gently with a finger and just watch.
3. Water and partner: Take the water from the above exercise and have a partner trace your hands and arms with a dipped finger while your eyes are closed. Do the same thing on other parts of your body if you are comfortable doing so. Listen to the water as your partners fingers move around in it. Change roles and do the same for your partner.
ADS: ALEPH -- the Alliance for Jewish renewal. www.aleph.org If you aren't a member yet, please give very serious consideration to joining. The magazine, New Menorah, alone, is worth whatever you give. (Plus it helps pay for the rabbinic program where I am studying!)
You can order the Torah Cards and my jewelry through Mercaz at (216)595-0707 -- ask for Larry)
There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention. That is done from a position of space. I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available.
Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!
And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos) You have made this weekly practice wonderful.
(c) 2002 Candy Lobb All rights reserved