Shavuot, what a wonderful culmination to the work of the omer. Our chavura went to the mikveh as we approached Erev Shavuot, and then went on to share a dinner and Tikkun Leyl well into the wee hours. We studied Ruth, Shir HaShirim, stood at the mountain, shared, chanted, davvened and much more.
And I also had a wonderful surprise this week as I was looking for something to help a friend in one of those innocuous boxes that sits in the garage for ages (at least 20 years....). Well, I didn't find what I was looking for, but WOW, what I did find. As I opened the box, I saw the top of a metal tube, about 3 inches in diameter. Could it be what I thought it might be? As I pulled it out, it was almost 2 feet long -- right size. Yes, it was -- my father's (a'h) Megillat Esther. Inside the top was the little Hebrew dymo sticker saying "Sholom ben Moshe" (that was all that would fit in the space). Folded neatly next to it was his spare kittel and a silly apron with the holidays on it that someone had given my mother (a'h) so many years before. The rest of the box's contents were nothing special, just old household items.
I looked at my husband and quipped "That's how wonderful scrolls end up in strange places, like caves." What else is waiting patiently in a still-packed box somewhere?
The megillah is in excellent condition -- lettering perfect and parchment still flexible. The case was hand-made and there are no further identifying marks or indications anywhere -- I can't begin to guess how old it might be. My father has been dead now for almost 28 years, so this scroll has waited that long to be looked at again. I couldn't guess how old it might be -- I just barely remember seeing him hold it from time to time.
And the kittel was a wonderful find, as well. This year will be the first time I am officially leading Yamim Nora'im (high holidays) and I have been thinking more and more about a kittel. I did not have one and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do about that. I also have a great Shabbat Tallit and a some nice ones for daily use (my old faded "kid's" one from my bat mitzvah, a strange-looking blue one that some Sunday School kids had made for me, etc), but I didn't have a white one. That is, not until about two months ago.
A member of my Chavura gave me an incredible gift of her son's (a'h) all-white Tallit. He had been killed about 10 years ago while in the Israeli Army and she had held on to it all that time. (Golan ben Pnina v'Yoram)
My father always had a spare kittel because as a congregational rabbi there were occasions where he would need one at least two days in a row, such as Pesakh. One would invariably get dirty or stained and he always wanted the kittel to look fresh and clean. Again, I have no idea how old it might be. There is no labeling in it -- only an old laundry mark. Most probably, my mother made it for him. It washed up very nicely and it even fits.
So, now, I not only have a kittel and a white tallit -- I have very special ones. I knew I would think of my parents often during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but now I will have this special reminder. And the tallit is just one of the special links between me and the members of the Chavura.
1. Parsha details: Num 4:21-7:89 ( tri 7:1-7:89 ) [ Haftorah Judges 13:2-25 ]
2. Questions and a few observations
Summary: Counting of the Levi'im by family for service in the Tent of Meeting, who is to outside the main camp, restitution if there is no living kinsman, the water test for the wife of a jealous man, Nazirite vows, the blessings, carts for Levi'im and tribal offerings.
This is the kind of Parsha that is usually labelled 'problematic' because there are issues raised in it that do not appear to automatically mesh with our lives today. It is easy to look at the water test and say "Oy, that's magic mumbo-jumbo and such an ordeal for the poor woman who has no rights back then," and dismiss Torah as outdated, not applicable, or out of touch.
However, there are so many layers here that the Parsha almost resembles my desk with pages from the different levels all poking through the other levels. And if I think my desk is a formidable task, sorting and organizing the layers of Torah is much greater. So, since I never shy from formidable tasks, let's dive in.
Because Torah was written at a fixed time, let's start our exploration there and then we can move back to today. In the time of Moshe, women were in need of some protection. In surrounding cultures, a woman could be beaten and even killed by her husband, period. They didn't have over-flowing homes for battered women and pieces of paper with the word injunction on them to protect women back then.
And so, Torah gives us the 'Torah of jealousy' as a method of protecting women from fits of jealous rage by their husbands. Torah tells us that this is the procedure if she is defiled or is not defiled -- whenever there is no witness to testify. If there had been witnesses, if she and the other man had been caught in the act, then there would have been a legal trial -- this is the procedure for unsubstantiated jealousy.
So, instead of being a denigration of women, this Parsha serves to put the husband on notice that he cannot simply haul off and beat the woman -- that a jealous rage is not an acceptable justification. If he can prove his claim through witnesses, then there is a 'civilized' procedure and if he cannot prove it, there is still a 'civilized' procedure -- bring her to the Coheyn and he will use the water test to test and punish/bless her. This is a protection and an elevation.
The simple reading is that she is guilty or innocent -- if guilty, her belly will swell up and if she is innocent, she will be able to yield fruit (have a child). There are wondrous word plays and translation challenges in the Hebrew of this section. It is quite old and parts of it were probably recited often, perhaps by the wife. ("If you think.... take me to the Coheyn so he can test me and see...). There is also a secondary meaning having to do with rebellion and there are references to making a fool of the husband. So this is probably a general prescription for many scenarios.
The key throughout the scenarios is that the woman is or is not guilty of being 'tamei' through sleeping with another man -- no one knows because she was not caught and there were no witnesses and she denies it. Now, whether justified or not, her husband goes off in a fit of jealous rage. Rather than act on it, he is to bring her to the Coheyn with an offering. She spend some private time with the Coheyn during which he explains to her that the water will either bring a curse on her or it will cleanse her (the Hebrew is written such that many translations are possible (doing the many variations on it would be an interesting assignment...), and I believe that the many diverse interpretations are not only intentional, but very intentional). The cleansing aspect is enhanced by the comment that the Coheyn writes down the curse and then blots it out with the water. So does the water absorb the curse or does it remove it?
Is she guilty? Whether or not she is guilty, the Coheyn should be able to tell just from his experience level. If she is guilty, is she repentant? If she is repentant, does the Coheyn make this a cleansing ritual? If she is guilty and rebellious, does that affect what the Coheyn tells her about the ritual and what it does? And if the water cleanses her and she gives birth to the other man's child, what then? What if her husband has not been sleeping with her recently? Many possible scenarios -- all of which end with the woman getting protection from the execution of the ritual -- unless her behavior and demeanor warrant her being 'cut off' from the others.
Note, the word adultery is not used in this section at all and the penalty to adultery is death for both the man and the woman...... nowhere here does the Parsha talk about death as the result. The last pasuk could be translated: "The man is acquitted of his offense and the woman (carries or is forgiven) her offense". And so the case is closed.
Now, let's think for a few moments here. The woman spends some time with the Coheyn privately with the water in his hand (Torah is very specific about this). This would act as an amplifier for her emotions, guilty or not, repentant or not, if guilty, etc. The Coheyn would be very adept at reading this and if she repents, the Coheyn could arrange discreetly for her guilt and a warning that this safety won't be offered again.
Then they move to the public courtyard, where the water ritual takes place. Her behavior will be seen and will tell if she is a) innocent or b) repentant and trusting or c) fighting the water 'tooth and nail' and therefore guilty.... the courtyard would not be a private place. Others will be able to make their judgements as well -- including the other man who is hereby warned that folks may watch from now on.
And what about the jealous husband who does not believe his wife (guilty or not -- that part doesn't really matter -- the issue here is his distrust or this wouldn't be happening in the first place). So she drinks or is sprinkled with the bitter water (holy water and some dirt/ashes -- what's that going to do to anyone?). And, surprise, she is not sagging or swelling and will bear fruit (child). Now the mighty Coheyn has 'proven' her innocence (or cleansed her) -- the husband can no longer accuse her of anything. And if she does have a child (even if the husband was not been actively sleeping with her), it is the result of the bitter water..... get the idea? If she doesn't have a child, well, no problem there -- that just means something happened to the pregnancy and we can deal with that separately..... perhaps she did something later to cause her to lose the child.... those things happen all the time.
So this 'problematic' section is really about becoming tahor again, about reintegration. And it is about protecting people from baseless accusations, too. A friend of mine who works in a school was discussing the damage that would occur if a student became angry with him over something and accused him falsely of molesting. Guilty or innocent, that person would have trouble getting a job because of the lingering guilt. Perhaps Torah is teaching that we need to either find a way to prove an accusation or 'cleanse' someone of the lingering tinge of guilt? Or perhaps Torah is teaching that we need to protect defenseless individuals from abusive relationships?
By taking the wife to a Coheyn (today, perhaps a counselor or a rabbi or the individual who can test and cleanse ), the abuser can disconnect enough to be able to become acquitted of his guilt and the abused can be rescued. What at the surface might sound like an antiquated, magical ritual could be read as a cleansing for abuser and abused, or for reconciliation. Many scenarios are possible and this section can be read as a way of healing, regardless of the details.
Perhaps people could drink or sprinkle some sanctified water with a bit of ash to heal or cleanse the tinge guilt and maybe we can find some real protection from jealous rage and false accusations.
3. Some Observations
The offerings of the tribes is a separate section for each tribe. There is great ceremony and detail here and each tribe has its day. And yet, the donations are exactly the same, regardless of tribal size, prestige. The order is a little interesting. The first is Judah, who camped beyond Moshe, Aharon and their sons. Then Issachar to his right and then Zebulun to his left. Then Reuben, beyond Kohat and then right, then left and onward around the Mishkan (See last week's exercises for the details of who was camped where). So these offerings are given in marching order.
There would have been great ceremony here as each tribe has its day. And yet, each tribe is equal, there is no 'one-up-manship' allowed. All tribes are equally important, just as all families and all individuals are equally important today. So the ceremony and the circumstance are for the act of offering, not for the grandness and size of the gift.
Torah could have said Judah and all of the tribes gave these things and have been a lot more brief. But she isn't brief here -- so the detail is important. Imagine hearing this for the first time. You listen to the offering of the tribe of Judah -- nice things, good things, valuable things. Then you hear about the tribe of Issachar -- and these are nice things, good things, valuable things -- quite similar to what Judah gave. And then you hear about the tribe of Zebulun. As the tribal accountings are listed in detail, it eventually dawns on us that, hey, they are giving the same things. And yet, even though they all gave exactly the same things, down to the weight of the bowls, it still sounds wonderful to hear each tribe separately, each tribe getting their due.
And so it should be when people support their communities today -- regardless of what they give. Each gift should be appreciated for itself and acknowledged. And only when this recognition and appreciation is complete could Moshe go into the Tent and speak with the One who spoke to him.
It was no simple matter to get the Tent of Meeting up and running. Every time we think that everything is done, and then, -- something else is still needed to make the whole package fully functional. Somewhat like building any community. We dedicate pieces, parts and so, parts become functional. Then, as the community pulls together, each 'tribe' contributes their offering and is acknowledged, another part of the community becomes functional. And it takes all of the tribes to pull this off, each one giving their part of the offering.
4. Priestly Blessings
This wonderful threesome of blessings:
Y'varech'cha YHVH v'yish'm'recha.
Ya'eyr YHVH panav eylecha viy'khuneka.
Yisa YHVH panav eylecha v'yaseym l'cha shalom.
That priestly benediction we hear so many times -- as it says in the next pasuk: "And they will put My Name on the children of Yisra'el and I will bless them."
The threefold blessing, using a traditional three part pattern. We hear it during davvening, we hear it at special occasions, we hear pronounced on children by their parents and it is still so powerful. I think of the times I have had the privilege of saying it at life cycle ceremonies and other times.
My father was able to spread his hands and fingers in the pose made famous to the world by Mr. Spock. I can see him, short and stout in his black rabbinic robe, standing on the bima on a Friday night -- this was one of his traditions, even though our family was Yisra'el, not Coheyn. And I remember the different congregations really 'getting into it' and complaining to him that they missed it if we were out of town for a weekend. He would stand on the bima and the congregation would rise and bow their heads. I used to close my eyes, but I did peak from time to time. My father's eyes were also closed and even his head was slightly down and to one side as if the power of these words coming through him was almost too great. He would say one pasuk in Hebrew and then translate it into English -- slightly differently every week. The congregation always responded with a strong ameyn and then there would be silence for just a moment before we would continue.
And I see the tears rolling down the cheek of a woman who conversion I attended last week as the Rabbi said this bracha to her as he clutched the tallit around her and the Torah she was holding. I see the look in a mother's eyes as these words are said over her new infant as the child is brought into our community. The feeling as those of us that immersed in the mikveh just before Erev Shavuot said it over each other.
Powerful words. Then, now and forever.
5. Purifying Harmony
This week's Parsha is about Purifying Harmony. Definitely. Whether it is the water ritual, the equal gifts or the priestly blessings. All are about Purifying Harmony, the Beauty of the Glory. Harmony, the balance between boundless love and rigid discipline, the shadow and texture of balance between white and black, the win-win between winning all and losing all. Purifying, considered masculine and yet often depicted as a mother nurturing a child. It is the derivative of restraint -- the restraint that allows a person to develop and blossom in their own way.
So this Parsha is about textures and shadows and interweavings and permission to grow and become. The middle priestly bracha that is often translated as 'be gracious unto you" or causing "a light to shine" is also about educating. May we all grow through Torah and be able to learn some of her lessons, both in the simple listening and in the intense digging.
1. Cleansing water: Holy water mixed with ash. Have you ever been accused of something you didn't do? How would it feel to drink the water as a test, knowing it would clear you. Feel the Coheyn's eyes on you as he walks around with the cup in his hands. Watch him write the curse and then blot it out with the water. Will the water blot out the curse from upon you? Feel the eyes of those around you. They watch as the Coheyn gives you water to drink and sprinkles it on you as you stand there before him, the Presence and the community. Feel the water touch your body and enter it. Can you help someone else be cleansed?
2. Offerings for the Mishkan: Have someone read this section to you out loud (In Hebrew or English -- whichever you understand) as it might have been read the first time, pausing for a moment between each tribe. Picture the presenting prince and the tribe as each item is presented to Aharon and the Cohanim. Picture the next day and the next prince and that tribe as each item is presented. Do this for each tribe and see Aharon and the Cohanim accepting and acknowledging each gift.
3. My Name on you: What does it feel like to have God's Name put on you? Can you touch it? Can you feel it? How do you know it is happening? What's it like? Are there any other names on you? Do they interfere with God's name being placed on you? What does it feel like when God's Face is on you?
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!)
ADS:Kallah in Chicago: http://www.aleph.org/kallah%20html/kalindex.html July 2001
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) 2001 Candy Lobb All rights reserved