Thursday, February 28, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayakhel-Shabbat Sh’kalim 5779-Ideas Still Worth Re-examining

Shabbat Sh'kalim is a Shabbat that moves around a bit according to the dictates of the Hebrew Calendar. It is designed to start the series of 4 special haftarot that are read preceding Pesakh, and it has to fall such that all the others line up in time.

So eight years ago Shabbat Sh’kalim corresponded with another Hebrew leap year just as it does this year, only then it corresponded with parashat Pekude, and this year it corresponds with parashat Vayakhel (in most non-leap years, Vayakhel-Pekude are a combined parasha, but there are some exceptions, the next one occurring in 2025. You think Common-Core math is confusing, try the cycles of the Hebrew Calendar. Wait, strike that – bad comparison. Once you see the underlying pedagogy of the new Common Core math standards for teaching things like multiplication and division, you’ll see that they actually are as sound, if not sounder, than the “traditional way.” Now every time I see one of those Common-Core-bashing memes, I cringe. You should too – do the research!!)

A special maftir is used for the Torah reading on Shabbat Sh'kalim, hearkening back to the opening 6 verses of parashat Ki Tissa which we read just a short while ago. It speaks of the half-shekel tax levied on the Israelites on the basis of the census, the funds then being used to serve a joint function - as expiation on the part of the Israelites, and as funds to support the needs of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting. Two birds with one half-shekel.

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

11 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַיהוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם׃

12 When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.

זֶ֣ה ׀ יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִ֤ים גֵּרָה֙ הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל מַחֲצִ֣ית הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃

13 This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to the LORD.

כֹּ֗ל הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מִבֶּ֛ן עֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וָמָ֑עְלָה יִתֵּ֖ן תְּרוּמַ֥ת יְהוָֽה׃

14 Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the LORD’s offering:

הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט מִֽמַּחֲצִ֖ית הַשָּׁ֑קֶל לָתֵת֙ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם׃

15 the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the LORD’s offering as expiation for your persons.

וְלָקַחְתָּ֞ אֶת־כֶּ֣סֶף הַכִּפֻּרִ֗ים מֵאֵת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְנָתַתָּ֣ אֹת֔וֹ עַל־עֲבֹדַ֖ת אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְהָיָה֩ לִבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל לְזִכָּרוֹן֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם׃ (פ)

16 You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before the LORD, as expiation for your persons.

Synagogues love this Shabbat, as it reinforces the obligation of Jews to help support the religious infrastructure. On the other hand, there are aspects of how this was done that may conflict with modern synagogue operations. (Additionally, how wonderfully ironic that this year Shabbat Sh’kalim also coincides with the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging. You know how I feel about that National Shabbat of Unplugging, don’t you? If liberal synagogues really took this seriously, don’t you think it should involve more than just asking congregants to not use their phones one Shabbat out of the year? Many of the ideas that Reboot originally promoted for the National Shabbat of Unplugging years ago rang true to me, and still do. However, it’s that primary thing about “unplugging from technology” that doesn’t work for me. In my case, technology enhances my Shabbat experience. But I digress.)

The biblical mandate is egalitarian when it comes to economic status - rich and poor alike pay just a half-shekel. Not exactly the way many synagogues are doing it these days, what with "fair share" and other types of programs designed to not conflict with our more modern sensibilities about the distribution of wealth. People who support a so-called "flat-tax" for income tax seem to have the Torah on their side. (However, if you care to do the research, there’s just as much support within Judaism for wealth equity and redistribution. That’s a discussion for another day. I’m reading some new books and re-reading some older books on Judaism, wealth, equity, business ethics, etc. with an eye to writing more about that this year.)

Here's an interesting thought. What if every Jew, everywhere in the world, paid to a worldwide communal fund the modern equivalent of a half-shekel. This obligation would apply to every Jew, whether they belonged to a specific congregation or not. These funds are then divided up between all the world's congregations and Jewish institutions. Not very practical, but an interesting thought exercise that at least gets us closer to the biblical mandate. (As the old joke goes, if Federation has their name, they’ll find them somehow.)  For example, synagogues could have no dues structure-operating solely on their portion of the half-shekel tax. (There are countries where government subsidizes synagogues, though often liberal synagogues have a harder tine getting the funding.) Jews could freely come and go between congregations, so long as they can demonstrate they paid their half-shekel. Pretty mind-blowing idea, huh? I'm not advocating this wholesale, but it has some interesting possibilities, especially in light of recent cries that what a 21st century Jewish community may need and want is the ability to move seamlessly between institutions, as they structure their own path of Jewish life. That “half-shekel” gets you in everywhere – any synagogue, any JCC or YM/YWHA, etc. Your kids get to go to get a Jewish education wherever you choose. (Yes, some adjustment between day-school and supplementary schools will be needed as the costs are very different – but we can figure these things out. In an ideal world, this “half-shekel” could guarantee a day school education for any Jewish child who wanted it.

Note that this still doesn’t eliminate our obligation to support charities. The “half-shekel” is to pay for institutional operations. Charities will still need separate support, as will other good and just causes.

The socialist in me has a little trouble with placing equal burdens on rich and poor alike, but there is a certain appeal to the idea, philosophically. Or we could find a way that Judaism allows us to modify the biblical half-shekel tax in a non-Temple reality that provides for a sliding scale, slightly easing the burden of those who can least afford it and shifting it to those who can easily afford to pay more. As I said, there are appealing aspects to both a graduated tax and a flat tax, though the socialist in means leans hard towards the graduated kind, and the social justice warrior in me leans hard towards greater equity in wealth distribution. But again, I digress.

The special haftarah we read for Shabbat Sh'kalim clues us in to something we already know about human nature. Money corrupts. (If you are reading this years down the road, February 27, 2019 was this week – the day of Michael Cohen’s open testimony before the House Oversight Committee. Here’s hoping it becomes an important historical date or at least a footnote.)  King Jehoash instructed the priests of the Temple that all donations received shall go for the upkeep and maintenance of the Temple. Twenty years later (slow on the uptake, or choosing to ignore, we'll never know) he discovers that the priests had made no repairs to the Temple (surprise, surprise!) But what did they do with all that money? Torah is silent about that. (Hey, Yochi Brandes, want to write some historical fiction about that period? Not sure seeing it from the priests point of view would work, however.)

So King Jehoash comes up with an ingenious solution to get the Temple upkeep back on track. Money will no longer go directly to the priests, and they, in turn, will have no obligation for the upkeep of the Temple. All donations would be collected in common vessels, and then turned over to the staff (i.e. the workers who kept the Temple operating, fixed it, cleaned it, repaired it, etc.) This would insure the Temple's upkeep (one might hope.)

To keep the priests from being totally unhappy with the deal (and possibly having him de-throned) he allows all money brought as guilt and purification offerings to go directly to the priests. Isn’t that special.

Flash Forward. Imagine what our synagogues might be like today if all donations went to pay for the staff and materials for building upkeep and maintenance, and the clergy relied solely on monies donated to expiate the sins of congregants. It worked for the Church, why not us-Jewish Indulgences. While I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I am qualifying it with the word somewhat. I really can imagine a world in which Jewish clergy receives income from the services they perform for individuals, and it is sufficient to also cover the communal work they do – so that the “halk-shekel” distributions really do only cover operational and upkeep costs for facilities, equipment, and programs. The Tanakh does seem to imply this is more than adequate for the priests. (Things get trickier when we start talking about other programming – supplementary school staff, clerical staff, etc. should they also have to draw from a different funding pot, or are these expenses just a normative part of operations? Clergy are part of normative operations, aren’t they? Aye, but there’s the rub. Tanakh does differentiate between the priests and the workman who service the Temple. Ordination is a hard-won honor, but like most honors, it ought to come at some cost. If we still had a hereditary priesthood, there’d be no issue. Maybe that’s what we need – a hereditary rabbi-hood. (Well, some Jewish sects do have that!)

On the subject of equity, I wonder how many synagogues have policies on the maximum salary differential permitted between the senior rabbi and the lowest-paid custodian or staff member? It's an idea that many Jews cry out for in general society - capping CEO salaries, for example. Are we willing to try that in our own synagogues?

Now here's something amazing. The haftarah for Shabbat Sh'kalim tells us that no supervisions or checks and balances were necessary for the people who oversaw the collection and distribution of the funds to the workers - for, as it says, they dealt honestly. (For the sake of comparison, let’s call this lay leadership in synagogues. maybe for institutions like JCCs it’s their Board members?)

The haftarah tells us the the high priest and the royal scribe were the ones who were to notice when the collections jars were full, count the money (De Monet, De Monet!) and then distribute it to those who distributed it on to the workers. The text isn't clear whether the high priest and royal scribe were trusted and not checked upon, but my read is that the trusted ones were the next level down - those who actually took the funds and paid the workers and suppliers. What does it tell us that we couldn't trust the priests but we could trust these people? Did the priests only keep payments resulting from guilt and purification offerings, or did they sometimes help themselves?

There's another text here that, if taken at face value could vex modern synagogues many of whom have become "bar/bat mitzvah factories." The age of Jewish communal majority has along history of being fixed at age 13 (12 for females) however if you examine Israelite culture and the Torah, you see that the half-shekel tax was only assessed to males age 20 and up. Now, there can be many practical reasons for this. Nevertheless, it does seem to call into question the rabbinic decisions to fix the age of becoming bar/bat mitzvah at a much earlier age. Seems to me if one can be a full member of the community with all the appurtenant obligations, they ought to be obligated to pay the modern synagogue equivalent of the half-shekel.

Imagine how well that would go over with both parents and children! So, do we change the age of majority, or start collecting dues from everyone over the age of bar/bat mitzvah? Radical? Perhaps. Worth contemplating, nonetheless, if for no other reason than, while it may not change things, it can influence and subtly affect our approach.

There are clear differences between our own times and those of Temple times and earlier. The synagogue may have taken the place of the Temple, but it is not quite the same thing. So comparisons aren't entirely fair. Yet the values and ethics we read about in the Tanakh should surely remain applicable.

The rabbis were smart. They enabled Judaism to survive the destruction of the Temple by two millennia! Yet much of what they did, which they claim is based in and supported by the oral law, seems somewhat antithetical to what we read in the Torah. The things that the rabbis put into place may no longer be necessary, or may not work well in the 21st century. It's equally true that the original teachings of the Torah might have the same problems. However, I'm willing to go back to the source without the cliff notes of the rabbinic interpreters to see if there are values and ideas we can re-adopt to our modern times. Issues of economic egalitarianism, how institutions are supported and paid for, how the donations are distributed, who are the people we can trust to distribute the communal funds without oversight - all are worthy of re-examination.

Though his views are a bit Libertarian for me at times, a futurist I often follow is David Brin (Sci-Fi author.) Focusing primarily on the impacts of technology, and in particular, on privacy, he maintains that the balance to surveillance by government and corporations is individual sousveillance back at them. We already see the impact that taking live videos with a smartphone can have on exposing the excesses of those with power and those who would abuse that power. Transparency is the key. Like government, synagogues should strive for the greatest possible transparency in all they do. (Sadly, among congregations around the world I find this is more often the exception than the rule, though often more a matter of stress/lack of time/urgency-induced failure to communicate rather than an intentional effort to hide things from congregants.) Transparency is hard. It’s even harder in a culture where “because I said so, ” or “it’s complicated, you wouldn’t understand,” or “we’ve always done it that way,” or “that’s just the way it is” are still common answers to a questioning “why?”

So I close this musing with one last question (and honestly, one last gadfly jab at this ensuing “National Shabbat of Unplugging.”)


Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian ©2019 (portions ©2011) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Vayakhel 5776 - An Imaginary Community (Redux & Revised 5768)
Vayakhel 5774 - Is Two Too Much?
Vayakhel 5771 - Giving Up the Gold Standard
Vayakhel 5765-The Wisdom of the Heart
Vayakhel 5763-Dayam V'hoteir

Vayakhel-Pekudei-Shabbat Parah 5775 - New Heart, New spirit
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778 - There IS Business Like Show Business
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777 - Bell, Pomegranate, Bell, Pomegranate
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773 - Craftsman. Artisan. Artist. Again.
Vayakhel-Pekude 5772 - Vocational Ed
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5770-Corroborative Detail
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769 - There Are Some Things You Just Have To Do Yourself
Vayakhel 5768-An Imaginary Community?
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5767-Redux 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5766 - So How Did Joseph Get Away With it?
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel/Pekude 5761 (Revised from 5758)-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel/Pekude 5758-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing

Friday, February 22, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tisa 5779–A Tale of Two Tablets

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Consider:

  • A census
  • A protection racket run by G”d based on that census. (Each must pay the tax as a ransom to avoid the plague)
  • G’d changes the description of the half-shekel payment per head from ransom to offering.
  • The tax/offering/ransom shall be the same 1/2 shekel for rich and poor alike (insert that now well-known picture of the three folks trying to watch a baseball game over an outfield fence illustrating the difference between equal and equitable/fair.)
  • The half-shekel (compulsory) offering is to be used for unspecified Tent of Meeting expenses.
  • Build a laver and stand so that Aharon and his sons may properly wash their hands and feet before entering the Tent of Meeting
  • Mix a whole lot of myrrh, cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia, and olive oil to create a sacred anointing oil.
  • Anoint all the physical objects in the Tent of Meeting (including the tent itself) with the anointing oil.
  • Anoint Aharon and his sons with the sacred oil as well.
  • Do not use the anointing oil on anyone or anything else.
  • Do not even make anything similar to the anointing oil.
  • Oh wait, make this too: combine three herbs - stacte, onycha, and galbanum – and mix them with pure Frankincense, all in equal proportions, and make an incense powder to place before the tablets of the pact inside the tent of Meeting
  • Don’t use this incense powder for anything else.

  • G”d designates the artisan Betzalel, whom G”d has endowed with special creative skills, to oversee the creation of the Mishkan, and also assigned Oholiab, also endowed with special skills  to assist, plus a bunch of other unnamed folks also endowed by G”d with special skills.
  • G”d tells Moses to tell the Israelites to keep Shabbat throughout all time as a sign that G”d has consecrated Israel
  • Shabbat violators shall be put to death
  • V’shamru…and all that jazz
  • G”d gives Moses the two original tablets of the pact which G”d has personally inscribed
  • Meanwhile, back in the camp, the natives have grown restless at the long absence of Moses
  • The people ask Aharon to make an idol
  • Without even a second thought, Aharon asks for everyone’s earrings and other items of gold, and make a golden calf idol.
  • The people proclaim the calf idol as the G”d who brought them out of Egypt
  • Aharon builds an altar before the idol and proclaims that tomorrow will be a big festival
  • The next morning the people make offerings ont he altar to the golden calf idol.
  • Up on Mt. Sinai, G”d tells Moses what the people have done and urges him to hurry down so that G”d can unleash anger and fury on the people
  • Moses tries to slow G”d’s roll once again playing the vanity card. How would it look to have delivered the people from Egypt only to destroy them in the wilderness?
  • Moses establishes the basis for the first prayer of the Amidah by asking G”d to renounce the plan to destroy the Israelites for the sake of the merit of the patriarchs. Moses reminds G”d of the promise to make their descendants as numerous as the stars, and give them the promised land as an inheritance.
  • G”d is persuaded and holds off.
  • Moses heads down the mountain with the two tablets, and bumps into the waiting Joshua who says he hears cries of war from the camp. Moses tells Joshua it is not  the war sounds of victory or defeat, but the sound of song.
  • Once Moses was able to see the camp and what was going on, he throws down the two tablets which shatter on the ground.
  • Moses takes the calf idol , burns it, and grinds it down to powder.
  • Moses asks Aharon “WTF made you do this?”
  • Aharon answers “chill bro – it was all the people’s fault – you know how evil they are. They asked me to make an idol, since they weren’t sure you were coming back anymore. I don’t know who has access to my phone.” (when you read this years from now you probably won’t get it. Google Roy Cohen and hearing on 2/21/2019.)
  • Moses could see the people were out of control and that it was Aharon’s fault.
  • Moses stands at the camp “gate” and says “all those who are for G”d come here.” The Levites all come (did that include Aharon and his sons?) Moses instructs them to go through the camp slaying people (yes, the instruction really is that vague.)
  • The Levites go throughout the camp and (randomly?) slay about 3,000 people.
  • Moses asks the people to dedicate themselves to G”d.
  • Next day, Moses tells the people they have sinned greatly, but he will head back up Mt. Sinai to plead with G”d on their behalf.
  • Moses tells G”d “hey, the people really effed up. Forgive them, or destroy me with them.”
  • G”d says only sinners will be called to account. (Hmmm.)
  • God says to Moses to go lead the people away from Sinai and off to the promised land. An angel shall lead the way
  • G”d sent a plague to the Israelites to punish them for the sin they committed with Aharon.
  • G”d reiterates the command to go forth to the land G”d promised to the patriarchs. An angel will lead you, and G”d will drive out the people in your way, and lead you to a land flowing with milk and honey.
  • But I, G”d, won’t go in your midst, because you piss Me off a lot, and I just might destroy you if I’m there.
  • The people mourned upon hearing this chastisement, and took off their nice clothes (apparently, for the remainder of the trip.)
  • [When the Israelites stopped and made camp] Moses would pitch the Tent of Meeting outside the camp – at some distance. Apparently anyone could go and meet with G”d there. (Hmmmm…)
  • When Moses went out to the Tent, everyone in the camp would rise, stand, and watch.
  • When Moses entered the tent, G”d came down in a pillar of cloud. The people all bowed down.
  • G”d would speak to Moses face to face in the tent, like one human to another. when Moses left the tent and returned to camp, Joshua, Moses’ attendant (squire?) remained in the tent. (Was Joshua there all the time?)
  • Moses asks G”d that if Moses is to lead the people forward as commanded who is G”d sending to lead them. Moses reminds G”d that G”d has told him he looks upon Moses favorably. So…answer the question, please.
  • G”d caves and tells Moses that G”d will take point.
  • Moses tells G”d “unless You lead us, we won’t go. How else will other peoples know that you have singled us out?
  • G”d reiterates willingness to go in the lead because Moses has earned G”d’s favor.
  • Moses, emboldened, says “Let me see You.”
  • G”d says okay, but there are conditions. You can’t see my face and live, so go stand by that rock. I will pass before you. As I do I will shield you with My hand. Once passed, I’ll move my hand and you can see my ass.
  • G”d instructs Moses to carve two tablets like the first and bring them on up the mountain where G”d will inscribe them
  • G”d does the passing by of Moses so Moses can “see” G”d and takes the opportunity to self describe as
    • The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations
  • Yeah. Right.
  • Moses repeats the request that G”d lead them in recognition of the favor that Moses has earned from G”d.
  • G”d says “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
  • G”d reiterates that the people in the way of the Israelites will be driven out before them.
  • G”d warns the people to not take up the ways and practices of those people, let they become ensnared and start parying to their idols.
  • G”d repeats : don’t make any idols
  • G”d says: observe the Passover festival
  • First-born animals are G”d’s.
  • Observe Shavuot
  • Three times a year all males must come to appear before G”d. G”d will make it safe for you to do so by driving out the other peoples in your way.
  • Use nothing leavened in sacrifices involving blood.
  • Bring all first fruits as an offering to G”d
  • Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
  • G”d tells Moses to write the commandments, and Moses spends 40 days doing so, neither eating nor drinking.
  • When finished, Moses comes down the mountain with the tablets of the pact, unaware that his face is glowing. Everyone else notice, and they shied away from Moses.
  • Moses called them together and they came, and Moses passed on G”d’s instructions. when he was done, Moses covered his face with a veil.
  • When Moses met with G”d in the Tent, he would leave the veil open when he came out so the people could see the radiance. Then he would cover his face with the veil until the next time he went to meet with G”d.

Now, this is a truly lazy musing. All I’ve done is iterate the content, albeit with a bit of snark here and there. Every one of these bullet points is worthy of its own musing, its own discussion. Some of them are plain (but that doesn’t mean they make sense in either an ancient or modern context) and some of them are obscure. Some of them make you scratch your head and some of them make you slap your knee. What isn’t written here (though often indicated by the snark and other comments, or choice of phrase) are the many thoughts about each and every one of these bullet points that raced through my mind as I assembled this list. My hope is that thoughts will race through your mind as you encounter them. If you’d like to do it without my bias, then go direct to the source. I can practically guarantee you’ll find your mind racing with thoughts, reactions, responses, questions, and more, no matter which route you choose.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Ki Tisa 5778 - Re-souling Ourselves Revisited
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5777 - Reruns (choose any of the musings below)
Ki Tisa 5776 - It Didn't Matter
Ki Tisa 5775 - Shabbat Is A Verb II
Ki Tissa 5774 - Faith Amnesia (and Anger Management)
Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah 5773 - Fortune and Men's Eyes (Redux and Revised)
Ki Tisa 5772 - Other G"d?
Ki Tisa 5771 - Still Waiting for the Fire
Ki Tisa 5770 - A Fickle Pickle
Ki Tisa 5768-Not So Easy? Not So Hard!
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5767-New Hearts and New Spirits
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5766-Fortune and Men's Eyes
Ki Tisa 5765-Re-Souling Ourselves
Ki Tisa 5764-A Musing on Power Vacuums
Ki Tisa 5763-Shabbat is a Verb
Ki Tisa 5762-Your Turn
Ki Tisa 5760-Anger Management
Ki Tisa 5761-The Lesson Plan

Friday, February 15, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Tetzaveh 5779-Whose Shabbat Is It Anyway?

It’s not unusual for me to encounter a short bit of text that sets me off on a tangent in these musings. This week was no exception. I’m reading once again through the description of the ordination ritual for Aharon and his sons as priests. It’s all rather detailed (and messy. You may recall my offhand suggestion in another musing on this parasha that Moshe made the ritual a bit messier than perhaps G”d had instructed him, as a little payback to his brother for the golden calf and other transgressions.)

What brought me up short were these verses.


וְעָשִׂ֜יתָ לְאַהֲרֹ֤ן וּלְבָנָיו֙ כָּ֔כָה כְּכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־צִוִּ֖יתִי אֹתָ֑כָה שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים תְּמַלֵּ֥א יָדָֽם׃

Thus you shall do to Aaron and his sons, just as I have commanded you. You shall ordain them through seven days,


וּפַ֨ר חַטָּ֜את תַּעֲשֶׂ֤ה לַיּוֹם֙ עַל־הַכִּפֻּרִ֔ים וְחִטֵּאתָ֙ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ בְּכַפֶּרְךָ֖ עָלָ֑יו וּמָֽשַׁחְתָּ֥ אֹת֖וֹ לְקַדְּשֽׁוֹ׃

and each day you shall prepare a bull as a sin offering for expiation; you shall purge the altar by performing purification upon it, and you shall anoint it to consecrate it.


שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֗ים תְּכַפֵּר֙ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֖ אֹת֑וֹ וְהָיָ֤ה הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ קֹ֣דֶשׁ קָֽדָשִׁ֔ים כָּל־הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בַּמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ יִקְדָּֽשׁ׃ (ס)

Seven days you shall perform purification for the altar to consecrate it, and the altar shall become most holy; whatever touches the altar shall become consecrated.

“What’s wrong with this picture?” a voice in my head kept asking. Then it answered itself: “What happened to Shabbat?” If this ceremony is done every day for seven days, at least one of those days will be a Shabbat. Despite the elaborate and explicit descriptions of the ritual, it appears it is to be exactly the same for all seven days. Not a nod to Shabbat.

Now, this is not the only place in the Torah where it calls for something to be seven days long and does not explicitly mention what, if anything, is done differently on the one day of those seven which is Shabbat. We tend to overlook those as well. This one cries out to me precisely because it is in relation to the ordination ceremony of the first priests. If this ceremony is to be the same all seven days, then someone is going to have to do all the needed preparation, setup, and cleanup on the day which is Shabbat. Someone has to work so the rituals can happen as commanded. The priests, too, will have to work, making all the offerings. When do they get Shabbat?

This is, of course, a constant issue for contemporary clergy (and was likely an issue throughout the entire history of the rabbinate, and even before that, while there was a Jewish priesthood. The apologetics for this seeming inconsistency have been around for almost as long as the inconsistency has existed (though Torah doesn’t really explain it –though the very verses I am citing here can be used to bolster the case that the priests were a special case, and making sacrifices and doing other holy work on Shabbat is perfectly acceptable.)

Now, part of the explanation/apologetic is that it is self-evident that a Rabbi (or Temple priest) will be fulfilling their obligations to the community and congregation by conducting worship services and rituals. Another explanation/apologetic makes the argument that a rabbi (or cantor) might be able to fully perform their required duties without engaging in any prohibited categories of work (conveniently determined by the early rabbis themselves) though I think sometimes this rationalization proves to be a bit of a stretch. But we are an extremely creative people. We have the most amazing halakhik workarounds. I recently read a fascinating piece that was able to permit the use of a sound system at orthodox Shabbat services provided certain equipment and other conditions were met. They relied on the opinions of respected pos’kim, though it would not be difficult to find opposing positions. As they say in that community, consult your LOR (local orthodox rabbi.) I’ve also been teaching an adult ed group about the 39 categories work as defined by the rabbis, so I can see both sides of the argument that rabbis could be able or might not be able to adequately perform their duties on Shabbat within the stringencies of what the rabbis permit.

All this becomes ever more complicated to assess in the liberal Jewish institutional world. Definitions of acceptable Shabbat practice for clergy and lay-people alike vary widely in Conservative, Reform, Reconstructing, Renewal, and, for lack of better terminology, Millennial, and post-Millennial settings

I've no interest in, and I’m not here to engage in movement-bashing, rabbi/clergy-bashing, or accusing rabbis of hypocrisy. Quite the contrary. I’m here to advocate for all the non-clergy types it takes for a congregation to operate. Administrators, Principals, Educators, Maintenance and Custodial Staff, Tutors, Choir Directors, Accompanists, et al. Many of us in those roles (and I include myself in several of those mentioned) sometimes have to struggle with the same issues of Shabbat practice. Added to that is the ever-present issue for clergy and synagogue professionals as to when and where they get to have their own personal Shabbat.

Over the decades I have spoken with many klei kodesh (holy vessels) on how they handle issues of Shabbat observance, and how, if they desire it, they carve out some Shabbat time for themselves. There are a large variety of solutions employed. In addition, there is variance, often created by locale, size of congregation, and other factors in just how many hours of Shabbat klei kodesh are required to be actively serving their congregations. A smaller, more liberal congregation which holds services predominantly on Friday nights, with services on Saturday being less regular (before you shout “Oh, the horror” I urge you not to judge) might afford their clergy some actual personal time on Shabbat. In settings where one will find the full slew of normative services just before Shabbat, on Shabbat, and Motzei Shabbat I suspect klei kodesh might find it more of a challenge to find their own time.

As an aside, I should note that my understanding of the term klei kodesh has been expanded over the years  by the writings and observations of many wise leaders, among them, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who wrote, in 2001 in the journal Sh’ma:

Those who have tied their vocation to the synagogue are klei kodesh, instruments of holiness. They each share the common agenda of the synagogue – to transmit the wisdom, ethics, beliefs, and practices of Judaism to a variety of seekers. How the receptionist responds to the inquiries of a human being teaches Jewish ethics. How the executive helps a person register as a member explicates Jewish theology. Klei kodesh are to be “humanly holy.”

At different points in my career in the Jewish world, I have chosen alternates days of the week to be my Shabbat, as I know other people do. In the 00’s I worked for quite some time being in charge of religious school for a congregation that shared space with a church and as a result held religious school on Shabbat as the church needed the classroom spaces on Sunday.(Being the crazy person I am, I still filled up my Sundays teaching and tutoring at other congregations in the area. So I had to choose another day to make my day of rest.)

Maybe I am the ultimate hypocrite, in that I want my Shabbat, but I want it my way. If you’ve followed my musings, you know that I have gone through periods with differing levels of Shabbat (and Kashrut) observance over the many decades. I suppose the hypocrisy level has varied parallel to those changes. Or not. It’s not for me to judge my own hypocrisy, is it? (Or is it?)

The National Shabbat of Unplugging is coming again soon, and again I won’t be unplugging because in my view the technology integrates into how I observe my Shabbat and makes it more meaningful. (You can read about this in this musing.) More hypocrisy? I’m not sure.

Now here’s the kicker. Presently, I am working for a congregation that doesn’t have services every Saturday. Most often, I attend morning services elsewhere. I am not technology free on Shabbat, for reasons I’ve explained in the earlier referenced musing. So yes, I do sometimes look at email and social media on Shabbat. As a result, I sometimes see business-related messages from congregations and others connected with them sent to me (either individually or as part of a group) on Shabbat. As hypocritical as it is, that bothers me. I don’t send business or synagogue-related emails on Shabbat (though I will admit that I sometimes do write emails or replies on Shabbat and use a “send later” feature to insure they are not sent until after Shabbat ends in my area.) In my (admittedly hypocritical) Jewish value system, I don’t believe even the most liberal of synagogues should engage in business transactions, or send out messages during Shabbat. I would ask laity– heads of committees, officers, and the like-to show similar restraint, if for no other reason than out of respect for those congregants who, like I, find it a problematic practice in a Jewish institution? However, in the informed-choice milieu of Reform am I being unreasonable. Is not the onus on me to simply not notice, open, or read such messages on Shabbat if that is my choice? However, my chosen form of Shabbat observance does include the use of online technologies – I just choose to use them only in ways that serve the ways in which I choose to observe Shabbat, to engage in activities that are different from the normative work tasks I perform the rest of the week.

Am I the victim of the same slippery-slope that I pooh-pooh all the time? I am not ordained clergy, though I am a synagogue/Jewish professional. I am admittedly inconsistent in my Shabbat observance, yet I still find in myself a burning desire to shape a meaningful Shabbat experience as a routine part of my life. Are my traditionally-observant friends right in telling me that it really only works if you’re all-in? Is selective observance invariably going to require compromise on my part in terms of what I can reasonably ask of others in terms of respecting my own Shabbat boundaries?

For Aharon, his sons, and the following line of priests – as well as for the rabbis from their beginnings until today, serving G”d has required some form of tailored Shabbat observance, and has required them to place the community’s needs above their own. In addition, they have always had support personnel (the Levitical clans of the Merarites, Gershonites, and Kohathites; the meturgaman, gabbaim, ba’al korim, hazzanim, shamash, and other synagogue personnel) whose own efforts similarly required some adjustment of their own Shabbat observances. I guess, in the end, what I am asking for here is some recognition that both the klei kodesh and those who support them make some sacrifices in terms of their own ability to experience Shabbat, and if for no other reason than respect for that, think twice before sending out a synagogue-related communication on Shabbat (or other time that they designate to allow them some Shabbat-like moments.) Do I ask too much?

I refer back to Rabbi Schulweis’ definition of klei kodesh. If we are all representing the synagogue, and seeking to be “humanly holy” we should try to reflect an ethic of respect for boundaries of individual Shabbat practice in addition to respect for the diversity of the same.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Tetzaveh/Zachor 5778 - STFU!
Tetzaveh 5777 - A Nation of Priests (and a Shtickel of Purim) Revised from 5770
Tetzaveh 5776 - House Guest (Redux and Revised 5763)
Tetzaveh 5775 - Aharon's Bells (Revised)
Tetzaveh 5774 - It's Not Urim or Thummim
Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor/Purim 5773 - Fighting Dirty
Tetzaveh 5772-Perfection Imperfect
Tetzaveh 5770 - A Nation of Priests? (And a Shtickel of Purim)
Tetzaveh 5768-Light and Perfection
Tetzaveh/Purim 5767-The Urim & Thummim Show (Updated)
Tetzaveh 5766-Silent Yet Present
Tetzaveh 5765 and 5761-Aharon's Bells
Tetzaveh 5764-Shut Up and Listen!
Tetzaveh 5763-House Guest
Tetzaveh 5762 (Redux 5760)-The Urim and Thummim Show
Tetzaveh 5758-Something Doesn't Smell Quite Right

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–T’rumah 5779-Redux 5763-Semper Paratus

Recycling an oldie but goodie from 2003 this week as other obligations press. Enjoy.

Random Musing Before Shabbat – T’rumah 5763

Semper Paratus

In previous years, I've written about the exactitude with which we are given instructions for the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and about how each must be moved in his or her own heart for the gifts offered to G”d. (Links to previous musing on T'rumah at the bottom of this page.)

In reading this parasha yet again, I wondered what other themes I could possibly glean from it, seeing how these verses have a very specific nature.

I should have known better than to worry. On my journey, I discovered myriads of things to yet ponder, so I've fodder enough for many more musings on parashat T'rumah. As it is said

הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ.

"hafokh ba v'hafokh ba"
"turn it and turn it" (for everything is in it.)
Pirke Avot 5:22

Here's one of the places that caught my attention. In Ex. 25:10-22, we read of the instruction for making the ark of the covenant. [Spooky Indiana Jones music in the background.] We're told to make it of acacia wood, 2.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits, and 1.5 cubits tall (say 3.5 feet x 26 inches, and about 26 inches tall). The inside and outside are covered in pure gold (talk about ostentation-that's a lot of "spoils of Egypt" being melted down). Next we need a series of rings to attach to the feet and sides, and then two long wood poles, also covered in gold, to insert through the rings for carrying.

And here's the verse that got me thinking. "The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark: they shall not be removed from it." No mystery about what that means. The ark must be ready at all times to be moved. Semper paratus--always ready--just like the Marines.

So now the question arises as to why the ark must always be ready to be moved. There are obvious answers in the knowledge that the people were going to be on a journey (and perhaps G”d's prescient knowledge that this journey is going to last quite a bit longer than the people expect-which leads once again to some uncomfortable conclusions about a whimsical G”d putting the people through a song and dance when G”d already knows the outcome--but that's a musing for another time.)

Sure, it makes sense in many ways for the ark to always be ready to be transported. The people could be attacked at any time on their journey. A sudden weather condition might force them to move their camp. G”d might wake them up in the middle of the night and say "Hey, you folks over there! Yes, You! Move that ark thingy about three fingers to the right, and don't ask why because I'm your G”d, OK?" (here we go with that puppet-master G”d again.)

Now, let's think longer term. G”d and the people both know that we've been promised a land to call our own, a place to dwell. Once settled, what need might there be for the ark to always be ready for transport? Surely G”d would designate someplace to leave the ark, and the people would flock to it? (Holy shades of a great Temple, Batman!) would it still need its poles to be in place then?

Given the gift of our hindsight, we know that it is only with great reluctance that G”d permits the establishment of a monarchy, and the construction of a great Temple. (Put that in your pipe and smoke it, those from the "G”d never changes G”d's mind" camp.) The insistence on the constant portability of the ark can be looked upon as a statement regarding giving the ark a permanent home.

Since G”d did permit the eventual building of a home for the ark, might we not interpret the readiness of the ark for movement as a sign that the permanence of that place was not guaranteed - dependent, perhaps, on how well the people upheld their end of the covenant. Or, for the more dubious among you, that G”d might abrogate on the covenant at some point and we'd have to move the ark quickly in the face of a threat that G”d chose to ignore.

Fascinating and interesting questions, all. And there are so many more. However, I think they miss the point. Why must the Ark be portable at all times?

What's inside the ark? The tablets of the covenant (well, the second pair of them will be.) Tablets symbolic of the mitzvot, the commandments, that G”d is going to the Jewish people. To live these commandments, must not I carry them around with me wherever I go? If I leave them in a box, I might forget them. Someone else might steal them. They might wither away from inattention. The constant portability of the ark is the reminder to us that we must carry the commandments with us wherever we go. We may not remove the poles. We must carry them with us at home, at work, at play.

It is also a reminder that the mitzvot are a task. The poles represent not only portability, but work. Effort is needed to pick up and carry the ark, just as effort is needed to carry the mitzvot with us, in our hearts and minds and our deeds.

Notice, however, that there are two poles. One person alone cannot move the ark. It takes at least two, and more than likely, four or more, to pick up the poles and carry the ark. This reminds us that we don't carry the responsibility for the mitzvot all by ourselves--that we must work, as a community, each helping, in his or her own way, to carry the ark--to carry G”d's mitzvot to the people Israel, everywhere we go.

So much meaning derived from seven simple words in Ex. 25:15.

בְּטַבְּעֹת֙ הָאָרֹ֔ן יִהְי֖וּ הַבַּדִּ֑ים לֹ֥א יָסֻ֖רוּ מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃

"B'tab'ot ha-aron yih'yu ha-badim lo yasuru mimenu."

"The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark: they shall not be removed from it." (NJPS)

The mitzvot. We must carry them with us. They are not just a thing, they are a task requiring effort. We share the load, the effort of these tasks with others. And we must be always ready to do them. Semper paratus.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 2019 (portions ©2003) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

T'rumah 5778 - This Musing Is Not About Parashat T'rumah
T'rumah 5777 - You Still Gotta Wanna
T'rumah 5776 - Gift Cards for G"d
T'rumah 5775 - Dis Legonmenon Driving Me Crazy, Mon!
T'rumah 5774 - Dollhouse
T'rumah 5773 - Virtual Reality, Real Virtuality, or Really Virtual?
T'rumah 5772-When Wool and Linen Together Are Not Shatnez
T'rumah 5771 - TorahLeaks
T'rumah 5770 - Finessing Idolatry, or Outgrowing It?
T'rumah 5769 - Planning for Always
T'rumah 5767-You Gotta Wanna - The Sequel
T'rumah 5766-No Tools Allowed
T'rumah 5765-Ish Al Akhiv
T'rumah 5764-Redux 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5763-Semper Paratus
T'rumah 5762-Virtual Reality or Real Virtuality?
T'rumah 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5761-You Gotta Wanna

Friday, February 1, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Mishpatim 5779-Infinitive Absolute

Hebrew uses grammatical structure, as other languages sometimes do, to add nuance to words and phrases, provide explicative assistance.

Just yesterday I was subbing in a 7th grade English class where the teacher had task the students to fix up sentences with misplaced or dangling modifiers. Many of the students struggled with the task. Without providing them with answers, I tried working with individual students to help them understand why the way the sentence was written could cause confusion to the reader.  Many of them could not grasp the problem, because the overall context of the sentence, from their perspective, made it easy to understand what was modifying what.  Here’s on classic example they were given to fix:

Hungry, the leftover pizza was devoured.

It made perfect sense to them until I asked – “Who is hungry?” Hungry is an adjective. What is it modifying? Is the pizza hungry? Most of them got it at that point, but then couldn’t figure out what to do. Most of them simply tried rearranging the words in the existing sentence. A few had the courage to change the adjective to an adverb, and wrote

The leftover pizza was devoured hungrily.

(Being the pedant I am, I pointed out that adverbs of manner and type usually come after the verb in English.) Still, I asked students to think harder. Is there are way to not change the word “hungry?” I reminded them to ask “who is hungry?” Some saw the light, and tried a variation like

Hungry, I devoured the leftover pizza

It’s a nicer choice for many reasons, including it not being in passive voice like the previous version.

All of which is not all that relevant except that it leads me to what I was thinking about for this week’s musing. In this parasha, we find an example of a Hebrew grammatical style that is used frequently. It’s called the Infinitive Absolute. Most Biblical Hebrew textbooks describe is an intensifier. The classic definition comes from the old Gesenius Hebrew Grammar:

The infinitive absolute is employed according to § 45 to emphasize the idea of the verb in the abstract, i.e. it speaks of an action (or state) without any regard to the agent or to the circumstances of time and mood under which it takes place. As the name of an action the infinitive absolute, like other nouns in the stricter sense, may form part of certain combinations (as a subject, predicate, or object, or even as a genitive,[1] see below); but such a use of the infinitive absolute (instead of the infinitive construct with or without a preposition) is, on the whole, rare, and, moreover, open to question on critical grounds. On the other hand, the infinitive absolute frequently exhibits its character as an expression of the verbal idea by taking an object, either in the accusative or even with a preposition.

In other words, the infinitive absolute when combined with the regular verb in one of its acceptable forms, denotes an emphasis on the activity or action described by the noun.

Some examples:

נִשְׁאֹל נִשְׁאַל

earnestly asked

לֹא הַשְׁמֵיד אַשְׁמִיד

will not utterly destroy

On both of these cases the first word in the infinitive absolute form of the verb that comes after it. Their meaning in conveyed in the English by the adverbs “earnestly” and “utterly.”

Though it appears elsewhere in Torah, the example that caught my attention

מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת

put to death

It’s in the commandment against bestiality (Ex 22:18.) The verbal form appears without the intensifying infinitive absolute in a number of other commandments. Just a basic (he) will die with no emphasis or certainty. What bothers me here is that concept. What does the infinitive absolute convey here?  What does it mean to “intensely die?” To be “emphatically dead?” To be “More dead?”

Fortunately, for scholars of Hebrew, later writers of Hebrew Grammars have added many more layers of nuance to our understanding grammatical structures like the infinitive absolute. However, the basic understanding of the infinite absolute as emphatic remains. One scholarly friend has actively engaged in discussions with others on various erudite discussion forums arguing that the form need not be emphatic – that this is too strong an understand. He argues it is more of an assurance. Others, holding stronger to tradition, think this leaves the possible interpretation open to too wide an understanding.

I’m not sure. Maybe the infinitive absolute is equivalent to a modern “ALL CAPS” phrase like “he WILL DIE.” That sort of emphasis, implying that the doom is nigh. However, maybe it’s more long term, as in the wrongdoer will see the justice of death deserved at some point. Maybe the emphatic in this case is that others will most assuredly witness the wrongdoers death.

Does the agency of the justified death matter? In a more traditional view, the agency is always G”d, even in G”d takes G”d’s sweet time about it.

Additionally, the question must be asked why only certainly commandments (and other actions described in the Torah) are worthy of this emphatic infinitive absolute/verb treatment. I think I might spend some time looking through the entirety of Torah at examples of when and where the emphatic infinitive absolute is used the the verb for death/to die (as compared to when a non-emphatic form is used.) Is there a pattern. Does this blow up the whole idea that all the commandments are of equal weight? If that is the case, why do some contain emphatics and others do not?

All this from two simple words. This is why we turn it and turn it again. It’s the only way we’re ever going to make sense of it all. Torah herself says she is not to baffling for us to understand. I’ll Torah at her word and keep trying. How about you?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musing on this parasha:

Mishpatim 5778 - To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink Revisited
Mishpatim 5777 - Why I'm Still not Unplugging for the National Shabbat of Unplugging Next Week
Mishpatim 5776 - Might For Right
Mishpatim 5775 - Revisiting Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5774 - Chukim U'mishpatim Revisited
Mishpatim 5773 - No One Mounrs the Wicked
Mishpatim 5772-Repairing Our Damaged Temple
Mishpatim 5771 - Getting Past the Apologetics
Mishpatim 5770 - Divine Picnic
Mishpatim 5769 - Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 - Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 - Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence