The Sotah and the Spies (Shelach Lecha)

Our parashah contains an account of the spies sent by Moshe to scout out the land of Israel before the Israelites enter to conquer it. Instead of simply reporting on the land, the spies issue a referendum on whether the Israelites will succeed in their conquest – a matter that was never really subject to question, since God had already promised repeatedly that He would lead the people to the land of milk and honey and drive out its inhabitants. The Talmudic rabbis read the incident with the spies as a story about trust and doubt, offering us insight into what it means to navigate the world with faith and confidence in spite of our fears.

The Talmud offers an extended exegetical analysis of the episode with the spies in tractate Sotah, which deals with the laws governing a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery. The immediate context of this discussion is the Mishnah’s statement that certain texts may be recited in any language, whereas others—like the oath that the priest requires the Sotah to take—must be recited only in Hebrew. Likewise, the blessings and curses that the Israelites are to proclaim after they enter and conquer the land of Israel must be recited in Hebrew. This mention of the conquest of the land leads the rabbis to a discussion of those who doubted whether the land could be conquered at all, namely the ten spies. However, the placement of this Talmudic discussion of the spies in tractate Sotah may also reflect a deeper thematic connection between the Sotah and the spies, both of whom are beset by problems of doubt.

Like the Sotah, whose husband suspects but cannot be sure that his wife has betrayed him, the people suspect but cannot be sure that God will fail to deliver on the divine promise to bring them into the land. Already in last week’s parashah, they “took to complaining bitterly against the Lord” (11:1), insisting that the food was better in Egypt and that they never should have left. The people are in need of proof that they will be able to settle safely and securely in Canaan, which is why they must send out spies. God’s promise alone is not enough for them. Like the husband who feels he can’t trust in his wife’s fidelity anymore, the people—exhausted and worn down by their desert wanderings—feel they can no longer trust in God. And so the mission of the spies becomes a sort of trial-by-ordeal in which the people put God to the test, ostensibly spying out the land but really wrestling with their own doubt about the divine promise.

The Talmud makes it clear that the negative report of the ten spies was primarily about their lack of trust in God. The rabbis imagine Caleb trying to restore the people’s faith by reminding them of how much God’s chosen leader, Moshe, has done for them: “He took us out of Egypt, and split the sea for us, and fed us the manna. If he says to us, Build us ladders and climb to the heavens, should we not listen to him? We shall go up at once and possess it’” (Sotah 35b). Caleb thinks the people should trust in God and Moshe even if they were told to build ladders up to the heavens, let alone to conquer a land down here on earth. But the people have no use for imaginary ladders or for a God they cannot see, and they resolve to pelt Caleb and Joshua with stones. The Talmud offers a creative reading of the biblical text so that it is not these two spies, but rather God, who is the object of the people’s fury. The verse states, “But the congregation threatened to pelt them with stones, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting” (14:10). Rabbi Hiya bar Abba explains that the juxtaposition of the two halves of this verse—one about stoning, and one about God’s glory—serves to teach that “they took stones and hurled them upward.” Fearful and faithless, they futilely hurl stones at God.

Ultimately the people’s lack of faith becomes the source of their undoing. When they hear the negative report of the spies, they stay up all night weeping and wishing for their own deaths: “If only we might die in this wilderness!” (14:2). And indeed, that is what happens to them. The very next day, God tells Moshe that all of that generation—except Caleb and Joshua—shall die in the wilderness, exactly as they wished: “None of the men who have seen My Presence…and have disobeyed Me shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers” (14:23). The people who were convinced that they would never be able to conquer the land will indeed never be able to conquer it. The forty years of wandering is thus not a punishment, but a wish fulfillment.

Whether we are traveling through the biblical wilderness or the thickets of our own lives, it is difficult to move forward without faith. None of us can know with certainty what the future will hold. But if we are guided by our fears, we are more likely to be led headlong into those fears. As the Talmud’s treatment of the incident of the spies in tractate Sotah reminds us, spouses cannot keep tabs on each other at all times; a marriage must be built on trust. Likewise, our relationship with God, whom we cannot see and whose presence we can only intuit, must be also built on trust. If we believe that God is leading us to a land of milk and honey, we are more likely to find ourselves there. If we believe we will succeed in conquering our fears, it is far more likely that indeed we will. Optimism need not be born of foolishness, but of faith in the future – and in the God Who leads us there.

Behaalotcha: The Varieties of Religious Experience

In parashat Beha’alotcha Miriam and Aaron speak out against Moshe “on account of the Cushite woman he had married” (Numbers 12:1), a reference to Moshe’s wife Tziporah, who was described as a Cushite on account of her beauty (12:1). Rashi explains that Miriam had discovered that prior to the giving of the Torah, Moshe abstained from sexual relations with Tziporah, and she had relayed this information to Aaron. They objected to Moshe’s abstinence, insisting that God also spoke to them, and yet they did not have to separate from their spouses. Why are Miriam and Aaron so disturbed by Moshe’s behavior? A close look at this episode from our parashah offers insight into the nature of prophecy and the way we relate to those whose gifts and talents are different from our own.

God responds to Miriam and Aaron’s negative words about Moshe by pointing out that it is only with Moshe that God speaks face-to-face; with all other prophets, God speaks in a vision or a dream. This mention of the unique nature of Moshe’s experience of prophecy highlights a stark contrast between Moshe and each of his siblings. For Moshe, prophecy is an experience of solitary communion with God. When Moshe first encounters God, he is alone on a mountain shepherding a flock of sheep. And his ultimate revelatory experience—the one known simply as revelation—takes place when he ascends that same mountain on his own to be alone with God for forty days and forty nights, leaving the rest of the people below. When Moshe is with God, he is withdrawn from the rest of society – which may explain why he separates from his wife Tziporah before speaking face-to-face with God.

Miriam, too, has prophetic abilities, but her prophecy is not about withdrawal from society but about bringing people together. The Talmud (Megillah 14b) relates that before Moshe was born, Miriam prophesied, “My mother is destined to bear a son who will deliver the Jewish people to salvation.” The midrash (Exodus Rabbah 1:17) adds that when Pharaoh decreed that all Israelite baby boys be thrown into the Nile, Miriam’s father Amram “immediately separated from his wife, had no intercourse with her, even divorced her when she was three months pregnant.” Miriam, who foresaw that she was destined to have a sibling who would save the Jewish people, reprimanded her father for his behavior and exhorted him to return to his wife: “Your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh, for Pharaoh decreed the elimination of male children only, while you decree the elimination of male and female alike.” Amram heeded his daughter and reunited with his wife, and then Moshe was conceived. According to this midrash, Miriam’s very first prophecy was about bringing husband and wife together – which may explain why she was so troubled that Moshe separated from his wife in order to hear God’s word.

The next time we are told that Miriam is filled with divine inspiration is when she takes a timbrel and leads the women in singing and dancing at the Sea of Reeds. The song she leads is very similar to the first verse of the song led by Moshe, with one telling difference not entirely apparent in the English translation. Whereas Moshe’s song begins, “I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously” (15:1), Miriam’s version begins, “Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously” (15:21). Moshe speaks in the first person singular, whereas Miriam uses the plural form to invite the women to join with her. For Moshe, calling out to God is an individual experience, whereas Miriam exhorts the people to encounter God collectively.

When Miriam takes up her timbrel at the Sea of Reeds, she is identified as “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister” (15:20) – perhaps an indication that when it comes to prophecy, she is more like her brother Aaron than like her brother Moshe. Aaron, like Miriam, is a leader whose religious experiences take place among people, rather than removed from them. Although he is Moshe’s partner in liberating the Israelites from Egypt, he comes to this role from a very different place than his brother. Moshe grew up in Pharaoh’s palace and learned about the Israelites’ suffering only when he left home and went out into the world. He first became sympathetic to the plight of the slaves when he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew and, appalled by the injustice, struck down the Egyptian. Aaron, in contrast, grew up as a slave at the mercy of Pharaoh’s tyranny, and his people’s suffering was his own suffering as well. He is motivated to help lead the people out of Egypt not by an innate sense of justice or by a divine call from a bush aflame, but rather by the backbreaking labor that he and his kinsmen have had to endure. Aaron is a leader from among the people, unlike Moshe, who was never himself a slave. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that while Moshe goes up the mountain to commune with God at Sinai, Aaron leads the people in an ecstatic religious experience down below.

The Talmud further hones this contrast between Moshe and Aaron’s leadership in the beginning of tractate Sanhedrin (6b), which considers the question of whether absolute justice is possible in our imperfect world. The rabbis contrast Moshe and Aaron: Moshe strove for absolute justice and lived by the motto, “Let the law cut through the mountain,” insisting that the iron rule of law could break through the dirt and dust of this world; Aaron was devoted to the pursuit of peace and advocated instead for compromise, settlement, and accommodation. Moshe, whose innate sense of justice motivated him to kill an Egyptian taskmaster, believed that God’s justice must triumph at all cost. Aaron, who is described as “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all of God’s creatures and bringing them close to Torah” (Avot 1:12), was less focused on the triumph of divine law than on drawing people close together. Moshe was often enervated by his contact with the people and had little patience for their desert grumblings, whereas Aaron was a gifted mediator and a genuine “people person.”

Given that Miriam and Aaron’s religious leadership was all about drawing people close, it comes as no surprise that they are so disturbed when Moshe separates from his wife. His prophetic style is foreign to them, which is why God has to teach them about His unique relationship with His trusted servant and about the varieties of religious experience. In our world we need all kinds of divine servants – those who are motivated by a clear and absolute sense of justice, as well as those who can restore people’s faith in the future and bring them close to one another. As Moshe tells Joshua earlier in the parashah, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets” (11:29). If we can learn to appreciate everyone’s unique divine-given gifts, we might discover that indeed they are.

Naso: Grooming, Grieving, Grapes

Parashat Nasso introduces us to the nazir, a person who vows to take upon him or herself additional commitments so as to draw closer to God. A nazir vows not to drink wine or eat grapes, not to shave or get a haircut, and not to come into contact with the dead. An entire tractate of the Talmud is about the laws governing the nazir, which is surprising – why devote all this attention to a person engaged in self-denial within a tradition that is anything but ascetic? What are the rabbis trying to teach us about the nature of holiness, commitment, and our enjoyment of worldly pleasures?

In discussing the laws of the nazir, our parashah teaches that a nazir may not defile him/herself by a dead person, “even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister, should die” (6:7). That is, the vow taken by the nazir is so strict that even if one of the nazir’s closest relatives were to die, he or she is not permitted to come near the body or attend the burial. To do so would violate the terms of the vow, and the nazir would have to bring a sin offering and a burnt offering to the Temple and start out as a nazir all over again. This stringency is surprising because even the priests—who were not ordinarily permitted to come into contact with the dead—were permitted to defile themselves for the sake of their close relatives. The priests serve in the Temple and are devoted to holy matters year-round, whereas a nazir is just someone who decides to undergo a period of more intense religiosity. Why then are the laws governing the nazir even stricter than those governing the priests?

The Talmud considers the relationship between the nazir and the priesthood in the opening mishnah of the seventh chapter of the eponymous tractate (Nazir 47a), which is about the prohibition on coming into contact with the dead. They explain that while the nazir may not defile him or herself by contact with the dead even in the case of the death of a close relative, there is one case in which a nazir may attend to a dead body. This is the case of a met mitzvah, an individual who has passed away leaving no one to take care of his or her burial. That is, if a nazir stumbles upon the dead body of an unknown individual, that nazir is obligated to violate the terms of his or her vow so as to perform the burial. The rabbis rule that if a priest and a nazir both come upon a met mitzvah, it is in fact the nazir—and not the priest—who should care for the corpse. And yet this, too, is puzzling. Why may the nazir defile him or herself for the sake of an anonymous individual but not for his or her own family member? And why is the opposite true of the priest, who may defile himself for his own family member but not for the met mitzvah?

We can begin to answer these questions by considering the specific requirements of the nazir’s vow. For the duration of that vow, the nazir may not get a haircut or shave. The Torah states that the nazir has “the crown of God on his head” (6:7), presumably because his or her hair is grown long and consecrated to God. The midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 10:11) explains that most people are uncomfortable with long and unruly hair, but the nazir tolerates it as a sign of commitment to God. As such, a head of long, ungroomed hair becomes a sign of the nazir’s willingness to neglect his or her own physical appearance for the sake of a spiritual commitment. Similarly, the nazir’s vow to abstain from wine and grape products reflects a readiness to suppress his or her own appetites and desires for the sake of a higher end. And finally, the nazir does not even attend the funeral of close relatives, a sign that he or she has withdrawn from the world of human emotions. While the rest of the family is mourning at the graveside, the nazir remains off at a distance, fixated on his or her own holiness and relationship with God.

In neglecting his or her physical appearance, suppressing his or her appetites, and shutting down his or her emotions, the nazir becomes a sort of religious automaton, single-mindedly focused on the spiritual and unwilling to allow any intrusions by the messiness of the mundane. Grooming? Grape juice? Grieving? The nazir has no use for any of it. In this sense, the nazir is the opposite of the priest, who is very much preoccupied with human emotion and the messiness of real life. The priests spend their days among people – they tend to lepers, listen to confessions, and help individuals atone for sin. Their work is never anonymous, which is why they are unsuited to bury the met mitzvah. This is the perfect job for the nazir – it is a religious obligation that should be devoid of any emotional involvement because the identity of the met mitzvah is by definition unknown. Like a robot programmed for the task, the nazir is better able to go through the motions of purifying the body and ensuring that the burial proceeds in accordance with halakhah.

In comparing the nazir and the priests, the rabbis of the Mishnah (Nazir 7:1) note that whereas the priest is sanctified to God forever, the nazir assumes this status for a limited time only. If a person vows to be a nazir, then we assume by default that the commitment lasts thirty days, at which point the nazir is obligated to get a haircut and bring sacrifices to the Temple. One of those sacrifices is a sin offering, and in the Talmud (Nazir 19a), Rabbi Elazar HaKappar explains that the nazir sinned by abstaining from wine, since God wants people to enjoy the delights of this world. Perhaps the rabbis recognized that people cannot sustain that kind of single-minded spirituality forever, nor would we want them too. We are expected to experience the pleasure and pain of life, and not to neglect our bodies, suppress our appetites, or repress our emotions.

Self-denial remains, to this day, a tempting prospect for many. Some are drawn to monastic retreats; others are lured by juice fasts and restrictive diets. The nazir serves as a reminder not to take our asceticism too far. We are not meant to live above the world, but in it. At some point we have to come back from the monastery and sit down to break bread or raise a glass of wine with our closest family members, rejoining the very messy world of which we are fortunate to be a part.

Anne of Green Gables Learns to Daven

We are up to the part of Anne of Green Gables in which Marilla teaches Anne to say her prayers at night. She is relieved to discover that even if Anne does not pray regularly, she has some concept of God. “You’re not quite a heathen,” Marilla remarks wryly, and before I could read on, my daughter Liav interrupted me. “What’s a heathen?” she asked.
“A heathen is someone who does not believe in your concept of God,” I told her, trying to give a fair and accurate response.
“Oh,” said Liav, “So Anne is a heathen to Hashem, because she’s a Mitzri.” Mitzri is Hebrew for Egyptian, and my kids are forever confusing it with Notzri, which means Christian – for much of their early education, which was heavily informed by Bible stories, it was the Egyptians who were the “others,” not the Christians. As I was about to correct Liav, Tagel interjected. “I get it, so we are a heathen to Avodah Zarah!” she exclaimed, using the rabbinic term for idolatry. I was tempted to tell her that she, like all my kids, is a heathen to English grammar, but I bit my tongue.

Marilla instructs Anne to kneel down to say a prayer, but Anne finds this puzzling. She tells Marilla that it seems more appropriate to her to go out into nature to pray, not kneel beside a bed. “If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.” I asked the kids if this reminded them of anything, but they weren’t sure. “Do you know why we wear tzitzit,” I inquired, referring to the fringed strings that Jews are supposed to wear attached to a four-cornered garment. The Torah teaches that the fringes are supposed to be a blue color known as t’chelet, which according to the rabbis is a rare and expensive dye that comes from a marine creature that surfaces only once in seventy years (Menachot 44a). The rabbis explain that the fringes must be this color specifically because “t’chelet is similar in color to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the throne of God’s glory,” which was made of sapphire stone. That is, the ritual fringes are supposed to remind the wearer of the sea, the sky, and the infinite God, directing one’s thoughts to prayer – much like Anne looking up at the infinite expanse of the heavens.

Anne’s protestations notwithstanding, Marilla insists that she kneel beside her bed and compose a prayer. There is something somewhat ironic about the deeply spiritual Anne, who feels such a natural kinship with God’s creation, learning to pray from the stern and stoical Marilla, who has probably never uttered a spontaneous prayer in her life. When Anne earnestly asks Marilla what she ought to say, Marilla tells her that she’s old enough to pray for herself. And so Anne gives it a try, addressing the “gracious and heavenly father” out loud and couching her fervent sentiments in the archaic diction she associates with formal prayer. She thanks God for the lake and the trees she has already fallen in love with in Avonlea, and she petitions God to make her beautiful when she grows up. She concludes as if signing a letter: “Yours respectfully, Anne Shirley.” It is a prayer that comes from her heart, but Marilla can hardly keep herself from collapsing in laughter and exasperation.

“What’s so funny?” I asked the kids, because I wanted to know if they got it. They did. “Ima, Anne didn’t really do what Marilla asked. Marilla wanted her to daven from the Siddur, I mean, to pray from whatever prayer book they use. But instead Anne said a tefilla ishit.” I told Liav that she was exactly right. Marilla expected Anne to recite some sort of formal prayer, but instead Anne offered a tefilla ishit – a personal prayer, like the prayers my kids are supposed to come up with on their own during the two minutes of silence their teachers give them after they’ve closed their prayer books but before they’ve sat down at their desks. I know about tefilla ishit because during the Corona lockdowns, my kids prayed at home together every morning along with their teachers, who had pre-recorded the service on Whatsapp audio; at the very end of the recording, the teacher announced “tefilla ishit” in a singsong voice as a reminder to the kids to offer their own personal prayers. This was a signal for my kids to belt out the words “tefilla ishit,” toss their prayer books summarily on the table, stop the Whatsapp recording, and furtively switch to another app. Their version of tefilla ishit was watching Dora the Explorer on YouTube for as long as it took until one of us came over and confiscated the device.

I explained to the kids that the difference between the way Marilla and Anne prayed is the difference between Keva and Kavanah, to invoke two terms used (if not juxtaposed) by the ancient rabbis. Keva refers to fixed prayer – the liturgy enshrined in the prayer book. Kavanah refers to the spontaneous prayers of the heart. Marilla expects Anne’s prayer to be Keva, and so in the very next chapter, she hands Anne a card with the Lord’s Prayer printed on it and instructs Anne to sit down in the corner of the kitchen and learn it by heart. But Anne instead prays out of Kavanah – her eyes drift to a picture on the wall entitled “Christ Blessing Little Children,” and she imagines that she is the little girl in the blue dress in the corner, fervently praying that the Lord will notice her. At night, when I sing Shema with the kids in bed, our prayer is Keva—it is the fixed text of the central prayer of Jewish worship recited twice daily. But when I’m about to leave the room and Shalvi adds, “And we also daven for the Corona to end so we can go back to the gymboree,” that’s Kavanah.

I don’t need to teach the kids to pray out of Kavanah – at least I don’t think they do. I imagine, like Anne, that they have a natural spiritual instinct, and my job is just to nourish and cultivate it. I don’t really need to teach them to daven out of Keva either, since they do that in school every day. The best we can do as parents is to model both kinds of prayer ourselves, and for this I have Daniel to thank. For the past few months, Matan has begun attending synagogue with Daniel on weekday mornings. He claims he wants to daven early so that when he gets to school, he can read his book during the time allocated for prayer, but I know it’s more than that. By observing and following Daniel, Matan is learning how to pray not like a fourth grader but like an adult. One morning this week, when Daniel had a bad cold and felt too sick to go to shul, the two of them davened on our porch, side by side, bowing and swaying in synchrony. Daniel told Matan to lead the tefillot, reminding him which lines to read aloud and which to mutter silently. I was inside packing the lunch boxes, but I could hear Matan’s every word. This child of mine, at least, is not a heathen.

The Anesthetized Mishkan (Bamidbar)

Parashat Bamidbar describes the various responsibilities incumbent upon each of the three branches of the Levite clan, who transported the Tabernacle every time the Israelites broke camp and traveled. The sons of Gershon carried the curtains, the sons of Merari carried the frame, and the sons of Kehat – who are the subject of the fourth chapter of the book of Numbers – carried the sacred objects inside the Tabernacle, including the bowls, ladles, jars, and libation jugs. The parashah ends on an ominous note – in the very last verse, we are told that if any of the sons of Kehat were to witness the dismantling of the Sanctuary or look upon the sacred objects, they would die (4:20). Why may the sons of Kehat carry these objects but not view them? What is the problem with looking at these objects, and why does the Torah warn so sternly against it? The various metaphors used throughout the Talmud to describe the Mishkan offer insight into a possible reason behind this injunction – one that has much to teach us about the way we bear the weight of the sacred in our lives.

Our parashah teaches that while the sons of Kehat transported the sacred objects, they could only do so once those objects were properly covered by Aaron and his sons, the priests. Each time the Israelites prepared to travel, the priests would enter the Tabernacle and spread a blue cloth over the Menorah, fire pans, oil vessels, altar, and service vessels, before placing them in a covering of dolphin skins. “Only then shall the Kehatites come in and lift them, so that they do not come in contact with the sacred objects and die” (4:15). There was no problem with looking at these vessels while the Israelites were encamped and the Mishkan was operational. But once the vessels were no longer used for their sacred function and became objects to be transported, they had to be covered and concealed.

The talmudic discussion of the transport of the Mishkan appears in tractate Shabbat, since the laws governing the labors prohibited on Shabbat are derived from labors related to the Mishkan. It is in this context that Rabbi Yishmael comments that the Mishkan, which was covered in curtains that overhung its frame, resembled “a woman walking in the marketplace with her skirts trailing after her” (Shabbat 98b). The Mishkan was like a modest woman draped in layers of clothing. To transport the Mishkan or its vessels without their coverings, then, would be a violation akin to exposing a woman’s body in public.

And indeed, as the Talmud in tractate Yoma (54b) relates, this is exactly what the Romans did when they desecrated the Temple. The Talmud teaches that when the gentiles entered the sanctuary to destroy the Temple, they saw the golden cherubs—the Keruvim—which sat atop the Ark of the Covenant and hauled them out to the marketplace. The Talmud describes that “they immediately debased them, as it is stated, ‘All who honored her debased her because they have seen her nakedness’” (Lamentations 1:8). The Romans brought the naked, uncovered cherubs into the marketplace, where they were no longer part of the divinely-ordained architecture of the Mishkan and became objectified commodities. Removed from the sacred enclosure of the Tabernacle, the naked cherubs became objects of mockery and scorn.

And so it seems that the purpose of covering these vessels was to ensure that they, like the cherubs, were not desacralized. We might think of the transported Mishkan like a body on the operating table. When not being operated upon, that body is a living, breathing human being pulsing with life, teeming with ideas and energy and emotion. But when the patient has been anesthetized and the body lies inert, the surgeon is presumably focused not on the whole person, but on where to make an incision, and how deep to cut. By covering the body parts that are not being operated on, it is easier for the surgeon to detach the body part from the person to whom that body belongs, and thereby focus on the surgery. Seeing an abdomen as a small square of flesh is much less distracting than seeing the abdomen in the context of the larger body. By dehumanizing in order to operate, the surgeon ironically maintains the sanctity of the human body in its entirety.

So too, by covering the Mishkan when its parts are dismantled, we preserve the sanctity of the whole. When the Israelites were encamped and the Mishkan was up and running, it was pulsing with the sacred rhythm of the sacrificial rites, and no one would think to treat it with disrespect. But once the Mishkan was transported, it was easy to view it merely as an object to be lifted and lugged. There was a danger that its vessels would be regarded as heavy loads, not holy lamps and lavers. It was therefore essential that those who dismantle the Mishkan know how treat it with proper respect, laying covers on all the sacred vessels so that not everyone could gaze upon them. The Mishkan must never be reduced to a burden, just like a patient ought never be reduced to a body.

T.S. Eliot was surely not describing the Mishkan in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and yet his imagery is all too apt:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…

When it was time to go—when the Israelites were on the move, guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire spread out against the evening sky—the Mishkan vessels became inert objects, like a patient etherized on the table. Anyone who objectified or commodified these vessels was violating the sacred, an act deserving of death. As our parashah reminds us, there is a time for revelation and a time for concealment. May we learn to discern when to reveal and when to conceal as we journey through life and shoulder our burdens.

The Wheel of Fortune (Behar)

Parashat Behar begins by juxtaposing the laws of the sabbatical and Jubilee years with the laws governing the way we treat the poor in our society. First the Torah teaches that every seven years, during the Shemitah year, the land must be allowed to lie fallow as a “Sabbath to the Lord” (25:4). Next we are told that every fifty years, during the Jubilee, all land must be returned to its original owners. The parashah then moves on to teach that if a “kinsman” or “brother” is in dire financial straits, we are obligated to let that individual live by our side without charging interest or taking advantage of that person’s penury. Taken together, these verses have much to teach us about how the cyclical nature of life impacts the way we relate to those less fortunate.

Why do the laws governing the treatment of the poor follow on the heels of the laws governing the cycle of the years? Perhaps an answer can be found in the Torah’s justification for the Jubilee. God tells Moses that the land may not be sold in perpetuity “for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (25:23). That is, all land belongs ultimately to God, and we are merely temporary custodians. But what is true of land is true of all other property as well. Nothing that is ours is guaranteed to be ours in perpetuity. When we find ourselves comfortable and well-off, we need to remember that no one stays in the same place forever. The only constant in life is change, and we who are blessed with success and good fortune may find, in time, that the tables are turned. We are commanded to reach out to help our fellow individuals in need because, as the cycle of the sabbatical and Jubilee years reminds us, what goes around comes around. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Torah uses the term “aḣicha”—your brother—to refer to individuals down on their luck and in need of assistance. They are related to us because we are closer than we might like to think – as the wheel of fortune turns, they could just as easily be in our situation, and we in theirs.

The Talmud captures this notion of the mutability of fortune in a series of stories about charity that appear in the opening chapter of tractate Bava Batra (11a). In one such tale we are introduced to Binyamin the righteous, as he is known, who was responsible for dispensing charity funds to the needy. Once, during a time of drought and privation, a woman came before him and asked him to support her. He told her that there was no money left in the charity fund, but she would not relent. She said to him, “My master, if you do not support me, a woman and her seven sons will die.” Binyamin the righteous—true to his name—arose and supported her from his own private funds. With time, the Talmud goes on to relate, Binyamin the righteous fell gravely ill. Just when he was on the verge of death, the ministering angels pleaded with God to sustain him by the merit of his generosity to the woman and her seven sons, and indeed, he was rewarded with an extra twenty-two years. In this story, he who was in a position to act graciously to others later found himself in dire need. By the merit of his munificence, his own life was sustained.

Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 29 of a man “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” who later declares that he would “scorn to change my state with kings.” In a world governed by a God who “lifts the needy from the ash heap” and “seats them with princes” (Psalms 113:7-8), we who have been brought low can just as easily be lifted up, and vice versa. It is a humbling lesson, as it reminds us that we ought not to relate to those less fortunate with pity but with empathy.

We all know people who seem worthy of our pity – a kid who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the class, a single mother struggling to raise a difficult child, a widow pained by loneliness. The challenge is to relate to these people with the cognizance that all of us, at some point in life, may find ourselves in a similar situation. We ought not to feel sorry for those who are struggling and suffering, but rather to remind ourselves of what it felt like when we were in their position. We must be kind to the stranger because, as the Torah reminds us, we were strangers ourselves.

The juxtaposition of the laws of the Shemitah cycle and the laws about the impoverished kinsman remind us that at some point or another, we will all need someone else to reach out a kind hand and help us up – whether financially, emotionally, or socially. For as long as our field is flourishing, may we learn, in this spirit, to share our fruit and our fortune.

Emor: Beyond Blemish

This week’s parasha begins with God’s instructions to Moshe concerning laws that apply to the priests alone. Unlike ordinary Israelites, the priests must hold themselves to higher standards. They may not come into contact with the dead, except for a short list of very close family members. They may not shave their heads smooth, make gashes to deform their flesh, or marry a woman who has engaged in harlotry. To some extent these injunctions make sense: The priest must remain pure to serve God, which demands a high level of propriety and decorum. Somewhat more disturbing to our modern sensibilities is the Torah’s stipulation, just a few verses later, that no one who has any sort of physical blemish may serve in the Tabernacle: “No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long…or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf…” (Leviticus 22:19-20). How did later generations make sense of the Torah’s stipulation that physical imperfections—most of which seem to be congenital, and hence no fault of the individual—render a priest unfit to serve? And what are we to make of this injunction in our modern age, when we strive to regard all people equally regardless of handicaps or disabilities?

The classical rabbinic commentators justify the prohibition on blemished priests serving in the Temple on the grounds that we are supposed to offer our best to God. Just as we would not choose a blemished animal to offer as a sacrifice, so too do we not choose a priest with a physical defect to serve in the Temple. As Chizkuni comments (Leviticus 21:18), “Seeing that they [the priests] represent the whole Jewish community, it would not seem appropriate that the community dispatch blemished people as their representatives at the court of the King of Kings.” The Tabernacle was like a palace for God, and just as a royal palace must be splendid and ornate to befit the king, so too must the Tabernacle befit the King of Kings. Rashi, in commenting on this verse, cites the prophet Malachi, who lived in the land of Israel during the Second Temple period. Malachi critiques the neglectful and corrupt priests of his day, arguing that God does not desire their worship or their sacrifices: “When you offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame or the sick, is it not evil? Offer it now unto your ruler – will he be pleased with you? Will he show you favor?” (1:8).

Presumably the implication of Malachi’s exhortations is that God does not desire the blind, the lame, or the sick, and will be displeased to receive them in His Temple. But the contemporary Israeli rabbi and scholar Binyamin Lau (in his book Etnachta, published by Yediot in 2009 and still untranslated) encourages us to read Malachi’s questions not as rhetorical, but as a challenge to rethink the way we relate to those with physical imperfections in our own day. Rabbi Lau cites the Talmud in Megillah (24b), which discusses the law that a priest with blemishes on his hands may not lift his arms to bless the congregation in the priestly benediction. The concern, as Rashi explains, is that priests with deformed hands would attract the attention of the congregation, which would violate the prohibition against looking at the priests at a time when God’s presence rests on them. Anyone who looks different attracts attention, which serves to distract the members of the congregation during a moment of tremendous gravity.

The Talmud goes on to cite various counterexamples of priests who were blemished but who nonetheless participated in the priestly benediction, including a priest who was blind in one eye, and a priest whose eyes and nose were always runny. In each case, the sages explain that these particular priests were “familiar figures in their towns,” and thus people were used to their defects and did not look at them askance. They looked different, but their differences were not distracting, and so it was not a problem for them to stand before the congregation and recite the priestly benediction.

As Lau explains, our challenge is to train ourselves to relate to all people with deformities and disabilities as “familiar figures” in our communities. That is, we need to take the time to get to know those who look different so that we are able to see beyond the differences. At first it can be offputting to see someone who doesn’t look or act like everyone else. But once we get to know those people, we see them beyond their disabilities and recognize their full humanity. They become familiar figures in our community – not “the blind man,” but “Danny,” or whoever he may be. When these individuals then stand before us in leadership roles, we do not look at them askance, because we see them as unique human beings whose disabilities are simply a part of who they are.

According to this understanding, the rabbis in the Talmud were taking an important first step. Even though the Torah stipulates that blemished priests could not serve in the Temple, the rabbis argued that they could serve priestly functions in our communities assuming they were well-known, familiar figures – that is, assuming the people of their communities had taken the time to get to know them beyond their superficial differences. Our challenge today is to take the rabbis one step further. Our functionaries need not be physically perfect. Indeed, the more of our prominent leaders who look different, the more desensitized we will become to those differences, and the more we will realize that all of us are different in one way or another. It is, in fact, our differences that humanize us, rendering us unique and distinct. Once we have internalized this lesson, we will be able to give a very different answer to Malachi’s questions. Will God be pleased with us? Will God show us favor? If we can look beyond our differences, then surely God can as well.

Anne of Green Gables at Top Ten

For several weeks now the twins have been pleading with me to take them to Top Ten, an accessories store in the mall that they’ve heard about from all their friends. Every few days they come home with reports of who is wearing what – Maya has a new headband, Noga has a new bracelet. I listen patiently, and then I remind them, each time, that I care much more about how their friends are acting than what they are wearing. In Hebrew the word “midah” means both size and attribute – it is used to refer to clothing sizes, but also to a person’s moral characteristics. I am far more interested in conduct than in clothing, but I have learned not to protest too much. Girls will be girls; they like pretty things.

The twins are forever trying to encourage me to dress better and to pay more attention to my appearance. Back when they were in Gan and I used to pick them up every afternoon, they often commented on what I was wearing. “Ima, you’re wearing earrings today, you look so beautiful,” Liav would tell me, reaching out to put her small finger through the metal hoops I once bought at the bus station mall when my bus was late. “Why are you so fancy today?” I gave the same answer every time they complimented me: “I was teaching Torah today, so I wanted to look nice. I wanted to bring honor to the Torah.” After a while the girls understood that if I was wearing earrings, it meant I had taught Torah that day; occasionally, instead of remarking on my earrings, Liav asked me what I had taught, and I decided that wearing earrings was a small price to pay if it meant we would speak about Torah.

These days, though nothing I wear is nice enough. A few weeks ago I was in the park with all the kids on Shabbat afternoon when I spotted one of Tagel’s friends and encouraged her to go over and say hi. Tagel looked hesitant. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. “Shira’s whole family is here,” Tagel told me. “I really don’t want her mother to see you. She’s so fancy, Ima, and you’re dressed so plain.” I couldn’t believe it. Was I embarrassing my daughter with my black skirt and blouse? Had it really come to that?

My girls have learned that it’s useless to persuade me to take interest in fashion, but recently they tried another tactic. I’m reading them Anne of Green Gables, a book that requires a bit of patience on their part because Anne—and author L.M. Montgomery—are enamored of all things beautiful. The novel is filled with descriptive passages about big, rambling orchards, brooks coursing with dark secrets of pool and cascade, wild plum trees in filmy bloom. Anne waxes poetic about the Snow Queen, as she calls the cherry tree outside her window at Green Gables, and she delights in the Lake of Shining Waters, her term for the pond outside her best friend’s house, its water a glory of many-shifting hues. But Anne is not just taken by natural beauty; she also longs to look beautiful herself, as the girls keep pointing out to me.

A few days ago I discovered Tagel on the ipad—or perhaps I should say that I caught her there, since she did not have permission to be on a screen. I was about to reproach her when I noticed that she was scrolling through images of Anne from the various screen adaptations. “Ima, do you think she looks more beautiful here or here?” she asked me repeatedly, calling up different pairs of images until I started to feel like I was taking a vision test and trying to decide, each time, between the two options.

And yet as Tagel reminded me, Anne herself might have done the same. “I love pretty things,” Anne tells Marilla, “I hate to look in the glass and see something that isn’t pretty.” She stops on her walk to church to garland her hat with a wreath of wild roses that she picks by the roadside, to the horror of no-nonsense Marilla, who disapproves of her frivolity. She believes that life is not worth living without a dress with puffed sleeves, which were all the rage among the other girls her age, but Marilla will not abide the wasted fabric. And she dreams that one day her red hair—her lifelong sorrow—will darken to a handsome auburn; when she can’t wait any longer, she tries to dye it herself, with catastrophic results.

My girls tell me that it’s not bad to like pretty things. “Anne would have loved to go to Top Ten,” Tagel tells me. She knows that if she can make a literary allusion, then I am far more likely to concede. “Maybe they’ll have an amethyst brooch,” she ventures with a half smile. Shalvi, as usual, wants to tag along. “Ima, do you think they will have things in my age?” She is confused about “size” and “age,” and gives us trouble about wearing any items of clothing that don’t have a 5 on the tag. “But Ima, it says 6, it’s going to be too big. It’s not for my age yet,” she’ll protest when I hand her a skirt to put on in the morning. It seems she, too, could use a lesson in Middot.

So I do the only thing I can do, and I try to make our trip to Top Ten a lesson in Middot. I tell the girls they can each pick one item in the store, subject to my approval, and then we’ll save it to wear on Shabbat. “Why can’t I wear my headband to school tomorrow?” Liav wants to know, and I remind her of Shammai, who would save everything special he found during the week to enjoy on Shabbat. When the three girls have finally settled on their choices and I’m ready to pay, the vendor notifies me that it’s “buy three, get one free,” and I must choose something else. Alas. I tell the girls they should think of a birthday present for one of their friends, because it’s always nice, when buying something for ourselves, to buy something for someone else too. “I know,” says Liav, “Let’s buy something for Ima!” The girls rummage around excitedly, settling on a sparkly purple nail polish. “We’ll save it for Friday, so we can polish your nails in honor of Shabbat,” Liav assures me, and Tagel, who notices my still-furrowed brow, knows just what to say. “It’s purple,” she tells me, “like the amethyst brooch.”

Lying with My Daughter

We somehow started a terrible habit of staying with our children until they fall asleep. Shalvi and Yitzvi, who share a room, will not lie down calmly unless there is a parent in the room, and Daniel and I have wasted countless hours at their bedside. A few months ago, I resolved to wean them off it, staying for less and less time each night. But then I had an idea: Torah reading has been putting people to sleep in synagogue for ages; why shouldn’t it work for my children too? Now I’m back in their rooms at night again, not because they need me, but because chanting from the Torah is the ideal activity for my nighttime vigils.

I first learned how to chant from the Torah when I was ten years old, and I have been leyning ever since. On weeks when I am preparing to chant the Torah portion—these days, it’s pretty much every week—I will usually spend several hours practicing, chanting the verses again and again and dividing them into increasingly larger chunks which I then go back and rehearse until I know it so well that I catch myself humming them while chopping vegetables or folding laundry. The Torah I chant from each week becomes the soundtrack for my life, and even when I’m not practicing, the words of the weekly portion will creep into my head and weave their way into my speech. Yesterday Liav asked if she could draw a picture on Shalvi’s hand, and I responded by chanting to her the verse from this week’s parsha about tattoos, which I had just reviewed.

I want Torah to become the soundtrack for my children’s lives too, but at this point, none of them is willing to sit in synagogue and follow along as I chant each week. At night, though, when they can’t fall asleep and beg me to stay with them, I have a captive audience. The full Torah portion is chanted in synagogue every Shabbat morning, and if not for the nightly ritual with my kids, I probably wouldn’t start learning until mid-week. But on Saturday night, when I’m stuck at their bedside, I figure it can’t hurt to get an early start. I begin chanting the first few verses, and then going over them again, and again, until sometimes the kids chime in because they’ve begun learning it by heart as well. Often I’ll shush them, because I do want them to fall asleep; but if it’s not too late, I let them ask questions.

“What is the land they keep talking about again and again,” Shalvi asked me last night when I was practicing Kedoshim, about all the abhorrent practices that would fill the land with depravity. “Is it Israel?” I told her she was right. And when I then went on to read about the sinner who would have to bring atonement “before God,” Shalvi was puzzled. “What do you mean, before God? Nothing comes before God. God is first.” I told her she was right, God is first, but “before” can also mean “in front of,” and when people come to God’s holy Temple, it is as if they are coming “before God.” And then I told her that I would keep chanting, but she should save all her questions for the morning, because it was time to go to sleep.

In truth, though, the real reason I didn’t want her to ask any questions was because the part of the Torah that I was chanting wasn’t really appropriate for her. I was reading about all the forbidden sexual liaisons – a man may not sleep with a married woman, or with his father’s wife, or with his daughter-in-law… I didn’t mind if she heard me read these verses; there is no part of the Torah I wouldn’t want my children to hear. But to hear and to comprehend are two very different things.

The rabbis of the Talmud understood that not every verse in the Torah is appropriate for explaining in a public forum. In the early centuries of the common era, it became customary when chanting from the Torah for a professional “translator” to explain the text in Aramaic, the lingua franca, so that the congregation would understand. The Targum was recited alternately with the Torah portion, verse by verse. But the rabbis caution that not every verse should be interpreted; sometimes the translator ought to keep silent. For instance, the account in the book of Genesis of how Reuven slept with his father’s concubine Bilha is chanted without Targum (Megilla 25b). Reuven’s sin need not be amplified and explained for the entire congregation; some affairs are better left unexplained.

There are many verses from the Torah that I heard chanted as a child long before I had any inkling of what they meant; they became part of the fabric of my being even before my conscious mind had processed them. This is still true for me – not just with Torah, but also with poetry. Often I will read a poem several times without any real idea of what it is about; all I know is that it is beautiful, and that this beauty is related to a commingling of sound and sense that enchants but still eludes me. I know that I will keep reading the poem again and again until I have begun to tease out meaning. In the case of Torah, it will be a lifelong engagement. The Torah is described as “morasha kehilat Yaakov,” the inheritance of the people of Israel, but the rabbis say to read the word “morasha” as “me’orasa,” meaning an engaged bride. I want my kids to remain engaged with Torah their whole lives as I am, courting her, uncovering her layers of meaning, getting to know her ever more intimately.

But not all at once, and not all right now. My five-year-old does not need to know about the forbidden relationships at the end of Kedoshim; let her think, for the time being, that “lie with” is what I am doing at that very moment, lying down next to her in bed with the verses of Torah aglow on my cell phone screen. Let her fall asleep wondering why all these people are not supposed to lie with one another; maybe she will have wild dreams. Sometimes when I read a particularly outlandish rabbinic midrash, in which the rabbis come up with a reading of the Torah that is at once highly literal and wildly creative, I find myself imagining that long, long ago, a rabbinic sage fell asleep contemplating a biblical verse he didn’t fully understand, and then he had a wild dream about it that he taught to his students in the beit midrash the next morning. Shalvi is a vivid dreamer, and as I lie with her chanting aloud from the Torah as she sinks into sleep, I’m excited to hear what questions she wakes up with in the morning.

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim: Restricted Access

The first parsha we read this week, Aharei Mot, takes its name from a reference to the death of the sons of Aaron, who brought a “strange fire” into the Holy of Holies. The parsha begins with the laws governing the high priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur, which are followed, one chapter later, by a list of illicit sexual relations. What is the connection between the death of Aaron’s sons, the Yom Kippur rites, and the prohibition on uncovering the nakedness of various individuals? And how can the juxtaposition of laws about sacred space and sexuality speak to the sanctification of intimacy in our own lives?

We might start by looking to the Yom Kippur liturgy, where the two parts of our parsha are also juxtaposed. The first part, about the death of Aaron’s sons and the priestly rituals of Yom Kippur, are chanted as the Torah reading on the morning of Yom Kippur; the second part of the parsha, about forbidden sexual relations, is the afternoon reading, as prescribed in the Talmud (Megillah 31a). Rashi comments that the afternoon reading was chosen so as to warn people not to sleep with those who are forbidden to them, because sexual sin is so prevalent. This does not explain why this reading was chosen for Yom Kippur in particular, and here Tosafot step in, explaining that women dress up on Yom Kippur and so it is especially important to warn men not to succumb to their wiles. According to this understanding, the afternoon reading was not chosen simply because it follows the morning reading in the Torah, but because it serves as a much-needed warning on this particular day. Yet shouldn’t this kind of sin be furthest from our mind on Yom Kippur, a day on which all sexual intercourse is forbidden? A close reading of our parsha suggests otherwise.

The beginning of the parsha draws a connection between the death of Aaron’s sons and the prohibition on entering the Holy of Holies “at all times” (16:2). Since God appears in a cloud in the Holy of Holies, Aaron must enter only when specifically authorized to do so, which, as we learn from the end of the chapter, was “in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month” (16:29), namely Yom Kippur. When entering the Holy of Holies, Aaron had to first bathe and dress in specific sacred vestments, bearing specific sacrificial offerings to atone for himself, his household, and the whole congregation of Israel. These detailed instructions, following immediately after the reference to the death of Aaron’s sons, suggest that Nadav and Avihu failed to observe the highly specific regulations governing entry into the Holy of Holies, whether by entering at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothes, or bearing the wrong sacrifices.

The Talmud adds that the entry into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur was a moment of such trepidation that the High Priest would make sure to offer only a short prayer (Yoma 52b), lest the people waiting outside grow frightened that something terrible had befallen him inside the sacred precinct. Since only the High Priest could enter, the maintenance of the Holy of Holies posed a particular challenge; how could anyone get inside to clean it out? The Mishnah (Middot 4:5) relates that there were trapdoors in an upper chamber opening into the Holy of Holies by which workmen were let down in baskets so that they would not “feast their eyes on the Holy of Holies.” This most sacred chamber of the Temple was a place of highly restricted access, with very specific rules governing who might enter and when.

It is against this backdrop that we can read the laws of forbidden sexual relations in our parsha, which are also about restricted access. Just as it was forbidden for the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies “at all times,” it is also forbidden—by the laws of Niddah—for a man to sleep with a woman “at all times.” And just as not anyone could enter the Holy of Holies, so too not anyone is permitted sexually to everyone else. A man may not sleep with his mother, or his father’s wife, or his son’s daughter, etc. The Torah uses the phrase “uncovering the nakedness” to describe these prohibitions, reminiscent of the prohibition on the workers “feasting their eyes” on the sacred shrine. Not everything is meant to be flaunted and out in the open; the most sacred spaces, like the most sacred connections, are for certain individuals only. Perhaps this is why the Talmud, in describing the plundering of the Temple by the Romans (Gittin 56b), relates that Titus entered the sacred shrine and committed an act of rape – suggesting that violating the Temple, for the rabbis, was as much an abomination as violating a woman.

Of course, the gendered language of these texts may seem foreign if not outright offensive to our modern sensibilities. The priest is always male, and the Torah’s laws about uncovering nakedness are addressed to men alone. But to dismiss these texts on account of their sexist rhetoric is to ignore their message for our own time, when we aspire to more egalitarian relationships. Yom Kippur, a day of supreme intimacy between human beings and God, is an occasion to focus on other intimate connections as well. As Bonna Devora Haberman z”l has eloquently argued, entry into the Holy of Holies can be a model for sexual intimacy, which should not take place at any time, with any person. The rabbinic term for marriage—the exclusive partnership between two individuals—is “Kiddushin,” meaning sanctity. The Yom Kippur rites, with their emphasis on exclusivity and restricted access to sacred space, precede the laws of forbidden sexual relations to remind us we can elevate our most intimate relationships to the level of the sacred.