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Leviticus

Vayikra וַיִּקְרָא Lev. 1:1-5:26  
Tzav צַו 6:1-8:36  
Shemini שְּׁמִיִי 9:1-11:47  
Tazria תַזְרִיעַ 12:1-13:59  
Metzora מְּצֹרָע 14:1-15:33  
Acharei אַחֲרֵי מוֹת 16:1-18:30  
Kedoshim קְדֹשִׁים 19:1-20:27  
Emor אֱמֹר 21:1-24:23  
Behar בְּהַר 25:1-26:2  
Bechukotai בְּחֻקֹּתַי 26:3-27:34  

 Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26

2013  
In contrast to the four other books of the Torah, the third book of Leviticus is almost totally devoid of narrative. It is other wise called Torat Kohanim, for it deals with the subject of holiness. Later on in Leviticus God admonishes "You shall be holy, because I, the Lord your God am holy."
 
This is the conundrum: how in fact to live a life that is holy, how to lift ourselves up from the mundane and ordinary. We do that in how we treat each other, in the honest relationship we create with God, in how we celebrate sacred events, in how we eat, in how we conduct our marital and family lives, in the care we provide to our bodies. Each of these areas has the potential to raise us up, to be godly.
 
Leviticus begins with a catalog describing the various kinds of communal and individual offerings that must be offered to God. These offerings of various kinds of animals as well as meal offerings were a means by which individuals could express their deepest emotions, whether these were of gratitude or of guilt. The communal offerings allowed the people to feel that that relationship with God and the community was unbroken and constant.
 
We no longer bring animal or meal offerings which were obviously so central to Jewish life. They take up a good portion of the text of the Torah. What happened to them? Somewhere along the rode of Jewish evolution, it was determined that offerings could only be presented at the central Temple in Jerusalem. When the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, sacrifices ceased and the people went into exile not knowing how to worship God. When the Second Temple was rebuilt offerings restarted, but when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70c.e., offerings were not brought once again. We read in the Talmud that the rabbis thought this would be a short interruption, but it has lasted now for centuries. Orthodox Jews continue to pray that the Temple be rebuilt so that offerings can be brought once again. Non-Orthodox Judaism does not pray for the reinstitution of animal and meal offerings.
 
Maimonides claimed that the entire system of offerings was time bound. God instituted the practice as a means of weaning the Israelites/Jews from worship of idols. They would be left with this familiar means of worship until such time as they no longer needed it. This it seems clear that Maimonides did not anticipate the reinstitution of sacrifices either.

2012 - Shabbat haHodesh                  Exodus 12: 1-20
           Rosh Hodesh                             Numbers 28:9-15
Most unusually this Shabbat morning we will remove three Torah scrolls from the ark. That is due to the confluence of it being Shabbat haHodesh (the Shabbat on or preceding the beginning of the month of Nisan) and Rosh Hodesh (the very beginning of the month of Nisan) on Shabbat.
 
For Rosh Hodesh we will read as we do each Rosh Hodesh the list of offering that the Torah prescribes for this occasion. For Shabbat haHodesh we will read God's words of instruction to Moses as to how to prepare for the last plague and the Exodus which will immediately follow. In this reading God points out that this month shall henceforth be considered the first of months and therefore this special designation.
 
With the Tabernacle complete with sacrificial altars and a priesthood anxious to engage in their clerical duties (see last week's parashah), the book of Leviticus opens with a catalog listing the various types of personal (as opposed to communal) offerings. All but the Minkha/meal offering, consisted of animals that were brought to the Kohanim, to be offered to God. All but the Olah/burnt offering were to be consumed by the presenter and/or the Kohanim.
 
Although we feel far removed from seeing the slaughter of animals as a means of coming close to God, if was through these offerings that the people could express both gratitude to God for blessings that they had received or a means by which they could confess guilt and ask for forgiveness for failings. (Of course offerings in and of themselves would not grant forgiveness for sins committed again another. Only after asking the offended party would it be possible to ask for God's forgiveness.)
 
Each of our religious services today: evening, morning and afternoon and the musaf, added on Shabbat and holidays, are substitutes for the communal sacrifices that were offered in ancient times. Jews ceased bringing offerings when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70c.e. They imagined that offerings would be restarted when the Temple would be rebuilt. Although there are some ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem who study the laws of sacrifice anticipating their reinstitution, the vast majority of Jews do not imagine that animal sacrifice will ever be reinstituted as a means of religious life.

2011

This third book of the Torah is different from the other four books.  With one exception, Leviticus contains no narrative.  The book is also commonly known as Torah Kohanim/instructions for the priests.  While directives to Kohanim forms much of the book, other sections dealing with purity, dietary laws and holidays are important for all the people.  Nevertheless Judaism never saw itself having a class of priests who performed rituals which were to be kept secret from the general population.

Although in many ways it is the most difficult/ esoteric of all the books of the Torah, tradition had it that this was the first book that young children should learn in school.  The reason for this was that laws of purity should be studied by the most innocent and pure.

The first Parasha contains a catalogue listing the principle types of sacrifices or offerings.  Known in Hebrew as Korbanot (from Karov meaning to come close) sacrifices were seen as a means of bringing oneself close to God.  Sacrifices were to be brought at times of great joy and at times of personal guilt and suffering.  They were brought at times of joy to express a sense of thanksgiving to God, the source of goodness.  However they were also brought when an individual felt particularly estranged from God in an effort to close that gap.

Although it is difficult for us to relate to the whole world of animal and meal sacrifices, these were powerful means of spiritual expression.  Following the reforms of King Josiah in the 7th pre-Christian century, it was understood that Jewish offerings could only be made by the Kohanim in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Once the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., sacrifice or offerings among Jews ceased.

At the time it was believed that the interruption in animal sacrifice would be temporary and would be reinstituted when the third Temple would be built.  Orthodox prayer continues to look to the day when the Temple will be rebuilt and sacrifices reinstituted.  Maimonides expressed the idea that God instructed our ancestors to offer sacrifices as a stop gap, until such time as we did not need this form of worship any longer.  Non-Orthodox Jews recall the time in our history when we sacrificed animals as a form of worship, but we do not pray for its reinstitution.

2010

How strange that when small children would begin their learning of Torah, they would traditionally begin with the book of Leviticus!  The rabbis claimed that since the book deals with purity, so it was an appropriate first text for the most pure.  It is strange however because as Harold Kushner writes in our Etz Hayyim commentary, "Leviticus is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation.  Its main subject matter-animal offerings and ritual impurity-seems remote from contemporary concerns."

The first two parshiyot of Leviticus contain a catalogue, a listing of the various kinds of sacrifices: the burnt offering (olah), the grain offering (minkhah), the offering of well being (zevakh shelamim), the purification offering (khatat), and the reparation offering (asham).  It reads like a professional handbook, a how-to for those engaged in making the offerings.

Some offerings were made communally on behalf of the community and some were personal offered by individuals.  The word for offering or sacrifice in Hebrew is the word Korban, from the Hebrew meaning to bring close.  Sacrificial offerings were made in an effort to come close to God.  Regular communal offerings were made in an effort to maintain a continuing and intimate relationship with God.  Individual offerings were made to express emotions: one might offer a sacrifice in order to give thanks for a recovery from illness or for the birth of a new child.  One might offer a purification offering to express one's sense of guilt or responsibility for inappropriate behavior.

When Jews ceased offering sacrifices, i.e. following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem prayer was substituted.  In fact the three daily services with a fourth added on Shabbat and holidays are substitutes for the sacrifices that were made daily in the Temple.  The priests were the professionals in charge.  They would maintain the Temple and offer the sacrifices.  In most cases the offerer would eat the sacrifice after it had been "cooked".  Only the "olah" was burnt completely.

Kushner observes, "This professional guide became one of the five books of the Torah as part of the process of democratizing the Israelite faith, making all Israel 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Exodus 19:6).  There would be no secret lore accessible only to the clergy."

2009

The book of Leviticus, the central book of the Torah contains virtually no narrative.  Its main focus is on creating time and space for holiness in our lives.

The opening chapters consist of a catalog describing the variety of sacrificial offerings, their purpose and what was required.  Though esoteric to us since we no longer offer animal or meal offerings, they provide insight into our origins when sacrifices were central to Jewish practice.

Sacrifices were offered daily on behalf of the entire community and individually by anyone who felt the need to bring such an offering.  They might bring them to express a sense of wellbeing or thanksgiving or they might bring them as a means of asking God for forgiveness.  For sins or crimes that were committed intentionally, sacrifices never were sufficient to exonerate the guilty.  However they might be brought for unintentional sins, as a means of repairing a rupture in one's perceived relationship with God.

After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70c.e., Jews ceased all ritual offerings.  Prayer became its substitute.  At first it was thought to be a temporary situation until the Temple would be rebuilt.  Even today the Orthodox prayer book looks forward toward a time when the Temple will be rebuilt and sacrifices reinstituted.  Our Conservative Siddur has eliminated that hope and recalls sacrifices as a beloved ancient institution, but which we no longer hope for in the future.

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Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36

2013 – Tzav & and Shabbat haGadol   Leviticus 6:1-8:36
The Shabbat immediately preceding The beginning of Passover is known as Shabbat haGadol, the Great Shabbat. Many explanation have been given for this designation. Tradition tells us that the original Passover in Egypt occurred on a Thursday. If that is indeed the case, then the preceding Shabbat would have been the 10
th of Nisan, the day on which the Israelites were told to take the lamb that they were to slaughter placing the blood on the doorposts of their homes. According to tradition this courageous act of defiance became the first Mitzvah that the Israelites slaves observed. As such it is compared to a communal Bar/Bat Mitzvah when the entire community enters into the life of Mitzvah, of accepting the commandments of God. Thus it is called the Great Shabbat.
 
However grammatically Shabbat haGadol does not mean the Great Shabbat, that would be haShabbat haGadol. A proper translation would be the Shabbat of the Great One. Under this explanation the Great One is the community Rabbi, because it became traditional that the rabbi only addressed the community on Shabbat haGadol and Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
 
There is no special reading assigned for Shabbat haGadol.
 
The regular parasha this week is known as Tzav, which continues the description of the individual offering that were to be brought to the Kohen to express thanksgiving, guilt, responsibility or well-being. However last week's reading was addressed to the population as a whole, whereas this week's reading provides a professional manual addressed specifically to the Kohanim. All but one of the types of personal sacrifices were consumed, either by the Kohanim or shared by the presenter and the Kohanim.
 
The last part of the parashah describes the ritual that was to take place when initiating the High Priest and his sons into their official duties. The entire community was to attend. Aaron and his sons were ritually washed and dressed in their special vestments. Moses then consecrated them by anointing them with oil, anointing as well the altar and utensils. A bull of purification was slaughtered followed by a ram as a burnt offering and a second for ordination. Cakes of unleavened bread were placed on their palms as an elevation offering and then added them to the burnt offering. Aaron and his sons then ate of the offering. They were to remain inside for 7 days until the days of ordination were complete in order to make expiation for them. All the rituals were completed successfully.

2012 - Tzav       Leviticus 6:1-8:36     Shabbat haGadol
The Shabbat preceding Passover is always designated as Shabbat haGadol/ the Great Shabbat or more correctly the Shabbat of the Great One. Its name derives from the special haftarah that will be read from the third chapter of the prophet Malachi. Malachi is chronologically the last of the Biblical prophets. At the end of the haftarah he anticipates the return of the prophet Elijah who according to Jewish tradition will announce the arrival of the Messiah, saying, "Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord."
 
Elijah has a special place at the Seder meal with the designated Cup of Elijah and when we open the door for Elijah after the meal. In Jewish thought the anticipation of the arrival of Elijah and the Messiah were greatest during Passover. The thinking was that since God intervened in history to liberate the Jews during Passover, God we intervene at the same time of year to send the Messiah. In our great hope we open the door and are prepared for the Messiah with a cup of wine.
 
There are however many other explanations as to why this Shabbat is special. It was thought that the Exodus, the 15th of Nisan, occurred on a Thursday. Thus the prior Shabbat would have been the 10th when the Israelites slaughtered the Paschal lamb and placed the blood on the doorposts of their homes. This act of defiance and courage marked this as a great Shabbat. Alternatively it was called the Shabbat of the Great One, because Shabbat haGadol was one of only two times during the year that the rabbi addressed the entire community. Others claim that rather than the Great Shabbat, it referred to the long Shabbat, because the rabbi would give such a long talk!
 
The Torah reading from Leviticus continues the description of offerings to be presented at the sanctuary in the desert. However last week's reading was more general addressed to all of the community. This week's reading is much more specific addressed very directly to the Kohamin who were in charge of the actual slaughter and offering. Thus this reading is very much a professional handbook, a guide on how the Kohanim were to conduct themselves as officiants.

2011

Tzav and Shabbat Zakhor, Deuteronomy 25:17-19

Shabbat Zakhor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, always takes place on the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim.  By tradition Haman was a descendant of the Amalikites, that tribe that attacked Israel when they wandered in the desert.  In fact the Torah tells us that they attacked the rear of the Israelite camp where there were women and children.  We are therefore reminded to remember Amalek and what he did, that evil must not be ignored and must be fought against.

The weekly portion of Tzav continues the listing of types of sacrifices that began in last weeks portion.  However whereas last week's reading was addressed to the general public, the first half of this week's reading is addressed to the Kohanim instructing them exactly how each of the offerings was to be handled.  Chapters 6 and 7 describe the specific rituals and the ritual meals that took place in the sanctuary.

The second part of the Parashah describes the first 7 days of an 8 day initiation ceremony of the Kohanim into their sacred duty.  Since sacrifice would function as the center of Jewish worship and ongoing relationship with God, the investiture of the Kohanim became quite significant.  Although the Kohanim in their role would offer all sacrifices, it was Moses who offered the sacrifices of initiation.  The Kohanim were ceremonially washed and clothed in their ritual garments and sacrifices were offered.  This ceremony not only prepared the Kohanim for their sacred duties, but it prepared the people to accept this special role that the Kohanim would play in the life of the community.

2010 - Shabbat haGadol

 The first two chapters of Parshat Tzav continue the description of offerings which were the central topic of chapters 1-5.  However while the first five chapters were addressed to the entire Israelite community, these chapters are addressed directly to Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim, outlining the specific procedures and rituals that were to accompany each of the offerings. Thus while the first chapters might be viewed as a catalogue, these chapters function more as a professional manual for the priests.

In chapter 8 and continuing next week in chapter 9 God provides Moses with instructions as to exactly how the initiation of formal worship is to take place.  Moses would act as officiant before the entire community at this ceremony.  He would ceremoniously wash Aaron and his sons, dress them in their specially prepared vestments, and anoint them with oil.  

Moses would sprinkle some oil on the altar and utensils.  A bull of purification was slaughtered, purifying the altar with blood and consecrated it.  A burnt offering was then slaughtered followed by an offering of ordination.  Further initiating ceremonies took place.  This ordination took seven days in order to make expiation for the Kohanim.  All of the rites were conducted as God had commanded.

Our Etz Hayim Humash comments on the seven day ordination period. "These days parallel the seven days of Creation.  The existence of the tabernacle and its capacity to atone for human sinfulness and imperfection make it possible for an imperfect world to survive in the sight of a just God.  The Midrash emphasizes that 'if God demands absolute justice, there can be no world.  If God desires a world, there cannot be absolute justice'" (Lev. R. 10:1)

2009

Shabbat haGadol/ the Great Shabbat occurs each year on the Shabbat just prior to Passover.  Shabbat haGadol was one of only two times that rabbis addressed the congregation, the other being on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  This address was about last minute questions about Passover preparation.  According to others since the original Passover, the 15th of Nisan, we are told, took place as this year on a Thursday, the Shabbat prior was the 10th of Nisan.  This was the day the Israelites were told to take the lamb for slaughter.  It was the first act of Israelite defiance of their Egyptian rulers and the first Mitzvah that they performed in this liberation effort.  On Shabbat haGadol we recall their great courage.

Parshat Tsav continues the listing of the principle types of sacrifices begun in the previous Parasha.  However rather than being addressed to the people, these instructions are not addressed to the Kohanim who will take charge of the offerings.

In the last portion we begin the description of the religious celebrations that mark the beginning of formal worship in Israel. The kohanim and the tabernacle would be consecrated amid great ceremony.

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Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47

2013  
This week's parashah opens with the eighth and final day of the installation ceremony of Aaron as high priest and his sons as priests. Moses instructs Aaron on the public ritual in which he is to engage. Following the requisite offerings Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them, after which the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth and consumed the offerings. All the people saw and shouted and fell on their faces.
 
The next episode troubled the rabbis greatly. It relates that two of Aaron's four sons offered Esh Zara/strange fire and as a result fire came forth, consumed them and they died. The rabbis struggled with what possibly Esh Zarah could have been and how whatever these sons did could have warranted their execution.
 
Since what follows are basic behavioral instructions to the priests, many of the suggestions are that Aaron's two sons must have behaved disrespectfully or in some way angered God, such that punishment was warranted. Perhaps there is no explanation for unexpected, even accidental death.
 
This parshah is also the main Biblical source for the Jewish dietary rules. The text details which animals are clean to eat: mammals must have a split hoof and chew their cud, fish must have fins and scales, fowl must not be birds of prey. Even certain locusts were considered clean for eating. Finally the Torah determines that even touching certain animals will conduct impurity: rodents and reptiles.

2012
After a seven day ordination of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim/priests, our Torah portion opens describing the eighth and final day of initiation in which the Kohanim begin to offer the sacrifices themselves.
 
Thereafter the Torah records an incident in which two of Aaron's four sons are killed apparently by God for what the Torah describes as "alien fire". We are provided no more than that. The rabbis provide scores of explanations to explain why God took their lives. Though most of the explanation are critical (they were drunk, arrogant, impudent, etc.) there are some that claim that in fact they were guilty of nothing more than excessive piety. "out of love for the divine, they tried to come too close to God who is like a raging fire".
 
This incident is followed by a discourse on proper priestly behavior.
 
Our Parashah concludes with a detailed description of the laws of Kashrut. Though many of the laws such as the separation of milk and meat are explicated in the Oral Law, our Torah reading distinguishes those mammals, fish, birds and even insects which are fit to eat. All others are declared impure and must be avoided. As a general rule parasites, meat eaters and bottom feeders are proscribed.
 
What we eat is seen not as a matter of bodily health, but of purity of body and soul.

2011

Shmini/ Parshat Parah, Numbers 19:1-22

The special maftir for Parashat Parah is the reading about the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, the ashes of which was used to purify individuals who had become ritually impure.  Impurity had several sources, but the most common was proximity to the dead.  If one attended a funeral or visited a cemetery, that person would be rendered impure and would have to undergo a purification ritual.  One could only celebrate Passover in ancient times if one was in a state of ritual purity.  Therefore this annual reading to remind people that if during the course of the year they became ritually impure, they should undergo this ritual in preparation for the forthcoming Passover holiday.

Parshat Shmini continues the inauguration ritual of the Kohanim that began in last week's parashah.  Shmini means "eighth" for after seven days of ordination, the formal initiation begins on the eighth and final day.

Some time thereafter we read of the mysterious death of two of Aaron's four sons while they were engaged in service in the sanctuary.  The text only says they offered "strange fire".  The rabbis, bewildered, gave developed many other explanations for their demise.  Some say they must have been drunk, others arrogant.  Still others sees this as a consequence of excessive piety.  It remains a mystery as all death.  Following their deaths the Torah describes various restrictions on the behavior of Kohanim when in the service of God.

The concluding portion of our Torah reading tells us of Jewish dietary laws practiced to this very day.  We are told which mammals, fish and birds are fit for consumption.  Mammals must have a split hoof and chew their cud, meaning that clawed animals which are carnivorous as forbidden.  Birds of prey are similarly forbidden.  Water creatures must have fins and scales, eliminating crustaceans and other scavenger fish that live at the bottom of the sea.  While all winged swarming things are forbidden, there are four types of locusts which are permitted.

2010

As we left off our wandering through the book of Leviticus prior to Passover we were caught up in the formal initiation and inauguration of Aaron as Kohen Gadol and his sons as Kohanim. We read of the first week's rituals and this week's reading begins with a description of the eighth and final day. Offerings of a calf, a ram, an ox and a goat were made before all the people. Aaron offered sacrifices of purification to make expiation for himself and for the people. The Aaron blessed the people and "the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people". Fire came forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering. "The people saw and shouted and fell on their faces."

We then read of a mysterious incident in which two of Aaron's four sons offered "alien fire which God had not enjoined" and they were struck dead on the spot. The Kohanim were then given other instructions as to their conduct. Specifically they were told not to drink anything intoxicating when engaging in God's service.

The last chapter of this week's parashah outlines the types of animals that are fit (Kosher) to eat. Land animals i.e. mammals must have a split hoof and chew their cud. Fish must have fins and scales. Though birds are not categorized by physical characteristics, birds of prey are excluded. A complicated description of insects follows as well as how impurity is passed along through touching, carrying and/or containing, rendering persons, vessels and foodstuffs impure.

2009

Our last Torah reading which we read prior to Passover concluded with the first week of ordination ceremonies for the Kohanim into their roles as priests.  These functions were to be handed down from father to son in a patrilineal line.  Parshat Sh'mini opens with a description of the eighth and final day of initiation.  On it Aaron offered sacrifices before the entire community.  With these sacrifices Aaron made expiation for himself and the people.  At the end of the ceremony Aaron blessed the people and "the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people".  "The people saw, and shouted and fell on their faces".

This ceremony is immediately followed by the unexplained and sudden death of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron's four sons, when engaged in the duties of the priesthood they "offered strange fire."  We are then provided with the special rule that applies exclusively to priests.  They may drink no wine or intoxicants when officiating.   Many see in this juxtaposition an explanation for why Nadav and Avihu died.

With chapter 11 we are introduced to the laws of Kashrut, more particularly which land, sea and air born animals are fit for Jewish consumption.  Mammals must have split hoof and chew their cud; fish must have fins and scales and birds must not be birds of prey.

In the main scavengers and animals which prey on other animals are not kosher.

This Parashah is usually combined with last week's reading as a double parasha.  It is only read independently during Jewish leap years , which add an entire lunar month to the calendar.

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Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59 / Shabbat haHodesh Exodus 12:1-20

2011

Shabbat haHodesh marks the Shabbat immediately preceding the beginning of the month of Nisan in which we will celebrate Passover.  On it we will read a Maftir from Exodus in which God speaks to Moses instructing him about preparations to take place during this month for the Exodus itself which will occur immediately following the Tenth Plague.

Tazria is a separate Parasha only in Jewish leap years.  Otherwise it is read along with the reading that follows.  The first eight verses concern themselves with a mother after childbirth.  She will remain ritually unclean for a limited period of time due to the loss of blood and return to a state of ritual purity after presenting the requisite offerings.

The rest of the Parasha deal with the subject of the Metzorah, the one afflicted with a skin disease.  This affliction is most commonly translated as leprosy, but is probably a form of psoriasis.  "The priest combined medical and ritual procedures in safeguarding the purity of the sanctuary and of the Israelite community.  Precisely why skin diseases were singled out in the priestly codes is not certain.  Tsara-at (the name of the affliction) was prevalent in ancient Israel and was presumed to be contagious."  Therefore a proper diagnosis was necessary and where necessary the patient had to be isolated and removed from the camp.  However the focus of attention was on the rituals of returning the patient.

The rabbis were troubled with Tsara-at.  In many ways it did not function like ordinary illness.  Most peculiarly it could be diagnosed in fabric, in leather and in the stones of a dwelling.  Miriam, Moses sister is afflicted with Tsara-at for saying evil things about her sister-in-law.  For this and linguistic reasons the rabbis preferred to dwell on Tsara-at metaphorically.  They claimed that Tsara-at was a divine punishment for lashon hara/ for wicked speech.  They undoubtedly did not mean this literally, but meant it as a warning.  Evil speech is not a punishable offense, but it is nevertheless destructive to the cohesiveness of society.  Do not engage in it or God will find a way to punish you was certainly the underlying message.

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Metzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33

2011

Metzorah continues the discussion of contagious skin ailments.  The first 32 verses describe an elaborate ritual for someone who has been cured of the disease.  It is a public rite of readmission to the community from which the patient has been excluded.  It is for the benefit of both the patient and the community: the patient needs reassurance that s/he is indeed cured and worthy of readmission; the community needs the ceremony in order to be confident that the person is no longer contagious and can be included in all aspects of the community without fear or reservation.

The ritual includes the slaughter of one bird and dipping a second bird, cedar wood, crimsom stuff and hyssop in the blood of the slaughtered bird.  The blood is then sprinkled seven times upon the recovered patient and the live bird is set free.  The patient then washes his clothes, shaves all bodily hair and bathes, after which he s declared pure.  He can then enter the camp, but must remain outside his tent seven days.  He then washes his clothes, shaves and bathes a second time.  He then brings a series of sacrifices for offering to the priest.  Some blood of the reparation offering is then placed on the ridge of the patients right ear and on his right thumb and on the big toe of his right foot.  Special oil is then placed on the patient's right ear, right thumb and right big toe and on his head in an act of purification.  Special provision is also made for an indigent patient, who cannot afford the expense of the sacrifices.

Our Torah portion then discusses the possibility of the same ailment affecting the building stones in a house.  Unlike the skin disease, this is either "mold, blight or rot, perhaps of a fungoid nature, that produced recessed lesions and discoloration in the plaster or mud used to cover building stones."  If after thorough and repeated examination it is determined that Tzara-at has infected the house, the affected stones must be removed, the house scraped and replastered.  In the worst case the entire house must be torn down.  If the disease has not spread, however, a similar purification ceremony is called for.

The second chapter of the parashah deals with ritual impurity from discharges eminating from sexual organs. "Most of this chapter deals with discharges as a result of illness or infection, not the normal menstruation of females or seminal emissions of males.  Little was known about their treatment, apart from bathing, laundering clothing, and carefully observing the course taken by the ailment itself.  All the impurities dealt with in this chapter, like any prevailing impurity within the Israelite community, threatened directly or indirectly, the purity of the sanctuary, which was located within the area of settlement."  "Once again we encounter the notion of tum-ah not as uncleanness or contamination, but as an encounter with the mysterious life-engendering power of certain bodily fluids and with the life-endangering dimension of disease.  The encounter with the primal forces of life and death rule out other ways of entering into the divine presence."

 


Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59 and Metzora, Lev. 14:1-15:33

2013  
This double portion contains most unusual peculiarities. It can be divided into three central topics: a. childbirth, b. plague of the skin, fabrics and leather and home and c. discharges from sexual organs. All have to do with healthy and unhealthy things that can emerge from the body.
 
Certainly childbirth is a wondrous phenomenon. Nevertheless the Torah considers the new mother as ritually impure for 33 or 66 days following childbirth, depending on whether the newborn is male or female. At the end of her ritual impurity she is obligated to bring offerings, readmitting her into the sanctuary and into the religious life of the community.
 
However the central topic of the double portion is of plague called Tzara'at, unfortunately translated into English as leprosy. However it appears that not one disease is being described, but a combination of skin ailments. The same name is also given to plague that could affect clothing and the plaster and bricks in the home. The rabbis saw this as most peculiar. The Kohen is described as a central figure in diagnosing the ailment, in determining whether it is acute or chronic, and overseeing the integration of the afflicted back into the community.
 
Most rabbinic commentators agreed that this section was not meant to be understood literally. Rather they remembered that Moses' sister Miriam was stricken with this disease when she spoke critically of Moses. As well they saw the similarity between the terms for the stricken (metzorah) and libel or slander (motzi shem rah). They therefore explained that this was the moral threat for that which it is difficult to legislate, namely loose talk. If one engaged in it, God threatened to affect his/her house. If they did not desist the plague would strike their clothing and finally with continued provocation, one's very body would be affected.
 
The rabbis did not take this warning literally either. They did not believe disease was punishment from God for sin. Nevertheless the image would be imprinted in their minds as a constant reminder that prattle is destructive and injurious not just to one individual but to an entire society.
 
Lastly our parashah deals with discharges from sexual organs as a result of illness or infection. "Little is known about their treatment, apart from bathing, laundering clothing, and carefully observing the course taken by the ailment itself."

2012
This double portion deals with "medical" issues unlike any other section of the Torah. The Parashah begins with a discussion of childbirth, declaring the mother impure for a brief period of time after giving birth. Her purification will be complete when she presents purification offerings to the Kohanim. "The new mother's burnt offering is seen by some as an offering of gratitude for having survived the experience of childbirth or on behalf of the newborn for having been released into life from confinement of the womb."
 
However virtually the rest of this double portion is dedicated to skin ailments (translated unfortunately as leprosy, but probably closer to psoriasis), which can afflict not only the skin, but leather clothing and the building stones of a house. Since the Torah is not a medical treatise, the rabbis were always curious as to what the underlying purpose of this text might be. They noted its peculiarities: a. that it can afflict clothing and houses, b. that it would be diagnosed by a Kohen who had no other medical expertise, c. though the afflicted would be isolated, the text was most interested in the ritual of reincorporating a healed person back into the community.
 
The rabbis also noted that Moses' sister Miriam was afflicted with this disease when she spoke slanderously about Moses' wife. They also took note of the connection between the term for the afflicted, "Metzorah", and the term "Motzi Shem Rah", to speak evil of another. They thus concluded that this affliction was punishment for libel, slander and rumor mongering. I doubt seriously that they believed the connection literally, but they used the threat as a visual warning. Engage in these destructive activities and you will be punished.
 
The very last section of our Torah reading deals with ritual impurity that attends discharges from male or female sexual organs. Here we "once again encounter tha notion of tum-ah, impurity, not as uncleanness or contamination, but as an encounter with the mysterious life engendering power of certain bodily fluids and with the life endangering dimension of disease."

2010

The final chapter of last week’s Parshat Shmini discussed laws of Kashrut, those animals which are clean and fit for Jewish consumption as distinguished from those that are not.  Thus it concerned itself with what we take into our mouths and our bodies.  By contrast this week’s double portion deals mostly with excretions and that which comes out of our bodies.

The first subject is child birth.  Though wonderful and a blessing childbirth brings a human being to the very edge of life itself.  Life hangs in the balance as both mother and child are vulnerable.  Childbirth also involves the excretion of blood and other fluids.  Thus following childbirth a mother is considered “impure”, similar to periods of menstruation, and must undergo purification rites.

The next and much more detailed subject entails various kinds of skin diseases, that have unfortunately been classified as leprosy.  The ailments that are described and are to be diagnosed by a Kohen are not Hansen’s disease (leprosy), but are must more comparable to psoriasis and similar ailments which also involve oozing and protuberances or various kinds exuding from the body.  The Kohen must determine whether the symptoms are those of Tzaraat and then whether it is acute or chronic, whether the stricken person must be removed from the camp and then whether and when he is healed and can return home.  Complicated rituals attend his/her return.

The disease of Tzaraat contains any number of peculiarities.  Among them is the fact that it can afflict not only the body, but it can be diagnosed in clothing and even in the stones of a building.  In both case the symptoms appear to be similar to some sort of rot.  Again the Kohen must make inquiry to determine whether the affliction in clothing or in a house is indeed the dreaded Tzaraat.

The final chapter of this week’s parashah deals with various other kinds of discharges from sexual organs as a result of illness or infection.  All the impurities dealt with threatened directly or indirectly the purity of the sanctuary which was located within the area of settlement.  Rabbi Harold Kushner describes them as “an encounter with the mysterious life-engendering power of certain oldily fluids and with the life-endangering dimension of disease.”

2009

This double parasha is focused on the concept of Tum-ah/ritual impurity which is among the most difficult religious topics for moderns to grasp.  Yet, ritual impurity seems to be a universal concept among all ancient cultures.  Harold Kushner in our Etz Hayyimn Humash observes: "It has been suggested that these categories of ritual impurity were a response to the anxiety triggered by death, serious illness, and the 'leaking' of life-generating fluids from the body.  It has been noted further that natural flows require less purification than unnatural flows, which might indicate the presence of disease."

Three separate topics are discussed in this Parashah:

  • Regulations Concerning the New Mother:       12:1-8
  • The Purification of Skin Diseases                   13:1-14:57
  • Discharges from Sexual Organs                      15:1-33

The natural flow from a new mother made her temporarily ritually impure.  We do not know why the mother was rendered ritually impure for 33 days following the birth of a male child, but 66 days following a female child.  Ritual impurity meant that she could not enter the sanctuary or have contact with consecrated items for that duration.

The lengthy discussion of skin diseases is known in Hebrew as Tzara-at, commonly mis-translated as leprosy.  Most scholars and dermatologists consider what is described in the Torah reading as a "complex of various ailments".    However the disease, if such, is described with many peculiarities: a. it could afflict not only human skin, but leather clothing and even the stones of the interior of a house.  The Kohen is called upon to function as diagnostician and supervise the purification and reentry process should the afflicted individual be deemed pure.

The rabbis noticed that in the book of Numbers Miriam is stricken with Tsara-at for speaking disparagingly about her brother's marriage and that the word Metzorah, the term for someone stricken with the disease, sounds similar to the term Motzee Shen Ra, someone who speaks ill of another impairing their reputation.  Thus the rabbis used Tsara-at as a metaphor for divine punishment that could result from slander and liable.  It was meant as a warning, not considered a reality.  Slander and liable are dangerous to the fabric of society and should be avoided wherever possible.

"Most of this chapter deals with discharges from the sexual organs as a result of illness or infection, not the normal menstruation of females or seminal emissions of males.  Little is known about their treatment, apart from bathing, laundering clothing, and carefully observing the course taken by the ailment itself.  All the impurities dealt with in this chapter, like any prevailing impurity within the Israelite community, threatened, directly or indirectly, the purity of the sanctuary, which was located within the area of settlement."

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Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30

2011

Although we are about to celebrate Passover, the subject of our Torah reading is Yom Kippur.  It is the most explicit description of any of the holy days found in the Torah, telling us how the Kohen Gadol would conduct himself in offering sacrifices, praying on behalf of the people and symbolically placing the sins of the people on the goat that was sent to Azazel, into the wilderness.  The "focus is the priestly responsibility to cleanse and purify the sanctuary so that it will be fit for the atonement rituals." Chapter 16 is the assigned reading for Yom Kippur morning.

Although the destruction of the ancient Temple ended the ritual described, much of the Yom Kippur traditions of fasting and seeking atonement are based on the end of the Yom Kippur description: "on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work...for on this day expiation shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord."

Chapter 17 begins a section the rabbis have named the Holiness Code. The beginning of the Holiness Code in our Parashah this week deals with issues of proper worship and the sanctity of the family.  The Holiness Code makes up most of the remainder of the book of Leviticus.

 

 


Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30 and Kedoshim, Lev. 19:1-20:27

2013  
Again this week we read a double parasha. We do so, because the current Jewish year is not a leap year (in Hebrew known as a pregnant year). We need a sufficient number of Torah readings to get us through a year when we add an additional month. In non-leap years we combine readings so that we can complete the entire Torah on time for Simkhat Torah, when we begin the reading all over again.
 
The bulk of the first reading is devoted to a detailed explanation of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual. The Kohen Gadol bathed and put on white linen vestments. Several sacrifices were offered for purification including a goat. The sins of the people were symbolically placed on a second goat which was sent of into the wilderness. The Kohen Gadol entered the Tent of Meeting and prayed as the people listened on behave of the people. The people were told that on this day they were to practice self denial, which the rabbis explained was to refrain from eating and drinking, from wearing leather, from sexual relations, from anointing themselves and from bathing for pleasure. These practices we maintain to this day.
 
Te remainder of this and the following Torah reading is devoted to the subject of holiness, and in fact is known as the Holiness Code. The purpose of the attempt to live a holy life is clearly stated, "You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy." Thus holiness is the effort to approximate as much as possible being God-like in all of our undertakings.
 
The Torah presents a long list of forbidden sexual partners, most of them incestuous relations. However this also includes the famous prohibition on same sex relations at least for men. It is a text that has gone through centuries of refinement and reinterpretation. Though from a traditional point of view it cannot simply be ignored as reflecting the values of another age, we can as others before us limit its application to the most confined interpretations. Believe it or not, though some would claim that the text is crystal clear, it is not clear and amenable to considerable interpretation.
 
As we peruse Parshat Kedoshim, we discover that most of the prescriptions for achieving a holy life are in the realm of morality and inter-personal relations, rather than purely religious life. Here are some of the most famous prescriptions:
 
You shall leave the edges of the field and gleanings for the poor.
You shall not steal.
You shall not deal falsely or deceitfully with another.
You shall not defraud your fellow.
You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind
You shall not render an unfair decision. Judge your kinsman fairly.
Do not profit by the blood of your fellow.
You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart.
Love your fellow as yourself.
You shall rise before ht e aged and show deference to the old
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.
You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity.

2012
If someone wanted to know about Jewish traditions and values I would urge him/her to study this double portion above all others.
 
Aharei Mot opens with a detailed description of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual. No other holy day is given as much attention in the Torah as this one. The ritual centers on the Kohen Gadol/ High Priest. The ritual involves the purification of the Sanctuary that has become impure through human sin. Sacrifices are offered and one of two goats is selected upon which all the sins of the people are symbolically placed. That goat is sent away into the desert symbolically removing those sins from the community.
 
In addition the Kohen Gadol after engaging in a purification ceremony enters the Kodosh haKedoshim/ the Holy of Holies, where in listening distance of the people prays three times: first on behalf of himself and his household, then on behalf of himself his household and the other Kohanim and finally on behalf of himself, his household the other Kohanim and the entire household of Israel.
 
This latter ritual we reenact every year in the early afternoon of Yom Kippur in a part of the service known as Avodah.
 
Here we are told that Yom Kippur is a day of self denial, which Jewish tradition has interpreted as a day or fasting, not wearing leather, not bathing for pleasure, or engaging in sexual activity.
 
Later in this first parashah the Torah provides parameters for defining family. The people are enjoined not to engage in Egyptian or Canaanite practices. In particular incest is defined and proscribed as is adultery, sexual religious activity and male homosexuality. However in the latter instance the rabbis defined very specifically what kinds of engagement was being prohibited.
 
The second parashah opens with the general prescription: "You shall be holy; for I, the Lord your God, am holy". The remainder of the parashah is devoted to defining the ways that holiness must enter our lives, the aspirations to which we should aspire in order to behave Godly or God-like. Though some of the prescriptions are religious in nature, i.e. having to do with one's obligations to God, overwhelmingly, the prescriptions are moral and ethical, i.e. how we treat our fellow human beings.
 
These ethical prescriptions deal with obligatory provisions for the poor, honesty, refraining from hurting or insulting another (even if s/he is deaf) or placing obstacles in front of others, fairness in justice to rich and poor alike, refraining from hatred and vengeance.
 
"Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) comes from this parashah.
 
The Torah proscribes various activities that must have been prevalent among the neighboring people such as practicing divination and soothsaying, turning to ghosts or spirits, or making gashes in one's flesh as an act of mourning.
 
Deference for age is encouraged and care in dealing with strangers in your midst mandated. People must not use faulty weights and measures in their business dealings with others.
 
These are some of the ways to bring holiness into our lives.

2010

This double portion is arguably the most relevant parashah in the book of Leviticus.

The opening chapter of Aharei Mot is also the assigned Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning, delineating the ancient Yom Kippur ritual involving purification of the Kohen Gadol and the Sanctuary, the separating out of two goats, one for sacrifice and the other upon whom the sins of the people are symbolically placed and then sent off into the wilderness, and the special prayers offered by the Kohen Gadol on behalf of the entire people.  We are told to practice self-denial on that day which the rabbis interpreted to include fasting from food and drink, avoidance of sexual activity, wearing of leather, bathing for pleasure and anointing.

From chapter 17 through chapter 26 the subject is one of the pursuit of holiness both in religious life, sexual relations and all aspects of social intercourse.  These chapters are known as the Holiness Code.  The opening section deals with the proper manner in which to bring offerings with serious consequences for violations.  The consumption of blood is once again prohibited, because "the life of the flesh is in the blood" which belongs exclusively to God.  Hunting for sport is also prohibited.  Next, the Torah delineates improper sexual relations among near relations, adulterous relations, improper times for sexual contact, including a prohibition on certain kinds of homosexual relations and relations with animals.

Parshat Kedoshim contains some of the most familiar and general injunctions concerning how and why creating a sense of holiness is central to the religious life.  These include:

"You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am Holy."

Leave the corners of your field and gleanings and not pick your vineyard bare for "You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger."

"You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully with one another."

"You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind."

"Do not profit by the blood of your fellow."

"You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart."

"Love your fellow as yourself."

"You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old."

"When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him."

"You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest efah and an honest hin."

2009

This double portion is chalk full of significant material.

Aharei Mot contains the detailed description of the original Yom Kippur ritual and therefore it is also the reading that is read Yom Kippur morning.  It describes the preparation of the Kohen Gadol, washing and dressing in special white vestments, taking two goats, one to be sent with the sins of the people into the wilderness, the other sacrificed and the prayers of the high priest on behalf of himself, the other priests and the entire household of Israel.

Aharei Mot also contains the prohibited sexual liaisons between close relatives (incest) and others, thereby defining marriage and the family.  It is here in Aharei Mot/ Kedoshim that we find the two verses (18:22 and 20:13) that speak to the issue of homosexuality: "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence."  How exactly the tradition has understood this verse and what the rabbis added to it, becomes the background for the contradicting opinions issued by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement in December 2007.  The opinions are available on the Rabbinical Assembly website ( www.rabbinicalassembly.org ).

Kedoshim means holiness and the parashah opens with the command "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy".  All the rest is commentary, as they say.  Holiness is the goal.  What follows are ritual and ethical standards for pursuing a life of holiness.  It begins with revering mother and father and observing the Sabbath and continues with our obligation to care for the poor, the handicapped and those who cannot fend for themselves.  It contains basic prohibitions against stealing and dealing deceitfully.  Some of the obligations are reinforced by legal sanction and others appeal to the conscience of each human being.

Some of the laws the rabbis expanded well beyond their literal meaning.  For example, when the Torah says that you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind, the rabbis immediately understood blind metaphorically, i.e. anyone unsuspecting or unknowledgeable is as if blind.  One is in violation for deliberately giving bad advice, and much further.

The overall obligation is to "love your fellow as yourself".  It was as a commentary to that verse that Hillel summarized all of Judaism as he stood on one foot, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor."

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Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27

2011

This relatively short parasha of 64 verses (most parshiyot contain anywhere from 120-180 verses) contains many if not most of the moral principles with which we are familiar from the Torah.

The parasha opens by instructing us, "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy".   "To be holy is to be different, to be set apart from the ordinary. To be holy is to rise to partake in some measure to the special qualities of God, the source of holiness.  Holiness is the highest level of human behavior, human beings at their most God-like."  Thus to be holy is to see the potential grandeur of human existence.  We can rise above, can envision what the individual and humanity is capable of and to aspire to that level.

In explicating what holiness means, the Torah calls on us to revere our parents and keep Shabbat.  It requires us to be cognizant of the poor and to provide for them.  It demands honest relations with our fellow:  not to steal, deal deceitfully, defraud another.  We must not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind, which the rabbis understood broadly to include those who might be intellectually or emotionally "blind", giving bad advice or provoking a short tempered person to lash out.  Judgment must be fair and just.

Perhaps most expansive is the famous injunction that we must "Love our neighbor as ourselves."

Eating of meat without removing the blood is forbidden as is practicing divination or soothsaying.  So too are mourning practices that involve making gashes in our bodies.

We are enjoined to respect the elderly and not wrong a stranger in our midst.  We must use honest weights and measures.  We are enjoined from engaging in Molech worship and from insulting parents.  Adultery is punishable by death.  Other forbidden sexual liaisons are also listed.

Violating God's commands will result in the land spewing us out of it.  We must not engage in the deplorable practices of others.

"You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine."

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Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23

2013  
The subject of holiness remains front and center. The majority of our parashah this week deals with holiness of person and holiness of time.
 
Holiness of time is a subject with which we are very familiar: the distinguishing in the calendar of sacred time, beginning with Shabbat and extending through the other five major holy days: Pesakh, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Time is itself undifferentiated. Without a calendar one day looks and feels like the next with daylight longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. We superimpose upon time special occasions when we will cease working, gather together as a community and observe certain ordained rituals which distinguish each of the special days from each other.
 
Holy days are listed in different places in the Torah. The listing in Leviticus tells us of the three agricultural holidays without indicating their historic significance. Thus the Passover offering and the feast of Unleavened bread is observed in celebration of the first sheaf of the harvest. Seven weeks later loaves of bread indicating the wheat harvest are brought for Shavuot and Sukkot marks the end of the harvest when you have gathered in the yield of your land. No reason is given for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is specified as a day for making expiation.
 
The holiness of persons, i.e. Kohanim is less familiar to us, because over the centuries the religious role of Kohanim has been diminished in favor of a democratizing through the creation of the institution of rabbis. By contrast with Kohanim, rabbis are not thought to carry special sanctity. All that is left of the holiness of Kohanim are a few restrictions which are still observed by some. Kohanim ought not enter a cemetery or funeral home, thereby becoming ritually impure, for anyone other than immediate family. The Torah also restricts Kohanim from marrying a divorcee or convert. Because we no longer consider divorced women as impaired, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement has ruled to allow such marriages ab initio without any loss of priestly status for the man or his children.
 
The final section of the Parashah contains a few unrelated laws. Blasphemy is one of them. Blasphemy is defined as a pronouncing the Name of God in a blasphemous manner. Such an individual is to be stoned to death...With our laws of free speech, blasphemy is far removed from our sensitivities. We are shocked and angered when Muslims see the violation of the prophet Muhammed as blasphemous and used to riot. Obviously the notion of blasphemy remains a strong violation within the Muslim community.

2012
Continuing the subject of holiness, the Torah now discusses the holiness of person. Kohanim were dedicated to God. They were involved in the sacred tasks of offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. Therefore additional restrictions were placed on Kohanim to main their sense of special sanctity. Kohanim were not allowed to voluntarily make themselves impure the main source of which was proximity to death. Therefore Kohanim would not attend funerals or cemeteries except for those of immediate family. They were not to shave the four corners of their beards or make gashes in their flesh. They could only marry born Jewish women not previously married. Kohanim with physical defects were prohibited from functioning as Kohanim.
 
The Torah portion continues with many laws having to do with the offering of sacrifices.
 
The central section of the parashah provides us with a calendar of the holy times. Beginning with Shabbat, it describes, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The end of the parashah presents a series of miscellaneous laws having to do with lighting the seven branch Menorah in the Tabernacle and the two rows of bread that were maintained there.
 
Blasphemy is the last issue. With our treasured freedom of speech and expression, blasphemy is a difficult subject for moderns. However the Torah prescribes capital punishment for anyone who blasphemes God. Reading this portion one has a better understanding, certainly not acceptance, of violence that accompanies disparaging Mohammed or the Koran within the Muslim world.

2011

Continuing the section of the Torah known as the Holiness Code, our Parasha covers three central topics: sacred persons i.e. the Kohanim, sacred time i.e. the calendar and sacred objects and speech.

Sacred persons: In order to create a sense of a class of sacred people, the Kohanim were to observe various restrictions.  They could not voluntarily become ritually unclean by attending a funeral or cemetery where proximity to the dead brought uncleanness.  The only exceptions were for immediate family members and for the high priest even that was forbidden.  They could not cut their beards.  They could not marry a divorcee and the high priest could also not even marry a widow. They must have no physical defects.

If they become impure or if they have a physical blemish they must not engage in their sacred duties.  Only the kohen and his household may eat of the sacred donations.  The offerings too that are brought must be without blemish.  Other restrictions concerning the offering's acceptability are also listed.

Sacred time: There are only two places in the Torah where all the major holidays are listed.  The purpose of the other listing in parshat Pinkhas is to delineate the various sacrifices that must be offered.  Here each of the six major holy days are described beginning with Shabbat and continuing in order beginning with Pesach and continuing with Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.  Though we are told in this passage when each of the holidays is to be observed and how they are to be observed, this text does not tell us much as to the purpose of each of the festivals.

Sacred objects and speech: Here we are instructed concerning the kindling of the menorah that was installed in the Tent of Meeting and the two rows of 12 loaves of bread that were to be placed on the table each Shabbat before God.  They were to be eaten by Aaron and his sons.  The last subject mentioned in our Torah reading s that of blasphemy: speaking the name of the Lord blasphemously.  A violator was to be stoned to death.  With our modern concern for freedom of speech this is a concern that is difficult for moderns to relate to though we understand when someone's sacred objects or holinesses are violated.

2010

Continuing the section of the Torah known as the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), the opening chapters of this week's parashah address special restrictions imposed on the Kohanim and especially the Kohen Gadol.  These restrictions governing both their professional and private lives would provide an additional level of purity.  Some of the restrictions run counter to values we hold today, but appreciating the purpose is of special significance.

Kohanim were not to become ritually impure, more specifically restricting them from any place where the dead were to be found: funeral home, cemetery, even a hospital with a morgue.  Exceptions for ordinary Kohanim were made for immediate family members.  They may not engage in certain mourning practices in order to maintain their holiness.  They may not marry a widow or divorcee (or a Jew by choice).  Kohanim with physical defects were disqualified from offering sacrifices, but may partake of the sacrifices that were consumed by the Kohanim.  However none of the Kohanim may eat of sacred offerings if they themselves are in a state of impurity for any reason.  A daughter of a Kohen who marries a non-Kohen loses her rights to a portion of these consumable offerings.  She may gain them if childless she returns to her father's home as a widow or divorcee.  Kohanim must also see to it that animals brought for sacrifice are without blemish or defect.

Chapter 23 changes the subject from sacred person to sacred time.  Here we have the most complete list of the holy days mentioned in the Torah, beginning with Shabbat.   The list then includes Passover (on the 14th day of the first month) and Feast of Unleavened Bread (seemingly a distinct holy day beginning on the 15th day); the counting of seven weeks until Shavuot; Rosh haShanah (referred to simply as "a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts); Yom Kippur; and Sukkot.

The final chapter contains a collection of diverse laws concerning the kindling of the Menorah in the Tent of Meeting, the two rows of bread that were placed on the table inside the Sanctuary, a prohibition against blasphemy (a subject very much in the news); and the institution of capital punish for intentional homicide and appropriate compensation for other injuries.

2009

Our Torah reading this week opens with laws governing the priesthood.  A Kohen/priest was not to allow himself to become ritually impure, the primary source of impurity was proximity to a dead body.  Thus to this day some Kohanim will not attend funerals or visit the cemetery.  Exceptions were made for attending the funerals of immediate family members.  Kohanim also had restrictions on shaving.   They were only to marry previously unmarried women.  Handicapped individuals could not officiate as priests.

The other central issue raised by our Parashah is the sacredness of time.  Though holy days are mentioned in several places in the Torah, the listing in Parshat Emor is the most complete listing.  Beginning with Shabbat, each of the major holidays: Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot are described.

In the final verses of the Parashah, we read about the sin of blasphemy, improper and non-respectful use of God's name.  (This is one of the few places in the Torah where Moses has to seek God's help in determining the proper punishment.)  In our day of freedom of speech blasphemy has all but disappeared from our discourse.  However it clearly retains its punch in the Muslim world.  It is due to their sense of blasphemy that we have explosions over the non-respectful depiction of Muhammed in cartoons or otherwise.  When these explosions of emotion occur we in the West are shocked and surprised.  That's because we have all but lost this notion of blasphemy.

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Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2

2011

Most years this short Parashah of one chapter is read along with the next Parashah, B'hukotai.  This being a Jewish leap year they are read separately.

This Parashah is devoted to the principles of land tenure.  The basic principle is expressed: "But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.  Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land."  Thus the land belongs to God who gave it to the Israelites as an inheritance.  They may not dispose of it; it may not be permanently alienated.  When due to circumstances land was sold, only its use was sold and only for the number of years until the next Jubilee (50 year mark), at which time it would automatically revert to the original owners, if the owner had not redeemed it before that time.  Thus all land transactions were long term leases, rather than permanent sales.

Three places in the Torah in Exodus, Deuteronomy and here in Leviticus the Torah addresses the Sabbatical year.  Each source emphasizes some other aspect and upon close reading they can be seen to be contradictory.  They rabbis worked diligently to reconcile the texts as consistent, but modern scholars consider the differences aspects of changing circumstances.  However they continue to disagree as to which reflects the earliest and latest developments.

After describing how land is to be returned to the ancestral owner during the Jubilee year, the Torah adds additional laws concerning redemption and the obligation of family members to redeem the holdings of their kinsman.  The Torah discusses the redemption of houses in walled cities as opposed to those in cities without walls.  In walled cities the homeowner has only one year to redeem his property.  Thereafter the transmission is permanent.  Homes in unwalled  villages followed the pattern of land and can be redeemed in the Jubilee.

The Torah instructs us to provide special care for our relatives who have fallen on hard times and provides very specific obligations.

 

2008
Behar is one of the shortest Torah portions of the year, a mere 57 verses.  Most Torah readings contain somewhere between 120-180 verses.  Behar is only read as a distinct Torah portion on leap years.  Otherwise it is combined with next week's Behukotai.

Behar teaches us about the principles of land tenure: Sabbatical and Jubilee years and associated land tenure laws.  Based on the idea that the land essentially belongs to God, the Torah teaches that 1) the land too is entitled to rest, i.e. to be left fallow each seventh year and not farmed and 2) that after seven Sabbatical years, the 50th year, all land shall return to its original owner.  Through this institution families and individuals will never be alienated from the land.  Thus when someone sells land, in essence they are only selling the use of the land until the next Jubilee year.  This was a means of preventing permanent impoverishment.  People might relinquish ownership due to economic hardship, but they would receive the land in return on the 50th year.

In thinking about these laws we must remember that our Biblical ancestors were agrarian.  They needed the land to make a living.  Permanent alienation from the land meant generations of poverty.

In addition we learn that if an impoverished member of the community was forced to sell his land, his next of kin was obligated to redeem (restore) it for him by paying for the remaining years until the Jubilee.  The Torah portion goes on to talk about housing in walled cities for which the redemption period was a year, after which it would be considered permanently transferred to the new owner.  Houses in unwalled cities are to be considered the same as land and are to be returned in the Jubilee year.

The Torah continues with a discussion of the obligations we have to kinsmen who have come upon bad times.  We must do whatever we can for them and treat them with respect.

 

 


Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2 and Bechukotai, Lev. 26:3-27:34

2013 
With this double parashah we conclude the book of Leviticus. As we do when we conclude each of the Five Books of the Torah, we will stand together and proclaim, Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit-hazek/ Strength, Strength, May we Strengthen One Another. Next we we will begin the book of Numbers.
 
The two final portions deal with quite different subjects. B'har deals entirely with the subject of land tenure. .
 
Every seven years the land was not to be farmed, but to be left fallow. The land was to be given rest, though whatever grew of its own accord could be consumed. Every 50
th year was to be designated a Jubilee year. In that 50
th
year all land that had been "sold" was to return to its original owner and the land was to be left fallow during the Jubilee as well.
 
The land of Israel was to be divided among the various Israelite clans when they entered the land. The land could not be sold permanently. All that could be transmitted to another was the use of that land until the next Jubilee Year when it would return to the original owner. In this way the Torah provided that that no individual/family would become totally disenfranchised.
 
The law also provided that if someone became impoverished it was the obligation of family members to redeem his land. If in the interim he prospers the owner retains the right to repurchase his land. In the city an owner had the right to redeem his property for up to a year. Houses in villages however could be redeemed and returned in the Jubilee year. Cities were walled. Villages were not.
 
Impoverished kinsmen were to be dealt with with compassion and kindness.
 
With Parshat B'khukotai we end Leviticus. Similar to the conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy, Leviticus concludes with the promise of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. The blessings include prosperity, security, peace, much progeny and God's constant care and oversight. The curses for rejecting God's laws include sickness, futility and losing God's concern. Rain will not fall and crops will not grow. Wild beasts will roam. War and pestilence will arrive as a plague. The people will be reduced to cannibalism. People will flee from the land.
 
B'hukotai does contain an appendix providing lists of values for funding the sanctuary.
 
"These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai."
 
Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit'hazaek.

2012
Hazak, hazak, v'nit-hazek. With this double portion we conclude the third book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus. The two portions are quite dissimilar.
 
Parshat Behar presents the principles of land tenure. It opens with the description of both the Sabbatical year in which the land is not to be farmed every seventh year and the Jubilee year which takes place every 50 years. Although the land is to be left fallow during the Sabbatical year, that which grows of its own may be eaten by owner, slaves, laborers, and cattle. In the Jubilee year land which changed hands during the previous 50 years is to return to the original owner. Thus land is not to sold in perpetuity, but rather only the use of the land until the next Jubilee year. In this way the Torah attempts to prevent permanent abject poverty.
 
The parashah urges relatives to redeem land that due to poverty their next of kin must sell. If the seller acquires assets he may redeem the land himself so as not to have to wait until the Jubilee year.
 
For city dwellers in a walled city, sales of homes may be redeemed for one year. After one year title transfers to the new owner. But residences in unwalled cities will be considered similar to land and must return to the owner in the Jubilee year.
 
The portion strongly urges next of kin to look out for their relatives, lending without charging interest and taking them in rather than having them sell themselves into slavery.
 
The second portion, B'khukotai, as the last portion in Leviticus contains both the promise of blessing and the warning of curses attendant upon faithful observance of God's commandments or lack thereof. "Several commentators, notably Ibn Ezra, insist that although more verses are dedicated to the curses, the blessings promised in the opening section outweigh it in quality. The curses are spelled out at length in the hope tht they will put fear into the hearts of those who cannot be persuaded to do what is right by any other means." The blessings include proper rain to produce abundance, peace and security from enemies as well as beasts. The people will multiply and God will dwell in their midst. The curses promise the opposite of the blessings and then some.
 
Finally as an apparent appendix, Leviticus ends with ways in which the sanctuary might be funded. If someone pledged himself, the scale is determined as to how much was owed depending upon age and gender. The Torah also explains how pledging the value of an animal or a piece of land might be administered.

2010

Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit'hazek: Strength, Strength, May we be able to strengthen one another!

With this double portion we conclude the book of Leviticus, the third of the five books of the Torah.  Behar focuses us on the principles of land tenure through the institutions of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years.  Every seventh year the land must be given a rest.  The land may not be sown or vineyards pruned.

The fiftieth year or jubilee  would be declared with a blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur.  Release (or liberty) would be declared throughout the land...a line from our reading that was imprinted onto the Liberty Bell. During that jubilee all land would return to its original owner, thus at least in theory minimizing the difference between rich and poor.  The land belongs essentially to God, who in turn gave it to the Israelites such that every family would retain its inheritance in perpetuity.  Thus land could never really be sold.  All that could be transferred was the use of the land for the number of years that remained until the jubilee when it would return to its original owner.

The Torah continues with related matters providing for those who would be on hard times: relatives are obligated to redeem land that their kinsman has sold.  Homes in a walled city might be redeemed up to a year after sale.  If not redeemed the title would transfer to the new owner.  However homes in villages can be redeemed until the jubilee.  Property of Levites might be redeemed forever.

The people are enjoined to treat their fellow Jews who have fallen on hard times kindly, lending money interest free.  He must not be treated as a slave, but rather as a hired laborer, so that he might return to his family and ancestral holding.  If a kinsman comes under the authority of a resident alien, he shall have the right of redemption.

The second parashah forms the epilogue to the holiness code.  The people are promised blessings if they faithfully observe God's commandments: rain in its season providing produce and dwell in security. Peace will reign.  The people will be fertile and multiply.  God will dwell among the people.

However if the people violate God's demands the parashah provides a long list of painful punishments of all types.  While the list of blessing is given in 15 verses, the threat of punishments given 32 verses!

The book of Leviticus also contains an appendix:

Should someone pledge the value of a human being as a gift to the sanctuary, the parashah provides the amount that must be paid.  That amount differs depending upon age and gender. Animals too offered can be redeemed for a price. Donations of property must be assessed and the redeemer must pay 20% above the value.  The value of land donated should be computed on the basis of how many years remain until the jubilee.

"These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai."

2009

This double portion is the final reading in the book of Leviticus.  We will therefore end the reading by standing and reciting together: Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit-hazek/ Strength, Strength, May we be able to strengthen one another.

Parshat Behar is the primary section of the Torah to lay down the principles of land tenure in ancient Israel.  We are introduced to the concepts of the Sabbatical Year, in which the land must be allowed to rest and lie fallow.  Anything that grows of its own accord may be eaten by anyone.  Every fiftieth year following seven Sabbatical years, must be declared a Jubilee year.  During that year all land sold since the previous Jubilee will revert to the original owner.  Thus land cannot be sold, only the use of the and for however many years remain until the Jubilee.  In this way in theory no one will become disenfranchised.

When relatives become impoverished, their next of kin is obligated to redeem his holdings and support him without taking advantage.

Special provisions exist for dwellings in walled cities.  The Torah also discusses what one's obligation is when an Israelite becomes indentured to a non-Israelite.

As in most covenants, treaties, contract or agreements, Parshat Bekhukotai lists both the blessings that will result from faithfully keeping the covenant and the consequences of disobeying.  Rabbi Kushner notes in our Humash: "Several commentators, notably Ibn Ezra, insist that although more verses are dedicated to the Tokhehah/ curses, the blessings promised in the opening section outweigh it in quality.  The curses are spelled out at length in the hope that they will put fear into the hearts of those who cannot be persuaded to do what is right by any other means."

Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit-hazek

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Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34

2011

This relatively short Torah reading (80 verses) in most years is combined this the previous reading, b'Har.  It is only read separately during Jewish leap years such as the current one.

B'Hukotai is the last Parashah in the book of Leviticus.  Next week we begin the book of Numbers.  Whenever we conclude any of the books of the Torah the congregation stands as we read the very last words and calls out in unison, "Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit'hazek (Strength, strength, may we strengthen one another)" after which the Torah reader (tomorrow it will be our Bar Mitzvah) repeats the three words.

B'Hukotai consists of two distinct chapters.  The first, similar to one of the concluding chapters of Deuteronomy, lays out the benefits and consequences of obeying or disobeying God's commands.  These are usually referred to as blessings and curses.  The Torah is called a covenant, a religious word for contract.  God makes certain promises and in return we are to obey God's laws.  This section, I imagine, is similar clauses that might appear in a human contract, listing both the benefits of fulfilling all the expectations as well as the consequences of reneging on conditions in the contract.

In this case the "contract" is not between equals.  There is no doubt that God will keep God's end of the bargain.  The only question is as to whether we will keep up our end.  So the benefits and consequences are not mutual, but only address one side, namely us.

In the blessings God promises plenty and peace in the land, unafraid from enemies or dangers.  God promises progeny and God's abiding presence among us.

However if we choose not to obey the consequences will be harsh and are listed in much greater detail than the blessings.  Reading this section was considered so frightening that it was traditionally recited in an undertone and often the Shammas/Sexton received that Aliyah to the Torah, because no one else would accept it!

The last chapter functions somewhat like an appendix, dealing with a subject which was not included earlier.  It seems that it was not unusual to make unusual pledges to the maintenance of the sanctuary, such as pledging oneself.  That meant that the individual was pledging a standard amount which was considered the value of the person.  So our last chapter provides us with a table of values, depending on age and gender.   If a person pledged an animal, s/he could also redeem it for a fixed sum.  If a house was pledged, the Kohen would have to assess it; similarly a pledge of land was also assessed.

"These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai."

Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit'hazek!

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