Torah Study Notes 3-11-17

March 11, 2017

NOTICE TO READERS: These notes are best understood when read in conjunction with The Torah a Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, edited by W. Gunther Plaut.

Joined today by Rabbi’s mother Amy! See Rabbi Berkowitz’s sermon on the subject of clothes – also posted here.

Page 563

Here we are looking at the clothing of the priests. See http://www.biblesearchers.com/temples/jeremiah10.shtml for an image. See also PBS documentary on the Met collection – fashion as art. http://fashionista.com/2016/02/met-gala-documentary-trailer#! Now available on Netflix.

The intentionality of the messages conveyed by clothing. Note that the previous generation of rabbis wore robes. When woman first became rabbis, and hoped that the robes would avoid any comments about their clothing, there were still comments about shoes and hair. Richard – how ancient is the tradition of white associated with purity? Does white denote virginity or austerity? RB It can be both and may also be a symbol of equality if worn commonly by a group. LL White denotes mourning in some cultures in the east – China, India and Japan.

27:20  Olive oil for lighting. The Hebrew word “Tamid” is eternal or perpetual. But here, and as a practical matter, the light is from evening to morning. Archeologist have not found textiles from this period.  Any kind of textile work would likely not be accomplished by a purely nomadic people. Most of this section is likely therefore back-dated from the Temple period – a retrojection.

28:1 The sacred vestments and what they were intended to communicate. “sacral vestments” for priestly service.  Dignity and adornment are stated messages. These items are heavy so as to convey a sense of gravitas. Did they wear this all of the time? Surely while in the tabernacle. There is a suggestion of elitism here in that special fabrics and symbols of wealth that is dynastic to Aaron and his progeny. There was a hereditary priestly class. PC “Thank God I am not a Alpha, they have to think deep thoughts. I am only an Epsilon” from Brave New World (LL I could not find this exact quote and this is also a ZBT fraternity chant.) There is some comfort to having prescribed ritual or order of things.  There is an advantage in having clothing that tells who you are. CL The structure of society in the ancient near east was God/King personified in one person. This is somewhat different in that God here is separated and not personified. The priest seems to be separate and apart but he is one of the people. God is on a mountain top and becomes progressively more removed as we approach modern western religions.   RL What is the listing of tribes and sons on the stones about? LL Possibly remembering? This is resonant of “You shall set them as frontlets before your eyes.” The stones are symbols but also burdens. The notion of weight as seriousness of purpose.  CL The use of the written word as part of the art/decoration is unusual in this period.  RB The script would likely have been a precursor to Hebrew.  See footnote 10 re 25 characters on each shoulder stone.

28:15  Details of the construction and identification of the stones that would represent each tribe. They are framed in gold. Note the phrase “…inside the breastplate of decision…” SF: What is the decision or decisions that they would have to make? RB A variety of decisions. In many cases the priest would also act as a judge – probably in matters both theological and civil. But the priest would here be called upon to make predictions as to future events. This indicates that any decision must be predicated on the common good. They are also a reminder to God that the priest is speaking for the people of the covenant. LL Interesting that God again “remembers” or is “reminded.”

28:22 More details of construction of the vestments.

See note on page 573. Re Urim and Thummim. These objects are unknown but are believed to be in the nature of oracle bones. Joshua approached Eleazar to  decide if the people should or should not go to war. PC Is there regret that we have lost this ancient direct contact with God? RB Yes but there has been an evolution in the relationship. The notion is that modern practices of prayer are in fact a lesser substitute for the that direct contact. Our modern way is more democratic arguably. Shira – the previous generation must on occasion feel uncomfortable with change so that the next can more easily accept it. Structure and tradition are themselves evolutionary.

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Dress for Success: What Biblical Clothes Can Tell Us About Modern Leadership

This week’s sermon on Purim and Parashat Tetzaveh. Cross posted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Every year, when I sit down to do my taxes, I scroll through my Amazon history to determine what I spent on books, office supplies, and other work-related items. When I get to February and March, I am filled with gratitude that I am in a profession where a Marilyn Monroe wig is a business expense.

Purim is upon us, and that means we are paying special attention to our clothing. We dress in costume, of course (a reminder that this year we will have prizes for doing so!). But the theme of clothing is also woven through the Purim story: who is wearing it, and who isn’t wearing it. The King asks Vashti to appear before his friends wearing her royal crown—perhaps, the rabbis suggest, only her royal crown—and she refuses. After banishing Vashti, the King places that same crown on Esther’s head. Mordechai wears sackcloth and ashes when he hears of the edict to execute the Jews of Shushan, and the king’s own royal robes, when a jealous Haman is forced to honor his rival. Esther employs perfumes and cosmetics to win the king’s heart, and puts on royal robes to change the king’s mind. And while Haman’s famous hat doesn’t appear anywhere in the biblical story, we all know to associate its triangular shape with evil, or possibly, with prune filling.

Clothing is more than what covers our bodies. It is part of what defines us as human beings. As Nechama Leibowitz points out: “Humans are the only creatures in the universe who do not rest content with their natural skin” (Etz Chayim, p. 504). Clothing sends a message both to the wearer and to the outside world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, where we learn the design of the clothing of the priesthood, particularly the elaborate garments of the high priest.

In a society where most clothing would have been overwhelmingly beige, the colorful design of the high priest’s outfit indicates his elevated status. The embroidery alone requires the work of many dedicated Israelites. Gold, blue, purple, and red dyes—all expensive to produce—figure prominently in the high priests’ outfit. Precious stones and metals decorate his forehead, shoulders, chest, and ankles.

These fancy pieces did not just serve to show the Israelites who is boss. In fact, it is likely that they did exactly the opposite.

high priest outfitWhile the other priests wore simple, modest linen garments—tunics, sashes, turbans, and pants—the high priest’s outfit included a more decorative item called an ephod, which resembles a heavily embroidered apron. The centerpiece of this ephod was the choshen mishpat, the “breastpiece of decision,” containing the Urim and Thummim, a pair of stones used to divine God’s will. The choshen is embellished with 12 precious stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. Furthermore, on each of his shoulders, the high priest wears one of two onyx stones, each engraved with the names of six of the 12 tribes. “Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision over his heart before the Eternal at all times” (Exodus 28: 30).

Why would God insist that the high priest be so…bedazzled? Wouldn’t all that bling be heavy to carry around?

While the use of precious stones was an indicator of the high priest’s status, the engraving on the stones serves a dual purpose. The first is so that, when the high priest appeared before God, God would remember the covenant God had made with all the Israelites. The second is so that neither the high priest nor the Israelites would ever forget that the high priest was their representative. Biblical archaeologist Carol Meyers writes that the breastplate, “symbolizes the presence of all Israel in the decisions made with the ephod and gives authority to those rulings; it also carries the implicit hope for divine awareness of the people and their needs” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 478). One rabbi adds that the gemstones “serve as a perpetual and humbling reminder to him that he is the representative of the entire community of Israel before God” (Etz Chayim, p. 506).

This means that, every day, when the High Priest puts on the ephod and the choshen, the gemstones force him to literally feel the weight of his responsibilities bearing down on his shoulders. He may be, as the gold piece on his forehead states, “Holy to the Eternal,” but he is also, in essence, a servant of the people.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something like that for our leaders today?

When I was training to be a camp counselor at URJ Camp Eisner, the director read us a letter from a first-time camper’s parent. I don’t remember exactly what it said, only that the parent was grateful, and that the child’s name was Emma. I remember this because, after reading about the great summer the camp had provided for her, someone printed up stickers saying, “I do it for Emma.” I still have the sticker on my now rarely-used camp counselor clipboard. While I’ve long since forgotten who Emma was (I don’t even know if I ever met her, though she’s probably 25 by now) the sticker still serves as a reminder that a great deal of what we do as leaders needs to be remembering whom we work so hard for.

No matter what our profession or calling, it helps to keep a reminder of why we do what we do, and whom we do it for, close to our hearts. And no one needs this reminder more than our elected officials.

As I was reading this Torah portion, I couldn’t help but imagine what a choshen mishpat might look like for our government leaders. Would the president wear a stone for each of the 50 states? Would a senator’s breastpiece feature the names of all of their districts? Would a representative engrave their constituents’ zip codes on their shoulder stones? What would it feel like if a local, state, or national leader had to carry the weight of their constituents with them wherever they went?

We don’t have ephods or breastpieces today: not for our Jewish leaders, and not for our political ones. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to remind our leaders whom they serve. Rabbis get these reminders when we meet with our lay leadership, and when people come to us directly to tell us what they need or want. Although we cannot possibly please everyone, even in a small community, knowing what our community is thinking and feeling helps us to be better rabbis. It helps us to point ourselves in the right direction, not necessarily where we want the congregation to go, but where we believe the congregation itself wants to be.

Politicians get these reminders when we visit, call, or write to them. In the wake of recent events, some organizations are suggesting we do this every day. This is relatively new territory for me, as I previously only spoke to my representatives on a handful of designated advocacy days. Now I receive daily reminders to call, write, or visit our local, state, and national leaders, to remind them who I am, what my values are, and that I will support any effort the government makes to take better care of the people.

On the flip side of this, as a leader myself, I am feeling the weight of our community’s needs. Many people we serve here at Vassar Temple have expressed a desire to advocate publicly for Jewish values in partnership with our synagogue community. Just as many of our people have expressed a desire for the synagogue to be a refuge from political activity, and we respect that desire as well. With six on one shoulder and a half dozen on the other, we aim to strike a reasonable balance.

This Sunday, at 7 p.m., the Vassar Temple Advocacy Group will be meeting to set its course for the coming year. While this group does not represent Vassar Temple as an institution, it provides an opportunity for our members to engage in advocacy that is in line with our Jewish values, in partnership with our sacred community. We work in conjunction with Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, which is a non-partisan group that advocates on issues including hunger, reproductive rights, and equality for women and the LGBTQ community. While we do not expect the entire Reform Jewish community, or even all of Vassar Temple itself, to be aligned on how we approach these issues, we cannot deny that these are concerns we all share, and that part of being Jewish is standing up for what we believe in, whether we do this individual, or together.

Like the stones on the choshen mishpat, we are called to remind our leaders who it is they serve, to be the weight on their shoulders, and the precious stones that they display proudly to the world.

Tomorrow, we celebrate Purim, which, if we look beyond the elaborate costumes, celebrates the different ways we stand up against injustice. May we be like Vashti, who stamps her feet in protest. May we be like Mordechai, who supports and guides a new leader as she finds her voice. May we be like Esther, who uses her position of power to protect the vulnerable. And let us even give a little credit to King Ahasheurus who, when challenged by those he respects and admires, manages to do the right thing.

Torah Study Notes 3-4-17

March 4, 2017

Page 545

T’rumah means “gift” This is from a Priestly author so is very detailed. How a holy place is created with the described objects. See Essay at Plaut page 543. Here Moses has ascended Sinai alone where he remains in communication with God.

25:1 The Eternal one spoke to Moses…let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them… note that the translation “dolphin skin” is uncertain. “The Torah is our ancestors telescope searching for God.” (LL: I like this quote but could not find the source.) How they understood Gods relationship to space. SF: What are the gifts that we can give to God now. Current thinking is that we make a sanctuary in her hearts. Love is an emotion that cannot be commanded.  These gifts need to be gifts of the heart. Joan B. – I don’t think of God living in a specific place. RB: Again, these accounts are being codified after the destruction of the First Temple. This was a way of creating a focal point and keeping everyone busy. RB:  If you don’t give the people a tabernacle to build they will build and idol. The Reform movement is bringing back the physicality of prayer. There was a considerable period when that was not the case. LL: My earliest memories at VT are from 1952 when I was studying for my Bar Mitzvah with Rabbi Alton Winters. The service was much more restrained at that time. Men never wore a prayer shawl during services and the Torah was definitely not marched around the sanctuary.

25:10: They shall make an ark…RB: The description here looks like the one from Raider of the Lost Ark.https://www.google.com/search?q=raiders+of+the+lost+ark+images&espv=2&biw=1094&bih=510&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwix4tiW-r_SAhVqxFQKHQzCAIoQ7AkIOA#imgrc=SdhBKE-CJvhgiM:

The rings and poles made it transportable. The tablets of the Covenant are placed within. The poles are intended to create distance – no one can touch the ark.  Gloria: In Europe I saw an exhibition of merry go round figures that were made by the same carvers who build the Arks for temples.

When did synagogue design as we know it today start?  Remember that what is described here is not Judaism – it is a priestly religion with the same or similar laws.

17: Cubits and Cherubim. Note reference to “the pact.” Why does it not say “covenant?” This was likely a parchment written in Hebrew. The “cherubim” is sometime thought of as a childs face but we don’t know if these are winged persons or some other figure – such as a lion – or even multi-faced. There were similar figures in other near eastern religions. Some think of them as angels. https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=images+of+cherubim&*

SF They represent certain kinds of energy – God will meet us between them. Or the attributes of justice and mercy. LL Cannot mercy be part of justice? SB It is interesting that we are asked to build a place for God. LL The process of building or creating is part of the training or even transformation of the individual – be it in a place or via internalization.

23: You shall make a table of acacia wood…overlaid with gold. The bread of display? Almond blossoms and calyx with petals. Follow the patterns that are shown to you on the mountain. See note on page 555. God needed food? The loaves we have Friday are salted and recalls the sacrifices. Salt is also a sign of wealth. There is clearly a reference to pagan practices here. They are taking steps away from the notion of food for gods. Creation must be consistent with our values.