Torah Study Notes 4-29-17

April 29, 2017

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz

NOTE TO READERS: All page references are to Plaut “The Torah – A Modern Commentary” Revised Edition

Page 735 Defilement, Childbirth and Purification.

12:1 Woman’s impurity after childbirth. Metaphorical? Also, touches on skin diseases and heredity. Note that the uncleanliness here is ritual impurity. The woman cannot enter the mishkan in a state of ritual impurity. This clearly places a greater value on the son than the daughter. The latter is impure twice as long. What is the symbolism of the numbers here? Some of this has to do with circumcision and the necessity of having the mother present at the bris. The bris provides spiritual protection to both the baby and the mother. Note that there would be no mourning until a child has survived at least a month. Medically, there are no clotting issues after eight days. There is no place in rabbinic Judaism to mourn miscarriage and stillbirth. Note that 40 is a significant number representing wholeness. That is the total of 7 and 33. Woman are supposed to go to the mikvah once a month. See Notes on page 734. Question as to practices in other ancient religions. Polygamy was common at this time. Partly because death in childbirth was common. See work of Rebecca Goldstein on male preferences.

12:6 The sacrificial offerings to be made by the woman who has given birth. Note the exception for woman not of means. If she can’t afford a sheep a pigeon will do.

13:1 Skin diseases. This section is most avidly read by dermatologists.  Note that there were rules against sorcery and witchcraft. Note also that the word “leprosy” here is a loose translation of a Hebrew word for an unknown disease. The priests were not healers or medical practitioners. How did the tradition of medical practice evolve among the Jews? Note that there was no distinction between philosophy and medicine/science. The rabbi’s would argue here that the described ailments are spiritual and the disease is punishment. The rabbis are not comfortable with unexplained suffering. LL The notion of physical isolation suggests that there was an awareness of the fact that some illnesses are actually communicable via contact. This suggests that there was something other than a spiritual malaise being addressed. The question is raised as to how we treat someone who is visibly ill. The limitation of day of “impurity” at least puts a limit on how the community might treat someone with disrespect. It appears that a pronouncement of “pure” is the same as a pronouncement of “cured.” One could use a flow chart to diagnose these diseases. See “Medicine in the Bible”

Until there was any proper understanding of the causative factors in disease and the actual disease processes themselves, there was a tendency to see sickness as the result of divine visitations and punishment for wrongdoing. The Bible itself knows little of physicians as such, and in the faith of Israel it was God alone who was the healer and giver of life. Ultimately, it was God alone who sent disease and disaster as a punishment for wrongdoing or, alternatively, rewarded the good with health and well‐being (see, e.g., Exod. 15.26; Deut. 7.12–15). It was seen especially with regard to contagious and disfiguring diseases, of which the best example is the disease complex unfortunately called leprosy in most English translations. Various ritual prescriptions were applied to such diseases in order to avoid the contamination of the community, which was seen as more important than the healing of the sick person.

Torah Study Notes 3-20-17


May 20, 2017

Rabbi Paul Golomb

Page 850

25:1 In the seventh year the land must rest. Note the shift in location from the beginning of Leviticus. The tent of meeting has moved from amidst the people to the top of a mountain. Moses is here alone and the people are camped nearby. There is a sociological philosophical/theological shift here. This is a continuation of the Holiness Code – a term used in biblical criticism to refer to Leviticus chapters 17–26, and is so called due to its repeated use of the word Holy.

Consider the notion of environmental ethics and sustainability. Both the earth and humans are entitled to a rest period. PG We must be aware of human intervention with the land. There is mutual dependence here that requires a process of conservation. To rest on Shabbat is fundamentally an act of faith – the notion that things won’t fall apart without us. This is more poignant as an issue for one tilling the land and caring for livestock. Can one lease his land for the 7th year and comply with this section? Consider the idea of “yenas” or first fruits in winemaking or “shmita.”

Wine is used to sanctify so has a special place here. However, the use of wine is generally discouraged throughout scripture because it dulls the senses. There are two categories of violation when a ritual violation takes place – intentional or accidental. The penalty for the latter is lenient and can be remedied. Someone passing through the vineyard at night and touching the grapes would be considered unintentional or inadvertent. LL Note: There seems to be an assumption that leaving the land fallow will replenish it whereas there are crops that today are used to enrich the soil. See line 21 re the abundance of the sixth year.

25:8 The 50th year. The horn shall sound and this year shall be a Jubilee. No sowing or reaping – only eating what grows naturally in the field. In buying the use of land from your neighbor there are special rules because what is being sold is the number of harvests. PG: Note that there is no cultivation in the 49th year since that is a multiple of seven. A question is raised as to keeping the land fallow for two years in a row. LL This encourages the building of granaries and silos. The people must prepare for the two fallow years – occurring either naturally or by design. RL Who enforced these rules? In Egypt, it was Pharaoh. Solomon Zeitlin ( has suggested that the definition of a “year” is not explicit. He suggests that the Hebrew year in Biblical times was 364 days so the same day of the week fell on the same day of each year. This lost a day to the solar year so they made up the loss by the 50th year. That year would only be fifty days. The land is held by a clan in perpetuity. Any exchanges are therefore leases or sub-leases.  At the end of the 50 year period the land returns to the clan. SF This could be massively destructive to social order. Business and market based codes are outlined here. Honesty is required as to pricing and valuation. Line 14 “You shall not wrong one another…”  This becomes significant after the Babylonian return – the text is promulgated and is being read. The question is why did they lose the land in the first place? Social injustice. The rich took advantage of the poor. This is picked up in Prophets. There is an analysis of what went wrong and what can be done right now.  This is being promulgated at Sinai because it is terribly important – social injustice leads to destruction. (If these are leases, do they decrease in value as the 50th year approaches? Compare 99 year leases of today.) In Israel today most of the population does not care about the shmeta. Only a smallpercentage are still able to engage in personal piety by strictly following these rules. PC There are lessons here for today’s society in America. The Jubilee was considered inoperative after the exile – it could no longer be done since the Jews were landless. That was certainly even more true after the Diaspora.

Some People Count, Some People Don’t

This Week’s Sermon on parashat Bamidbar. Cross-posed to the This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

“Some people count, some people don’t.”

It’s a line only a movie villain could say, in this case, the womanizing waiter in the movie Dirty Dancing (a television remake aired this past Wednesday, so I had to sneak that in there).

But these words might have very well been spoken by God and Moses, as we begin reading the book of Numbers. In Hebrew, this book is called Bamidbar, “in the wilderness,” because of where the events of the book take place. However, the English name, Numbers, is pretty spot on. The first commandment we receive in this book is, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Numbers 1:2).

The Israelites do what God commands, reaching a total of 603,550.  Though some call this figure “impossibly large,” it is still only a sliver of the Israelite community (Etz Chayim 773). In this census, some people count, and some people don’t. The distinction reveals a great deal about the priorities of the community. At this moment, when the Israelites are preparing for military action, it makes sense that the only people they care to count are men who can serve in the army. This census excludes women, children, and the disabled. It also excludes the Levites, the caretakers of the temple, who, though essential to the Israelite community, do not fight in the military. This particular exclusion makes it clear that not counting doesn’t mean you aren’t important (check out the triple negative!), but rather that you aren’t a necessary player in this particular mission.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

Nowadays, congregations have different ways of counting people. I recently learned that churches measure their congregations by ASA—“Average Sabbath Attendance.” By this metric, we are growing, so I happen to like it better. But it is interesting to put the two metrics side-by-side: do we count the membership of our congregation by who fills out a form or writes a check, or by who comes through the door and takes part in the life of the synagogue? For a house of worship to thrive, both metrics matter.

But more than the numbers themselves, what matters is whether or not people feel that they “count” as a part of our community.

This past week, I read a children’s book called Almost a Minyan. Someone had referred to the book as “groundbreaking,” and I wanted to see why. The story is about a girl anticipating the day that she can count in a minyan, one of the ten adults—traditionally men—needed to say Kaddish in the synagogue. At first, I was offended that anyone would think of it as “groundbreaking” to have a young woman “count” in a minyan, or to wear tallit and tefillin, as this young woman does in the illustrations. Women counting in the synagogue? That was sooooo 100 years ago!

But two things made this book special. The first was that there was no dramatic tension about the young woman counting in the minyan—the drama of the story came from someplace else. No one was against it. It was just a matter of her reaching the appropriate age. Once she turned twelve, wasn’t any question of whether or not she “counted.”

Moreover, the faces in the book represented different races and genders, though none of this was mentioned or explained in the text. This might not seem that groundbreaking to us—we have all kinds of people here in our synagogue. But imagine that you are a young woman, or a person of color, in a Jewish community where there aren’t many people who look like you. Seeing a face like yours, or a story like yours, on the page, reminds you (or maybe tells you for the first time) that you matter. You count.

We have come quite a far way from counting only adult, combat-ready males in the Jewish community. We give equal weight to men and women, to the disabled and the abled, to adults and to children, even if certain privileges only come with b’nai mitzvah. In the Reform movement, we have taken extra steps to make sure that individuals, and households, are counted equally, regardless of their size, shape, color, ability, economic status, or orientation.

This is the ideal, but there are times when we fall short. Each of us has probably known a time when we didn’t feel “counted” in a community: when our voice was not heard, or our needs were not met, or we did not feel welcomed because we were different in some way. It is our responsibility as a sacred community to consider who might still be outside our doors, because they don’t feel that they “count” here, and how we can communicate to every person in our community that they matter.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

We are also seeing this phrase play out on the national scale. We have our own census coming up in 2020, and there is a debate over who will be counted. While the 1990 census was the first to count same-sex couples, the 2020 census was going to be the first to include questions about LGBTQ individuals. But the Census Bureau revealed a few weeks ago that these questions would not be included in this census.

Why does this matter? It matters to researchers and agencies who serve these populations, so that they can have the best information about the people living in any given community, and address the particular challenges that each community might face. And it matters to LGBTQ individuals, who view this as an attempt to “erase” them. They want to know that they “count.”

This past week, the White House released a budget proposal for next year that has raised further questions about who “counts” in our society. The proposal suggests making cuts to programs that serve children, the poor, and the disabled. The White House Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, urged the public not to focus solely on the numbers:

“We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs. We are going to measure compassion and success by the number of people we help get off those programs and get back in charge of their own lives.”

This is an admirable goal. There is no higher form of tzedaka than empowering a person to become self-sufficient. But we must ask those in positions of leadership: how will you care for those who are counted as recipients of SNAP, Medicaid, and Social Security Disability? How will you bring them from public assistance to independence, and how will you care for them in the meantime? How will you say to these people: “You count”?

We might be focused on the big numbers, such as the 44 million people in the United States who receive food stamps, or the $192 billion dollar cut to that program. But for each individual or family, it’s the smaller numbers that make the biggest difference: a thousand dollar child tax credit, a dollar difference in the minimum wage, a student loan payment, a medical bill. I’m not callous enough to say that none of these programs could be run with less waste or more efficiency. We’re trying to do that here, too. But the huge scale of these proposed cuts sends a message to the people who rely on them: You don’t count.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

Elsewhere in the Torah it is seen as bad luck to do count people, so much so that, in another census, they collected a half-shekel from each Israelite instead of counting heads. So the rabbis ask, why, here, are the Israelites counted? They compare God to a dealer of precious stones. If the merchant is selling glass beads, they might not bother to count their inventory. But the Israelites, they say, are like fine pearls. God needs us to be counted because each of us is precious (Numbers Rabbah 4:2).

Similarly, another midrash explains that the number given in this week’s census is equal to the number of letters in the Torah. This shows the importance of each individual. If one letter in the Torah is missing, the scroll is invalid. Likewise, if one person is left out, the Jewish community cannot thrive (Itturei Torah on Genesis 1:1).

Some people count, and some people don’t.

It is an ugly truth in every society. But you know who counts? We do. As members of this community, and citizens of this nation, we can speak up for those who may feel like they don’t count. We must communicate to our leadership that each individual in our community, and in our country, is more than just a number. It is our responsibility to work towards the day that each person is counted, not as a half-shekel, but as a precious pearl.

Vassar Temple Advocacy Group Goes to Albany!

Andi Ciminello, Howard Susser and Marge Groten joined other Reform Jewish Congregations in Albany on Monday, May 8th for a Lobby Day organized by Reform Jewish Voice of New York State.  The event was attended by approximately 30 people.

The morning session was devoted to training the participants on the issues on the organization’s agenda for the day of lobbying and on lobbying techniques.  Presenters included the Co-chairs of Reform Jewish Voice; Assemblywoman Pat Fahey; staff from NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office and a legislative assistant from the Religious Action Center, in Washington DC.
We were asked to advocate for:
  • support of measures that curb the growing influence of money in politics,
  • support of the New York Votes Act to make voting more accessible to New Yorkers,
  • support of the Reproductive Rights Health Act and the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act, and
  • opposition to the Education Affordability Act, which would provide extremely generous tax credits to those making donations to private and parochial schools.
In the afternoon we meet with Assemblyman Frank Skartados, a staff person working for Assemblywoman DidI Barrett (a Vassar Temple member) and a staff person in Senator Sue Serino’s office to discuss all of the issues on the day’s agenda.  We all felt the event was very worthwhile and encourage Temple members to take the opportunity—either in Albany or locally—to lobby our state legislators on issues identified by Reform Jewish Voice of New York. Speak to one of us if you are interested.