Emor: Why?

The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin except for the relatives that are closest to him…
The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God…He may eat of the food of his God…but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them…
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, and to all the Israelite people, and say to them: When any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers in Israel presents a burnt offering as his offering for any of the votive or any of the freewill offerings that they offer to the Lord… you shall not offer any that has a defect, for it will not be accepted in your favor…And when a man offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord for an explicit vow or as a freewill offering, it must, to be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it… (Vayikra 21: 1-2,16-17,22-23. Vayikra 22: 17-21).

Why did You create Your world
with defilement and death?

Why is the disfigured priest
debarred from serving You?

Why, in times of true endeavor,
is accomplishment denied?

Why is this day’s certainty
blurred by tomorrow’s doubt?

Accord us faith to serve You
with our unrequited questions.


In a commentary on Parashat Emor, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5472, Reb Mimi Feigelson describes the very unusual approach to the entire Parasha undertaken by the Ishbitzer Rebbe* (the Mei HaShiloach). She addresses the paradigm of “grievances” the Halachic aspects of which are addressed in the Mishnah, (Bava Metzia 6:1): “One who hired workers (artisans) and they misled each other, only have grievances towards each other…” Reb Mimi says, “Having [a] grievance means that you have a justifiable claim, you have a reason to feel that you have been wronged, but there is no litigable process that can be enacted in the case!” She continues, “Throughout both volumes of his writings, the Mei HaShiloach, the Ishbitzer Rebbe uses this paradigm as a relational stand between us and God. He takes a transactional paradigm that defines a relationship between two people and reads it as a theological paradigm defining our relationship with God! On the one hand we have a justifiable claim against God, and on the other hand, we can’t take God to court, so-to-speak…”
Reb Mimi brings a unique teaching in which the Mei HaShiloach takes most of the parasha (as opposed to a verse or two) and basically divides it into two main sections (the first from the beginning of Emor (Chapters 21-22) and the second, Chapter 23). He then splits each of these into 5 subsections. In the first, the Ishbitzer describes five different subjects each representing “a different realm of grievance towards God.” In the second section he links the descriptions of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur and the three festivals to a remedy for one of the grievances.
Reb Mimi describes the grievances:
“1. Grievance due to living in a world that death and loss are our reality. How can we live in such a world? How could God have created it in such a way?
2. Grievance of the Cohen that was born with a blemish that disqualifies him from serving in the Temple. He can eat from the sacrifices, but is not able to bring the sacrifice itself. He questions God, “You have planted me so close, and yet you don’t allow me to serve…” It is important to point out that the grievance isn’t about the blemish itself but about the challenge it poses to one who is born a Cohen…
3. Grievance of the Cohen that was found impure while being at the Temple, and hence prohibited from serving or even eating from the sanctified meat. He questions: “I have done all that I can to serve you, I would do all in my ability to be able to serve. Why have I been compromised at this moment?”…
4. Grievance because of blemished offerings. You make your way to the Temple with a gift for God and when inspected a blemish is found in the animal and it cannot be offered. You question God: “You have given me a gift. Why can I not be able to return it to You as a gift?”…
5. Grievance due to the fragility of the moment. When a ‘thanksgiving’ offering was brought to the Temple it had to be consumed on the day it was brought. One was not allowed to eat leftovers the next day. The Ishbitzer Rebbe questions: “How can it be that if today I can stand in the presence of God with faith, belief and trust, I can’t be sure of the same feelings tomorrow?” Why is our religious state so fragile and unpredictable? When will I be able to rest in the faith that I’ve come to?””
Reb Mimi continues, “In response to those that think that being a true believer means having answers that explain God’s actions in the world, it appears that the Mei HaShiloach is walking in the footsteps of the Rambam (Maimonides) at the end of the ‘Laws of Embezzlement’. The Rambam asks of us to try to understand the ways of God to the best of our knowledge and ability “k’fi ko’cho,” but when we reach a point of no return, he asks us to not make up stories, to not try to cover up for God, to make God look good “al yech’peh alav d’varim“.
The Ishbitzer takes us one step forward. A disciple of the Ishbitzer Rebbe would be called upon not only to not create answers where they are not present, but rather, to hold on to the questions as an act of faith and true service.”

*Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitza (1801-1854) was a Chasidic thinker and the founder of the Ishbitza-Radzyn dynasty. Born in Tomashov, he was orphaned of his father at the age of two. He was to become a close disciple of R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa where he joined Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and Rabbi Yosef of Yartshev; both were also born in Tomashov. When Rabbi Menachem Mendel became Rebbe in Kotzk, Reb Mordechai Yosef became his disciple there; then in 1839 became himself a rebbe in Tomashov, moving subsequently to Ishbitza.
Rabbi Leiner is best known for his work Mei Hashiloach, a compilation of his teachings by his grandson, in which he expressed the doctrine that all events, including human actions, are absolutely under God’s control. Thus, if everything is determined by God, then even sin is done in accordance with God’s will. He presents defenses of various Biblical sins, such as Korach’s rebellion, Pinchas’s zealotry, and Judah’s incident with Tamar.
One of his most cited comments is as above, on Vayikra 21:1 None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin. Rabbi Leiner read the verse as a warning against the defilement of the soul. The soul is defiled when it is infected with the bitterness and rage that comes with senseless suffering and tragedy. Those who — like the Kohanim — would serve God, are commanded to find the resources to resist the defilements of despair and darkness. Despair is the ultimate denial of God, and surrender to darkness is the ultimate blasphemy.
The publication of Mei Hashiloach was met with controversy and copies of the work were burned.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach is credited with the recent popularization of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner’s teachings. He apparently came across Rabbi Leiner’s work in an old Jewish book store. He is quoted as saying that after initially being perplexed as to the peculiar nature of the teachings he quickly realized that in it lay the “secret for turning Jews on to the deeper meanings of Judaism”.

Kedoshim: Love, reflected

You shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord. (Vayikra 19:18)

Each surveys the other
as though staring into water
at the image gazing back:
hard edges soften
dissolved by gentle ripples.

Waves unroll in circles
moving ever outwards
extending self to other
until God’s clear reflection
shimmers through the water.


The siddur of the Ba’al HaTanya instructs that it is good to preface prayer as follows: I take upon myself the positive commandment of “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The mitzva of Ahavat Yisrael is the gateway through which one comes to stand before the Blessed One in prayer.”
In the book Itturei Torah by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, he cites R’ M Cohen: The Holy One Blessed be He says, “Whenever you each love your neighbor, then truly, “I am the Lord”, as it were, I am asking, take Me also with you, into your circle.”
In Rabbi Yakov Nagen’s book Lehitorer Leyom Chadash – Waking up to a New Day, in the chapter on Kedoshim entitled The Art of Love, (also found on his website at this link, http://yakovnagen.com/index.php/parshat-hashavoa/articles/vayikra1/733-kedushim, he asks, “Who is beloved?” and answers, “The one who loves his fellows.” Rabbi Nagen recounts a story told of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhyn who was once travelling with his students and they were forced to traverse a dangerous forest. They were suddenly surrounded by a band of robbers who announced that they intended to rob and then murder them. Rabbi Chaim requested a few moments to enable him and his disciples to prepare to die, and during that time, he looked into the face of the leader of the bandits. After some time the leader yelled, “Flee!” and Rav Chaim and his group did so. When his students asked him how the miracle occurred, he explained, “When the robbers told us they intended to murder us, I was filled with rage and hatred. But I did not wish to leave this world feeling hatred and rage, so in order to overcome my anger, I worked on myself to feel empathy for the robbers. Seemingly, no-one had ever looked at the leader in that way before and so he was unable to harm us.” Rabbi Nagen cites Proverbs 27:19, “As in water, face answers face, so the heart of man to man.” He quotes Rashi’s explanation (Yebamot 117: 71) that as waters reflect back one’s facial expression – a smile or a grimace – so one’s heart is perceived by another, and radiating love will bring love in return.
Finally, Rabbi Nagen asks why this verse mandating love for one’s neighbor, ends with the words, “I am the Lord.” He brings a commentary in the Zohar on Parashat Acharei Mot (59: 72) which says that when friends sit together in brotherhood, God says, “Hineh ma tov u’mah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad – How good and pleasant it is when brothers sit down [also] together.” (Psalms 133: 1). The word “gam – also” [which would seem superfluous], says the Zohar, means that they are including God with them… “And not only is the Holy One Blessed be He listening to their conversation, and it is pleasant for Him and He rejoices in them, but He brings peace down upon them and peace is found in the world in their merit, as it is written, “For the sake of my brothers and friends, I shall say, “Peace be within you.” (Psalms 122:8)”

Acharei Mot: From blood to water

For on this day atonement will be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord. (Vayikra 16: 30)

On this day alone, most sacred of days,
bathed and attired in white linen robes,
came the holiest priest to the holiest place
to atone for his people and stand before God.

With a panful of coals retrieved from the altar
the incense was burned to a billow of smoke;
he sprinkled the blood of the animals slaughtered,
and sent forth the goat to atone for the sins.

But now we are called to become our own priests,
to forever re-enter each singular shrine,
to summon our prayers and give voice to our trust
that forgiveness will flow forth like water.


The beginning of Parashat Acharei Mot describes the Yom Kippur ritual. According to the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS, the primary purpose of the expiatory rites described was to maintain a pure sanctuary, as, were it to be defiled, God’s Presence would depart. (Hence these rites are introduced in the first verse by alluding to the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two elder sons, “who died when they came too close to God’s Presence.” (Vayikra 16: 1)). The next verse continues, “…Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain [the Holy of Holies], in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die…(Vayikra 16: 2). In these rites, only the High priest may enter the Holy of Holies.
The Etz Hayim continues that on reading the words, “After the death of the two sons of Aaron” we are prompted to confront our own mortality and take stock of our lives, as the text describes the Yom Kippur rituals of “cleansing, self-scrutiny and self-renewal.” Further, the commentary notes that the rituals of Yom Kippur are presented here rather than in the list of festivals in Vayikra 23 because their focus is less on the public observance, but rather on the priestly duties of purifying the sanctuary to render it fit for the atonement rituals. The suggestion is, then, that as this Parasha is read in the spring, half a year before Yom Kippur, we may deduce that any season  is a good time for self-reflection and atonement.

Rav Soloveitchik comments on the two expressions that are used in this verse, which features prominently in the Yom Kippur liturgy: “For on this day atonement will be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord.” (Vayikra 16: 30). He distinguishes between “atonement” and “purification”. He says the former relates to repairing our relationship with God and is dependent on God’s willingness to love and accept imperfect people, whereas the latter is reliant on the capacity of those imperfect people to improve. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk notes on the same verse, ” “On this day“, but you have to purify yourselves. You will not achieve purity without hard work and struggle.”

In a commentary on Parashot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, from 2010, http://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5770-acharei-mot-kedoshim-the-sacrificial-crisis/ Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses the Yom Kippur ritual depicted. He notes that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on that day and sought absolution for all Israel. “It was a moment on which the fate of Israel depended. For their destiny depended on G-d; and G-d in turn sought their obedience. Yet a sinless nation is inconceivable. That would be a nation of angels, not women and men. So a people needs rituals of collective repentance and remorse, times at which it asks G-d for forgiveness. That is what the Day of Atonement was when the Temple stood.”
Rabbi Sacks continues, describing the devastation wrought by the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE. In addition to being a military and political disaster, it was, most of all, a spiritual catastrophe. The survival of the Jewish people, whose religion was centred on the Temple and its sacrifices, was imperilled. The prophets who had infused the people with hope after the destruction of the First Temple were long gone. How then did Judaism survive this calamity? Rabbi Sacks finds the answer in a famous statement in the Mishna: Rabbi Akiva said, “Happy are you, Israel. Who is it before whom you are purified and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven. As it is said: And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean (Ezekiel 36:25). And it further says: You hope of Israel, the Lord. (Jeremiah 17:13) Just as a fountain purifies the impure, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, purify Israel.” (Yoma 8:24-25)
Rabbi Sacks adds “According to Rabbi Akiva specifically, and rabbinic thought generally, in the absence of a Temple, a High Priest and sacrifices, all we need to do is repent, to do teshuvah, to acknowledge our sins, to commit ourselves not to repeat them in the future, and to ask G-d to forgive us. Nothing else is required: not a Temple, not a priest, and not a sacrifice. G-d Himself purifies us. There is no need for an intermediary.” He cites the Yiddish dramatist S. Ansky “Where there is true turning to G-d, every person becomes a priest, every prayer a sacrifice, every day a Day of Atonement and every place a Holy of Holies”.
Rabbi Sacks concludes “That is how one of the greatest tragedies to hit the Jewish people led to an unprecedented closeness between G-d and us, unmediated by a High Priest, unaccompanied by any sacrifice, achieved by nothing more or less than turning to G-d with all our heart, asking for forgiveness and trusting in His love.”

Metsora: Outcast

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be purified. (Vayikra 14:1,2)

He is scourged with a taint,
flagrant as a dark design
tattooed on pallid skin;
heads turn,
neighbors feel cleaner
when he is cast out
from within.

But the priest himself
who decreed the exile,
sets forth in all his purity
to restore the outcast,
to touch the untouchable
and anoint him with oil,
as he would a king, blessed
with God-sent grace.

And we too
would-be kingdom of priests
cast out our lepers,
our lonely pariahs,
but withhold our embrace
and refrain from bringing them home.


The description of the treatment of the leper by the priest is noteworthy for its details, and particularly the hands-on approach mandated for the priest, who himself goes outside the camp to the leper, and in the later stages of purification, anoints the leper with oil.
In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen describes how people who have been sick often feel small, broken and vulnerable. She describes how she herself had an ileostomy at the age of 29, which meant that most of her intestine was removed surgically, and she had an “ingeniously designed plastic appliance” fitted which initially was changed for her every few days by nurse specialists called enterostomal therapists. At this point Dr Remen felt disfigured and excluded. She describes how these white-coated professionals would enter her room, put on an apron, masks and gloves and remove and replace the appliance. Then they would strip off all the protective gear and meticulously wash their hands. She says, “This elaborate ritual made things harder for me. I felt shamed.” She continues that one day a woman about her age entered the room to perform this task. It was late in the day, and she had no white coat, but was elegantly dressed. “In a friendly way, she asked if I was ready to have my appliance changed. When I nodded, she pulled back the covers, produced a new appliance and in the most simple and natural way imaginable removed my old one and replaced it, without putting on gloves. I remember watching her hands. She had washed them before she touched me. They were soft and gentle and beautifully cared for. She was wearing a pale pink nail polish and her rings were gold.
“I doubt that she ever knew what her willingness to touch me in such a natural way meant to me. In ten minutes she not only tended my body, but healed my wounds and gave me hope…”

In her commentary on Parashat Metsora entitled Leper as Other, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/metzora_ajws.shtml Lydia Bloom Medwin observes  “In the biblical narrative, a leper was considered the ultimate “other,” distinguishable by the white, scaly skin that was prone to painful peeling and oozing. While leprosy does not manifest in our society in the same way, the notion of “other” manifests fully.”  She also notes that just prior to giving the Children of Israel the Torah, God tells Moses to say to them, “…you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. She submits that in the context of Parashot Tazria and Metsora, “this designation suggests that each of us has the honor and responsibility of serving God by serving our fellow human beings.”

The list of the “other” is long and varied, and the verb to “other” means to exclude a person or a group of people that are, in some way, seen as different from the norm.
A painful example of this is described by Professor William Kolbrener in his book, “Open Minded Torah” (and excerpted at this link http://www.aish.com/sp/pg/Making_Exceptions.html?site=full) and concerns his son Shmuel, who has Down syndrome and was therefore refused entry to various schools. The principal of one averred that accepting Shmuel would give the school a bad name. Professor Kolbrener notes that the Torah teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Vayikra 19:18) and a few verses later, “You shall love the stranger.” (Vayikra 19:34) He says, “Love the one with whom you identify, as well as the one who seems different from you. Rashi, the eleventh-century commentator who guides generations through difficult passages, writes that the Torah assumes one may come to hate the stranger because he has a “defect.” His deficiency, whatever it may be, arouses a desire to afflict him, or at least distance him.
“But the verse continues: “You yourself were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” You see him as different, but he is just like you. The stranger’s so-called defect, Rashi writes, is your own. That characteristic which we are unable to acknowledge – too painful or unpleasant – we externalize in a hatred for others. We were once slaves in Egypt, “strangers in a strange land,” immersed in idolatry. So, we look at the stranger and project upon him that which we fear might be most true about ourselves. But we fear it – this is the Torah’s insight – because it is true. We instinctively hate the other for reminding us of the “defect” which is our own.”
He continues, “In the end, we may have more in common with children of difference, like Shmuel, than we are willing to admit…The proximity of children with Down Syndrome, or exceptional children of any kind, make us uneasy about the ways in which we may also be merely ordinary, less than competent, imperfect. How else to explain a school – or a community – that wants to project an image of perfection in order to maintain its good name?
“But that image is a communal fantasy, not the Torah’s ideal. Keeping special children out of the “mainstream” may be, in many cases, the right thing. But sometimes, it is as much about parents… who nurture images of themselves helping them to forget what they do not want to know…”
He concludes, “The stranger we try to flee almost always has an uncannily familiar face. But becoming more tolerant to that which is more singular in ourselves – acknowledging the stranger within – makes it easier to be tolerant of the exceptional in others.”

Tazria: Affliction

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the flesh of his skin a sore… The priest shall see the lesion…when the priest sees it… (Vayikra 13:1-3)

He nears the priest
bares his affliction,
heart throbbing,
awaiting the decree.

His cheeks flush red,
burning more
than scaly sores
under shameful scrutiny.

Attentive eyes
peruse his lesions,
moving then to search his face
to find the hidden light.


In his book, The Language of Truth – The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Arthur Green brings the teaching of the Sefat Emet in which he addresses these lesions which afflict the skin “or” (spelt with ayin). He cites the verse in Bereishit which says, “…the Lord God fashioned garments of skin for the man and his wife and He dressed them.” (Bereishit 3:21). The Midrash makes a play on the word “or” which also means light (spelt with aleph). The Midrash says that because of sin, the man and his wife came to be dressed in this coarse [scaly?] clothing, the skin of the snake. The Sefat Emet teaches that beforehand, Adam and Eve were spiritual beings (as he says humans will be again) and they entered their earthly bodies at this point. He adds that at the people were at this level too,  at the giving of the Torah, which is why it says of Moses, that the skin of his face was filled with light. But as we did not remain at that level, the afflictions reappeared – so the Midrash is relating the spiritual blemishes to the physical ones.
However, the Sefat Emet points out that skin is porous, and the tiny holes allow the light to shine through its “shells.” Only sin, he says, clogs up these pores, which is why “the leprous affliction” is translated in Aramaic as “segiru or closing.” And he adds that this is why the purification rites are entrusted to Aaron and his sons the priests, for they rectified the sin of the Golden Calf.
Rabbi Arthur Green adds, “ Here the word play between the Hebrew “or” and “or” (“skin” and “light”) becomes the vehicle for a profound assertion of ancient Hebrew myth: that behind and within the person of flesh there lies another self, one dressed only in pure light. That this is our true self is attested by the fact that it was our identity at the beginning of human history, and will be so once more at the end. Again, we have matter and spirit opposed to one another. But the Hassidic master, wanting to lessen this dichotomy, notes that our inner light can shine again through the very pores of our human skin! Even though we are again “blemished” and our skin has “closed up” after Sinai, the light still shines within us.”

Regarding the sentence, “The priest shall see the lesion…when the priest sees it…” the Meshech Chochmah wonders why the phrase is repeated, and he concludes that the first time it is literally as read. The second time, he says it means, “when the priest sees him…” – there is a different way in which the priest looks at him, to try to ascertain whether, in the time and situation that the sufferer finds himself, he is deserving of the impurity.

Rabbi Yisrael Yehoshua Tronk of Kutna* says on the same sentence, that there is a hint embedded here, that when sizing up a person, we should not only look at his deficiency, in the place where he is afflicted, but also at the whole person, including his good qualities. He quotes Balak saying “…you only see a part … and not the whole…” (Bamidbar 23:13). So he says the priest first sees the lesion and then he sees him – all of him.

In a commentary on Parashat Metsora entitled Leper as Other, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/metzora_ajws.shtml, Lydia Bloom Medwin addresses the care and involvement  (described in Parashat Tazria) that the priest would display from the moment he was shown the skin affliction. He would carefully examine the lesion. If necessary he would isolate the patient, but visit again in seven days. After re-examining the sufferer, the priest might call for another seven days to wait and see. At that point, the patient might be pronounced pure or declared a leper. If the latter, the patient was temporarily placed outside the camp until fully healed. Bloom Medwin says, “Until the moment of removal from communal life, the potential leper represented an important obligation for community leaders. Even though community health and ritual purity were their primary responsibilities, the priests spent time addressing each person individually, seeing each face, and understanding each person’s pain.
“This ethic underlies the priests’ decision to wait two weeks before making the difficult ruling of expelling a member of the community. They realized that the sickness not only affected the skin and they took time to see past the surface affliction to engage with the person…”

 

* Rabbi Yisrael Yehoshua Tronk (1821 – 1893) was born in Platsk . He was tutored by his father and showed early signs of great giftedness. His father died when he was 11, he was married at 14 and spent the next few years learning Torah with the support of his father-in-law. At 20 he became the Rav of the community of Shrensk where he founded a large Yeshiva. He subsequently moved to various communities to serve as the Rav (Gambin, Vurka and Poltosk). He finally reached Kutna where he remained from 1861 to his death. While there, he wrote three books on Halacha. He was friendly with the contemporary great Rabbis of Poland, including Chiddushei HaRim, R’ Hanoch Henich Alexander, and the Sefat Emet.

R’ Y.Y. Tronk was known for his love of the land of Israel, visiting in 1886 to encourage agricultural settlement, even visiting an etrog orchard which had been planted by his father-in-law and issuing a fervent plea to favour these etrogim over Greek and Italian ones! In 1889, he was one of the signatories on the first heter mechira for the Shemita year.

Shemini: Expiation

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron: “Take a calf of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and bring them before the Lord. And speak to the Israelites, saying: Take a he-goat for a sin offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish, for a burnt offering; and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a meal offering with oil mixed in. For today the Lord will appear to you. (Vayikra 9:1-4)

The sin at the beginning –
brother against brother:
the coat, cruelly torn
and dipped in blood –
was expiated by a goat
offered in sacrifice.

The sin at the end –
turning from God:
the golden idol
blindly lauded –
was expiated by a calf
offered in sacrifice.

The sins of the people
against God and Man
were pardoned,
and then God’s presence
could dwell among them.


In a commentary on Parashat Shemini from 2013, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/shemini/5773/finding-atonement-after-sin, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz notes that the parasha opens with the initiation of formal worship in the Tabernacle, where God’s Presence will dwell. On the eighth day after the period of ordination of Aaron and his sons, Moses tells them which sacrifices are to be offered in this first celebration, and concludes: “This is what the Lord has commanded that you do, so that the Presence of the Lord may appear to you,” (Vayikra 9:6). Rabbi Berkowitz notes, “Only through the ordering of these particular sacrifices will God’s Presence ultimately come to rest among the People.” He draws attention to the sin offerings mandated here: Aaron brought a calf (Vayikra 9:8) while the people’s offering was a goat (Vayikra 9:15). He wonders what might be the significance of these two animals, and  why these, in particular, brought down God’s Presence.
Rabbi Berkowitz quotes the Ramban who explains, “You sinned at the beginning and at the end. You sinned at the beginning, as it says,”…and they killed a goat and dipped the coat in the blood…” (Bereishit 37:31) and you sinned at the end, as it says, “…they have made themselves a molten calf…” (Shemot 32:8). Let them bring a goat to atone for the deed of the goat, and let them bring a calf to atone for the deed of the calf.”

The meaning of these respective offerings is clarified: the calf atones for the idolatrous sin against God, of the Golden Calf, while the goat atones for the transgression of  the brothers selling Joseph into enslavement. Rabbi Berkowitz concludes, “Woven together, the liminality of this event becomes all the more powerful. As the people offer sacrifices for the first time at the altar of the Tabernacle, they are compelled to atone for two blemishes on the national soul of Israel. Only after such atonement will God’s Presence then dwell among the people.
“The message is clear and relevant in our time. While Aaron first makes atonement for a sin against God (the Golden Calf), he then makes atonement for a tragic sin rooted in humanity (the selling of Joseph into slavery). By being attentive to both the vertical (divine) and horizontal (human) vectors of relationship, we nurture and embrace God’s Presence in our midst. Far from being a lesson bound by the biblical Tabernacle, our parashah offers us a deep teaching about the nature of ourselves and the power of bringing the divine into our daily lives.”

Pesach: Hiding, Seeking

– Draw me, we will run after you…My beloved spoke, and said to me, “Rise up my love, my fair one and come away…”
I sought him but did not find him…Let my beloved come into his garden and eat his precious fruits…
– I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice…
– I am sleep but my heart is awake; Hark, my beloved is knocking:
– Open to me my sister, my love…
– I have taken off my cloak, how shall I put it [back] on, I have washed my feet, how shall I sully them?…
I rose to open to my beloved, but my beloved had turned away and was gone…I sought him but did not find him…I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, what should you tell him? That I am love-sick…I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine…many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it…make haste, my beloved and be like a gazelle or a young hart upon the mountain of spices… (Shir Hashirim)

The fragrance of apple bloom
wafts through the window;
the voice of the turtle dove
coos from the sill.
Enfolded in slumber,
I wander through dreams.

My Lover knocks urgently,
calling me tenderly
for winter is past
and glory awaits.
Though my heart is aroused
at the sound of His voice,
unmoving, I lie,
reluctant to answer.

At last I rise up
to find He has gone;
I set forth to seek Him
in shadowy loneliness,
until I encounter
His waiting embrace.


Shir HaShirim, “the Song of Songs”, recounts the trials of a beautiful shepherdess who is employed by her mother and brothers to tend their flock of goats. She has fallen in love with a shepherd from the same village but her brothers disapprove of the union. They transfer her from the pasture to the vineyards in an effort to circumvent her meetings with her lover. One day, while tending the vines, she is spotted by the servants of King Solomon who also are impressed by her beauty and try to persuade her to accompany them. She refuses and is led away as a captive to the king’s chambers. He too falls hopelessly in love with her and attempts to persuade her to abandon her shepherd for the love and wealth he can shower upon her. The ladies of the court also try to convince her to leave her humble lover, but she steadfastly refuses: her heart belongs to him.
While in the palace, she pines for her lover and is taunted by the ladies of the court that he has rejected her. In the emotional turmoil, she addresses him as though he were with her and dreams that he has come to rescue her but she delays and he leaves without her.  Awakening from her dream, she rushes out of the palace into the streets to seek her beloved and the watchmen treat her roughly as they misjudge her character. She begs the ladies of the court to help her find him, too tell her that she is love-sick.
Finally the king is convinced of her unfailing devotion to the shepherd and allows her to return home. She is joined by her beloved and they approach Shunem where a warm welcome awaits. She recounts the hardships she has just endured: her love was not extinguished by the temptation of wealth and luxury – she remained loyal to her lover. (Based on the synopsis in the Soncino edition).

The commentators from earliest times held this book, with its sensual depiction of two lovers, to be an allegory of the spiritual marriage between God (the Lover) and His bride (Israel). This allegory is notably found in Hosea, as well as in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

The common theme running through Shir HaShirim which is read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach*, as well as the Torah reading (Shemot 33:12 – 34:26) and the Haftarah of the same Shabbat (Ezekiel 37:1-14) is the human yearning for a relationship with God.
Shir HaShirim recounts a form of hide-and-seek as the shepherdess dreams about her Beloved, but when He comes for her, she holds back, so He departs and she then searches for Him.
The Torah reading repeats the same theme. Moses requests that God will draw close to the Jewish people. God hears Moses’ plea but does not entirely answer it. Moses also pleads to come closer himself to God and again, his request is only partially answered.
In the Haftarah, in which the dry bones are brought to life, we behold a vision of the fulfillment of the dream, in which God and the people are finally united.

In an article on Shir HaShirim from 2012, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/12/perfect-harmony, Rabbi Shalom Carmy cites the teaching by Rabbi Akiva, that all the Bible’s songs are holy, and Song of Songs is the holy of holies. Rabbi Carmy says, “I have always understood this to mean that Song of Songs corresponds to the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem, where only the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement. Holiness is synonymous with intimacy; that is what Song of Songs tells us, in a way unique among the books of Jewish Scripture.” He notes that as well as being read on Pesach, the season of Israel’s birth, it is also read just before the Friday evening liturgy. “Prior to assembling at the synagogue for the prayers that usher in the Sabbath, Jews are invited to prepare by reciting it quietly, in their inner sanctum.”

Rabbi Carmy describes the two models for interpreting Shir HaShirim. He says that the first, more familiar one ( according to the commentaries of Rashi and Ibn Ezra) understands the poem as an allegorical description of the journey of the Jewish people from Exodus through Exile, in which the male Lover is God, and the female beloved is Israel. However, the second less accepted model, as proposed by medieval and early modern philosophical and mystical writers, perceives an allegory not for the people so much as for the individual on a spiritual journey.

Rabbi Carmy notes that one unique aspect of Shir HaShirim, is that whereas elsewhere in the Tanach, the dominant voice is God’s, commanding and judging (albeit sometimes through His prophets), here “the experience is articulated primarily through the agency of the human partner. Because the book begins and ends with her voice, even the voice of the Beloved is heard as she quotes it.”
He adds, “The history of God’s relationship with Israel and, by the same token, His relationship with the individual human soul, is a love story. Inevitably, such a story is not free of suffering, failure, misunderstanding, and unhappiness…
“The prophetic literature, partly because it concentrates on God’s action and partly because it is a literature of commands and demands, tends to speak in terms of binary oppositions: obedience and disobedience, faithfulness and betrayal. The Jew who recites Shir haShirim late on Friday afternoon knows that such an account leaves out something essential about Israel’s relationship to God, just as it fails to comprehend fully the individual’s struggle before God. Without Song of Songs in the Bible, without Song of Songs in life, this gap would remain unfilled.”
Rabbi Carmy mentions the book by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, And from There You Shall Seek, which addresses the human quest for God and God’s revelation to man. “He [Rav Soloveitchik] retells the story of an enigmatic Lover and his beloved revealing and concealing themselves from each other in the Friday twilight and arousing the astonishment of the “daughters of Jerusalem” who serve as a kind of chorus. Only at the end of the overture does he stand back from the story and frame it as an enactment of the Sabbath-eve recitation of the story of Creator and creation. Will they indeed come together?…”

Rabbi Carmy notes that Rav Soloveitchik’s essay considers the different ways humans seek God, and how we perceive God revealing Himself to us. We try to contain Him but cannot comprehend His otherness. He says that “reason” is the term religious philosophy gives to the human quest for God, while “faith” describes the experience of His otherness. Rabbi Soloveitchik, he suggests, “transforms this hoary dichotomy by personalizing it. Reason in all its multiple forms is the human being’s seeking; revelation is God’s confronting. The drama of Song of Songs, of the lovers who seek each other passionately and nevertheless elude each other again and again, reminds us that life with God embraces both contradictory impulses. The imagery provides a model or analogy of religious experience rather than an allegory of it.
“The ability to come to grips with the flaws and lapses in a personal relationship marks the difference between regarding the relationship from the outside and sharing in its inner quality. The unique intimacy of Song of Songs is bound up with its expression of the human side in the divine human dialogue. To bring philosophy closer to religious reality entails making room for the moments of failure, sin, and misunderstanding between creature and Creator.”
Rabbi Carmy concludes, “Because He is both the commanding Other and the intimate Partner, He conceals Himself from us even as He seeks our fellowship. Underlying the Jewish ability to respond to God is the awareness of our own enigmatic destiny as individuals and as members of His people, at once creative and submissive, questing for Him and yet all too frequently failing to respond to His initiative.
“All Scripture rehearses that intimate, holy story of revelation. Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

 

* This year, 5775, the first day of Pesach falls on Shabbat so although we read Shir HaShirim on that first (and only) Shabbat of Pesach (in Israel), the Torah reading and Haftarah will actually not be as above, but will be those read on first day Pesach (Shemot 12:21 – 51) and Joshua 3:5-7, 5:2-6:1, 6:27)