Tzipporah’s Eye View at the DC Sermon Slam

I have always lived among priests and prophets. I know that some divine encounters prove more terrifying than illuminating. And I believe there is much to be learned about Revelation by turning away from Sinai’s thunder and lightening.

Consider for a moment that time Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses and his black wife and God responded by covering Miriam with white scales. [Numbers 12:1ff. Tzipporah also appears in Exodus chapters 3, 4, and 18]…


…So, what does this incident tell you about Revelation?

Follow me for a moment on a “tzipporah-eye view,” looking two directions at once to see ahead. [“Tzipporah” = “bird”]

One bird’s eye focuses in on the siblings, without regard to gender. Here are three powerful individuals, all within spitting distance, shall we say, of divine Revelation. Genuine caring and concern between the siblings is evident, and each is deeply committed to community and the evolving Torah.

And yet, this story shows, understanding anyone else’s piece of Revelation – even the teaching of a prophet sibling, whom you love and respect – has always been hard. How much more so must non-siblings in your time work to understand each other’s perspectives!…

Recording from DC’s recent Sermon Slam, a project of Open Quorum. Background notes and sources.
Full text.


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Purposefully Blue

The peculiar blue [תכלת, tekhelet] thread used in tzitzit [ritual fringes] (Numbers 15:37-41) also appears prominently in the construction of Tabernacle (Exodus 25ff). It is used in the inner curtains and the loops that connect them; it also appears throughout the priestly vestments.

Why this blue?

It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: Why is blue [תכלת] specified from all the varieties of colours? Because blue resembles [the colour of] the sea, and the sea resembles [the colour of] heaven, and heaven resembles [the colour of] the Throne of Glory, as it is said: And they saw the God of Israel and there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone [לבנת הספיר], and as it were the very heaven for clearness (Exod. 24:10) and it is written: The likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone [אֶבֶן-סַפִּיר] (Ezek 1:26).
— Sotah 17a (also: Menachot 43b and Chullin 89a)

Kedushat Levi links the above passage about blue, תכלת, to the stages of a creative act, beginning and ending with its purpose [תכלית]:

[A project from thought to completion] has undergone four distinct stages. 1) original mental image of the project; 2) clarification of the details, etc. 3) translating thought into deed. 4) carrying out the intention which originally prompted the project. [Punctuation follows translation.] When the original mental image of the project is seen reflected after its successful completion, the person inhabiting this building will experience a sense of satisfaction and joy.
— Kedushat Levi, p. 475 (see Source Materials for full citation)

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“You set the patterns of the moon”

El Adon and Another Pinchas Addendum


(5) Glory and honor they give to You
glowing praises to Your rule
You call to the sun and it gives forth light
You set the patterns of the moon

(6) You are honored throughout the heavens with songs of glory and praise
[the Seraphim, Ophanim and holy beings ascribe glory and greatness]

Shevach notnim lo kol tz’va marom
[tiferet ugdulah serafim ve’ofanim vechayot hakodesh]

— from “El Adon,” a hymn of Creation
in the Shabbat and Festival morning services
translation from Mishkan T’filah,
[MT inexplicably omits the final (“tiferet“) line]

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More on Mouse: Pinchas, part 2

More on Mouse

[addendum to dvar Torah, “Pinchas and the Scary Friend”]

Many hard-boiled detectives have their “scary friend.” But Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins’ friend Raymond (Mouse), is something else again. Mouse is written by Walter Mosley as a true psychopath.

To illustrate: At one point early in the series, Easy asks why Mouse has just killed a man, and Mouse responds:

You said don’t shoot him, right? Well I didn’t; I choked… look, Easy – if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?

On the DVD of “Devil in a Blue Dress,” the only Easy Rawlins story made into a movie so far, there’s a special feature showing the actor Don Cheadle (Raymond, aka Mouse) busting out in laughter the first few times he tries to deliver those lines, so absurd to any sane person. When Cheadle finally gets it, the character he’s created is terrifying. Cheadle’s portrayal helps us understand why Easy would like to distance himself from this man, even as we realize that the detective would be dead without his friend’s help.

The extreme nature of Mouse’s personality makes it all the more interesting, I think, that Mosley wrote this man so deeply into Easy’s life. The author could have chosen to rely on any number of fixers, who show up for a minute, do what needs doing, and then disappear. It happens often enough in this kind of fiction.

“You know,” Mosley observes, “you can have the existentialist detective. He’s all alone; he may know somebody, but that person’s only going to appear in one book, and then it’s over. But Easy, he works with people. He trades favors. That’s part of how he lives.”
— from David Ulin’s LA Times interview with Mosley [paywall might be involved, sorry]

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Pinchas and the scary friend

My original plan, when I was assigned Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) to offer a dvar Torah, was to skip over Pinchas and his spear and the matter of God and human vengeance. But that’s not how things worked out. I was drawn in to the Pinchas story first by a brief commentary:

And Israel attached itself unto the Baal of Peor [Numbers 25:3]. R. Eleazar ben Shammua said: Just as it is impossible for a wooden nail to be wrenched from a door without loss of some wood, so it was impossible for Israel to be wrenched from Peor without loss of some souls.
– from The Book of Legends (Bialik & Ravnitsky, 628:175)
— based on Babylonian Talmud Eiruvin 19a

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Robe, River, and Bond in Morning Prayer

Wrapping

The early morning section of a Jewish prayer book focuses — with some variety in content and order (see below) — on wraps:

  • God is robed in majesty (Psalms 104:1-2).
  • Jews are wrapped in fringes (blessing for wearing a tallit [prayer shawl]).
  • Humans take refuge in the shadow of divine wings (Psalms 36:8-11).

The focus then shifts — with the verse, “For with You is the fountain of life. In Your light do we see light” (36:10) — away from God’s universal (and one-sided) kindness toward a more specific relationship with expectations on both parts: “Continue Your lovingkindness to those that know You and Your righteousness to the upright in heart” (36:11). This is followed by verses from Hosea (2:21-22) promising betrothal “in righteousness,” “in justice,” “in lovingkindness and in compassion,” and “in faithfulness.” (More below on these verses, tefillin, and the upcoming World Wide Wrap.)
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Sibling Prophets Together Before God

This post originally appeared on Clergy Beyond Borders’ News/Views blog, June 9, 2011.


Sibling prophets argue but find a way to remain together in the third Bible portion in our “wilderness” series. The reading — Numbers 8:1-12:16 — includes a dramatic, rather cryptic, passage* involving the prophet Miriam, sister of Moses, covered in “scales, white like snow” [tzaraat ka-sheleg, in Hebrew] (Numbers 12:10).

The same snowy scales appear on Moses’ arm at the Burning Bush (Exodus 4:5). In the Qur’an (7:108, 20:22), Moses’ arm becomes “[shiny] white without blemish” or “luminous.” In both Islamic and Jewish tradition, the white/shining skin is a sign of prophecy.

In Jewish and Christian tradition, tzaraat — which is often translated as “leprosy” in English bibles — is also associated with gossip and other sins of the tongue. In the passage here, Miriam and Aaron “speak against” their brother. Related commentaries include background tales of conversations involving Moses’ wife and Miriam.

Still, the “speaking against” Moses in the text and the family issues in the commentary center around prophecy. Three prophets in one family — and Moses’ wife Zipporah has her own encounter with the divine (Exodus 4:23-26) — seems to have its challenges.

God chastises the speakers, saying: “How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” However, the prophetic siblings stand up for one another before God and remain together throughout the episode. In fact, Numbers 12 is the only passage in the Torah which mentions Aaron, Miriam and Moses together.

In the Qur’an (2:136), we read:

Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants [literally: “grandchildren”], and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.”

Miriam’s episode of tzaraat may be a sign of prophecy or of divisive speech, or both. But the episode is limited by God so that a joint future — with all three siblings traveling together — is possible.

This week’s “wilderness” reading is called in Hebrew “Beha’alotekha” ([“in your lighting (of the lamps)”]. One message we can glean from it is the danger of believing that ours is the only light.
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You Didn’t Have to Be There: Prayer, Sinai and the Grateful Dead

There’s a great scene in a fairly silly movie, called Must Love Dogs: The struggling divorced man played by John Cusack is obsessed with the movie Doctor Zhivago. He watches it over and over at home and then drags the young woman he is dating to a revival house to see it. Leaving the theater, the dating couple runs into the romantic lead, played by Diane Lane, who declares that she too loves Doctor Zhivago. She watches it over and over again hoping, she says, “that once Lara and Yuri will get together again…in the springtime preferably. And wear shorts.” The young date responds, “OK, but they can’t because it’s just a movie.”

Of course, Diane Lane and John Cusack do get together, even though things still don’t look so good for Yuri and Lara. And I believe the Must Love Dogs view of Doctor Zhivago has a lot to say about this week’s Torah portion Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and about our prayers.
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Tisha B’av

During all the years that Israel was in the wilderness, on the eve of every ninth of Av, Moses sent a herald throughout the camp to proclaim, “Go out and dig graves, go out and dig graves!” and the people went out and dug graves, in which they spent the night. In the morning, the herald went and announced, “Let those who are alive separate from the dead!” The living then stood up and found themselves some fifteen thousand short [NOTE: One-fortieth of the adults died each year — see parashat Shelach-Lecha for narrative explanation]….In the last of the forty years, they did the same….finally when they saw that not one of them had died, they said: It appears that the Holy One has removed the harsh decree from over us. The declared that day a festival. Continue Reading

Seeing You in 42 Familiar Places (Mattot-Masei Prayer Links)

“In that small cafe;
The park across the way;
The children’s carousel;
The chestnut trees;
The wishin’ well.

“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places…
I’ll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.”

The relationship described in the Fain/Kahal song is so strong that it imbues the very landscape with the absent loved one. A similarly powerful relationship between God and the Israelites is described in midrash on the Torah portion Masei, with its 42-stage journey recitation. (Mattot, the penultimate, and Masei, the final portion of Numbers/Bamidbar, are read together in non-leap years.) And in many ways, the siddur is designed to call prayer participants and God to remember “the park across the way,” like the stages of the desert journey, prompting renewed recognition.
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