“…The Time That We Get Shabbat…”: (Pinchas Prayer Links)

The People’s time in the wilderness with God — “the love of your bridal days” (Jer. 2:2) — is coming to an end in the portion Pinchas. This is perhaps reflected in the portion’s “extras”: the additional sacrifice for Shabbat (Numbers/Bamidbar 28:9-10) and the eighth day “atzeret,” at the close of the festival of Sukkot (Numbers/Bamidbar 29:35-39). These small, ephemeral extras help imbue Shabbat and Shemini Atzeret with a sense of intimate, transitory pleasure.
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The Tents and Dwellings are YOURS (and they’re plural): Balak Prayer Links

Perspective — who can see what? who is MEANT to see what? and what might it all mean, anyway? — is a key element in parashat Balak. No one (except God, who is not sharing everything) has the “whole view.” And we are reminded of this even in the words which have become part of our morning prayers.

[I realize that this note is arriving in the week of parashat Pinchas, BTW. Sorry. These remarks on the prayers will, I hope, be relevant at most any time.]

“How goodly [fair, wonderful] are your tents, O Jacob,” the seer Balaam pronounces (Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5), making clear that he can see the entirety of the camp…during this attempt to curse the Israelites; during the previous attempt he could see only a “sliver” (Bamidbar/Numbers 23:13-24) The Israelites, in their own tents in the valley below, have no such vantage point.

In a similar vein, Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen note that in many synagogues, “Mah Tovu” — Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5, followed by Psalms 5:8, 26:8, and 69:14 — is recited while participants are gathering and donning their own prayer shawls. Therefore:

…people rarely have an opportunity to survey the entire scene. To someone watching is (from above) however, all those Jews would appear to have literally made their own personal tents! “How wonderful are your tents, Jacob!”Continue Reading

Then Israel Sang: Leadership Variation

“Then,” after safely crossing the Sea of Reeds, the Egyptians’ pursuit thwarted, “Moses and the Israelites sang…Miriam took her timbrel…and all the women followed her” (Exodus/Shemot 15:1, 20-21). “Then” — forty years later, after God tells Moses: “Assemble the people that I may give them water” (Numbers/Bamidbar 21:16) and without apparent prompting or leading — “Israel sang this song:”

Come up, O well — sing to it —
The well which the chieftans dug,
which the nobles of the people started
With maces, with their own staffs.
–Numbers/Bamidbar 21:17-18 (JPS translation**)

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Be Not Afraid: Community and Challah

Two of the most iconically gendered concepts in Jewish prayer — that “tenth man” for a minyan, on the one hand, and taking challah, one of three “women’s commandments,” on the other — come from this week’s portion. But gender issues can, I think, distract from other prayer ideas suggested by these same verses.
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Beha’alotekha and the Torah Service

Traveling with God did not make for a smooth trip through the wilderness, and prophecy seems to have engendered more conflict — in the community at large and within the leaders’ family — than clarity in this week’s portion. The Israelites appear in deep struggle with on-going revelation and with life together in the Presence….a condition not altogether unfamiliar today: Our Torah services — shaped, in part, by three verses from this portion — reflect the struggles of Beha’alotekha [“…when you mount (lamps)”].

God’s presence among the people (Bamidbar/Numbers 10:36) directly precedes widespread complaining (Bamidbar/Numbers 11:1), which results in fire, plague and burials. Prophecy in the camp results in community strife (11:24-30) and serious trouble in the family of Miriam, Aaron and Moses (12:1-16).

Every congregational Torah reading is understood as a re-enactment of the Sinai experience. But we are also re-enacting something of this portion’s struggle as individuals, congregations and groups/movements of Judaism constantly re-interpret, and sometimes re-design, the liturgy surrounding the Torah reading in response to evolving understandings of revelation and to new realities in our communities. Continue Reading

God’s Shadow (Naso Prayer Link)

“The sacred is not to be found in the appearance of the act of spirituality but in the spirit we bring to the act,” argues Elliott Kleinman (see Naso Prayer Links). His plea for bringing individual “offerings” to traditional rites, Torah study and acts of kindness in the world — rather than seeking new forms of spirituality — seems an important one. Sometimes, however, the appearance of an act of worship does say a great deal about “the spirit we bring” to it.

Variations in the Priestly Blessing [birkat kohanim] — as presented in prayerbooks across the Jewish spectrum — indicate a real struggle in Jews’ understanding of who brings what to our prayer services. If you’re already familiar with the basic history of this blessing and how contemporary prayerbooks present it, you might prefer to cut to the chase: “the spirit we bring” or jump to a teaching from Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and the Baal Shem Tov.
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Naso: Prayer Links

Toward the close of parashat Naso, twelve princes bring identical gifts as a dedication offering for the tabernacle (Bamidbar/Numbers 7:10 – 88). Twelve times, the same five verses, with minor variations of the “mail-merge” sort at the open and close, appear:

The one who presented his offering on the {INSERT: ORDINAL} day was {INSERT: NAME} son of {INSERT: FATHER} of the tribe of {INSERT: TRIBE}. His offering: one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels, and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal offering; one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; one bull of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs. That was the offering of {INSERT: NAME} son of {INSERT: FATHER}. Continue Reading

Bamidbar: Prayer Links

In Numbers/Bamidbar 2:1, Moses and Aaron are addressed equally by God: “va-y’daber HASHEM el-moshe v’el-aharon….” They are so addressed 18 times in the Torah. Israel would not have been redeemed without the prayers of both — according to Numbers Rabbah* — which is why the Amidah [standing prayer] (AKA Shemoneh Esrei [“the Eighteen”]) contains 18 blessings. (It’s actually 19 now, with the 19th added later than this commentary.)

There are other explanations for the Eighteen: 18 times in the Torah something is done “as HASHEM has commanded Moses.” God’s name — YHVH — appears 18 times total in the three paragraphs of the Shema. The Rabbis counted 18 vertebrae (all of which should be bent in bowing in the Amidah, BTW). But I’m partial to the “Moses and Aaron addressed equally” explanation.

I believe both personal prayer/meditation and communal prayer are crucial. The Amidah often includes both a silent/private prayer and some portion repeated aloud as a group. (This is less common in Reform congregations.) Most interesting and ultimately most powerful for me is the “hybrid” experience of the (often mumbled) “silent” prayer…

…each person focused on her/his own individual prayer but surrounded by barely audible snatches of fellow pray-ers’ words, or maybe just by the prayer-vibes of others…

Alone/Together in prayer — not unlike Aaron with Moses, I imagine — equally in God’s presence but individuals nonetheless.
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Pekudei: Language and Translation

“And these are the names [v’eileh] of the Children of Israel who were coming [ha-ba’im] to Egypt…”
— Exodus/Shemot 1:1

“…throughout their journeys [mas’eyhem].”
— Exodus/Shemot 40:38 (Stone translation*)

A number of commentaries note that the vav (a conjunction which can mean “and” or “but”) is meant to link the narrative of Genesis with that launched with Exodus. In an unusual bit of similarity, both the Stone and Alter* commentaries make this point and also remark that identical words open the genealogy beginning at Genesis/Breishit 46:8.

Stone emphasizes the on-going nature of the narrative by using “were coming” for “ha-ba’im,” while Alter and others use the past tense. JPS* bridges the two with “came, each coming with…”

Alter also notes that the word mas’eyhem [in all their journeyings] uses “the same verbal stem [that] inaugurated the Wilderness narrative in 13:20, ‘And they journeyed from Succoth,'” suggesting that this helps leave a “sense of harmonious consummation,” as the work of the Tabernacle — likened to that of Creation — is completed. “But,” he continues:

the condition in which the Israelites find themselves remains unstable, uncertain, a destiny of wandering through arduous wasteland toward a promised land that is not yet visible on the horizon. The concluding words of Exodus point forward not to the Book of Leviticus, which immediately follows, but to the Book of Numbers, with its tales of Wilderness wanderings, near catastrophic defections, and dangerous tensions between the leader and the led.
— Alter, p.535

Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazeik!
Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!

* Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information.

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.