Tzav: A Path to Follow

When is “taking out the ash” as simple as clearing up the remains of a fire? As often, perhaps, as a cigar is just a cigar. And when — in musing on “musings,” or sins of the heart — does “Mah nishtanah?” simply mean “What’s changed?”

Musings: or Sins of the Heart

This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breaches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. — Leviticus/Vayikra 6:2-4

Scholars have long drawn lessons of derekh eretz [manners/ethics] from this passage: Dress appropriately to an occasion, including Shabbat, as a sign of respect, e.g.; change dirty clothes before serving food, (see Something to Notice). Those preparing for Passover often seize on the topic of “housekeeping” as a sacred task, linking it with the seasonal search for chametz. But less straightforward lessons have also been linked with taking out the ash.

The olah — burnt offering, totally consumed by fire — is not obviously linked with any sin. However, R. Simeon bar Yochai associated the olah with sinful thoughts (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3). Nachmanides (Ramban) saw inner or secret thoughts — hirhurim ha-lev [literally: speculations of the heart] — as a kind of first step toward active sinning. See A Torah Commentary for Our Times* for a discussion of this.

The passage above’s focus on a sacrifice which burned all night caused some teachers to link it particularly with inappropriate sexual passions, which might also “burn all night.” (Can’t find an English citation, but some cite the Hebrew Torah Shelemah Menahem Kasher.)

Avivah Zornberg, in her book The Murmuring Deep,* links the Akedah — which was to be a burnt sacrifice — with Abraham’s hirhurim, his “qualms.” (See also “Look Behind You.”)

Considering the link between the olah and hirhurim is one path to follow. Here’s another…
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Beshalach: A Path to Follow

In a recent dvar Torah, Mimi Feigelson discusses what she calls “bracketed reading,” a technique focusing on first and last words of a passage under consideration, and applies it to the books of the Torah:

There is an extreme form of this method that I’ve developed and that is to look at the last words of a corpus of writing and ask, ‘Why has the author left us here / lead us to here?’ If you do this with exercise when looking at the five chumashim you will find that God leaves us exactly where we need to be at that moment:

The last two words of Breishit/Genesis are “ba’aron b’Mitzrayim/in a coffin in Egypt.” The entire book of B’reishit, from creation through the establishment of the household of our patriarchs and matriarchs is to lead us to the most constricted, limited, confined place – a coffin in Egypt.

The last two words of Sh’mot/Exodus is “b’chol mas’e’hem /on all of their journeys.” The book of Sh’mot constitutes our journey out of Mitzrayim and toward establishing our identity as we journey through the dessert.

The book of Vayikra/Leviticus ends with “b’har Sinai/at Mount Sinai.” The book of Vayikra teaches us the content of our covenant with God, what standing at Mount Sinai really meant.

The book of Bamidbar/Numbers concludes with “Yarden Yericho / Jordan Jericho” – this book brings us to the border of the Land of Israel. We are not there yet, but we have almost made it, we can see it from afar.

And the last book in the chumash brings us to “kol Yisrael/all of Israel” – it is here that we have all come together, finally united.

One path to follow in reading Beshalach is to consider the last words of the portion (Shemot/Exodus 17:16) — midor dor [generation to generation] — to see where they have left us and where they lead. The final words, alone, might be interpreted in one light, in terms of this portion and its connection to the Passover seder. Another path is suggested by considering the entire verse or paragraph (about eternal war with Amalek).

Reb Mimi’s dvar Torah, “To be a Temporary Resident of Mitzrayim,” was written for parashat Bo (last week’s portion). (Here’s the original posting, through the WayBack Machine.) The remainder centers around a teaching of R. Mordechai Joseph Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, who is also known by the title of his Torah commentary, Mei HaShiloach [Living Waters] (see Commentators page for more information). Avivah Zornberg often quotes the Ishbitzer Rebbe, and noticing those citations presents another path to follow. The original dvar torah can be found

Finally, I learned with Reb Mimi when she was offering a course on Mei HaShiloach and other Hasidic teachers at Drisha Institute. I recommend both teacher and institute — additional “paths” to follow, should the opportunity arise.

More on Reb Mimi at Schechter in Jerusalem and at Jewish Women’s Archives

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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.

Vayeishev: Something to Notice

Reuben returned to the pit — and behold! — Joseph was not in the pit [ein-yosef ba-bor]! So he rent his garments. Returning to his brothers , he said, “The boy is gone! [ha-yeled einenu] And I — where can I go [va-ani ana ani-ba]?”– Breishit/Genesis 37:28 (Stone translation*)

Alter* notes: “The Hebrew says literally, ‘the boy is not.’ The phrase could be a euphemism for death or could merely indicate disappearance. It is a crucial ambiguity the brothers themselves will exploit much later in the story.”

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg bases a fascinating and useful commentary on parashat vayeishev, in part, on this phrase. (Beginning of Desire*) She also discusses this verse in “The Pit and the Rope” chapter of The Murmuring Deep.*

In this context, also recall what occurs on the wedding night of Jacob and Rachel, who eventually becomes Joseph’s mother:

Jacob said to Laban, “Deliver my wife for my term is fulfilled, and I will consort with her.” So Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast….And it was, in the morning, that behold it was Leah! — Breishit/Genesis 29:21-25

*For complete citations and more details, please see Source Materials.

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.

Lekh Lekha: Something to Notice

This portion is rich in narrative: the famous command to “go forth [lekh lekha]” (Genesis/Breishit 12:1ff), the “say you’re my sister” episode in Egypt (12:10-13:2), Abraham’s parting with his nephew Lot and then rescuing Lot from captivity (13:3-14:24), the story of Hagar (chapter 16), and the announcement of Sarah’s pregnancy (17:15-22).
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Ha’azinu: Language and Translation

Given the poetic nature of Ha’azinu [“Give Ear”], language and translation are pervasive topics for this portion. One set of phrases to consider appears in 32:18:

You neglected the Rock who begot [y’lad’cha] you,
Forgot the God who labored to bring you forth [m’chol’lecha] — Plaut/Stein

or

The Rock that birthed you [y’lad’cha], you neglected,
you forgot the God that produced-you-in-labor [m’chol’lecha]. — Fox

Fox includes a footnote: “produced-you-in-labor: A reminder that God is not always perceived in exclusively male imagery in the Bible.” The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (Plaut/Stein) offers extensive notes on the two verbs here — both of which are sometimes used in a gender-neutral or masculine context, but most often “to describe the mother’s role in giving birth.”
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“Look Behind You”: Akedah 5770

In their great love my parents saved me from disappointment,
from pain and sorrow. Now I am left with their savings
plan the pain I would like to spare my children.
How all those savings have piled up on me!

The 20th Century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a number of poems that clearly reference the Akedah [Binding of Isaac, Genesis/Breishit 22]. But I think this section of “My Parents’ Lodging Place” — from the collection, Open Closed Open — reaches the heart of the Akedah as well as anything he – or anyone else – has written about it… even if he didn’t plan it that way.
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