Gathering Sources: Terumah

This is the first of what I hope will be a post per week “gathering sources” from previous material on the weekly Torah portion. This is is response to one reader’s confusion about navigating what is now more than a decade of posts and pages and project and portfolios (depending on WordPress organizational flavor of the season), and to my own realization that I rely on “A Song Every Day,” more and more, to find — and remember — things I cannot.

As it happens, this is the anniversary of my first dvar torah, so it seems a good place to start. In addition, beginning here gives me the opportunity to honor Esther Ticktin (z”l, 1925-2017), who provided moral support for that first presentation, Max Ticktin (z”l, 1922-2016), who spoke while others were “gathering their thoughts,” so I wouldn’t be too freaked out by the silence that followed my remarks; and the Fabrangen community for listening on Shabbat Terumah 5758 (2/28/98) and responding after Max gave folks a moment.

Here is the first drash, “I will meet with you there.” And a follow-up missive in response to a request for my materials.

Here are four posts in an old Weekly Torah series: Great Sources, Great Sources-2, Language and Translation, and A Path to Follow.

And, just for the sake of organization, ultimately, I am including a link to “The wingCatz of Terumah” so it will be with other Terumah resources later on.

Graphic: 1728 illustration of the Ark at the erection of the Tabernacle and the sacred vessels, as in Exodus 40:17-19. By illustrators of the 1728 Figures de la Bible, Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, published by P. de Hondt in The Hague in 1728 –

A Song of Reward and Punishment

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 22

Here is further response to a long-ago comment of Max Ticktin (z”l), based on the words of Jeremiah and in a sort of homage to Leonard Cohen.

“Has this song gone on too long?
A song of reward and punishment
for exiles in Babylon and elsewhere”

The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
Is our pain fault or accident?
The heart is indeed most devious!

You say that we’ll be cursed if we
trust in folks whose strength is flesh
that we’ll lose heart,
turn our thoughts away

We’ll feel just like a desert bush,
parched, alone, and unaware
that good might come
that water could be flowing

And then You say that we’ll be blessed
if we trust You
and You alone
We’ll be like trees that will not lack for water

You promise we’ll not think of drought,
our leaves will be forever fresh
we’ll have strong roots and bear more fruit
But is it wise to pretend no heat is coming?

The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
What could it harm, I’m bound to ask,
if I were just a wealthy fool?

Saved or doomed? God only knows!
You’re refuge, you’re chastisement
Probe my heart and heal me now
Or has this song gone on too long?

Who gets justice in this world?
I’m a shepherd who has lost the way
The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
— V. Spatz, 2018
from Jeremiah 17:5-8 and surrounding verses



NOTE

As noted in previous post, “A Song of Reward and Punishment,” which is what Max called Jeremiah 17:5-8, just seems like something Leonard Cohen would have written. I imagine something that sounds somewhere between “Darkness” (“Old Ideas,” 2012) and “You Want It Darker” (eponymous album, 2016).


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Notes on Jeremiah: Max Ticktin’s Scribbles

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 21

Several updates below. In addition to the many other things he left us, Max Ticktin z”l (1920-2016) left behind a lot of books, and his family kindly offered them to interested community members. Some of the volumes I inherited this way are from a Tanakh that was re-bound, as a gift for Max early in his rabbinical career, with pages opposite the text for his own notes.*

Some of Max’s notes are straightforward translation or links to related verses. Some are literary, some theological. Occasionally, his chuckle is obvious. Sometimes the notes are just opaque, to me anyway. Whatever the content, I consider it a great privilege and pleasure to have Max’s scribblings accompany me in my studies. (See also The Hebrew Bible (Greenspan).)

Some Notes and Questions

Here, pertinent to this week of Behar-Bechukotai, are some annotations for Jeremiah Chapter 17 (Haftarah for Bechukotai  is Jer 16:19-17:14).

Max on Jeremiah_Cropped

Notes by Rabbi Max Ticktin on Jeremiah 17

I am hoping someone with more background and/or better skill at reading Hebrew script can decipher this comment:

A Song of.jpg

Close-up: “A song of…,” annotation to Jer. 17:5-8

“A song of…[??]”
?? שכר ועונש ??
?? retribution? punishment? payback?

UPDATE 5/11: sources tell me my rendering of the Hebrew “שכר ועונש” is correctly spelled and can be transliterated “sachar va’onesh” and translated as “reward and punishment.”**.

 
And maybe some experts at English handwriting can fill in what I’m missing here:

Max on Chapter 16

Notes on Jeremiah 16:18 – 17:1

19ff — dialogue of Jeremiah and God on God’s [??] the transformation of people!

Note: based on other passages, that lonely lowercase “a” = “and,” and the lowercase “t” = “the.”

UPDATE 5/13: A member of the Fabrangen community suggest that the word I couldn’t read may be “inclination.” Another points out that “the letter ‘C’ with a bar over it is often an abbreviation for ‘with’ in the form ‘cum’.” So, then we’d have something like: “dialogue of Jeremiah and God on God’s inclination with the transformation of people!”


Babylon and Transformation

Not sure exactly what this haftarah, with or without Max’s commentary, adds to #ExploringBabylon. But I am very interested in two images for God, both found in Jer 17:13 —

  • mikveh yisrael [מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל]” or “hope of Israel” and
  • mekor mayim chayyim [מְקוֹר מַיִם-חַיִּים],” or “fountain of living waters”

and how these are related to “the transformation of people!”

More to come, maybe. Meanwhile, please let me know your ideas about how to read the above comments.

[On this 40th day of the omer, making five weeks and five days. — 5778]

NOTES

* I recall Max mentioning this gift and how much it meant to him several times, and I expected that regulars at Fabrangen and Jewish Study Center activities would share similar recollections. But I have not heard from others who remember him saying this….which makes it all the more interesting that it turns out I know family members of the rabbi who gave Max these books.

ADDITION 5/11 (not exactly “Update”): It’s not the most common of conversation topics, but somehow, long before Max died, Rabbi Danny Zemel of Temple Micah (DC) mentioned to me that his grandfather had once related, with great fondness, giving the special, re-bound copy of the Tanakh. Rabbi Zemel’s grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Goldman (1893-1953), served Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago from 1929-1953, where he and young Max connected.

Long after that brief conversation, while exploring the books the Ticktins were giving away, I happened upon two volumes that resembled the ones Max and Rabbi Zemel had both described. I was so excited, I had to double-check that the family meant to part with them. I was reassured and gratefully added them to my pile.

When I emailed a picture of the fly leaf to Rabbi Zemel, he recognized his grandfather’s writing. So I was delighted to be able to share one of the volumes with Rabbi Goldman’s family.

On occasion, I marvel at the odds of that book making it back “home,” in a sense. The Jewish world is sometimes small, but Reform and havurah circles — like Temple Micah and Fabrangen — don’t interact all that much; my participation in both communities is unusual. So, I am tempted to call it “bashert [fate, destiny].” But then I see Max rolling his eyes at me and explain it instead as follows.

Max had an uncanny ability to connect deeply, and very specifically, with so many people: Everyone who passed through that Ticktin library after Max’s passing surely found a special treasure that seemed destined just for them. In addition, although I never knew him, Rabbi Goldman had a large impact on Judaism far beyond his own, influential congregation — and clearly he made an impression on Max who, however accidentally, impressed on me, as Rabbi Goldman did on a young Danny Zemel, that these books embody an enduring connection between lifelong students of bible.
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** “A Song of Reward and Punishment”? Didn’t Leonard Cohen write that? Maybe Sarah Rindner’s recent piece on “The Lehrhaus” — which links Leonard Cohen and this week’s Torah portion — put the idea in my mind. But I can somehow hear him singing it, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no such song in his opus. In any case, establishing that the words on the page say something like, “A Song of Reward and Punishment,” is only prelude to understanding the passage from Jeremiah and its context….

UPDATE 5/13: Here’s my homage to Leonard Cohen and the prophet Jeremiah.

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Matot: Heavy Tongue, or the House of Cards theory of bible study

I want to begin by acknowledging my teacher, Max Ticktin z”l, for whom the period of shloshim is coming to a close and whose connections to Temple Micah are more varied and interesting than I knew before he died. Max taught me — and others in several generations — a lot about who is and is not an enemy, of ourselves personally and of the People Israel.

Dvar torah on parashat Matot, Temple Micah 7/30/16

These remarks focus on the story of vengeance, Numbers 30:1ff. This is an odd and troubling story in many ways. I chose to study it, in part because I worry about the consequences of failing to examine the uglier parts of our tradition, and in part because its very oddness makes it interesting.

A few odd things

One odd thing is that we are told Pinchas was the priest of the campaign, but we are not told who the military leader was.

Another odd thing is how the otherwise terse story stops to tell us that Pinchas brought the “holy utensils” — which many commentators believe means the Ark — and the shofar. This makes the whole thing sound terrifyingly like something out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (Paramount 1981) or any of our contemporary wars that make use of religious iconography to wreak havoc on perceived enemies.

It seems to me — although I didn’t find commentary saying this, exactly — that the religious details, the priest, the holy utensils, and the shofar, hint at the spiritual aspect of the story. However distasteful and scary most of us find this today, the idea that a war should be fought to kill some people in order to preserve other people’s spiritual health, that was a part of biblical storytelling.

Midianites and Moabites, Balak and Pinchas

The Torah and many commentaries are clear that this whole issue with the Midianites is a war on people who tempted the Israelites into idolatrous behavior. We might think (and many commentaries remark) that the problem would be with the Moabites because it was the Moabites with whom Israel engaged in harlotry and idolatry in what is called here “the matter of Baal Peor.”

Back at the close of parashat Balak, we are told that Israel became “attached to Baal Peor and the wrath of God flared up against them” (citation). Moses and the judges had just ordered the Israelites to turn on one another and kill men attached to Baal Peor when the Israelite male, Zimri, and the Midianite female, Cozbi, perform what is generally understood to be public sex acts at the Tent of Meeting. Then Pinchas runs them through with a spear, stopping a plague we had not been told was happening. Just the one Midianite, Cozbi, is mentioned there. But both nations collaborated in hiring Balaam to curse Israel. So perhaps they were collaborating in the incidents involving Baal Peor, too. However it came to be, God told Moses back in chapter 25, at the start of parashat Pinchas, to harass [tsaror] the Midianites and kill them because they had attached [tsorerim] Israel “through the conspiracy against you [the Israelites] in the matter of Peor.”

Hasidic commentary says this harassing is a sort of eternal command, because the temptation to the Israelites will persist. The idea is that once they have tasted debauchery, it will be impossible to keep desire from arising again. So Israel must now be eternally harassing those who harassed them with temptation.

If the Israelites could have been warned some other way to be eternally vigilant to stop evil urges in themselves, we might have an easier time with the lesson. But that is not what Or HaChaim teaches, and that is not how the Torah text unfolds. Instead….

God tells Moses to harass the Midianites in chapter 25. And then we have a census and some legal material, a list of offerings, and a long treatise on vows. After all that, here in chapter 31, God tells Moses to take vengeance — now the verb is different, nekom –against the Midianites.

This is another odd bit and one of my favorites.

Another odd thing

Back when the whole mess started, we have a break between portions introduced right at the height of the Baal Peor matter. Israel’s idolatry and the incident of Zimri & Cozbi ends parashat Balak. Pinchas is rewarded for his action that stops Cozbi & Zimri in the next portion. And that’s where we see the command to harass Midian, at the start of parshat Pinchas.

The portion break suggests that the story was just too far out of control and the Rabbis wanted to cool things off….This is a very famous break, often discussed in the commentary. For more, see “Pinchas and the scary friend….But that’s a later, conscious choice of how we are to read and learn this text. The Torah itself inserts the five-chapter break between the precipitating events and God’s call for harassment, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, this episode of vengeance.

Moreover, we have so many odd things in both places. Pinchas acts to stop a plague that is not mentioned before it stops. Moses and God speak of a conspiracy against the Israelites involving sexual misconduct. But the only conspiracy we’re told about in the text is the one to hire Balaam to curse the people. Balaam is blamed (in commentary and in the text here) for whatever sexual acts and idolatry are happening, even though the last we heard of him, he went home after blessing Israel with words we still celebrate every morning in the prayers. (See, e.g., “Balak prayer links”.)

Missing Bits

I think the missing bits and the halting way the story is told suggest a struggle — with facts, perhaps, or with feelings and ideologies that lead to death and disaster. If we take nothing else away from this, I believe the Torah wants to ensure that conspiracy and war and people turning on one another is not read smoothly or accepted easily.

Avivah Zornberg, the brilliant and very Freudian teacher of Torah, believes the Torah itself has an unconscious that is suppressing trauma. (See The Murmuring Deep, citation coming). I’m not sure I buy her whole theory, but I do think we should listen to the pauses and the stuttering and the weird missing bits as closely as we listen to the story tht reads more easily… maybe more closely.

Midianites: enemies?

And meanwhile Moses, who argued with God so many times before has nothing to say in the text in support of the Midianites who protected and nurtured him in his youth. Nothing to say about his extended family and the legacy of Jethro, his father-in-law, who contributed so much to his own learning and helped Israel set up a judicial system.

It’s not much of a surprise that we don’t hear from Zipporah, as we rarely hear from women, even ones who face down God to save their husbands from death (see the “night incident” at the inn in early Exodus; citation coming). But Moses has nothing to say on her behalf?

We’re not the first generation to notice the oddness of this incident and Moses’s close connection to Midianites. Early commentary says that is why, although God tells Moses to exact vengeance, Moses sends others and stays back himself. Of course, this says nothing about the fact that he lets it happen, anyway, even appears to orchestrate it; it also discounts the fact that Moses is quite aged here and perhaps unable to command in battle.

But the interesting point to note, I think, is that Numbers Rabbah acknowledged the relationship between Moses and Midian, and tries to address how hard it all was and how thoroughly entangled were all the players here.

The contemporary biblical literary teacher Robert Alter says this about Baal Peor in chapter 25:

The Israelite attitude toward its neighbors appears to have oscillated over time and within different ideological groups between xenophobia, a fear of being drawn off its own spiritual path by its neighbors, and an openness to alliance and interchange with surrounding peoples.

–Alter’s Torah commentary

In reference to this passage in chapter 31, he says:

Either two conflicting traditions are present in these texts, or, if we try to conceive this as a continuous story, Moses, after the Baal Peor episode reacts with particular fury against the Midianiate women (not to speak of all the males) because he himself is married to one of them and feels impelled to demonstrate his unswerving dedication to protecting Israel from alien seduction. But it must be conceded that the earlier picture of the Midianite priest Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, as a virtual monotheist and a benign councilor to Israel does not accord with the image in these chapters of the Midianite women enticing the Israelits to pagan excesses.

One more possibility comes to mind….

House of Cards theory of bible analysis

Maybe there was a conspiracy involving Balaam and the Midianite kings but orchestrated by some other entity for reasons of their own, some kind of House-of-Cards-type plot to discredit the Midianites and turn Israel against them — or to make us believe Midian and Israel were enemies and would always be. Maybe the plot was so successful that Moses turned against his own earlier supporters because of it, so successful that the narrator can make us believe the story really moves from “go kill more people to undo you own spiritual troubles” to instructions for how to become ritually clean after carrying out more vengeance. But whichever Frank Underwood was behind the plot is no longer available — to look  us straight in the eye, breaking the Torah’s fourth wall, so to speak  — and confess what’s really going on and why, or to at least offer another version of the truth.

This is not too different from Zornberg’s unconscious theory. Because they both boil down to the fact that the Torah itself cannot say, maybe no longer knows, what caused the People to lose their spiritual way and then turn on neighbors and allies in an attempt to cope, make some sense of it.  But the Torah is still able to tell us in its stuttering way, full of missing bits and confusion, that the tale is maybe not as straightforward as it might sometimes be portrayed, that vengeance is not a simple matter with a clear beginning and end, that it’s not something that ends well…or even ends:

In the middle of his rant to the leaders for not killing enough, Moses is somehow back to a lecture on ritual purity after touching the dead. And we are not told at this point if his ranting instructions were carried out (and we know from later stories in Tanakh that there are plenty of Midianites still in the land).

A heavy tongue returns

It occurred to me late in preparing these remarks that perhaps the rambling and stuttering of this story is related to what Shelley Grossman described here about Moses a few weeks ago: his aging and use of an old playbook and how he no longer has his siblings at his side. Remember, too, that Moses tried to refuse the Exodus mission, back at the Burning Bush, by telling God he was “heavy-mouthed” and “heavy-tongued” (Alter’s words). At the time, God told Moses not to worry because Aaron could speak. But now, Aaron and Miriam are gone and we have, instead, Pinchas — Aaron’s grandson whom we first meet when he is in the middle of a violent act, committing a killing that we are later told is part of a covenant of peace.

So maybe what we witness here is a story that is moving forward under emerging leadership but related by a man who has reverted to heavy-tongue, reporting to us that his own demise will follow on the heels of vengeance on people he once knew as family and fellow monotheists. Maybe it’s a kind of last gift to Moses — and to us — that the old, heavy-mouthed stuttering voice comes through to warn us that no such tale can be told without stumbling and missing bits.

NOTES

Max David Ticktin (1922 – 2016)

There are many on-line obituaries and memorials to Max. My favorite is this one by Rabbi Arthur Waskow. And in the way of such things, I was carrying the Torah through the Micah congregation just a few days after Max’s funeral and, even though Max did not attend services at Micah would not have been there to touch me with his tzitzit, I found myself equal parts profoundly sad at the knowledge that we would all be missing his touch and deeply grateful for the myriad ways he had already touched so many of us.

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The Torah Portion

The Torah portion Matot is comprised of Numbers 30:2 – 32:42. Temple Micah is following the schedule of readings used in Israel and, therefore, one week ahead of many congregations in the diaspora at this point in the calendar.
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