Bechukotai: A Path to Follow

“Clearing Out the Old”

You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make room for the new. — Leviticus/Vayikra 26:10

Meant to suggest plenty lasting from one harvest to the next, perhaps to connect with the promise of a sufficiency for the sabbatical year. But also, as noted in Torah in Motion,* to suggest that the old must be cleared out before the new is used. You don’t have to have a dance troupe, or even feel like actually moving, to consider Tucker’s and Freeman’s perspective on this verse:

[Consider] garage sales (the decision to have one; preparing for one; the end result of having had one, i.e., old things gone, new things in their place, more space in the house, etc.). How does it feel to get rid of something and replace it with a new item?

Take the garage sale and make it personal. What old habits would participants “clear out”? What new habits and attitudes would replace the old ones?

Challenge: Each dancer imagines that he or she is a house. In each room of the house is an old habit or attitude which the dancer wishes to get rid of. The dancers improvise solos in which they go through each “room,” confronting the imagined old habit or attitude, and gradually “replacing” it with a new, improved one. After they complete the change in one “room,” they go on to the next (up to six or so rooms).

Continue reading Bechukotai: A Path to Follow

Behar: A Path to Follow

“Proclaiming Liberty throughout the Land,” an essay on the portion Behar by then rabbinical students Sharon Brous and Jill Hammer,* includes a section entitled “The meaning of Ge’ulah for feminists.” (See p. 242ff in The Women’s Torah Commentary.*) They ask Jews to consider their responsibility to help free agunot, women chained to marriage by husbands who refuse them divorce; women bound by addiction; women “enslaved by society’s views of their roles and bodies”; and women forced into prostitution or sold into slavery.

“This parashah reminds us how much our kinfolk need us to further their redemption,” Brous and Hammer write.

To learn more about agunot and related advocacy, visit the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance agunot page.

To learn more about modern slavery and what can be done about it, visit Not for Sale and Truah on slavery.
Continue reading Behar: A Path to Follow

Emor: A Path to Follow

The story [of the blasphemer, Leviticus/Vayikra 24:10-23] is noteworthy in that it is one of only four incidents in the Torah in which Moses is shown asking God how to decide an issue (the others are Numbers 9:6ff, 15:32ff, and 27:1ff). Moses sought God’s judgment because the punishment for blasphemy had not yet been detailed. More significant, however, is the placement of this story. It is, in effect, a cautionary tale, coming as it does on the heels of the sections demanding holiness and morality from the Israelites. Continue reading Emor: A Path to Follow

Kedoshim: A Path to Follow

A college friend and sailing fan once told me a story about a sailor who was about to win a ’round-the-world-solo race when he tacked away from harbor and, returning to open ocean, headed around again.

On May 20, 2009, I had a kind of fit and decided to launch “Torah: Opening the Book” on this blog. I began the four-posts/portion series with “Bamidbar,” the first portion in the book of Numbers/Bamidbar. At a number of points in the last year [2009-10], I have looked forward to completing the task I so impetuously established for myself. However, I recently looked at a calendar and realized that there are only three more portions — two more weeks in this non-leap-year reading cycle — before we complete the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. So…

…Pull into harbor? Continue around? Sail a different sea?
Continue reading Kedoshim: A Path to Follow

Acharei Mot: A Path to Follow

How is writing “with four pens between five fingers” related to the Day of Atonement?

There are many paths to follow from Chapter 16, which describes the ancient Yom Kippur service and has become the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning and the basis for the Avodah Service. To start, it can be very interesting to explore a High Holiday Machzor outside the Days of Awe (and on a non-fast day, to boot). And this exploration can add meaning to this week’s Torah reading. For anyone who chooses to follow, though, the tangential “four pen” path might be interesting.

One of only three entries for Leviticus in the collection Chapters into Verse** is a poem by Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976) called “The Day of Atonement.” That poem is one segment of a four-part work, “Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays.” Selections are included below; here’s the whole four-part poem.

I. New Year’s
…This is the autumn and our harvest–
such as it is, such as it is–
the beginnings of the end, bare trees and barren ground;
but for us only the beginning:
let the wild goat’s horn and the silver trumpet sound!

…The work of our hearts is dust
to be blown about in the winds
by the God of our dead in the dust
but our Lord delighting in life…

II. Day of Atonement
…If only I could write with four pens between five fingers*
and with each pen a different sentence at the same time —
but the rabbis say it is a lost art, a lost art.
I well believe it. And at that of the first twenty sins that we confess,
five are by speech alone;
little wonder that I must ask the Lord to bless
the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart….

III. Feast of Booths
…I remember how frail my present dwelling is
even if of stones and steel

I know this is the season of our joy:
we have completed the readings of the Law
and we begin again;
but I remember how slowly I have learnt, how little,
how fast the year went by, the years–how few.

IV. Hanukkah
…That was a comforting word the prophet spoke:
Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, said the Lord;
comforting, indeed, for those who have neither might nor power–
for a blade of grass, for a reed.

…The miracle, of course, was not that the oil for the sacred light–
in a little cruse–lasted as long as they say;
but that the courage of the Maccabees lasted to this day:
let that nourish my flickering spirit.

Go swiftly in your chariot, my fellow Jew,
you who are blessed with horses;
and I will follow as best I can afoot,
bringing with me perhaps a word or two.
Speak your learned and witty discourses
and I will utter my word or two–
not by might not by power
but by Your Spirit, Lord.
— from The Poems of Charles Reznikoff: 1918-1975 (Black Sparrow Books)

*Four Pens/Five Fingers

In Yoma 38b, Ben Kamzar is among several rabbis criticized for not teaching a special art to others:

It was said about him that he would take four pens between his fingers and if there was a word of four letters [Rashi says this is YHVH] he would write it at once. They said to him: ‘What reason have you for refusing to teach it?’ All found an answer for their matter. Ben Kamzar could not find one. Concerning [all] former ones it is said: ‘The memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing’, with regard to Ben Kamzar and his like it is said: ‘But the name of the wicked shall rot.’

Later commentators add that simultaneously writing all four letters of the Tetragrammaton is not forbidden, although writing them in the wrong order is. However, writing the letters in the proper order, one by one, involves writing yud-heh (Yah), and then adding a vav. This means taking a version of God’s name and turning it, however briefly, into an ordinary word. Ben Kamzar’s technique would have obviated this concern. (Some say he had invented a kind of printing press.)

So, what is this reference doing in Reznikoff’s poem?

Admittedly the story of Ben Kamzar comes within a longer section of the Talmud dealing with the Day of Atonement. But, is that sort of obscure reference — without another point — Reznikoff’s style? Seems unlikely for a man credited with helping to establish the “Objectivist” school of poetry.

Is he talking about the Book of Life, into which we hope to be inscribed on Rosh Hashanah? If so, why the reference to “sentences” rather than names?

I had hoped the longer fall/winter meditation would elucidate what “Day of Atonement” alone did not. But it does not do so in anyway I could see.

Is he concerned about time running out, which does seem to be a theme of the larger poem?

Given the reference to the speech-related confessions, does Reznikoff believe that he needs four pens to keep from short-changing the truth?

If anyone has an idea, please share.

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

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.

Tazria: A Path to Follow

“…and on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin is to be circumcised.”
— Leviticus/Vayikra 12:3

Don’t be deterred by the blood-pink cover of Lawrence A. Hoffman’s Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism* or by an apparent narrowness of the topic: “Our focus is the rite of circumcision,” Hoffman says early on. “Our topic, however, is nothing less than rabbinic culture as a whole.” He proceeds to offer a fascinating tour of Jewish thought and practice over the centuries, with particular attention to “private,” “public” and “official” ritual meanings.

It is not necessary to master every detailed argument to follow the book’s overall line of thought, especially helpful in understanding Leviticus and its later interpretations:

…precisely because rabbinic Judaism was a religion of the body, men’s and women’s bodies became signifiers of what the Rabbis accepted as gender essence, especially with regard to the binary opposition of men’s blood drawn during circumcision and women’s blood that flows during menstruation….

…the Rabbis made Judaism inseparable from the male lifeline. Like it or not, they had no idea of a female lifeline….

…women are party [to the Covenant between Jewish men and God] only in a secondary way, through their relationships with fathers and then husbands. I repeat: I do not like it that way; I did not expect to find it that way. But that is the only conclusion my evidence will allow. Better to drag this latent cultural presumption out from beneath the rocks to see what else is attached to it than to let it lie undisturbed as if it were not really there. We can work with what we know, not with what we don’t….
Covenant of Blood, p.23, 25, 26

Along the way, Hoffman offers interesting views of girls and women at various periods in Jewish ritual history: Evidence, e.g., for an ancient “shevua habat” — literally, “week of the daughter” — a birth celebration for girls paralleling that for boys. “[A]s much as gender opposition was part of rabbinic culture, average Jews, even those who followed the Rabbis in their religious life, did not necessarily discriminate against girls as universally as rabbinic rites might suggest,” he adds (p.177).

* Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. See also Source Materials and “Metzora: Great Source

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.

Shemini: A Path to Follow

“And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads [rasheichem al-tifra’u] and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kin, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that [YHVH] has wrought.” — Leviticus/Vayikra 10:6 (TWC translation*)

Commentary from Onkelos:* The entire house of Israel, may mourn. This teaches that when Torah scholars have difficulties, their problems are a burden for the entire community, who are expected to grieve over their distress (Rashi based on the Babylon Talmud, Moed Katan 25a)

from Stone Chumash:* The entire house of Israel. The Sages derive from this verse that the suffering of a talmid chacham [a Torah scholar, in this case, the grieving Aaron and his sons] should be shared by all Israel (Rashi).</p?

True, a Jew should try to accept God’s justice with faith that it is for the best — as Aaron did and as his sons were commanded to do — but other people should mourn and grieve over the misfortunes of a fellow Jew (R’ Shlomo Kluger)

All Are (Like) Kin?

I have not studied the Talmud* section cited above, but I see that it includes a discussion of whether “all are kin” or “all are like kin” to Torah scholars. This, I think, is one fascinating path raised by this week’s text:

What is our kinship to Torah scholars?

How does that apply in a community of egalitarian learning/teaching?

For the rabbis of the Talmud, was “Torah scholar” code for “one of us”?

And, if so, what is the implication for other communities, whatever the level of “scholarship” of each individual in the community?

What is the nature of communal grieving?

Do we ever grieve instead of our scholars or leaders, i.e., while they cannot grieve, perhaps for reasons to do with their leadership roles? How?

Are there other ways in which “their problems are a burden for the entire community”?

Bitter Water and Loosened Hair

A bit further in the discussion (25b) appears what strikes me as an unusually poetic quote attributed to Raba:

When more than ‘a third” wadeth in water deep
Remember the covenant and mercy keep
We strayed from thee as a wayward wife
Leave us not: as at Marah, save our life.

Footnotes reference Numbers/Bamidbar 5:22 (“the Sotah”), wherein the suspected wife is given bitter water to drink. This I find fascinating in part because the sotah’s hair is unloosed, using the same verb which is so awkwardly, and variously, translated into English:

“And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, ‘Do not bare your heads [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (JPS)

“…’Do not let your hair grow long [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (Onkelos)

“…’Your heads, do not bare [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (Fox)

“…’Your heads, you shall not dishevel [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (Alter)

What is the relationship between loose hair and mourning?

What is the relationship between loose hair, mourning and bitter water?

We at least think we know what “arm” or “hand” mean, metaphorically, when they appear in the Torah as God-parts. But what does “hair” mean in this context?

Is hair simply a vehicle for describing age? See, for example, p.247 in The Many Faces of God: A modern reader of theologies. Or does hair represent something else or something more?

I don’t know — haven’t been far enough down this path — but it looks worth exploring.

*Please see Source Materials for full citations, on-line source links and additional information.


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.

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…
Continue reading Tzav: A Path to Follow

Vayikra: A Path to Follow

And the Lord called unto Moses, and spoke unto him [Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1], why does Scripture mention the call before the speech? — The Torah teaches us good manners: a man should not address his neighbour without having first called him. This supports the view of R. Hanina, for R. Hanina said: No man shall speak to his neighbour unless he calls him first to speak to him. Rabbah said: Whence do we know that if a man had said something to his neighbor the latter must not spread the news without the informant’s telling him ‘Go and say it’? From the scriptural text: The Lord spoke to him out of the tent of meeting, lemor [saying*].
— Yoma 4b**

In his book, A Guide to Derech Eretz, Rabbi Saul Wagschal (Southfield, MI: Targum Press/Feldheim, 1993) adds:

This rule [about calling out] appears explicitly in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 246:12): A Rabbi should not be asked questions upon his entering the beis midrash; one may only approach him after he has settled down.
— Wagshal, p.66

There is a more general note on the concept of derekh eretz at My Jewish Learning. There is a great deal of information about the concept of “guarding the tongue” [shmirat ha-lashon] on the internet and in print. I have not found cites to particularly recommend, despite extensive looking; if anyone has good ones to recommend, please suggest them.

The 19th Century author Chofetz Chaim (R. Yisrael Meir Kagan) and the contemporary Joseph Telushkin famously focus on this topic. There was an article written some years back about gender considerations — does the prohibition of “evil speech” [lashon hara] effectively prohibit topics important to inter-personal and communal relationship, i.e., what was understood for centuries as “women’s speech”? — but I can’t locate the citation.


*Footnote: “Lemor here is taken to mean ‘to say it (to others)’…
**Soncino translation of Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yoma [“the day”], from Seder Mo’ed [appointed seasons]; see Source Materials for citations and more details.

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.

Pekudei: A Path to Follow

Speaking of weaving and women’s work…

SERAKH BAT ASHER THE HISTORIAN ADDS: Since we were principally a sheepherding people in ancient times, Israelite women mostly wove wool. Some even say that it was we women of Israel who first introduced colored wool garments into Egypt. For did not Joseph have a splendid “coat of many colors”!

THE SAGES IN OUR OWN TIME ADD: Modern scholars have found pictures of colored garments in Egyptian tomb paintings dating from about the time Jacob’s clan supposedly arrived in Goshen. Anad not only did the Israelite women bring technical expertise to Egypt; they probably acquired from their Egyptian sisters the special technique of splicing and twisting linen that first appears in Canaan about the time the Israelites would have arrived from the Nile Delta.


BERURIAH THE SCHOLAR TEACHERS: The Torah describes the women in the wilderness who spin linen and goats’ hair “WITH THEIR HANDS” as “WISEHEARTED” (35:25). Similarly in the Book of Proverbs (31:13, 19, 22, 24-25), a “WOMAN OF VALOR” is described largely in terms of her weaving skills:

She looks for wool and flax
And sets her hand to them with a will….
She sets her hand to the distaff;
Her fingers work the spindle….
She makes covers for herself:
Her clothing is linen and purple….
She makes cloth and sells it,
And offers a girdle to the merchant,
She is clothed with strength and splendor.
— Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam*

And weaving women’s work

Some final thoughts, paths to pursue — on the portion, the Book of Exodus and Passover — from the work of more contemporary wise women:

It’s good to meet with friends at the well, because it’s hard work hauling water, and doing innumerable humble chores, like so many women have for so long. Of course men also strive, like Jacob and Moses lifting stone well covers, but I’m thinking about Rivka watering all those camels; that was heavy duty (Genesis 24.46). Rachel, Hagar, Miriam and Zipporah have dramatic associations with wells. In Torah stories women spend a lot of time bearing water. Although much of that kind of work is easily perceived as insignificant, or sentimentalized as a labor of love, the world we know and ha’olam haba, depend upon it….

In this American song* a woman brings water to a man working in the fields. It comes from the history of people whose slave labor built the wealth of our nation….

What if we learned to respect and to know about all the people who have ever done for us?
Don’t let the work of their hands go unsung,
— Amy Brookman, Exodus1verse8 *link updated from the one in original post, which is gone now

AND THEN I SIT. “Dom l’Yah, v’hitcholello.” “Be still,” Psalm 37 tells us,”and wait for God.”
The final sentence of The Book of Exodus, the manual for our liberation, tells us that we must cultivate an awareness of God’s mysterious presence, characterized by the Divine cloud in the day and an inner fire at night. This awareness will guide us throughout our journeys.
— From Torah Journeys, Shefa Gold

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

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

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.