Devarim Sixteen: Holidays and Justice

In addition to the laws of shmita having a biblical origin, there are also laws regarding the ancient holidays. The most classic Jewish holiday, of course, is Pesach (Passover). “Keep the month of spring, and make the Passover offering to the Lord, your God, for in the month of spring, the Lord, your God, brought you out of Egypt at night (Deuteronomy 16:1).” Pesach is inherently bound to the spring season, a time of change and renewal. And, on a personal note, is the origin of my middle name. Aviva comes from the Hebrew word Aviv, meaning spring, and I was given that name because I was born during Pesach. So, whether through that connection or a love of the traditions, Pesach has always been my favorite holiday. Of course, it looks a little different in the Torah than it does today.

“You shall slaughter the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, your God, flock, and cattle, in the place which the Lord will choose to establish His Name therein (Deuteronomy 16:2).” In addition to the sacrifice, which we don’t do anymore, the unleavened bread, or matzah, is mentioned. We don’t leaven it so that we will remember the haste of the exodus from Egypt. “For six days you shall eat matzah, and on the seventh day there shall be a halt to the Lord, your God. You shall not do any work (Deuteronomy 16:8).”

Then, we have the second iconic holiday, Sukkot. “And you shall perform the Festival of Weeks to the Lord, your God, the donation you can afford to give, according to how the Lord, your God, shall bless you (Deuteronomy 16:10).” Sukkot is a time when we are specifically commanded to rejoice. Not just the Israelites, but our children, our servants, and the strangers who live among us.

“Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you (Deuteronomy 16:20).” This is one of the most iconic lines of the Torah. The word “justice” is repeated twice. If every word of the Torah is supposed to be meaningful and count, then why do we need this word twice in the same verse? I’ve heard countless sermons about this. There are two kinds of justice, it’s repeated because we need to be just and do justice. I like most of them, and I don’t have a new profound statement of my own. But it’s a foundational concept that Jews can live by, and a value that I uphold.

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Shemot Reflection

So, I’ve come to the end of the second book of Tanakh. In some ways, I can’t even comprehend how much there is left to go in this challenge that I’ve set for myself. It’s been almost five months, and I haven’t missed a day. But so far, it’s still been easy – most of the chapters are pretty straightforward, and are following a chronological order of events. Therefore, the story-telling aspect of Tanakh is still intact, and will be for a while longer (luckily). Some of the new challenges that have come up in this book have been trying to find meaning every day, even when the content becomes seemingly repetitive, and pretty dry, particularly with regards to the mishkan design/building, which took up more than a few days of reading. Additionally, as some of the most meaningful days in the Jewish calendar (for me) have fallen during the reading of this book, I’ve actively tried to find meaningful connections between the seemingly random daily chapters and the backdrop of the Jewish and Israeli calendar. This period in particular, the Yomim (Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom HaAtzmaut), has been particularly meaningful, because for the first time, I’ve been truly feeling the emotions of these various days as an Israeli, not just a Jew. My Israeliness is what motivated my participation in Project 929, but it is largely my Judaism that is growing as a result. I do feel the connection to my fellow Israelis who are participating in the project, as I wrote about in my last reflection, and I feel myself thinking about the content from a growing Israeli mindset. But it’s as a Jew that I’m largely benefitting from the experience of reading each chapter carefully, and exploring the words that are our heritage. I look forward to the next book, which I know contains many laws. As someone whose Judaism isn’t fully bound by halakha, I want to see what meaning I can find for myself and my own life by reading the original laws given to our people.

Thank you all for joining me on this journey. Right now, 90 chapters down, 839 to go!

Shemot Forty: Yom HaAtzmaut

The tabernacle has been built, and God instructs Moses on what to do now, including lighting the lamps, burning incense, and anointing Aaron and his sons as priests. The mishkan is finally put into use, and the ark is put inside, everything having been prepared accordingly. The work that the people, instructed by Moses and put into practice by Bezalel, have been doing for the last several chapters, is complete. They are now able to utilize that which they have created.

“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud was there, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys (Exodus 40:34-36).”

Today is Yom HaAtzmaut, the 67th anniversary of the independence of the modern State of Israel. It seems fitting that this is the day that we read this chapter of Tanakh, the culminating chapter of Exodus. In this book, the people have become free, and have gone from being slaves to experiencing their first steps of self-determination. Today, the Jewish people mirror this. The greatness of having an independent state is that for the first time in 2000 years, the Jewish people are able to enjoy self-determination. Just like in the desert, where the Israelites had to figure out what it means to be a people, now, in Israel we must figure out what it means to be a country.

Shemot Thirty-Nine: Yom HaZikaron

I’m not sure that I believe in fate, or that things happen simply because they’re meant to. Too often, I think people use fate as a cop out, a means to keep them from having the responsibility to act. The chapter that falls on each day isn’t meant to be. Rather, we must take what is given and make meaning out of it. To that end, today is Yom HaZikaron. For me, it’s one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. It’s the day when we remember the soldiers who have given their lives for the State of Israel. We mourn, as individuals, families, and a nation, for the incomprehensible loss that we have suffered for our freedom. Twice, once last night and once this morning, a siren tears across Israel. The world stops, just as it must have when each of the bereaved mothers cried at the news of the loss of their sons. Israel stands together at these moments, acknowledging and crying for our lost children – because the soldiers belong to all of us. So many are too young, and they are all of our children.

When I started reading today’s chapter of Tanakh, I wasn’t sure how to find relevant meaning in it. The mishkan is still being built, and today focuses on the garments made for Aaron and his sons, the kohanim. We are told of the blue and purple cloth used, and the gold that made the breastplate. On the breastplate of the priests, there were 12 stones, representing each of the 12 tribes.

“And they made the plate of the holy crown of pure gold, and wrote upon it a writing, like the engravings of a signet: Holy to the Lord (Exodus 39:30).” The priests were designated as being holy to God. For so many of us today, it’s the soldiers, the boys and girls in green, who are holy. Personally, I hold it to be an unequivocal truth that nation-building is the holy work of this generation of the Jewish people. It is our honor, and our burden. In the desert, in the chapters that we read in this section of Tanakh, the people are becoming a nation, and joining together in their first national project: the construction of the mishkan. Today, the Jewish people are engaged in the continual work of building once again, only this time we’re building a country. Every person contributes in some way, and too many have done so with their lives. May all of their memories be a blessing.

Shemot Thirty-Eight: Meritocracy in Ancient Israel

Bezalel continues his work. He makes the altar, which is of acacia wood, and all of the ritual vessels. He makes pillars, and wall hangings, and and screens for the gates of the court of the tabernacle. We are told all of the minute details of the construction, including the materials used, the size of each object, and the distances at which they were placed.

“These are the accounts of the tabernacle, even the tabernacle of the testimony, as they were rendered according to the commandment of Moses, through the service of the Levites, by the hand of Itamar, the son of Aaron the priest (Exodus 38:21).” Bezalel, the chief architect, isn’t of the priestly family. He is of the tribe of Judah, and his assistant, Oholiab, is from Dan. All of the work that they were doing was for the dominion of the priests, something that their own families wouldn’t get to participate in. So my question is twofold: why were they the ones chosen? How did they, and how did the priests, who weren’t chosen, feel about this appointment? On the one hand, it seems to be evidence of a meritocracy existing amongst the ancient Israelites. Bezalel and Oholiab weren’t chosen because of their lineage, or their proximity to the leadership class. They were chosen because of their skills and talents, and their ability to complete the mission set before them. However, it seems that their roles were short lived. They did their job of constructing the tabernacle, and then most likely went back to their lives as undistinguished members of their respective tribes. Were they rewarded for their work? It was definitely important, indeed integral to the culture and religion of ancient Israel, and is remembered until today. But was it appropriately appreciated in their lifetime? Or were they seen as instruments of God, no different from the instruments that they constructed for the priests, merely tools for doing God’s will?

Shemot Thirty-Seven: Cherubim

Picking up right where we left off, Bezalel is building the ark itself. He makes it out of wood, covered in gold, which seems to be the theme of this chapter. The ark cover is gold, and so are the cherubim that sit on it. “And he made two cherubim of gold: of beaten work he made them, at the two ends of the ark-cover: one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the ark-cover he made the cherubim at the two ends thereof. And the cherubim spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover were the faces of the cherubim (Exodus 37:7-9).”

It’s interesting to me that we have such an extensive description of statues of angels on the ark. So much of the imagery that many of us have of angels comes from Christian literature and art, and for me at least, corporeal angels are not things that I associate with Judaism. I understand the concept of an angel as a messenger of God, as is described in different stories, such as the man who points Joseph towards his brothers, and the men who come to tell Abraham that he will have a son with Sarah. However, winged angels are much more foreign to me. I’m not sure what their place is in my understanding of Judaism, but I like the idea of winged angels guarding the ark. The two cherubim seem like they were the companions of God by virtue of their presence on the ark, and their wings served as covers to the ark and its contents. As I continue with my reading of the Tanakh, I’m eager to see where else they’re mentioned, and what forms they take.

Shemot Thirty-Six: Overachieving

The people have come together to contribute to the construction of the tabernacle, and now the actual building begins. “And Bezalel and Oholiab shall work, and every wise-hearted man, in whom the Lord has put wisdom and understanding to know how to work all the work for the service of the sanctuary, according to all the the Lord has commanded (Exodus 36:1).” I’ve said it before, but I really love the concept of God providing wisdom and understanding, rather than technical skills. The people who build the mishkan (tabernacle) are wise, not skilled, meaning that they have the intention and hearts that are geared towards this work, which is more important than the simple mechanics.

The people are so eager to contribute that they bring more materials than are necessary, and Moses needs to command them to stop bringing materials. It’s always wonderful to see an example of people doing too much, rather than not enough. So often, the people are admonished for their lack of effort in the relationship between God and the Israelites. Likewise, today, it’s much more likely to hear the complaint that people aren’t doing enough or giving enough, as opposed to people needing to  be stopped from their goodwill acts. I think that this example shows how much the people wanted to physically act, and to feel connected with God through their contributions, actions, and intentions.

Shemot Thirty-Five: Contributing to the Tabernacle

Moses is once again back with the people. Slightly irreverent thought: he must be exhausted from all of the running back and forth up and down Mount Sinai! First, he reiterates the commandment of Shabbat to them. Next, he tells them that God has commanded that they bring their fabrics and oils and stones for the construction of the tabernacle and its tent, and various components. Each person was asked to contribute to its construction. “And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and brought the Lord’s offering, for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all the service thereof, and for the holy garments (Exodus 35:21).” I think it’s beautiful that each person had the opportunity to contribute to the construction of the Tabernacle. It wasn’t just the domain of Bezalel (the artist), or Moses, or the priests. It’s a place for all of the people, which couldn’t have existed without each one of them bringing their own offerings to God.

Shemot Thirty-Four: Yom HaShoah and the Sins of the Father

Moses has broken the original stone tablets containing the 10 commandments in a fit of rage after the sin of the Golden Calf. Now, he has gone up Mount Sinai once again. “And he hewed to tablets of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up to Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone (Exodus 34:4).” Although God was angry at the people, He has not fully withdrawn from them, and He shows this by once again providing them His word.

God’s presence comes to Moses on the mountain. “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed: ‘The Lord, Lord, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation; forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation (Exodus 34:6-7).'”

It is striking to me that we read these words today. When Project 929 began, I wasn’t sure how I would find meaning in the chapters that would fall out on key days in the Jewish year. Today is erev Yom HaShoah, the night before Holocaust Remembrance Day. Jewish holidays begin in the evening, and as I write this, it’s almost time for the ceremonies that mark this day of remembrance and mourning. And we read these words of Torah, that God is merciful and good, yet remembers the sins of the fathers for generations. What does this mean? Are the children of the perpetrators of the greatest atrocity in human history posthumously responsible for the sins of their fathers? And what about beyond sinning – today, more than any other day in the calendar, begs the question what is our responsibility to the past? Those of us who are born of the third generation after the Holocaust, whose connection is indirect, how do we remember? What do we remember? We did not personally bare witness, and yet we are the living connection to the Jewish past, and the Jewish future. What is our role?

Shemot Thirty-Three: The Face of God

The people have sinned, and God is angry. However, thanks to Moses interceding on behalf of the people, God is willing to forgive them for their transgression. God reiterates His promise to the people, telling them to go to the Promised Land. However, there is a change. “I will send an angel before you; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite – unto a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in the midst of you; for you are a stiff-necked people; lest I consume you in the way (Exodus 33:2-3).” Here, we see that while God hasn’t given up on the people, He will no longer be with them in the personal and intimate way that existed up until this point. Instead of the relationship being like that of the Exodus, where God Himself takes the people out of Egypt, the guide will now be an angel. The people are saddened by this development, but now God’s presence dwells in the tent of meeting, outside of the camp, rather than inside.

Moses goes into the tent, and the people see that the presence of God is at the tent with him. “And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11).” Moses and God clearly had an intimate relationship, and a deeply personal one. However, only a few verses later, we are told, that Moses asked to see the glory of God, and was told that he couldn’t see God’s face, but rather only His back. Is this a contradiction in the text?

Personally, I read the first verse as referring to the spirit in which God and Moses communicate, rather than to the means. God and Moses speak together intimately and personally, the way that individuals who care about each other do. This a unique relationship for a man to have with God, and clearly Moses is the person to become the most intimate with God throughout our history. However, even for Moses, there is a separation. As a man, Moses cannot withstand the power of God’s face, and must content himself with only an approximation of the true presence of God. How much of God are each of us exposed to? Are our relationships with God meant to be friendships, or something else?