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Parashat Pekudei – Shabbat Shekalim
March 1, 2014 – 29 Adar I 5774
The Israelites set out to create the priestly clothing as described previously in Exodus. After Moses inspects the Mish- kan’s many pieces, they are approved and assembled, in the precise manner God had commanded. Immediately after the final touches are applied, the Divine cloud fills the Mishkan. The cloud takes up so much room that Moses is unable to enter. The cloud fills the Mishkan by day, and fire glows in it by night.
When Moses came to Bezalel and saw the amount of material left over after the Tabernacle had been constructed, he said to God, “God of all the worlds, we have now made the Tabernacle and we have material left over;; what shall we do with what is left over?” God replied, “Go and make with them a tabernacle of the pact.” — Exodus Rabbah
March 8, 2014– 6 Adar II 5774
Parashat Vayikra begins the third and shortest book of the Torah, It reflects the central role of the priestly cult and of ritual law in the worldview of both the Torah and biblical Israel. The Book of Leviticus is indispensable reading for people who would trace their religious experience and link their spiritual enterprises to scriptural origins. It is thus essential to avoid the temptation to dismiss the book’s detailed description of the sacrificial cult as of importance only to a by- gone age. This tendency is lyrically described by political journalist David Plotz in his bestselling reaction to the Bible, Good Book:
“Some of my friends doubted that my Bible reading would last past Exodus. Oh, it’s all thrills and giggles when you’re dealing with the ten plagues and the Tower of Babel – but wait till you get to Leviticus! They mentioned Leviticus in the same hushed, terrified way that mariners mutter, ‘Bermuda Triangle,’ or Hollywood executives whisper, ‘Ishtar.’ Leviticus… makes even learned pastors weep with boredom, and turns promising young Talmudic scholars into babbling US Weekly subscribers. What would it do to an amateur like me?”
In contrast, Jewish tradition prescribes that Leviticus be the first text to which young students of scripture should be exposed: “Children are pure. Therefore, let those who are pure come and study matters of purity!” (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3). In that spirit… Parashat Vayikra outlines the principal types of sacrificial offerings and accompanying ritual proce- dures: the burnt offering (olah), grain or meal offering (minchah), and well-being or peace offering (zevach shelamim – described as “sacred gifts of greeting” by Professor Baruch Levine). These voluntary offerings constituted the regular religious expression of everyday Israelites, their leaders, and their collective community. Obligatory expiatory sacrifices (chatat and asham) were of a more limited scope and intended to effect reconciliation between the sinner or the com- munity, and God in the wake of a religious offense or specific transgression.
Parashat Tzav (Shabbat HaGadol)
March 15, 2014 – 13 Adar II 5774
Opening with the divine command that a flame be kept burning on the altar in perpetuity, Parashat Tzav includes a more comprehensive and detailed review of the sacrifices already introduced in the opening chapters of Leviticus: addi- tional laws concerning burnt offerings, daily meal offerings from both the high priest and the other priests, laws of the expiatory sin and guilt offerings, offerings of well-being and of thanksgiving. Expanding ritual responsibility from the priesthood to the general populace – and in so doing, anticipating the content of coming chapters in Parashat Shemini – all Israelites are forbidden to eat the fat or blood even of permitted animals.
Again emphasizing the sacred role of the people Israel as a whole, at God’s command Moses gathers the entire community of Israel at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Moses washes Aaron and his sons and dresses them in the prescribed priestly vestments. The tabernacle and altar and its ritual accoutrements all are anointed with sacred oil, further initiating the regimen of Israelite sacrificial worship. The altar is sanctified with a bullock and rams, and the ordination of the priests, including Aaron, is signified by the sacrificial blood put on their ears, thumbs, and toes.
The newly ordained founding priests of Israel are consecrated by the sacrificial blood and sacred oil sprinkled on them, as was the altar at which they will serve God and God’s chosen people. The installation of Israel’s cultic leaders culminates in a weeklong process: “You shall remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, keeping the Lord’s charge – that you may not die – for so I have commanded” (8:35).
March 22, 2014 – 20 Adar II 5774
Parashat Shemini, describes what occurred following the seven-day process of priestly ordination, the eighth day. The altar was used for the first time by the newly authorized priests. Moses and Aaron together bless the assembled Israelites. The people respond to the divine fire which demonstrates that the sacrifices have been accepted with shouts of joy and worship.
Following this auspicious beginning to the efforts of the Israelite priesthood, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer ill-defined – and ill-advised – “alien fire” before God. The errant priests are consumed in divine fire – the malignant equivalent of the fire which earlier consumed Israel’s first sacrifices as an indicator of divine favor and approval. Moses offers a brief, somewhat cryptic, poetic message of consolation to his bereaved brother. Aaron responds with absolute silence to his devastating loss. The remains of the stricken priests are removed from the Sanctuary by their priestly cousins. Aaron and his surviving sons, in keeping with their unique obligations as priests, are adjured not to mourn in the usual manner.
God addresses Aaron, commanding him and all future priests serving at the altar to refrain from drinking wine or other intoxicant. Wine is deemed an impediment to the priestly mission of distinguishing “between the sacred and the profane, between the unclean and the clean” as well as the priestly duty of transmitting God’s commandments to the Israelite com- munity.
After a brief set of instructions regarding the meal, wave, and sin offerings, Shemini offers the Torah’s fundamental basis for the Dietary Laws. Forbidden and permitted species among land animals (split hooved ruminants are permitted), fish (those with fins and scales are permitted), and birds (no distinguishing physical characteristic are specified, though a lengthy list is provided), as well as “winged swarming things” – insects. This discussion of food stuffs is followed by a cor- ollary prescription of ritual impurity and its transfer from forbidden – i.e. impure or “unclean” – animals, by means of, for example, physical contact or carrying.
The parashah concludes with a critical statement of the purpose of the ritual requirements that have been detailed: “I, the Lord, am your God. You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.”
March 29, 2014 – 27 Adar II 5774
When a woman gives birth, she enters a state of ritual impurity. If she gives birth to a boy, she is in a state of niddah (separation) for seven days, and she remains ritually impure for 33 days. Following the birth of a girl the corresponding periods are two weeks and 66 days. At the end of this time she is to bring a burnt offering and a purification offering and she is restored to a state of ritual purity.
God instructs Moses and Aaron about tzara’at, a scaly skin disease traditionally translated as “leprosy” but clearly not the condition known today as Hansen’s disease. When a person developed a rash or other signs of skin disease, the priest was to examine it and determine if it was in fact tzara’at, which would render the person ritually impure. If the diagnosis was uncertain, the priest was to quarantine the person for seven days and then examine him again. If the diagnosis was still uncertain, the person was to be isolated for another seven days; if the rash had not spread, he was declared ritually pure. Once a person was determined to have tzara’at, he was declared ritually impure and sent to live outside the camp.