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  • Generous Giving: A Lesson for Leaders

    "Then...everyone whose spirit was willing...brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments... And the leaders brought onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece." (Exodus 35:2, 27) On the day that Moses had finished setting up the tabernacle... the leaders of Israel, heads of their ancestral houses, the leaders of the tribes, who were over those who were enrolled, made offerings. (Numbers 7:1-2) In the Book of Exodus we read about the people freely contributing to the building of the Tabernacle. By the time we reach chapter 7 of the Book of Numbers the Tabernacle is completed, furnished, anointed, consecrated. Suddenly the twelve tribal leaders of Israel appear, obviously intent on making some serious offerings. Read about these offerings in Numbers 7. This is a challenging passage in its apparent tedious repetition. Be patient! Settle into the text. Read aloud, perhaps taking turns with a friend. What do you notice? The high rank of the leaders is certainly stressed. The offerings of each individual leader are identical. And why does Moses have to be instructed by the Lord to accept their offerings (7:4-5)? Ponder these questions... What is the word of God trying to teach us here? To stimulate our reflections, we can turn to the insights of traditional Jewish interpreters: The sudden appearance of the tribal leaders at this point in the story certainly bothered the Jewish sages of old whose voices speak to us through the midrash (Jewish storytelling traditions). They recall the backdrop to this passage: the story of the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 35. Why, they wondered, were these leaders nowhere to be seen when Moses called for the tabernacle to be built? Why did they appear only after the tabernacle was built, contributing just a few precious stones to the making of the priestly vestments (Ex 35:27)? They were the heads of ancestral houses, the ones whom you might expect to be actively setting an example of generous giving; yet they were the last to give. The midrash poses the view that when Moses issued the call “to all the congregation of the Israelites” (35:4), the leaders were offended. “Moses should have spoken to us before giving a general directive to the people,” they said. Displeased, they withheld their offerings until later, thinking that the people would not be responsive and that they would then emerge to ‘save the day’ with a grandiose show of their own offerings. But they had underestimated the generosity of the people, “everyone whose spirit was willing” (Ex 35:21). The Israelites gave and gave until the tabernacle was built, and Moses had to call a halt: That’s enough! No more! (Ex 36:6). So the tribal leaders realized there was nothing left to contribute. All they had given were a few precious stones for the priestly garments (see Ex 35:27). In the Exodus story the leaders were taught a bitter lesson. Now here in the Book of Numbers, says the midrash, they hurry to make amends. As the story unfolds, Nethanel comes up with the bright idea that wagons and oxen are required since the tabernacle is to be transported. This accounts for the sudden appearance of the leaders, and their particular choice of gifts. Another delightful detail of the midrash focuses on the Hebrew title of the leaders: hanesi’im. In Exodus 35:27 it appears with the letter yod omitted. Since the letter yod represents the name of God, the midrash interprets this as divine disapproval of the leaders’ behavior. Moses is fully aware of this, which is why in Numbers 7:4-5 he awaits the Lord’s instruction before being willing to accept their gifts. • Reflection: How do you respond to this midrashic interpretation? What important moral lesson/s does it hold, and how does it speak to the human complexities of your own family/parish/faith community? Bibliography: Midrash Rabbah: Numbers Vol II, edited by Freedman and Simon (London/New York: Soncino Press, 1983); Schorsch, Canon Without Closure (New York, 2007). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2012. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from traditional Jewish approaches to the sacred text. This week, we commence the Book of Numbers. The reflection above refers to Parasha Naso (Numbers 4:21 - 7:89), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle (in the diaspora). Shabbat shalom.

  • MOVING CAMP IN THE WILDERNESS

    In Numbers 4:1-20 we find the Lord’s instructions concerning how the Tabernacle [a portable sanctuary] should be handled when the Israelites dismantle it in order to move camp in their wilderness trek. Read these instructions. Note that Aaron and his sons have a specific role in dismantling and covering the holy items, while the Kohathites (part of the Levite tribe) have the duty of transporting them. “Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each to a particular task and burden. But the Kohathites must not go in to look on the holy things even for a moment; otherwise they will die” (Numbers 4:19-20). In Jewish tradition we find the rabbis puzzling over these verses: Why the strict rules about who does what? Why the dire warning that the Kohathites must not look upon the holy objects? Where lies the danger? In the creative and reverent spirit of the sages, ponder this before reading on. Now, let's listen to a number of Jewish voices from across the centuries, with the help of 20th century Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz. The midrash1 presents two different views, both containing the idea that assigned duties prevent chaos from breaking out in the presence of the Holy One. According to Rabbi Eleazar, the holiness of the Ark (the most precious item) is so overwhelming that people may be tempted to run away from it, preferring to carry something else like the lamp or the table. Rabbi Samuel takes the opposite view: the privilege of carrying the Ark may cause people to abandon the other objects and quarrel over the right to carry the Ark. Either way, at risk is the decorum befitting such a sacred environment. Therefore, Aaron must “assign each to a particular task and burden” (v.19). Imaginatively enter the scenes depicted by these storytelling traditions. How does the sacred text speak to you? Still, the question remains: why does the Torah forbid even ‘looking’ upon the holy things? Says Hirsch,2 the Torah is warning against looking upon a sacred thing without the correct depth of vision. Should the Kohathites have witnessed the covering of the holy objects they might have perceived them as ordinary things being packed up like any other household item. Thus the command to not look protects ‘the sense of the sacred.’ For Abravanel3 the holy things covered and kept from sight are a reminder to retain an appropriate sense of mystery. Not everything can be grasped by human endeavour. ‘The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings” (Ps. 115:16). Faith calls for restful trust in a mystery ultimately beyond us. Yet another view is set forth by Hefez.4 Enjoying the privilege of carrying the Ark, the Kohathites were in danger of becoming full of pride. By withholding from them an important detail, the Lord helps them to be humble and reverent. Then again, Sforno5 explains the text without any resort to symbolism. The matter is purely organizational! It allows for the smooth carrying out of sacred tasks. Where do you find yourself entering this discussion among the sages? Share your views and the experiences that fuel them. 1. Bamidbar Rabbah. 2. Hirsch: 19th c. German. 3. Abravanel: 15th c. Spanish. 4. Hefez: 16th c. Italian. 5. Sforno: 14-15th c. Italian Bibliography: Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, (New York: Lambda, n.p.d.). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from traditional Jewish approaches to the sacred text. This week, we commence the Book of Numbers. The reflection above refers to Parasha Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 - 4:20), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

  • Torah Math

    Towards the end of the Book of Leviticus, we find in chapter 26 a listing of the blessings which will ensue if the people follow God’s ways. Among these blessings are peace, prosperity, safety from wild animals, fertility of land and people, and victory over enemies. In this week’s reflection we explore a curious detail in the latter blessing which caught the eye of the Jewish sages. Read all the blessings in 26:1-13, then ponder the reference to victory over enemies in 26:7-8. “You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword” (Lev. 26:7-8). The sages we hear from today* approach this verse in terms of the spiritual struggle of virtuous people amidst a multitude who could not care less for God or the ways of the Torah. They notice something odd about the Torah’s mathematics in verse 8. If five chase 100, then wouldn’t it be more consistent to maintain the same ratio and say 100 shall chase 2000? Why does the ratio change so dramatically: 100 shall chase 10,000?! How do you interpret the discrepancy? Perhaps, like Rabbi Bahya,[1] you have tried to solve the math with more math: “Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred ‘fives’ of you shall chase ten thousand. Thus the account is seen to match.” But other commentators are not so impressed by this ingenious solution. If the numbers tally, what does the second phrase add to the first? Rashi [2] finds interpretative energy in the very fact that the numbers don’t match. He says, “You cannot compare a few [i.e., 5] who perform the commandments of the Torah to many [i.e., 100] who perform the commandments of the Torah.” In other words, Rashi is noting that something surprising happens when virtuous people band together against wickedness. Their impact and chance of success increase in a manner disproportionate to their increase in numbers. Gersonides (Ralbag) [3] explains it this way: In a war one soldier against two will not win; but 100 against 200 have a better chance. An increased minority can even find an advantage over a larger army. With focused resources and clever strategy, a small team can outwit a larger force. The moral lesson from this verse is to highlight the individual’s responsibility to contribute to forces for good. Let no one say, “What difference can I, just one person, make to an already outnumbered group of Torah-observers? In fact, teach the sages, when one faithful person joins forces with a small committed group, he/she strengthens that group by far more than simply one person’s individual efforts. Our Torah reflection reminds us that when even a few good people unite for good they can truly make a difference in a world that often appears indifferent to the paths of God. On our own we are like twigs which can easily be broken. But a bunch of twigs bound together is much harder to break, even though each twig in itself is fragile. Can you think of an experience when you found this to be true? Continue to ponder this blessing of ‘victory over enemies.’ E.g., it is interesting that the blessing is not simply ‘you will have no enemies’, but that you will overcome your enemies even from what appears to be a weaker position. This blessing is one of hope, encouragement and strengthened resolve amidst struggle. • * See Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra (New York, 1993). Scripture: NRSV 1. Bahya Ibn Pakuda. 11th century. Spain; wrote a Jewish ethical classic ‘Duties of the Heart.’ 2. Rashi: Rabbi Shelomo Yizhaki (1040-1105), France. 3. Gersonides (Ralbag): Levi ben Gershon. French philosopher (1288-1344). © Teresa Pirola, 2013 lightoftorah.net Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from traditional Jewish approaches to the sacred text. This week, we continue to come to the final chapters of the Book of Leviticus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34), the (double) Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

  • Hallowed Be Your Name

    Leviticus 22:32 has been called ‘Israel’s Bible in miniature.’ This verse expresses two of Judaism’s key commandments. First, it warns against profaning the Divine Name. Then it calls for the Divine Name to be sanctified (‘hallowed’) by Israel. “You are not to profane my holy name, that I may be hallowed amid the children of Israel; I am the Lord, the one-who-hallows you” (Leviticus 22:32). In Jewish teaching, this double-command is for every Jew, to be fulfilled by the witness of his/her life. Although spoken to Israel’s priests, this command has long been applied to the whole of Israel. The Hebrew term for sanctifying the Lord’s Name is Kiddush HaShem. We are hallowed by God’s holiness that we might hallow God’s Name. Kiddush HaShem is to act in a loving and just way so that those who witness it become aware of the presence of God in their midst. God calls us into a relationship of love, and all our thoughts and deeds, every aspect of our lives, should reflect the holiness of our Creator. Abraham Heschel, the great 20th century American Jewish scholar said, “Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy.” There is a famous Kiddush HaShem recorded in the Talmud: [1] Rav Shimon ben Shetach’s students bought a donkey for their teacher from a person from outside the Jewish community. They discovered a precious stone attached to the donkey unbeknown to the seller. Rabbi Shimon ordered them to return it. When questioned why it was necessary to do so since the law did not require it, Rav Shimon replied that his goal in life was not amassing wealth. Rather he desired hearing a non-Jew blessing God more than all the wealth in the world! Of course, the command to sanctify God’s name is for Christians too. “While studying this portion with my Torah study partner, we became aware of a new meaning to the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray ‘hallowed (holy) be your name’ we are expressing something which is integral in the Jewish spirituality of Jesus, the deep sense of the holiness of God’s name. These words call us to constant conversion. The personal Divine mission for each of us in this world is to sanctify God’s Name. We all have daily challenges to do this.”[2] According to a Talmudic text, the sublime love of God calls for the active engagement of one’s whole life, even unto death where death is preferable to desecrating the Name of God in public apostasy. However, while acts of martyrdom certainly feature in Jewish history, biblical and rabbinic sources view Kiddush HaShem primarily as an expression of faith in the day-to-day realities of living. • Faith & Life: Pray the Lord’s Prayer (‘Our Father’), more slowly than usual, meditating on those words, “Hallowed be your name...” and on the Jewish teacher who taught them (see Mt 6:9-13). Allow these words to give your day its prayerful rhythm and focus. 1. Yerushalmi Bava Metzia 2:5 2. From the Torah reflection of Sr Ann Kelly, fmdm, of Lusaka, Zambia. Bibliography: This article is based on the Parashah Emor commentary by Ann Kelly, fmdm, 2008, Bat Kol Institute, Jerusalem (batkol.info). Other works consulted: Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York, 1995); Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, Vol 2 (New York, 1996); Munk, The Call of the Torah (New York, 1992). © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from traditional Jewish approaches to the sacred text. This week, we continue to explore the Book of Leviticus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Emor (Leviticus 22:1 - 24:23), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

  • A Plague in the House

    In the Hebrew Scriptures the term tzara’at can refer to a variety of skin ailments (translated in various ways, e.g., ‘scaly skin’, ‘leprosy’). To the biblical authors it is not just a disease; it is associated with divine displeasure. It smites like a plague (Hebrew: nega) and causes ritual defilement that calls for a process of purification. See, for example, Leviticus 14:33-35. Here we pay close attention to verse 35. When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give you for a possession, and I put a leprous disease in a house in the land of your possession, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “There seems to me to be some sort of disease in my house.” (Lev. 14:34-35) This passage is a good example of the detailed creativity of traditional Jewish approaches to the Bible, and how the sages are able to draw moral lessons from a single letter of the sacred text. In our text above, one might expect the householder to simply announce “there is a disease.” Yet one added Hebrew letter tells us that rather than nega (‘plague’), he says kanega (it seems to be a plague). Says Rashi,1 “Even if he is learned and has no doubt as to the nature of the plague, he must not utter a definitive judgment, but merely declare: ‘it seems...’” Of what significance is this apparent hesitation? Ponder this before reading on. The Maharal of Prague2 reminds us that in the Torah tzara’at is approached as a matter relating to ritual purity laws, not a biological phenomenon. Thus definitive pronouncement is the task of the priest, not of a physician or any other kind of expert. R. Eliyahu Mizrahi3 finds there a moral lesson about what we might describe as ‘loose talk.’ Much damage is done by presenting hearsay as established fact. As it says in the Mishnah: “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I do not know” (Berakhot 4a). The midrashic preachers often played with the similarity of the Hebrew words m’tzora (‘leper’) and motzi ra (‘slanderer’), so this section of the Torah became an opportunity to preach against the evils of gossip. Another explanation is offered by R. Yom Tov Lipman Heller:4 “The Torah does not want the owner of the house to declare ‘a plague’ so as not to invite misfortune... Indeed, the tzara’at might recede before the priest’s arrival.” In other words, we should not jump to pessimistic conclusions but rather exhibit patient hope and trust in God. And all this from the pondering of a single Hebrew letter... Here we have a fascinating glimpse into Scripture as the divinely inspired Word in the hands of a living, faithful, interpreting community. • Over to you.... With a friend or in a small group, join in the work of the interpreting community of faith. From your own prayerful, creative reflections, how would you explain “it seems to be a plague” in verse 35? Who’s who Our sages this week are: 1. Rashi (1040-1105). French scholar, regarded as the ‘prince’ of Jewish Bible commentators. 2. Maharal of Prague (1525-1609). His works on Jewish ethics, philosophy, and rabbinic law are regarded as classics. 3. R. Eliyahu Mizrahi (1440-1525). Renowned Talmud scholar. Chief Rabbi of Turkey at the time of the expulsion of Jews from Spain. 4. R. Yom Tov Lipman Heller (1579-1654). Served as a Rabbi in Vienna, Prague and Cracow. Best known for his commentary on the Mishna, Tosefos Yom Tov. Bibliography: Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, (Jerusalem,1993); Plaut, The Torah. A Modern Commentary (New York, 2006). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2012. lightoftorah.net Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from traditional Jewish approaches to the sacred text. This week, we continue to explore the Book of Leviticus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33), the (double) Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

  • Dietary Laws in Leviticus

    With a title like that, I welcome my most diehard Light of Torah readers (and/or the very curious!) to this week's blog. Our focus for this week's Torah portion is the dietary laws in Leviticus 11. Here, the distinctions between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods are a form of Kedushah (‘sanctity’). As each unique aspect of God’s creation finds its place and purpose within the divine master plan, created beings draw close to their Creator. “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:45). “The camel...it is unclean for you.” (11:4) “The pig...it is unclean for you.” (11:7) “By these you shall become unclean...” (11:24) Read through the dietary laws in Chapter 11 of Leviticus. Better still, read aloud, and with someone. What do you notice? "It is unclean for you!” Note the repetition. And the rhythm. The phrase comes through again and again, like a drumbeat. What else do you notice? More repetitive phrases… ‘creatures that swarm’ … ‘every creature’ ... ‘of any kind.’ Where have we heard that kind of phrasing before? Genesis 1, the first creation account! Why would this Torah portion, so focused upon avoiding the ‘unclean,’ be reminding us of the creation of the world where everything created by God is ‘good’? What do the two have in common? Perhaps you noticed that both are about separating one thing from another. In Genesis, God separates the waters from dry land, the sky from the earth. In Leviticus the Israelites, via a cultic system, separate certain animals into clean and unclean, forbidden and permitted, what can be eaten and what can’t. In Genesis, why does God separate? To create order out of chaos, bringing forth a beautiful world. And why does Leviticus call for a detailed system of separations? To create spiritual order out of chaos, creating a lifestyle of holiness for the people. Jewish commentators remind us that there is no indication that forbidden creatures are unwholesome in themselves (remember, God created them ‘good’). While other ancient religious systems associated certain animals with evil gods, uncleanness in the Torah is different. The goal of separation is not to ward off evil spirits, nor primarily a matter of health (though some sages do mention elements of hygiene). Rather, the goal is primarily affirmation of Israel’s relationship with God and determination to avoid idolatry. (I am reminded here of my own Catholic tradition with its practice of abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday: there is nothing intrinsically bad about meat; rather, the practice reflects our spiritual values at a sacred time.) Christian scholar Walter Brueggemann has pointed out the enduring impact of ancient Israel’s holiness code (e.g., dietary laws). While certain details of biblical ritual are not practised today, the human need to create a sense of ‘right order’ in the world (and not just ethically, but spiritually too) remains. By ordering things/people in a certain way, we bring coherence to our lives, we express our core values and ensure their ongoing validity. Reflection Name a time-honoured religious practice that has brought order/coherence to your life. Who taught it to you? How would you describe its meaning for your life? Bibliography: Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis, 1997); Freedman & Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Song of Songs (New York, 1983); Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra (New York, 1996); Nachshoni, Studies in the Weekly Parashah (Jerusalem, 1988). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial purposes permitted with acknowledgement of Light of Torah website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from traditional Jewish approaches to the sacred text. This week, we continue to explore the Book of Leviticus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

  • ‘The Life of the Flesh is in the Blood’

    Chapters 6-8 of the Book of Leviticus continue with instructions for worship. They start with details about bringing sacrificial offerings near to the altar, and end with the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests. Of particular interest here are two verses prohibiting the consumption of blood (7:26-27): “You must not eat any blood whatever, either of bird or of animal, in any of your settlements. Anyone of you who eats any blood shall be cut off from your kin” (Lev. 7:26-27). We find the same prohibition repeated with increasing emphasis in Lev. 17:14 and Deut. 12:23. What is the reasoning behind this law? Curiously, this is the only Jewish prohibition of food consumption that is explained in the Torah. Not that Torah commentators have always agreed on the explanation! Let’s hear from Torah scholars of the Middle Ages...[1] For Maimonides,[2] this prohibition was about resisting idolatry. Ancient pagan dining practices included the blood of animals as a way of communing with the spirits. That, said Maimonides, is why God reacts as vehemently against the consumption of blood as against idolatry (“I will set my face against that person…” Lev. 17:10). But Nachmanides [3] offers a different approach. He quotes from the Torah: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11). Thus blood carries the very life force or ‘spirit’ (nefesh) of a creature. Too precious to be food, it is perfect for use in sacred rituals; rather than being collected as in pagan gatherings, it is poured out, sprinkled, on an altar. “I have given [blood] to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar” (Lev. 17:11). Rashi [4] expresses a similar idea: “Blood represents life, and it can therefore expiate life.” A further explanation is found in the Sefer HaHinnuk:[5] “Man’s nature might be tainted with a certain measure of cruelty if he eats the life-blood of another living creature.” Then again, we hear from Abravanel [6] that the red colour of blood symbolises sin. “God commended that a person offer up blood as a token of the confession of sin…” So, what do you think? From your reading of Scripture, is the prohibition in Leviticus concerning the consumption of blood best explained in terms of preventing idolatry, respecting the life-force of living beings, avoiding violent tendencies or reserving blood for cultic purification? Amidst the variety of reflections, one thing is certain: our text serves to sensitise us to the reality and symbolism of blood, in our own lives, in the world at large, and especially in religious expression. Table topic: Share your own reflections about blood: · as a symbol of death/destruction, · as a symbol of life/fertility, · as a symbol of self-sacrifice/life-sharing. Continue your reflections (especially during Palm Sunday and into Holy Week). Prayer: Take your pulse. Listen to the heartbeat of a loved one. Allow the rhythm of the beat, the feel of this life-force, draw you into a moment of contemplative prayer with your Creator. • 1) Sources: Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra II (New York, 1993); Levine, JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (New York, 1989). Scripture: NRSV. 2) Maimonides, 12th century. 3) Nachmanides, 13th century. 4) Rashi, 11th century. 5) Sefer ha-Hinnuk: first book of religious instruction among the Jews of the Middle Ages. 6) Abravanel, 15th century. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial purposes permitted with acknowledgement of Light of Torah website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from traditional Jewish approaches to the sacred text. This week, we continue to explore the Book of Leviticus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Tzav (Leviticus 6:8 - 8:36), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom. Pesach (Passover) commences this week at sundown on 5 April 2023. Chag Pesach sameach to Jewish friends!

  • Drawing Near to God: Two Views

    This week, we turn to the Book of Leviticus, in our Light of Torah series of reflections. Compared to the action-packed stories of Genesis and Exodus, we are struck by a lack of movement in Leviticus. The entire book is set in one place: at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, in the wilderness, God speaks, forming his people by unveiling a series of laws or instructions: how to worship, how to behave, how to deal with transgressions. Through a system of order and repetitive ritual, the identity of Israel, as God’s holy, chosen people, is solidified. Five kinds of sacrifice are described in the opening chapters of Leviticus. Read about one (or more) of these, pondering not only the ritual details but their underlying meaning and purpose. Note that the Hebrew term korban, 'sacrifice', has been rendered ‘near-bringing’ by some translators. In bringing the gift to be offered near to the altar, the worshipper draws close to God. As strange as these ancient practices may appear to our 21st century lives, we can still ponder their capacity to speak to our desire to ‘draw near’ to God. Israel’s Temple sacrifices ceased in 70 CE, due to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans and the accompanying devastation inflicted on Jewish life. Yet reflection on Leviticus continued (and continues) in creative, and at times controversial, forms as the Jewish sages sought to plumb the deeper meaning of the Torah’s sacrificial laws. A famous controversy emerged between the views of two great medieval Jewish Torah scholars. A famous controversy emerged between the views of two great medieval Jewish Torah scholars: Maimonides and Nahmanides.[1] Maimonides proposed the idea that the sacrifices were God’s way of weaning the Israelites from pagan sacrifice.To have suddenly dismantled all that was familiar would have been too unsettling and discouraging, says Maimonides. Leviticus “was prompted by Divine wisdom, according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire true faith”. Maimonides saw sacrifice as a preventative measure against idolatry. But Nahmanides would have none of this emphasis. In his eyes it weakened the value of sacrifice in itself. He held the view that the external ritual process gives rise to a process of internalization. The offerer gains insight into his own patterns of thought, speech, action and is moved to improve his behavior. “All this should make him realize that having sinned against God with his body and soul, he would deserve to have his blood spilled and his body burnt. However, God in His infinite mercy, accepts this substitute for an atonement, and its blood in lieu of his...” The role of ritual as an authentic expression of faith is a theme that appears in the Sefer haHinukh (a famous medieval Jewish education text): “The mind is influenced mainly by deeds. It is not enough for the sinner to cleanse his mind and commit himself to avoid further sinning with mere words. For this purpose a significant act [i.e., the complex sacrificial action] must be performed.” Maimonides himself would agree: whether in biblical times or today, no one can worship God “in thought only, without practice.” The Maimonides v Nahmanides controversy has stimulated Jewish thinking through the centuries. In what way does it stimulate yours as you reflect on this Torah portion? • 1. Maimonides: d.1204. Nahmanides: d.1270. Quoted in Leibowitz, pp.3,8-9,10. Bibliography: Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York, 1995); Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra (Jerusalem, 1993). © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial purposes permitted with acknowledgement of Light of Torah website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from traditional Jewish approaches to the sacred text. This week, we commence the Book of Leviticus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

  • Moses' Face Shone

    What can a face reveal about divine presence? This reflection on the face of Moses follows the insights of traditional Jewish approaches to the Book of Exodus. “Moses did not know the skin of his face shone because he had been talking to God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them...” (Exod. 34:29-31). After all the dramatic tensions of the previous five chapters, the closing passage of Exodus 34 (vv. 29-35) leaves us with some sense of reassurance. The idolatrous golden calf episode is over; the fury of the Lord has abated thanks to a brilliant display of diplomacy on the part of Moses; the smashed stone tablets have been refashioned and the Ten Commandments rewritten. The covenant between God and the people of Israel has survived a terrible test. And now, as we breathe a sigh of relief, here emerges Moses, coming down Mount Sinai, aglow with the Lord’s glory. What questions come to mind as you read 34:29-35? With the Jewish sages who have pondered this text over the centuries, perhaps you find yourself wondering: Why is Moses unaware of his transfigured appearance? And why does it instill fear in the Israelites? Recall that Moses has just spent forty days and forty nights in intense communication with the Lord, taking neither bread nor water (34:28). Through various creative interpretations, the Jewish sages comment on Moses’ heightened spiritual state, including his humility. According to the Or Hahayyim,[1] so focused was Moses on the meaning of the stone tablets which he held in his arms that, he presumed that the radiance was coming from the tablets— i.e., the light of the Torah. But why would divine radiance reflected in a humble man cause the people to recoil? And why would Moses feel the need to cover his face? For the great Torah scholar known as Rashi,[2] the Israelites’ fear of Moses is a result of the sin of the golden calf. Before the calf, the people were able to stand in the presence of the Lord’s glory (Exod. 24:17), yet now their conscience has been pricked and they have trouble even looking into the face of an intermediary of that glory. Yet Moses calls to them in a spirit of acceptance and reconciliation. Note the role of leaders in accepting this gesture. Aaron and the leaders among the Israelites draw close to Moses first. Then the people follow. Further, the verses that deal with the ‘veil’ suggest a delicate discernment on the part of Moses. When speaking with the Lord and when communicating the divine will to the people, he allows the radiance upon his face to be seen by all. However, in everyday activities he covers his face so as not to distract and overpower the people who presumably are not in the same spiritual ‘space’ as he. Moses is endowed with an exceptional gift, but he is discerning in how he uses that gift for the benefit of the people. What can this creative view of Moses’ decision to veil/unveil teach us about expressing our own God-given gifts? Are there times when it is wiser to ‘tone down’ our zeal and enthusiasm out of sensitivity to others? Then again, bold expression of our values is essential to the life of faith. How do you live this and similar tensions? Continue to ponder Moses’ radiance. For instance, count the number of times ‘Moses’ is repeated (11x in the Hebrew text; 3x in the final verse). Rashi notes that repetition of a name in a single verse signals a special affection for the one named. Do you sense an affection for Moses building as this chapter draws to a close? Reflect, too, on how Jewish interpretation of this biblical scene can sensitize your ears to the Gospel story of Jesus transfigured (Mt 17:1-13). • 1. Or Ha-hayyim: Torah commentary by the Moroccan Jewish scholar Hayyim Ibn Attar (1696-1743). 2. Rashi: 11th c., France. Bibliography: Herczeg, ed., Rashi: Commentary on the Torah (New York, 1999); Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (New York, 1996); Munk, The Call of the Torah: Shemos (New York, 1994). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of the Light of Torah website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. This week, we continue with the Book of Exodus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Ki Tisa 30:1 - 34:35), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

  • The Tabernacle

    In John's Gospel we read, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (1:14, NRSV). Lived among us. New Testament scholars consider this phrase to contain an allusion to the Tabernacle built by the Israelites in the wilderness, which we read about in the book of Exodus. This ‘Tabernacle’ is the portable tent-like shrine that travels with the people on their wilderness journey. The biblical terms we encounter are: Mishkan: Tabernacle Mikdash: Sanctuary Ohel: Tent, also called: ‘Tent of Appointment’; ‘Tent of Meeting’; ‘Tent of Witness’. This is the place where Moses goes to commune with God and bring instruction to the people. Most importantly, it signifies God dwelling in the midst of his people, the children of Israel. Most importantly, the Tabernacle signifies God dwelling in the midst of his people, the children of Israel. Perhaps many church-goers don’t spend much time thinking about this Tabernacle in the wilderness. So, let’s give it our attention now, with the help of Jewish insights. Turning to Chapters 25-29 of Exodus we find a substantial account of the building of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, plus a description of ritual details. Admittedly, it can be challenging reading! But then we reach a passage which puts the whole elaborate project into wonderful perspective: “I will meet with the Israelites there [at the entrance of the tent of meeting], and it shall be sanctified by my glory... I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God.” (Exodus 29:43, 45-46) In the longer passage within which these words find their place (29:42-46), notice the repetition of ‘meet,’ ‘consecrate,’ dwell,’ ‘I am the Lord.’ By ‘meeting’ with the Children of Israel at the Tent, by dwelling in their midst, the glory of the Lord floods everything. It makes the people holy. The Tabernacle has been much discussed by the Jewish sages. One powerful idea we find in Jewish storytelling traditions (midrash) is that even before the creation of the world God was longing and intending to come down from his heavenly abode to dwell among his people. Sometimes human sin is seen as delaying that coming. But the point is, the Tabernacle represents a critical moment in the divine-human relationship. Although the Tabernacle is a finite structure built by human hands, through Jewish eyes we see that it refers to something that defies containment: God’s love for his people. All the details of construction ultimately refer to intimacy, the desire and commitment of God and Israel to be close to one another. A question that has fascinated the sages is: If God is infinite, how can the Torah point to the Tabernacle as God’s dwelling place? In Jewish mystical tradition this is explained through the concept Tsimtsum, a Hebrew term referring to divine ‘contraction’. The All-Powerful God, who cannot be contained, willingly withdraws the intensity of divine presence into himself. God does this out of love, to make ‘space’ for creation, and so that he can dwell with the people in their humble earthly setting. In this process of divine ‘contraction’—God choosing to be ‘smaller’ (in a manner of speaking) so as to be more immediately present to his creation—the Tabernacle becomes a focal point. Another profound insight resonates in the writings of Jewish commentators such as Malbim (19th century, Eastern Europe): the most precious dwelling place for the divine presence is the human person. The most vital place for the sanctuary to be built is in human hearts and lives. There, each of us must build an altar, lift up our souls and sacrifice our desires for God. Continue to ponder the wilderness Tabernacle, allowing these Jewish insights to enrich your own grasp of the words of John’s Gospel: “The word became flesh, and lived among us.” • Notes: 1. The Five Books of Moses, 420. 2. Malbim: (1809-1880), Russian-Jewish Torah commentator. Bibliography: Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York, 1995); Heschel, Heavenly Torah (New York/London, 2007); Levine and Brettler, eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York, 2011); Montefiore & Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (New York, 1974); Scripture: NRSV. Photo: Tabernacle replica in Timna Park, Israel (Shutterstock). © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. This week, we continue with the Book of Exodus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 - 30:10), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom. The Jewish festival of Purim commences sundown on 6 March 2023, until sundown on 7 March 2023.

  • The Gift of a Willing Heart

    Having received the stone tablets inscribed with the Decalogue (‘ten commandments’), in chapters 25-27 of the Book of Exodus, in this week's Torah portion the Israelites now receive from God the task of building the Tabernacle: a portable sanctuary that will house the precious stone tablets. Unless you are an architect with an interest in ancient temple structures, at first glance the details in this part of the Torah may test your patience! But let’s stay with the sacred text, empowered by rabbinic insight, and see if we can unlock meaning for our lives. Read as much of these chapters as you can, then let’s focus on a single verse: 25:2. "Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved” (25:2, JPS). Note how three other translations express this: “...from all whose hearts prompt them to give” (25:2, NRSV). “...from every man whose heart makes-him-willing” (25:2, Everett Fox). “...from every man, as his heart may urge him” (25:2, Robert Alter). What do you read in your bible? Leaving aside the issue of inclusive language, we can observe that a close reading of this verse has led Torah commentators to view it as shedding light on the whole Torah portion. Can you see why? Following Rashi (11th century Torah scholar) we note that this building task is not only dedicated to the Lord’s name, it is to be a voluntary effort, an expression of goodwill. It does not involve coercion, guilt or competition but hearts willingly moved, rightly motivated. How different is this work to the forced labour under Pharaoh’s rule! As a work of love, it is to be lifegiving, uniting the Israelites in a common goal, forming them as a people dedicated to the Lord’s service. We are reminded that the gift of self, freely given, is at the heart of faith. An ethos of community service is a hallmark of both Judaism and Christianity. But what are we to make of all the detail? When someone or something is precious to us, we tend to be aware of intricate details. “I love the way that lock of hair falls in the middle of her forehead,” says the romantic lover. “Note how the pattern on the tiles has a subtle ‘tree’ motif,” says the proud homeowner. Details overlooked as irrelevant by an ‘outsider’ are the mark of specialness to the ‘insider’ who is so closely connected with and applies significance to those details. In this light, can we start to hear the Torah text not as a tedious list of construction ingredients, but as a hymn of praise to the Living God? As the people are called to willingly gather, pool their offerings, contribute their skills and expend their energies, a sacred focal point will emerge in their midst which will have enduring significance for ages to come. In other words, ordinary earthly tasks are penetrated by extraordinary spiritual perspective. Reflection Reflect on the gift of a willing heart. Think of a time when your heart was ‘so moved’ to undertake a great labour of love. What intricate details were part of that experience? Are there rituals/works in your life that were once a delight but are now undertaken with a sense of joyless obligation? What steps can you take to rediscover the original reason and enthusiasm for your giving? * A point of note in the Hebrew text: mikdash (‘sanctuary’) is singular, while betocham indicates the plural (dwell ‘among them’). Bibliography: Freedman & Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Exodus (New York: Soncino, 1983); Herczeg, ed., trans. Rashi: Commentary on the Torah (New York: Mesorah, 1999); Schorsch, Canon Without Closure (New York, 2007). © Teresa Pirola, 2012. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of the Light of Torah website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. This week, we continue with the Book of Exodus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Terumah (Exodus 25:1 - 27:19), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

  • 'You Shall Not Oppress a Stranger'

    The obligation to treat the ‘stranger’ with justice resonates powerfully in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Jewish sages are sensitive to this, noting that it is the most frequently quoted of all the commandments in the Torah, more often than the commandment to love God. Let’s look at this teaching on the treatment of strangers in Exodus 22:20; 23:9. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Two very similar verses. Traditional Jewish approaches to Scripture teach us to greet the repetition in the text with a lively curiosity and prayerful imagination. We are alerted to a subtle difference between the verses. Can you see it? Why does the Torah add, in the second quotation, “for you know the feelings of the stranger”? Rashi and Ramban—two great medieval Torah scholars—were fascinated by this subtle variation. Echoing an earlier tradition, Rashi says that these two verses in the Torah reveal two different motives for treating the stranger justly. The first verse suggests a motivation guided by self-preservation: Don’t insult the stranger or you will find yourself being insulted in return! Ramban gives another pragmatic interpretation: You may think the stranger is defenceless, but watch out! Oppress him and you will find others coming to his defence, just as God came to your aid when you were powerless in Egypt. Ramban’s reasoning is particularly apt in light of Exodus 22:22-33 which speaks of how God’s “anger will burn” against the one who persecutes the stranger, widow or orphan. And what is the motive suggested by the second quotation? Rashi sums it up, “How hard it is for him when they oppress him.” He appeals to the historical memory of the Exodus deeply engraved upon the consciousness of the people of Israel. It is the memory of past suffering and the consequent liberation that will move the heart to have compassion for the stranger and ensure that the humanitarian rule is faithfully observed. Commentators wonder what led Rashi to include the motive defined by self-interest when the altruistic, loving motive is clearly morally superior. In answer: because Rashi understands human frailty. An appeal to love and memory is not enough to contain the aggressive inclinations of some people. Indeed, the memory of past suffering can at times lead people to seek compensation by lording power over others as soon as the opportunity arises. What do you think of Rashi’s interpretation? Can you appreciate how his approach to Scripture brings to light insightful questions and issues from textual details which at first glance appear insignificant? Reflection Reflect on the place of the ‘stranger’ in your life’s journey. What ‘strangers’ have you met, befriended, or perhaps avoided? Have you ever felt like a stranger yourself? What does this Torah portion teach you? • Bibliography: Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Jerusalem, 1996); Herczeg, trans./ed., Rashi: Commentary on the Torah (New York, 1999); Scripture: NJPS. © Teresa Pirola, 2012. lightoftorah.net | Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. This week, we continue with the Book of Exodus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 - 24:18), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

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