It's hard to imagine a writer who would
According to modern academic scholarship of the Bible – the critical approach embraced by progressive Judaism in its centers of higher learning – the Torah is made up of separate literary strands, written in different times and places, and holding different ideologies about ancient Jewish life. In this week’s parashah, T’tzaveh, we see the P-strand, which stands for Priestly code and was likely composed by the priests’ heirs to Temple authority during the Babylonian exile after the defeat of the Judean kingdom in 586 B.C.E. Understood this way, we, as the biblical readers of today, might appreciate P’s representation of priest and Temple as a mythic argument for how the exiles can see through and beyond the upheaval and uprooting of their time.
On December 17, 2018, my wife Rabbi Jade Ross and I celebrated our first anniversary. As a gift of paper is the traditional present for this occasion, I purchased for us a small volume entitled Our Q&A A Day, a shared journal that invites us each to compose a response to 365 daily questions over the course of the next three years. The most curious question has been, "What does your kitchen smell like?" As we read Parashat T'tzaveh, I'm reminded of this question as we discuss the "pleasing odor" of sacrifices that were offered to God.
The Book of Numbers, B’midbar, seems to begin with great promise, evoking universalism, deep spirituality, and the openness of the wilderness. Then, just as quickly it contains that openness with God’s command to take a census, thereby numbering and organizing the people.
As Rabbi Grushcow points out in her commentary on B’midbar, in a place of wilderness, of chaos, and despite their exclusionary nature, the census of the Israelites and the camp’s organization provide order and containment that parallel God’s boundary setting in Genesis 1.
We hold our leaders in government, sports, entertainment, and religion to high standards both in performing their duties and in exhibiting good behavior. But is it right for us to scrutinize their behavior outside their realms of responsibility? Parashat T’tzaveh says, “yes.”
Parashat T'tzaveh discusses the clothing of the priests. While we today may have difficulty imagining the exact form and function of each of the garments worn by Aaron, as Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz comments in The Penateuch and Haftorahs: “These garments reminded the High Priest that even more than the layman, he must make the ideal of holiness the constant guide of his life” (London: Soncino Press, 1996, p. 339).
In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, YHVH reminds Moses, “Speak to the Israelites: When men or women individually commit any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with the Eternal, and they realize their guilt, they shall confess the wrong that they have done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who was wronged.” (Numbers 5:6-7). The instruction to admit wrongdoing and make restitution applies to those we like and those we don't like.
Just as we are guided to look inward at this commandment to acknowledge and make restitution to someone we have wronged, so we should look inward with every commandment in the Torah. Every directive in the Torah may be thought of in the first person — as if it were written for us. Just as at the Passover seder we recite the words, “It is because of this that God did for me when I went out from Egypt,” so, too, can each commandment be read as it were directed to each one of us individually.
We find the initial reference to the ner tamid in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat T’tzaveh. The parashah opens with the instructions for creating and maintaining the ner tamid. “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of the Pact], [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages” (Exodus 27:20-21).
T’tzaveh contains a detailed description of the clothing to be donned by the first priests as they enter God’s presence. One such detail is “On [the robe’s] hem make pomegranates … all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around.” (Exodus 28:33). We might imagine the jingling of those bells as an announcement of the priest’s intention to come into God’s royal presence.
Were they people? Not to the Principal. Not even employees? They were more like digits, widgets, sprockets, more cogs on the command chain. (Joshua Cohen, The Book of Numbers, Oxford, 2014, p. 1.87)
Incredulous. That's how I felt, after requesting and then learning my Uber passenger rating. You see, drivers get to rate and rank you too.
"4.8! That's it?" I thought. "I've never been impolite or unfriendly. I never cancel a request after submitting one. What reason could there be for denying me a full five stars?"
Once again, here was one small example of the many ways each of us is reduced to numbers as we go about our post-modern lives.
Rabbi Skloot concludes, "We are all precious treasures, worthy of love and affection." This is true for us as individuals, and it is equally true when we are able to see ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves. In addition to teaching us that God loves each of us, the census in B'midbar serves another purpose. A plain reading of the text shows us that the census is not simply to count all the Israelites:
"Take a census of the whole Israelite company [of fighters] by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head…from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms" (Numbers 1:2-3).
This week's Torah portion, Parashat T'tzaveh, continues the detailed instructions for the building and decoration of the Tabernacle, our ancestors' portable sanctuary during the years of wandering in the desert. Most of the details discussed in T'tzaveh, like bejeweled vestments to be worn by the priests, are exotically unfamiliar to Jews today. But the parashah opens with a description that seems much more familiar to anyone who has spent time inside a synagogue sanctuary. "You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly," God tells Moses (Exodus 27:20). But the last two words — ner tamid — can also be translated as "eternal light."
Light serves as such an important element of our religious practice. Many adults brought up in the Jewish faith have special memories of lighting the Shabbat candles every Friday night. The radiance of the flame emits a distinctive warmth that brings us closer to one another and reminds us that the week is over.
A kindled flame is mysterious. Perhaps the reason we light candles before each holiday is to remind us that we are welcoming a grander sense of God's Presence into our lives at that particular moment, and the ner tamid, "eternal light," serves as a constant reminder of that presence. A single flame awakens many senses within us. We can feel its warmth. We can see its glow. We can even hear the strike of the match and the sizzle of the wick.
I had never had a mystical experience until I entered the wilderness of Sinai about twenty years ago. At the time, I didn't know I has having a mystical experience.
On my own spiritual journey I've discovered that every person is blessed and holy, that each of us is touched with a spark of the divine.
B'midbar, "Into the wilderness." Each experience along the way, each encounter on our path, helps to mold us as individuals.
If God's instructions to Moses at the beginning of Parashat B'midbar (Num. 1:1- 4:20) are my indication, it's not a wilderness out there, it's a jungle.