Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Golden Calf and the Paschal Lamb: A Mitzvah Turns Away Sin

Pesach—1st Day

          Rather than the Torah reading, I will focus my drash/rabbinical commentary on Psalm 136, which is part of the Shabbat and holiday davening and the Haggadah as well, and features the refrain: Hodu la-do-noy—“Praise the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness endures forever.” One of its lines (136:16) thanks God “for leading His people through the wilderness.” Certainly, the Israelites must have been meritorious indeed, to rate God’s personally escorting them through the dangers and perils of the desert.
Yet, we know that, ironically, just a short time before they set out, the Israelites had committed the heinous sin of building and worshiping the Golden Calf, as well as cavorting orgiastically around it. What merit was this?
          According to the Alter of Slabodka (Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, 1849-1927), the Israelites earned this privilege only through the merit of Abraham, who, despite the lingering pain of his having been circumcised a mere three days earlier, nonetheless escorted his angelic guests from the rest and repast he had offered them. Avraham Avinu, Abraham, our founding patriarch, at the age of one hundred years, exerted himself mightily to perform his favorite mitzvah, that of hachnosat orchim—welcoming guests, not knowing that he was (in the words of John Milton in Paradise Lost), “entertaining angels unawares.” He fed them dainty viands—milk, bread, and (we may assume, a half-hour later) veal, and stood by while they ate, eager to serve.
          When the angels left, any centenarian might have been excused from escorting them; indeed, Abraham might have asked Ishmael, whom he was training in proper etiquette, to perform that task. No: Abraham insisted on accompanying his guests himself, and making certain that they were headed in the right direction (in this case, off to Sodom and Gomorrah, to fulfill the remainder of their mission).  
Because of his meticulousness in performing the mitzvah, Abraham’s descendants benefited by receiving no less an escort than the Lord God Almighty, throughout their wilderness sojourn. Such is the power of a mitzvah properly fulfilled. Let us learn from Abraham’s example, and fulfill any mitzvah which comes our way with a full heart and complete intention!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Israelites in Egypt: Jacob Appoints a New Leader--But It's a Political Upset.

The Israelites in Egypt

Here follows the Report of Menashe ben Joseph, regarding the Recent Conclave of Israelites Assembled in Egypt, Brought Down There Due to an Occurrence of Famine in Their Homeland, Israel:

            All the unrest started, I suppose, when Grandfather Jacob chose Reuven to succeed him as Head of All Israelites in Egypt. This was a great surprise to all; my father, Joseph, had been the favorite, and we had all expected him to become Tribal Leader. Jacob had encouraged this thinking, we believed: first, by gifting him with the Coat of Many Colors, and then, with his keeping Joseph at home, rather than sending him out into the field to shepherd the flocks.
            But there was no questioning the Old Man’s judgment: “Joseph is young, and too eager to make peace with the Philistines,” he told us, “I am getting older, and can see that our people need someone who will place Security at the forefront of our concerns.”
            There was also the issue of the Famine in Canaan—I mean, Israel. Our people were moving down to Egypt to find and purchase grain, and the Pharaoh Obamasses, while ostensibly our friend, was not entirely trustworthy. Our own people then living in Egypt, it seemed, were divided into two camps: those who hung on his every word as a friend of Israel and Israelites, and those who believed him to be a closet anti-Israelite, waiting only to spring some sort of trap upon us.
            “Just look at how he favors the Philistines,” they would say, “You know, he himself is a closet Philistine. You only need to look at his personal, secret history. Where was he born? What’s his middle name—Hosferatu? That sounds oddly Philistine. And he runs off to Crete whenever he gets a chance—isn’t that where the Philistines come from?”
There was no stifling their protests.
            The pro-Pharaoh group was equally vociferous. “He’s the best friend we Israelites ever had,” they would claim, “He’s sent grain to our starving people for months, and never expected repayment. We are number one on the Egyptian Foreign Aid List. And, when the Assyrians attacked us with flaming catapults, he sent gigantic reed-water-buckets to catch and douse the fires.
            So there we were, with Reuben gathering and welcoming us into his Conference-Tent, ready to tell us what sort of Leader he would be. We were suspicious: what sort of leader speaks only of Security? We had concerns with education for the young children, housing in Egypt—the Egyptians were talking about granting us title to the Land of Goshen, but the Philistines were encroaching upon us, and their birthrate was daunting. What about a suitable living space for our elderly and our sick?
We sat nervously and waited, until Reuben mounted the podium. His new concubine, Bilhah, who was mother to a number of our tribal elders, sat off to one side, wearing his tribal colors and a large commitment ring he had given her. Her status, as concubine to both Jacob and Reuben, was confusing, to say the least.
            Reuben cleared his throat.
“Father has spoken,” he said, “And I am to be Head. I will be leader, not only of the Israelites in Canaan and Egypt, but of all Israelites, the Wide World Over.
            “There will be no separate dwelling-places for Israelites and Philistines; there will be one Goshen for all.”
            This gave pause to the Josephites. They shifted in their seats, and muttered darkly under their breath, but Shimon and Levi stared at them until they grew silent again.
            Reuben smiled and continued: “This, my Eldership, will be a New Era in Philistine-Israelite Relations. Israel and Egypt will continue their historical connection, and I extend the hand of friendship to Pharaoh Obamasses, and, in particular, to the Ramesside Party which invited me to address them in a Special Convocation held before the Great Sphinx in the Valley of the Pyramids. I regret that the Pharaoh was in Tyre at a State Boat-Launching at the time of my speech, but one cannot interfere in Matters of State.
            “However, this will not impede our future peaceful and friendly relations. Our Israelite people will move into Goshen, and continue to occupy West Philistia, as we have done in the past.”
            Just then, Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, leapt up, and began shouting, “Peace between Philistia and Israel! Peace for All!” But Levi’s grandsons, Pinchas and Korach, laid hands on him, and escorted him bodily from the tent.
            Reuben continued his remarks: “A New Era is dawning between Israel and Philistia, and between Israel and Egypt.”
            A young Israelite of my acquaintance—Amram, I believe his name is—got up, shaking his head, and left the tent.

            We are all waiting to see what will happen…. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tsav: Samuel's Childhood, amid Priestly Corruption at the Shiloh Shrine, c. 1050 BCE


The Rabbi’s Commentary this week is based on the story of the Sons of Eli the High Priest in the First Book of Samuel, Chap. 2 & 4,  who corrupted the sacrificial system at the Holy Shrine at Shiloh, during the pre-Holy Temple Period (c. 1050 BCE).

Scene: The Holy Shrine in the town of Shiloh, a town centrally located in the Mt. Ephraim area, chosen for its location, convenient for all the tribes to reach and make sacrifices at the building housing the Holy Ark, the Menorah, the Altar, and other sacrificial equipment. It is a bright, sunny day in early spring, with a steady stream of worshipers leading livestock for slaughter and presentation before God in thanks for the fruits of harvest.
A line of worshipers stands informally, patiently waiting their turn to enter the Shrine. Off to one side, in a high-backed, softly cushioned chair, sits the old, retired High Priest, Eli. He is nearly blind, but is able to hear most of what is going on around him. By his right hand stands the young Samuel, wearing a clean, white new ephod, an apron-like linen garment, sewn by his mother Hannah’s loving hands.
The air is full of goats and sheep meh- and baa-ing, an occasional rooster’s crow or baby’s cry until its mother is able to shush it, and people talking happily and softly about the forthcoming Passover Feast.

Eli (to no one in particular): This early-morning sun feels good on an old man’s face and hands—perhaps it will still my elder’s palsy. O Lord! What reward is this, to take away a man’s sight in his old age, and reward him with sons such as I have? O Lord—El na, r’fa lee na—O God, heal me please God, O God…. (his voice trails away, lips moving silently in a whispered prayer)

Samuel (to Eli): My Grandfather? Grandpa Eli? Grandpa? (The old man does not answer; Samuel tugs at his sleeve).

Eli (as if from a daze): What? Eh? What’s that? Oh, Samuel! What’s that, my son?

Samuel: It is a fine spring day—why do your sons, Hophni and Pinchas, not come out to choose which animals should come in first? There would go the spotted, and there the speckled; here the goats, there the sheep. I know what to do: I have seen it all done before. Shall I organize it?

Eli (gently): It is no work for a boy, my son; you are but a child, yet. They will be along soon.

Samuel: But what are they doing?

Eli (hesitating): Why, they are—they are—praying, doubtless. Or out for a walk. Or, cleaning the altar, between sacrifices. Yes, that’s it! They must be cleaning. (Noises within the building) Ah! Here they come! They will be along directly.

(Enter Hophni and Pinchas, two bright-eyed, dark-haired young men, short-bearded, alert to everything. They are in their mid-twenties, happy and eager to assert their authority. Their robes are expensively cut, but disheveled and stained from food; Hophni is wiping beef-grease off his lips with a sacred altar-cloth as they emerge, while Pinchas tosses a half-empty wine-cup behind a pile of sacred scrolls in a corner. They are laughing and nudging one another, oblivious to the line of worshipers.)

Hophni: What, Brother, did you get a bite of that tender mutton I lifted from that hayseed cattleman from the Negev? That was a piece worth tasting.

Pinchas: Indeed, delicious. I stashed some steaks away for later, when he left—a bit more than we priests are entitled to, but God won’t mind. Should He desire it back, I’ve no doubt He will send an angel to fetch it. (They nudge each other, and laugh, sharing secrets of their thefts.)

Hophni  (Eyeing the line of worshipers): Nor is that the only mutton we are entitled to, if you get my drift (Both laugh, but fall silent when they feel Eli’s blind eyes upon them, before the na├»ve worshipers, who only stare at the two unpriestly-looking priests.).

Eli: My sons, my sons—where have you been? What have you been doing?

Both (ad lib): Nothing, Father. Nothing that we are not supposed to be doing. How are you today, Father? Etc.

Eli: My sons—I heard yesterday from a Man of God, a wandering prophet, of your deeds, your wrongdoings, your malfeasances. I am worried. I have heard that the Priesthood is to pass from our house to another—he was not certain whom it would be, but I wonder. Will you reform? Will you correct your mistakes? Please, Boys, for my sake, and your dead mother’s, rest her soul—

Both: Father—I—that is, we—

(Enter Messenger Soldier)

Soldier: By order of the Elders of Israel! A contingent of our Volunteer Border Guard of Israel is now under attack by a Philistine Horde, who have penetrated from their base at Aphek to our center of operations in Ebenezer. Our troops are doing their best, but they are losing heart.
And so, the Elders have sent me to this Holy Place to fetch any and all Priests who are instructed to convey God’s Holy Ark to the battlefield to muster up the courage of our embattled troops, and strike both fear into the ranks of the beastly Philistines, as well as, we hope, a plague among them, as did God in the days of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, when we struck out boldly during our Exodus from Egypt. (Strikes his chest) By order of the Elders of Israel!

Eli (to Hophni and Pinchas): At once, My Boys! You know what to do. (The peaceful crowd scatters and the two young priests scramble to fetch the carrying-poles of the Holy Ark. Samuel crouches down, hiding behind Eli’s throne.)

To be Continued….

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Vayikra: How Can Our PostModern Age Possibly Understand the Concept of Sacrifice?


With Vayikra/Leviticus, we leave the drama of Moses’s interceding on behalf of God’s often stubborn and rebellious people, and move into what many scholars believe to be the Chumash/Pentateuch’s oldest book. It was originally known as Toraht Kohanim, or, the Priestly Laws, including the many and varied forms of sacrifices and offerings which the Israelites brought during the period of the portable sanctuary (mishkan) in the wilderness, and continuing for most of the two Holy Temple periods, the First Temple established during Solomon’s reign (approximately 9th Century BCE) to the Babylonian destruction in 586 BCE, and the Second Temple dating from Ezra and Nechemiah’s attempted restoration (515 BCE) through the Herodian period of its greatest glory (19 BCE), to its complete and final destruction by the Roman General Titus’s troops during the siege of Jerusalem (70 CE).
Every year, it seems, rabbis worldwide have to offer apologias for the Torah’s sacrificial period, during which our long-departed ancestors took pride in the offerings they brought to God—an alien notion to our modern, sterile, prayer-oriented sensibilities. Not all the animal sacrifices, which could range from an entire ox to the smallest dove, were burnt entirely on the altar (the olah, literally translated as “holocaust,” an offering consumed completely by fire), but were instead cut up, with portions distributed to the priests, Levites, and their families. Indeed, if an Israelite maiden married a Levite or Kohen, she and her ensuing children would forever eat only of the hekdesh, or those animal-, vegetable-, and grain-offerings which the Israelites dedicated to God.
The tribe of Levi was responsible for supplying all of the priestly and levitical men (kohanim and leviim) who served God in the temple, and they were prohibited from following any other profession (although the various priestly dynasties—e.g., Aaronide, Korachite, Hasmonean—alternated in this service throughout the year). This was the first instance in Jewish history of the tribes supporting those who prayed and made offerings on their behalf, and led directly to the rabbi-congregation relationship we follow today (although I must stress that rabbis are not priests: we are meant to be teachers, not sanctified personalities or intercessors between mortals and God, despite Chasidic hints in that direction).
There was also a sort of democracy among those who brought offerings: a rich man might be easily able to offer an entire sheep, while a poor widow would have to content herself with bringing only a pigeon or dove (Lev. 1:14-17). In such a case, the priest would burn the entire fowl, wings and meat together (to make it appear larger and more impressive), despite the acrid odor it created; indeed, the text calls this “a gift of pleasing odor to the Lord” (Lev. 1:17).

How so? Commentators on this verse have stated that, just as this meager offering was pleasant to God, coming as it did from a poor person, so are we to be commended, when we earn a modest living honestly, rather than commit crimes, openly or secretly, for greater gain. That is how we interpret the sacrificial system’s relevance today: never think to buy off the Deity with tainted lucre. The animal and other offerings brought by the Israelites were acceptable, only if they came from those of honest mind and humble heart. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Vayakhel-Pekuday: 70 CE: The Last High Priest of the Holy Temple


The Tale of the Last of the High Priests: 70 CE

            I know the Tradition well, about how the great Roman General Vespasian came and laid siege to the Holy City of Jerusalem—when was it? In the year 66 Common Era, it was; I was a young man then; at least, younger than I am, now. The City had been built of brick, years before, until King Herod, the great builder, had come, and left it all of marble. And a good thing, too, for Vespasian was a besieger of great genius: he first had his engineers build a siege-wall, all around the great walls of Jerusalem, letting no man nor beast, nothing at all, in or out. Then, he hunkered down with his infantry, chief among them the 10th Legion, recalled all the way from Britain, crack troops to a man, and waited for plague and famine to do their work.
            We Jews—the ones holed up in the City, that is—were too busy fighting one another to give the Romans a proper battle. There were Sadducees, whose worship was based in the Temple, you see, and they were all for surrendering; they said that, the sooner we did so, the better; Vespasian would be more inclined to look upon us with mercy. And a good many of the common folk, the Pharisees, those who favored Torah study, agreed with them: they could see that Romans had us beat as for men, weapons, war-making machinery, and experience.
But the more warlike crowd, the Zealots, and the hawks amongst them, the Sicarii, called so for their tactic of dispatching their enemies in a crowd by means of a long, sharp, sudden dagger-in-the-ribs, the sicarius, as the Romans called it, were all for fighting, and going down to Glorious Death—which several of us, Priests and Rabbis, did not favor at all, not at all.
“Better a living dog than a dead lion,” we preached, and believed it.
I heard tell that the great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai went so far as to have his body smuggled out of the City in a coffin, pretending to be dead of the plague—that took nerve, I can tell you. I myself—I, Itamar ben Aaron, so named for being the great-great-great-grandson of the first Aaron the High Priest, could only think, “Now, how can I escape the City, which will certainly go down in ruins, and so to preserve life?” And so, I came up with a plan.
There were the catacombs—that is, tunnels, deep and dark they were, down under the Temple building itself, built originally to catch and drain any and all rain-water, since suchlike is rare, indeed, here in Jerusalem, and we have always needed as much water as possible, for the purpose of maintaining the Holy Service, washing the Holy Vessels, and suchlike—
And so, I betook myself into the tunnels—to preserve life, as I said. Not a moment too soon. I took three loaves of the showbread from off the table before the Holy Ark—it was meant for God, but I felt He would not begrudge it me, His chosen priest—and lifted up the cover-plate to the mouth of the tunnel, one night, when all were asleep, save the cries of the City Watchman, and the sighs of those dying of the plague—
And I disappeared, so I did, down down down into the tunnels—to preserve life, as I said; to preserve life….
I emerged on the far side of the Kidron Valley, and made haste to get as far from suffering Jerusalem as I could…somehow, I escaped the Destruction which Titus-son-of-Vespasian wrought. I had thought, originally, to wear my priestly garments, as a sort of charm to avoid being detained, but, in the end, all I kept was the tzitz, the golden plate that read, “Holy to God,” which I put into my leathern pouch, as a sort of talisman, a charm to fend off evil.
Beyond that time of my escape, I had thought that an alarm might go out through the country wide, of Roman authorities seeking me, as a rebel and renegade, but I was able to pass along without being recognized; indeed, since my beard has grown longer, it has come in almost completely white. I notice also that strangers come up to me, asking for my blessing, and I share it with them, wholeheartedly. These people include Jews, but also Greeks, Romans, and other pagans, which surprises me. It is odd, but I feel comfortable, somehow, being able to give some comfort to all these people in this time of difficulties and war.
Since that time, I have wandered far afield; I rest by day, giving my blessings, and travel by night, following the stars; they have not led me astray.
Where is a High Priest to go, who has no Holy House of God to maintain? God Himself has not forsaken me; I am able, thusfar, to eat dates from the trees and grapes from the arbor. I do not know what tomorrow may bring, but I do trust in God.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God Who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Purim: The Day After the Jews Fought Back

            As Mordechai rode his royal steed, caparisoned with the purple-white-and-gold saddle-cloths that had only lately adorned the mount of his late archenemy, Haman, he sniffed the air, and sighed.
            So much blood, so much killing, he thought.
            His eyes smarted from the smoke and fires. Poking from a mass of rubble, he saw the remains of a street sign: “Ham  edata Blvd,” it read, crazily askew amid a pile of what had almost certainly been the home of a wealthy Agagite, head of the Haman-clan that was dedicated to eradicating Persia of its Jews.
            Why did these people hate us so much? He wondered, Never mind: we won; they lost; time to gather our people together, consolidate our forces, and work out a strategy to get this country, this new place where we are now living, into the future.
            Reports were trickling in from all over, via messengers mounted on dromedaries, the new carrier-beast which King Achashvayrosh, a fancier of beautiful women, fast horses, and light-footed camels, had incorporated into the Royal Persian Mail Corps:
            “Anti-Amalek, Pro-Jewish Forces Triumphant, throughout the Realms of Persia. All Prisoners Slain without Mercy. Awaiting Further Instructions from Palace. What is Your Pleasure, Majesty?”
            --Which meant, of course, the Pleasure of himself (or Himself), the New Grand Vizier, he, Mordechai, who now had open and free access to the King—that royal sot!—who spent his days drinking and wenching! Even Esther, who had recently been his Royal Favourite, had been passed over for some new doxy from Persepolis—
            “She has Nice Legs,” His Royal Scatterbrain had declared, in Open Court, just the day after His Royal Decree to utterly Annihilate, Slay, and Destroy All Enemies of the Jews—well, there was no telling what a few barrelfuls of his favorite wine could accomplish—and so Mordechai was raised to the High Eminence of actually running the Kingdom—Kingdom? The Entire Realm! One Hundred-Twenty-Seven Provinces, from India to Ethiopia!—and, though new to the task, Mordechai found himself able to break each administrative job into smaller bits, and farm them out to assistants recorder-secretaries—not for nothing had his great-great-grandfather been Royal Scribal-Secretary to King Saul, first King of Israel, who, though hardly a success as monarch, was still a Benjaminite, as was Mordechai. He had inherited his ancestor’s talent for detail.
            A rank smell from the ruins rising to his nostrils awoke him from his musings, as his horse stepped delicately around the smashed brickwork and broken glass that littered the street. His personal bodyguard, a detachment from the Royal Immortals Cavalry Troop, kept their spears at the ready, believing that a suspected underground terrorist movement of disaffected and desperate Amalekites might be hiding and preparing arms for a counterattack. Rumors were flying in this Kingdom of Destruction.
            As they rounded the corner of what used to be the bazaar, Mordechai heard a thin wailing—had someone’s cat wandered off, fleeing the killing of its owner? He raised a hand, and the Sergeant-Major of his personal guard stopped the cavalrymen who formed his escort. Mordechai moved to dismount, and the Sergeant-Major, his personal aide, leapt to assist him.
            “Thank you, Sergeant-Major,” smiled Mordechai, despite the aching feeling he had inside over the death and bloody remains all around him—the Royal Morticians had not penetrated this far, and it smelled like an abattoir in the early-spring sun—“I will walk a ways on foot.”
             “We are under His Majesty’s personal orders to accompany you everywhere, Milord Grand Vizier,” said the Sergeant-Major, saluting and half-bowing, “You, Corporal, Private! Smartly, now!”
            The four walked past a smashed-in bazaar-fruit-mart front where rotten bananas, oranges, and lemons lay in the noonday sun, covered by a cloud of flies, which rose and assaulted them as they walked past slowly. They entered an alleyway, and the Sergeant-Major placed a cautionary hand on Mordechai’s arm.
            “Begging your pardon, Milord,” he said, “I will go in front, to insure Milord’s safety.”
            The wailing was getting a bit louder, but whatever, whoever was making the sound, was stopping and gasping, as if short of breath.
            “No, Sergeant-Major,” said Mordechai, firmly, “I will go on, before you men. I appreciate your being here, but I trust most in the God who has guarded my steps up to now, and if He has ordained that I meet my end in this filthy alleyway, then all the swords and spears in the Kingdom of His Majesty will not protect me.”
            The grizzled old Sergeant-Major dropped his hand, and nodded. He worshiped Ormuzd, the god of Light, but he understood. Ahriman, the god of Darkness, could not touch this man, this Mordechai, this Jew.
            They were close now. The wailer, whether cat, or—what? was directly beneath.
            “Can you strike a light?” whispered Mordechai.
            The corporal took out a flint and steel from his belt, and the private took from his pack a torch which, uncovered, had been dipt in naphtha. It roared softly into flame.
            Mordechai looked down. A baby, barely five months old, lay in a pile of half-clean blankets, there on the ground of the alley. Though it was surrounded by trash, it was still mostly clean, as if its mother had dropped it there hurriedly. The four men stood there, staring at it in disbelief, as men will. Mordechai could not tell if it was a boy or a girl. He blinked once, and his mind whirled back to another scene:
            A burning building—the Temple—a baby on the ground—Baby Esther—he seized her up, hugged her to his bosom, grabbed the bag of clothes-and-scrolls-and-bread-and-water-jug-and-ran-and-ran-and-ran….
            The Sergeant-Major was first to come to his senses. He pulled out his sword, a curved, wicked-looking thing that gleamed in the torchlight, and lifted his gauntleted hand to strike downward.
            Mordechai shook off his fog of memory. He reached out his right arm, clad in white samite, to block the blow.
            “Hold, Sergeant-Major!” he cried, “How can you kill a baby? What manner of man are you?”
            The Sergeant-Major relaxed his arm, and returned the sword to its belt-sheathe. Then, he leaned against the wall, sighed with fatigue, spat gently to one side, careful to avoid Mordechai’s purple cape, looked the Jew right in the eye, and spoke slowly:
            “Kill a babe, you say, Milord Grand Vizier?” he said, choosing his words carefully, “Begging your pardon, Sir,” he said, “And knowing to whom I am speaking—I, Arigai ben Shoshanta, a former galley-slave, kidnapped from my own homeland of Athens as a young boy, lashed and starved, and given freedom to do my Majesty’s bidding—I ask permission to speak, Milord.”
            “Permission granted,” said Mordechai, coolly. The little bundle on the ground was silent: was it alive or dead?
            “Over the past few days, since the star of Haman—if I may mention the late Grand Vizier’s name, Milord—has fallen, and yours has risen—I myself have slain, with these hands (and he held them out before Mordechai), these hands full of blood, how many? I cannot say. I have slain man, and woman, and child, and beast. All in the name of His Royal Majesty.
            “And if he asks me again, or if you, speaking in his name, should ask me again, I will go and do the same. So, Milord, do not question me, or these men—“
            Here, he pointed at the Private and the Corporal, who stood, stony-faced, but nodded, slowly, there in the alley-gloom—
            “And we will do the killing. We will kill them fast or slow, or even torture them, in whatever way you like—“
            Mordechai felt the tears welling up—It was all too much, too much
            “Just point us: we will bring the spears; we will bring the shields; we will use the swords—and you can sit in your splendid palace, meanwhile, and sip your wine. We are the tip of the spear.”
            He stopped, and stood there, the Sergeant-Major, breathing hard. Mordechai looked at him, bent down, and lifted up the Amalekite babe, in the swaddling-clothes in which her dead mother had wrapt it, just before she was killed. He held it to his chest. It was breathing lightly, and might die, without food. He turned to the Sergeant-Major.
            “Sergeant-Major, have you a field ration in your pack?”
            The Sergeant-Major nodded.
            “Then sheathe your sword—I hope, forever—and give me your flask of goat’s milk.”
            “Milord?” asked the Sergeant-Major, puzzled.

            “You heard me,” said Mordechai, “I have ordered you to give me food for this enemy—this child. I will feed her. The War is over. It will end here. And now. I am ending it, here.”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Kee Teesa: Aaron as Substitute Teacher

Kee Teesa

            Why did the Israelites build the Golden Calf? Barely three months had passed since God freed Israel from slavery, in the course of which they beheld the most extraordinary miracles and wonders: the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Reed Sea, and now the thunderous, magnificent descent of God onto Mt. Sinai, certainly not the most awesome of mountains. The most popular of the dozen or so claimants to the title of Mt. Sinai is Ras Musa, the “Head of Moses” in Arabic, which I consider the “most Jewish” of mountains. It is lowly, not lofty, and, over the centuries, the stalwart monks of the Monastery of Saint Catherine at its foot—driven to distraction by the endless ennui of wilderness life, perhaps—have carved out stone steps by which the pilgrim may ascend in Moses’s traces—no pitons, ropes, spikey shoes, or climbing axes needed here! One may scale Sinai in a few short minutes and be greeted by a wilderness vista ‘twixt heaven and earth, but nothing approaching the thunder-and-light show which Moses enjoyed. That is why, perhaps, we Jews have grown accustomed to finding our God in holy books, and not in nature: after the Giving of the Torah, all else on earth is anticlimactic—a barren stage, empty of its principal Actor.
            And yet, merely a moment after their devoted leader and rabbi, Moses, disappears into the mists of the mountaintop, the backsliding Israelites demand a visible symbol of the god they claim to worship—and they find it in a calf, sort of a junior Baal, the pagan god of the Babylonians, who rode astride a bull. More importantly, why did Aaron, Moses’s trusted elder brother (and the middle child of their family, with Miriam as the oldest) concede so swiftly to their evil, backsliding request?
            The answer is found, not in this week’s parsha/Torah reading, but in a small, obscure verse some three portions ago: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain…and I will give you the stone tablets with…the commandments’….So Moses…ascended the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us….You have Aaron and Chur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them (italics mine).’” When the Israelites insist on their pagan god, Aaron quickly accedes to their request; what impelled him to do this? And what had happened to Chur, he who had faithfully supported Moses’s hands aloft during the earlier battle with Amalek? (Ex. 17:10)

            The rabbis were disturbed by these questions, and so concocted a midrash/homiletical legend: the stalwart Chur, trusting in the invisible God and in Moses, his then-absentee prophet, resists the Israelites’ sinful demand for a golden god-vehicle they could see. After Chur’s refusal, the maddened mob attacks and lynches him. Left alone to face the bloodthirsty pack, Aaron, fearful not only for his own life, but trying desperately to prevent God’s ignorant children from having more innocent blood on their hands, comes up with a stall tactic. He deliberately asks them to give up their hard-earned gold and silver jewelry, the four hundred years of “back pay” which they had looted from Egypt, assuming they will never do this. To his surprise and dismay, the people readily surrender their pelf to him, and he has no choice but to fashion the Calf. Ironically, Aaron, when questioned later by Moses regarding his own connivance in the building of the idol, replies, “’I hurled [the gold] into the fire, and out came this calf! (Ex. 32:24)’” thereby implying that neither he nor the Israelites were guilty of its construction; a sort of “negative miracle,” it just occurred, perhaps by demonic powers. The rabbis ascribe this mollifying statement to Aaron’s great reputation as a peacemaker, but I remain dubious of his poor performance as a leader of Israel, perhaps the worst “substitute teacher” of all time. The middle child, he was flexible by nature, but comes down to us as the first religious leader doomed to learn that “you can’t please ‘em all,” and it is folly to try.