Sunday, May 21, 2017

Bamidbar: Young Love amid the Desert Census

Bamidbar

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Scene: Open Wilderness—nothing but sand, rocks, and thornbushes, a harsh, burning desert expanse. Vultures circle overhead. We behold a long, undulating line of people—men, women, children—old, young, middle-aged—gathered around a tall rock, from which a bony, aged, bearded elder, obviously the leader, barks orders. He is Moshe ben Amram, Leader and Rabbi of Israel. Because of his age, and the possible strain on his voice, his words are repeated on all four sides by Tribal Chieftains, who use arm-signals and ram’s-horns to try to organize the multitude into a semblance of marching order.

Towards the front rank, we see two teenagers—Nachron ben Gafiel, of the Tribe of Benjamin, and Zamrielah bat Shulamit, of the Tribe of Dan. They are trying to move out of the crowd, to listen to Moses, their only entertainment in a dull day,  and also to stand next to one another, without seeming too obvious about it.

Moses (faintly): And I tell you all, that the Lord, God of Hosts, has told me this day, there is to be a Census, a Counting of Countings, of all the families, relations, relatives, and tribes of the entire Children of Israel on this day….

Nachron: Psst! Zami—Zamrielah! (Zamrielah pretends to ignore him; she adjusts her headscarf to cover her ears better; Nachron reaches for her sleeve, yanks it gently but firmly) I say there—Zamrielah! Don’t you hear me?

Zamrielah (pretending to be angry, but secretly pleased): Nachron! Don’t be touching me! What if my father Ezriach saw a strange boy, from a different tribe, daring to touch his youngest daughter? What chutzpah—what nerve!

Nachron (abashed): Sorry. But you heard me very well, and you were ignoring me.

Moses (voice quavering): …I call upon the Tribal Chieftains to appoint Sub-Chieftains, and Sub-Sub-Chieftains, to supervise the counting of countings, as the Lord God has directed me, and His servant, Aaron, and my disciple, your general, Joshua—I say! Can you heralds not quiet those Reubenites, over there? What is stirring them up, so?

Joshua (shading his eyes, and squinting into the morning sun): I believe, Milord Moses, that Dathan ben Eliab has nearly been stung by a scorpion. That’s him, dancing about, the fat fool. Hm—it’s too bad; the scoundrel is still alive. Where’s a good scorpion when you need one? (Shouting) You there—you rabble! Quiet down now, before the Lord God and His servant, Moses!

(The Crowd murmurs:

When will those ridiculous Census-takers get started?...Mama, I’m thirsty!...We should get well underway, afore that burning-hot desert sun gets up overhead: shouldn’t we be in Baal-Sheetim afore noontime?...They say there’s a big oasis there, big enough to water all of my sheep and goats!...That would be wonderful—when was the last time the wives and little kids  had a proper bath? Etc.)

Moses: Well, let me go on…. So, Heralds (Heralds gesticulate to the crowd)—No, I mean, start your appointing. (Moses reaches out, and Joshua helps him off the Rock) Is there any water left in that goatskin? Just a trickle, a small drop, is all I need (Moses is breathing with difficulty; Joshua sits him down gently, and holds the goatskin carefully to his lips) Ah! That’s good. Blessed are You, Lord our God—who gives us sustenance….(drinks)

Joshua: Amen!

Nachron (whispering): Zamrielah, your skin is getting red from the sun—shouldn’t we go sit beneath that carob tree, over there?

Zamrielah: Do we dare, Nachron? Is it allowed?

Nachron: If anyone stops us, we can say that we were feeling faint from the hot sun, and we went there for the shade. Besides—

Zamrielah (eagerly): Besides what?

Nachron: Well, I’m not twenty years old yet—just fifteen—so they’re not really interested in counting me for the census. And you—

Zamrielah (hoping he’ll compliment her): What about me? Do you--?

Nachron: Well, you’re just a girl, so the Sub-Chieftains won’t be counting you, not at all. You’re not really important.

Zamrielah (angry): Not important? Is that what you tell a girl?

Nachron (realizing, too late, what he has just said): Wait, that’s not what I meant—

Zamrielah (turning her back on him): Leave me alone!

Nachron: Wait! Zami, wait! Please! (Running after her, he slams full-bore into Gen. Joshua, who is moving through the crowd, selecting his Sub-Chieftains) Oh, pardon, pardon me, General!

Joshua: Oof! Careful, youngster! (Seeing Zamrielah, he smiles) And you better move faster, to snare that lovely gazelle of yours. She is well-worth the chase, I see.

Zamrielah (embarrassed): Oh! Leave me alone! (Darting between a heavily-laden donkey and a wagonload of clay jugs, she disappears)

Nachron: Zami? Zami, where are you? Oh, Zami….(He shakes his fists in frustration)

Moses (from a distance, fading away): “Of the descendants of… the registration of the clans of their ancestral house, as listed by name, aged twenty years and over, all who are able to bear weapons of war—those enrolled from that tribe, numbering….”



Saturday, May 13, 2017

Behar-Bechukotai: A Poem of Disagreement with Various Torah Laws

Behar-Bechukotai

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Dear God,

It is true that Your wisdom is infinite, and that our mortal wisdom is lacking and incomplete,
But I have studied Your Laws to the best of my ability
Limited though it may be
And I have some disagreements, if You will forgive me.

The laws that You give us in these Torah portions
May have sufficed in their time—such as, lending money, but only to Jews, at no interest;
Selling people who owed money into slavery so that they could work to pay off their debts;
Showing a prejudice against the gentiles in your midst
In favor of the Israelites; and other, similar laws—

These may have been considered true and just and right and proper
For establishing a good and fair society
In which both Jews and gentiles could dwell in equality and safety
Thousands of years, ago,
But they don’t ring as true, today.

I well understand Your intentions at the time of their writing,
Since Israel feared its neighbors round about (so do we learn from the Five Books of Moses),
And skirmished with them from time to time,
But we see from the Book of Ruth and hints in the Books of Samuel and Kings
That the Israelites usually co-habited well and peaceably with their pagan neighbors—

And so, with respect, I question the need
For exclusionary laws favoring the Jews over the gentiles;
In particular, those which encouraged the practice of enslaving our pagan neighbors led to racism,
And race-hatred persists in scourging humanity today—

And how could this have been Your intention?

Moving on to the second of the Torah portions,
I note that old canard stating that if the people are not faithful to Torah,
You will stop the land from bearing its fruit or flocks,
And I heartily and respectfully disagree with this practice—
Though I accept that You wrote (or inspired its writing) in a pre-scientific age
When our people were more likely to accept it,
And that rainfall in Israel was scarce and unreliable.

Today, however, theodicy causes fear among humanity:
If someone gets sick, they first ask themselves:
“What did I do wrong? Was I unfaithful to God?
“Why is God angry with me?”

And so I ask that it be removed, along with the curses for disobeying You,
Such as, “I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper,”
Meaning that the ground will not yield its fruit
If people do not perform Your mitzvote properly.

Should we not see our God as more merciful than short-tempered?

I offer my thoughts in a spirit of love for You,
And with the concept of Progress and evolving Theology,
For we humans—Jews, here—are a stubborn bunch,
And thrive more on encouragement than the rod.

Bless You, our God.



Afternoon with Daddy and Baby Son: A Poem

Afternoon with Daddy and Baby Son

By David Hartley Mark

I was in the garage
Laying down soda bottles in the mini fridge
Orange Lime Raspberry
Orange Green Red
Orange Green
Red

A young man walked by in the street
He was carrying his baby son
A young daddy in his thirties
A baby about eighteen months old

I did not know them
Or perhaps I did
We Floridians are notorious
For not knowing our neighbors
Blame it on
Intense heat
And air-conditioning
Keeping us indoors

Or going
From the car
To the office
To the house
All air-conditioned….

Our eyes met:
Except the baby’s—
He was looking around
At the big beautiful world
Houses Trees Birds
Sun Clouds Street Pavement
Being held and protected by his Papa

Pink Toes Dangling

The young Father raised his arm
And waved at me,
I waved back, and said,
“Hello.”

In that instant
There in the street
I saw the Father and Son
Growing up Together,
Growing Older Together,
The Boy going to School,
Elementary, Middle, and High School,
College, Marriage—
And the Father growing older—

There in the street,
All at once,

In my Prophetic Mind’s Eye—

O World
I cannot hold Thee

Close Enough

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Emor: The Plight of the Physically Challenged Levites

Emor

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Whosoever be of your seed…who has a blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For the man who has a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or one who is maimed, or anything too long. Or a man who is broken-footed, or broken-handed, or hunchbacked, or a dwarf, or with a bad eye….” (Lev. 21:16-20)

          I am Mephibaal, of the Tribe of Levi. You may not find my name among the long lists of Levites who served the Lord our God in the Mishkan, the Sanctuary which we built in the Wilderness; no, nor that of my parents, Ashur ben Chananel ha-Levi, and Mari bat Sodiel.

          I was born blind. My father refused, at first, to believe this; he tried for hours to get me to follow a burning twig as he passed it back-and-forth, back-and-forth, before my eyes, but I was unable to follow it; my world was utter blackness. Though he screamed in my face, “Can’t you see it? Don’t you feel its heat, you little fool, you dolt?” and made me cry, and then he himself, my great, sweat-smelling, charcoal-burning father, a worker in the Shrine, burst into tears to think his only child and son a blind man—and stalked about our tent screaming, tearing his hair and beating his breast—while I, petrified of him, crawled across the tent-floor into my mother’s arms—my world was dark, thick, and impenetrable.

All cried out, but still pitying himself for having me for a son, Papa would then wipe his cheeks, blow his nose in a sacred scarf of the priests’, and storm out, muttering about how I was a disgrace to his tribe and clan, and go to the tavern-tent of Rachum the brewer, to drown his disappointment in barley beer, leaving Mama and me crying together, until she rocked me to sleep, and she drowsed off. We prayed that Papa would not come home, and he often did not….

          When I grew older, my mother came up with the idea that I might, being blind, become a musician, and she paid one of the Levite orchestra, an indifferent harpist named Navelya ben Klezmer, to come to our home after rehearsals, and give me lessons on his kinor, his harp. Folks believed that we blind people were gifted musicians by nature, having more developed powers of hearing. This was a lie, as Mother and I discovered after my few lessons with Navelya, who was impatient and gruff, had no great secrets of technique to impart, and was a heavy drinker, besides.

          I never became a great harpist, but, after my father died of too much drink, leaving us penniless, my mother—who went mad, really—decided that I was a far more skillful musician than I was. She took me by the hand, with my blind-man’s stick in the other, and dragged me down to the Shrine to play a few strings for one of the priests—I believe it was Itamar, Aaron’s youngest—Aaron himself was far too old to come to the Tent of Meeting, back in those days.

When I was done, Itamar sighed—I could hear it—and I could tell that my little musician’s interview was not going well.

          “My Lord Priest, what do you think of my Mephibaal’s skills?” asked—pleaded—my mother, “Does he deserve a position serving the Lord in your Levite Orchestra?”

          “It is hard to say after one performance, Dear Mistress Mariel,” said Itamar, gently, “but I will have to say no.”

          “Then we will starve,” my mother cried out, and she began to weep.

          Itamar, soft-hearted fellow that he was—everyone said he resembled his old father, Aaron, for mercy—assured her that there was a welfare fund for all Levites—but she was inconsolable.

          In the end, she refused to take me home—she had deluded herself into thinking that, if she left me there, Itamar would have to find me some sort of job. She kissed me, left me sitting there, and fled.  Two sturdy Levites took me by the arm, lifted me up like a rag doll, and put me into this dormitory where I live now, with other Levitical basket cases—cripples, blind, deaf, dwarves—the lot.

          We sit here, all day, for the most part, except for a couple of hours, morning and afternoon, when some Levitical nurses take us into the courtyard, and we walk around for exercise.We are right next door to the corral where the sacrificial animals are kept, and we smell and hear the lowings and mooings of all the beasts who are soon to be slaughtered, prayed over, burnt, and sent up in smoke to our mysterious God above the clouds.

          As for us, we will live and die here, rejects from God’s holy service.

          And I wonder: is this right? I had wished to play harp, or to serve God in some way, or other. I cannot see, but my brain functions. My best friend here, Kitzur, is a dwarf, but smart; he and I often have long discussions about God, the World, and the nations that live in it.

“By the beard of Jah, Kitzur, I believe you could be Chief Magistrate of the Levitical Court!” I told him, one day.

He pressed my hand, and patted my cheek—he is a good fellow.

“Dear Mephibaal!” he said, “But since our God has cursed me with a short stature, I cannot serve Him; I can only sit in this courtyard, and talk endlessly with you. Is that fair? Is that right?”


And I could not answer him. Can You, O’ God? 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Acharay Mote-Kedoshim: Aaron Questions the Need for Sacrifice

Acharay Mote-Kedoshim

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            I am Aaron, brother of Moses. I am honored to be Kohen Gadol, the High Priest of Israel. Do not believe that my job or my life are easy. On the long-past Coronation Day of the Mishkan, God’s Sanctuary among His people, I recall how the cattle for sacrifice, the incense and grain-offerings were all made ready.

The people were singing, praying, and cheering, “The offerings! Let the priests and Levites bring them forth!”

I met with my eldest sons—may their memories be for a blessing, O Holy One!—Nadav and Avihu. I was so proud of them: I had worked with them on the prayers and procedures for making the offerings, so that they would not make a mistake. I kissed and hugged them; who knew it would be for the last time? They took their incense-burners from the Levites, and went to face the people….

            But alas! Something went wrong, and the Lord God struck them with His lightning. They died before my eyes. Can you imagine, Stranger, what that feels like? I was struck dumb: when my dear wife, Elisheva, asked me what had happened to her boys, I could not respond. My brother Moses—cold-blooded Moses, whose own sons, Gershom and Eliezer, have vanished forever—told her of their deaths.

            Elisheva was devastated. She moved in with my sister, Miriam. I have not seen or spoken with my wife in weeks.

            And I, too, was silent for weeks, numbly going about my business, teaching my two younger boys, Eleazar and Itamar, what to do, and how to perform the rituals. But it was not the same; how could it be? My heart is broken, for loss of my sons.

My Lord God is a demanding God, indeed, but why did He have to take my boys? DO YOU HEAR ME, GOD? What is Your answer?

            Only silence: nothing but more “thou-shalt-nots,” forbidding me to enter within the curtain of the Holy of Holies, except on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. And that I should wear plain linen garments when offering a bull for a sin-purification offering, and a ram for a burnt offering. Why so? To show that I, despite being High Priest, am merely a human being and imperfect. I aspire to holiness—but this is so difficult, O God, when I feel so distant from You! (Lev. 16:2-5)

            What other ceremony does God command me? Next comes the Sacrificial Goat, and the Scapegoat of Azazel. The first will be sacrificed to God. The other will be sent into the desert, and eventually pushed over a cliff to its death, a sacrifice to a wilderness-demon called Azazel. I will have placed my hands upon its head, and transferred to it all of Israel’s sins.
            I go about my duties mechanically, without thinking about how these innocent creatures are suffering on behalf of us sinful human beings. I remember the Sacrifice of Isaac, when an angel came at the last minute, and ordered Abraham to spare the life of his hapless son. I wonder why God did not relent, and spare the lives of my two boys. I wish there were some other way to worship this mysterious Desert God, than by killing these beasts. And who is Azazel, anyway? Perhaps all this cattle-slaughter comes from our being a shepherding people. When the Lord God brings us into the Land of Israel, we will become farmers, I assume, and so will cease to make so many cattle offerings….

            Dear God! Is it Your will that we forever expiate our sins by transferring them to the heads or bodies of these cattle, and not accept the guilt upon ourselves? Please, God, send me words, or a sign, that You desire repentance, and not the smoke of bulls and calves alone.



“Finally, the Lord spoke: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:1-2).

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Rabbi's Thoughts About the Holocaust, April, 2017

Thoughts About the Holocaust, 2017

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark, M.A., M.Phil.

            I first became aware of the Holocaust at the age of eleven, when I read Leon Uris’s “Exodus.” His descriptions both enticed me and gave me nightmares. (I have since found out that some were apocryphal.) Although two survivors—Clara and Anatole—lived down the hall of our building from our apartment, and I played with their son Paul, I knew nothing about this massive blot on human history. Clara had spent the war going deeper and deeper into Russia, ahead of the Nazi Killing Squads (See “Ordinary People,” about how cops become murderers), and Anatole had fought in the Red Army.

            When my mother said, “They met in the camps,” I thought she was talking about summer camp.

            With a bookworm’s diligence, I searched for anything I could find on the subject. Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird” was extremely frightening; I have not re-read it in years. In 1969, I found the late Arthur Morse’s “While Six Million Died,” which began the great discussion-controversy over whether American Jews did enough. I have since read Michael Beschloss’s “The Conquerors,” wherein FDR tells Henry Morgenthau not to press him any more about bombing the railroad tracks to Auschwitz. (This account is, again, controversial, but I believe its essence contains truth.)

            From the time I was very young, my Hebrew Day School rabbis told us that we all needed to support Israel, because if Hitler ever came to the US, we American Jews would need Israel to rescue us. I taught the same to my Temple Hebrew School students in my three pulpits, for years and years. Finally, one of my little girls (she is all grown up now) went home and told her mother what I said. Her mother told her father, who was a WWII veteran. The grandfather asked,

            “If Hitler comes to America, why can’t we fight him here?”

Ironically, this question has gained more significance over the past number of months.

            When I taught the Holocaust, I always used a video about it, produced by the Wiesenthal Center, featuring the voices of Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles. The last number of years, I also included “Hotel Rwanda,” to show the students that there were, and continue to be, multiple holocausts worldwide. King Leopold and Hitler should share the same hell, I believe.

            Some Jews may disagree, but I continue to believe that our experience throughout history must make us more sensitive to fighting, not only for our own right to survive and thrive, but for that of others. We live on a very small planet. I do not agree with those Jews who shout, “Never Again!” as though it were the only slogan our faith requires. Jewish Survival is not sufficient; all humanity must survive. Even where and when Jews are concerned, we must survive creatively. Even if you are not religious, do something with your Judaism. Read. Study music, theatre, poetry, gastronomy, psychology, history, culture. Make your Judaism many-faceted.

            I grew up in a neighborhood where, if you left your own area, you had a good chance of getting beaten up by members of a different race or ethnic group. I don’t want that to happen anymore.

            Every race, every ethnic group, has had its own holocaust. Because I teach English to students who are mainly African-American and Hispanic, I am truly fortunate. I can “do teshuvah”—make penance—for the way I had to live in my old neighborhood. I want my students to succeed. I will fight for their right to enjoy a share of the American Dream. And I want this country, this world, to truly become a place of freedom and equality for all.


            For me, that is the lesson of the Holocaust. 

Tazria-Metzora: Kevudah, 16-year-old Wife of Eleazar ben Aaron: "You will bear me a Son"

Tazria-Metzora

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            I am Kevudah, the “honored one,” wife of Eleazar, Aaron’s third son—but his eldest, now that Nadav and Avihu are dead, killed by the hand of God—the flames of God, I mean. They offered “strange fire”—some mistake in preparing the incense, we believe, as well as guilty of taking a drop of mead prior to the service—we will never know for sure, since the two young men—boys, really—were totally immolated by God’s fire. Just as they were about to wave their incense-pans, too. Horrible, horrible way to die, at the hands of the God we are commanded to love. And Who loves us. I wonder.
           
It is impossible to describe the effect their deaths have had on our family: their mother, my mother-in-law, Elisheva—you will not find her or even her name mentioned in your Holy Torah, Stranger (she is a woman, and therefore unworthy)—has gone into complete isolation in the Black Tent of Isolation, wearing black, totally given up to her mourning, for her first- and second-born sons. Her faith is gone. Her brother-in-law Moses visits her daily to offer her prayer and comfort through the door of the Tent, but she will not see him.
           
Aaron, our High Priest, the dead boys’ father and my father-in-law, goes about his business in silence. He offers sacrifices to the God who slew his sons like cattle. He visits the Israelites who quarrel, and makes peace, or tries to, between them. But the light of happiness is gone from his eyes; it vanished on the day that God took his boys.
           
And what of Eleazar and Itamar, my husband and brother-in-law, the surviving sons and brothers of the Dead Priests Nadav and Avihu? Aaron will not speak to me—why should he talk to a mere woman, and his daughter-in-law, at that?—but Aaron has spoken to Eleazar, and Eleazar passed the message along to me:

            “Father wants us to have a baby. A boy baby. To replace Nadav and Avihu.”

            “How does he know we are able to have a baby?”

            “God has told him. Father Aaron is a prophet. And Uncle Moses has verified it, as well.”

            “What if it’s a girl? I would love a girl….”

            “Kevudah, do you hearken to the voice of me, Eleazar, your husband and master? It will be a boy. A boy, for the Lord God of Hosts has spoken it.”

            And so I was made pregnant. At first, I did not like the feeling: the morning sickness, needing to leave the tent so often, the changes in my body…. But the wise women and the doulas of the tribe came to see me, knowing I was only fifteen, and that this was my first child,  grandchild of the great Aaron, and grand-nephew of Rabbi Moses. For the elders and the rest of the men, I was less a person than a treasure-vessel, but the women handled me tenderly, keeping the men away. Which was fine: men are such idiots where babies are concerned, anyway.

            It was only in the late evenings, when it was hard for me to sleep, and Eleazar would pound and pound at me with questions: “Are you eating enough, Kevvy? What did Sarah-Bracha the Doula say? Did the baby move at all? Can I feel? Do you need another pillow? This son of mine must be prepared to lift enormous cows, sheep, goats! Kevvy, why do you turn away? I am your husband and master! Kevvy, please…!”

            One would have thought he was having the baby, and not me. I began to grow nervous: what if I lost the baby? Would I be banished from the tribe? Would they examine my background, and find that I had an Edomite great-grandmother? O God….

            Which is why I awoke one morning, and, feeling a pimple on my upper lip, and wishing to cover it with face-powder before the midwives arrived—I still had enough self-respect to wish to do that—I saw my face in the polished bronze mirror. And sat, staring.

            My face was covered—and, after ripping open my blouse, I saw my chest and entire body—with white scales. They itched.

            I could only remember the verses that Aaron himself had read to us Israelites in assembly, just the previous week:

            “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the infection…if hair in the infected patch has turned white and the infection appears to be deeper than the skin…it is a leprous infection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce [the victim] impure” (Lev. 13:2-3).

            I was in shock: how could this happen to me? How could the same God who killed Nadav and Avihu afflict me, innocent me, as well? Was I guilty for wishing my husband Eleazar to be quiet and let me sleep, last night? Was I stricken for wishing secretly to bear a girl-child? Was I jealous of my mother-in-law Elisheva for shutting herself away from this Man’s World? Was I….

Suddenly, I felt faint; I rose from my sleeping mat, staggered a couple of steps, felt a wetness between my legs…. I stumbled to the door-flap of my tent, and collapsed. I reached down; my hand came away bloody. A teenage boy was passing by, whistling. I waved my bloody hand at him: he startled back, but came over quickly.

“Help you, Missus?” he said, looking worried.

“Yes,” I said, through dry lips, “Go to—to—the Tent of Meeting. Fetch me Aaron—Eleazar—Itamar. Or any of the Levites. Go—go quickly!”

My head was spinning; I passed out.



Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Schnorrer (Beggar), the Rich Man, and the Picket Fence: A Tale

A rich man looked out the window of his house, and saw a schnorrer, a beggar, rubbing his back against his picket fence. The rich man went outside and called to him, "Why are you rubbing your back against my fence? You'll break it!"

The schnorrer said mournfully to him, "Oy-- I'm so itchy! My clothing is filthy. I haven't eaten in a week. I've been sleeping in the streets, and I haven't had a decent bath in a month!"

"Oy-- such a pity-- nebich!" said the rich man, "Come inside, and I will give you a bath, and a good, hot meal."

"Thank you, thank you!" said the schnorrer.

The rich man was as good as his word. He showed the schnorrer the bath, gave him bubble bath and a luxurious towel, and afterwards had his cooks make him a delicious, festive meal. The rich man dressed the schnorrer in old, but still decent, clothing from his own closet. Finally, he gave the schnorrer ten gold coins, and sent him on his way.

As the schnorrer left the rich man's house, two other schnorrers were standing outside on the pavement. Seeing their comrade wearing better clothing and looking clean and cheerful, they asked him what had happened.

Upon hearing his good news, the two schnorrers decided to imitate him. They immediately started to scratch their backs on the picket fence, as he had done.

No sooner had they begun scratching against the fence, than the door of the house opened, and the rich man came running out. But he was angry, this time.

"Go away, you dirty schnorrers!" he cried. "Go and stop rubbing your filthy backs against my picket fence!"

The two schnorrers were surprised.

"Why is it that, when you saw our friend, the first schnorrer, you were so kind to him, but now that you see the two of us, you are driving us away?" they asked.

"Why? Why?" asked the rich man, "it is because I saw that he was only one, and therefore had no one to scratch his back. But you-- you blackguards, there are two of you. Go ahead--scratch each other's backs!"

Monday, April 17, 2017

Shemini: The Deaths of Nadav & Avihu, Sons of Aaron the High Priest

Shemini: The Deaths of Nadav & Avihu, Sons of Aaron

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them… and he stepped down after offering the burnt offering[s]. Fire came forth from the LORD and consumed the burnt offering. …And all the peole saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan…and laid incense in it…and offered before the LORD strange fire…and fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; [and they died by the hand of the LORD]” –Lev. 9:22-10:2

I am Avihu, the second son of Aaron, the High Priest; my elder brother is Nadav. This is our Big Day. Aaron—that is, Dad—is to dedicate the Mishkan, the Holy Sanctuary of the Wilderness, the Place where the One True God is to dwell. We will participate in the Ceremony of Dedication, too.

We are very nervous. Dad is—Dad is—can I speak plainly? Dad is not helping. Let me explain. The world knows Dad as the “Lover of Peace and Pursuer of Peace,” as Aaron, the younger brother of Moses, our uncle, the Prophet of God. Together, they freed the slaves from Egypt. Since that time, Moses spends his days speaking to God, while Aaron—that is, Dad—serves God in this Sanctuary, making sacrifices and receiving offerings from the Israelites. He also makes peace among them; he is a judge, as is Moses.

Everyone loves Aaron; how could they not? He is the most patient man on earth—that is, except with us. He has always expected us to be perfect, my brother Nadav and me. It has been especially hard on Nadav, who would rather have been a hunter in the fields. He has trouble paying attention, and often relies on me to explain the complicated laws and practices of sacrificial offerings to him. He himself is very strong, and so we make a good team—except when Dad is around.

Dad is very impatient with us: he yells and stamps his foot, all the time. We wish he would be even half as patient with us, as he is with those who come to him for advice. Then, you should see how he acts! He listens thoughtfully, strokes his beard, nods, and even cries to hear their sad story. He will put a comforting arm around the shoulders of a man, or pat a grieving widow on her hand. He will walk along with them, listening. And then, finally, he will give them his advice. Everyone loves him.

Not so with us.

And now, it is the Dedication Ceremony. After waking us at dawn, Dad goes over and over the million steps of the sacrificial service, until I, even I, who usually can memorize these things without book, am nearly lost in their profundity. I have written notes on dozens of papyrus slips, and hidden them in my priestly robes.

I look at Nadav: he is dead on his feet, and keeps nodding off, despite the strong black tea that the Levite servers keep pressing on us.

I see Dad staring at Nadav. Suddenly, he reaches out, and slaps him full on the face. The clay cup of black tea goes spinning off through the air, skittering into a corner.

            “What is the MATTER with you, Nadav?” he asks, his voice rising to a shout, almost a scream, “don’t you see what this day means to me, to the family? You have to get out there and impress everyone; you have to show the World that you’re the Sons of Aaron.”

            Nadav nods, rubbing his cheek. His tears are starting to flow. “Yes, Dad,” he says, in a small, choked voice.

            “Don’t blubber,” says Dad, “I hate crybabies.”

            “No, Dad,” he says.

“Make the family proud,” says Dad. He snorts at me, turns and stomps out.

“Are you all right, Nadav?” I ask my brother, reaching out to touch his cheek, which is flaming red, but he draws back.

“I’m OK,” he says.

“Make him proud, he means,” I say bitterly, “Why has he always been so tough on us, ever since we were little kids? Remember when Mom made those little ephods and robes for us, and we were playing at being kohanim? She thought we looked adorable, and wanted Shimon the artist to paint our picture, but Dad came along, told her that we looked a mockery of the Holy One’s Sacred Service, and made us take them off.”

“Take them off?” says Nadav, “He almost ripped them off our backs!”

“He made you cry,” I say, “Then, he took them away, and we never saw them again.”

“Well, forget about all that, Avihu. We have to get out there, and—and—and—“

“You see, Nadav? Your stammer is back! I thought you had lost it. This is all Dad’s fault.”

“N-n-no, the stammer’s g-g-gone. Th-th-there, I’ve b-b-beaten it. Wait (taking a bottle from a bookcase in the tent) this will help.”

“What is that?” I ask.

“Just a little hair of the dog, as th-th-they say. A little honey m-m-mead (Taking a drink) to calm my nerves.W-w-want some?”

“Oh, why not?” I take the bottle; my heart is beating like an Egyptian water-clock. I keep seeing Dad in my mind, telling me what a screwup I am. “Here’s to you, Brother Nadav,” I say, and take a small, experimental drink. It makes me feel better, calmer. I believe I feel the Spirit of God entering into me—not the spirit of hatred I bore for my father, before….

Then, we hear a trumpet-blast from outside.

“That’s our cue, Brother,” I say, “but, wait—“

“What, Brother?” asks Nadav. I hear that his stammer is almost completely gone.

“You know we’re not supposed to do the service drunk,” I say.

“But, we’re not drunk!” cries Nadav, “I needed the liquor for my stammer, and you needed it because—because—“

“What? Are you the expert in Jewish Sac—Sacri—Sacrificial Law, now?” I manage to stumble over my words, and we both laugh. “I love you, O My Brother, O My Nadav,” I say, tears springing to my eyes, and we hug.

“No!” shouts Nadav, and the Levites working behind us look up, startled, “We need it, because our father is a—is a—you know.”

“Yes. I do.”

“Well, we should go.”

“Yes.”

“Oh, did you fix the incense the way he told you?” I ask Nadav.

“Sure!” he grins, “Two measures myrrh, three measures cinnamon—“

“No, NO, Nadav—it was the other way round!” I am panicking, now, “Two measures cinnamon, three measures myrrh!”

“Oh, God. Now, we’ve done it. Again. Dad will be angry.”

“Well, it’s his fault, for yelling,” says Nadav, “What shall we do?”

“Nothing to do, but re-mix the bloody stuff,” I say, grimly, “Where are the bottles?”

Frantically, we fumble at the bookcase for the ingredients. Another trumpet-blast.

The People outside the Tent cheer: “Sacrifice to the LORD! Where are the priests? Bring the Offerings!”

A self-important young Levite enters, sees us scrabbling on the floor of the outer tent amid the incense-bottles, and states, “My masters, all respects and honor to you, but why do you tarry? The People demand your presence!”

“Oh, God—we must go,” I say to Nadav, who nods solemnly. We both rise, and dust off the knees of our robes. “Let us pray that God will have mercy upon our first sacrifice, and accept our shortcomings.”

We look at one another, and clasp hands. The Levites hand us our incense fire-pans. The brass shines in our hands, reflecting the morning sun that wafts into the Tent.

“Good luck, Baby Brother,” says Nadav, “See you on the other side.”

“You too, Brother,” I say, “Peace.”

As we leave through the tent-flap that the Levites hold open for us, the People’s voices rise from a shout to a roar: HALLELUYAH! HALLELUHU! KOL HANESHAMA TEHALLEL YAH….