Sunday, February 18, 2018

Tetzaveh: Aaron, His Sons, and the High Priesthood

Tetzaveh: Do Clothes Make the Man?

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Scene: The Israelite Camp, in the Tent of Preparation, adjacent to the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting-Sanctuary, the shrine of the Israelite tribes during their wilderness sojourn).
Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) stands among his four sons—Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar—as they clothe him in his priestly garments.

Avihu: This turban is so hard to wrap, but I think that I’ve gotten it properly on your head, My Father the High Priest. With your permission, may I speak?

Aaron: Of course, my dear son—which one are you, again?

Avihu: I am Avihu, your second son, Milord.

Aaron: Oh, yes, Avihu—please forgive me. I am an old man, and, since the four of you have all grown up—where was I, all of those years?—I cannot recognize you, behind those manly, full beards you have grown.

Avihu: It’s all right, Poppa—I mean, Milord. Begging your permission, Milord, I have a question.

Aaron: Ask anything, my son. Except—

Nadav: Except what, Father? I mean, Milord.

Aaron: Except what prophecy I have received from the Most High about the future. That, I cannot disclose. Careful with that avnet, my sash, Elazar! Don’t make it so tight. You are Elazar, are you not?

Elazar: Yes, Poppa—sorry, Poppa—I mean—

Avihu: Is it a fast or feast day, today? Why are we dressing you in your sacral robes?

Aaron: Ah! My sons, this is a simple question. No, no, no holy day, today. This is merely a rehearsal for the Chanukaht Ha-Bayit, the Dedication of the Mishkan Shrine, next week. And you will all assist—well, the elder two, anyway. How does that strike you, Nadav? Avihu?

Nadav: As the eldest, I should be honored. Still—

Aaron: Why this hesitation, my First-Born? I should think that you would be eager to assist, champing at the bit. You will one day be officiating before the LORD GOD and all Israel! That is no small thing.

Avihu: I humbly thank you for this honor, Milord, but still—

Aaron (growing angry): What’s this, you two? Why do you hesitate?

Nadav: Well, prior to the Lord God’s selecting you as High Priest and Uncle Moses as Chief Prophet, I—that is, Avihu and I—had thought we might be able to choose our own professions, rather than enter the family business. I had wanted to become—become—

Aaron: Spit it out!

Nadav: A scribe. I wanted to write stories of the tales of Israel, and our triumphs over Pharaoh. And poetry, as well, in praise of the Most High. I’ve been working at it, and my friend Avichayil bat Shimon, of the tribe of Zebulun, thinks that its good.

Aaron: A girl of Zebulun? However can you, a Levite and priest, marry a Zebulunite? That is not acceptable to me, or to our laws. You will have to leave this—this—commoner, and find yourself a nice girl from our own tribe.

Nadav: Really? Oh, my Lord—however will I tell her? We have promised one another to marry.

Avihu: And I wanted to be—to be—

Aaron: What? What? I must say, you boys are disappointing me. There is no greater honor than to butcher sacrifices as priest before all Israel.

Avihu: Poppa, please don’t yell. I hate it, when you yell at me.  I wanted to be a—a—shepherd. What’s wrong with that? Uncle Moses was a shepherd, of both cattle and people. Remember the Exodus—?

Aaron: Please don’t remind me; I was there. The plagues were insufferable, even if they were happening to the Egyptians and not to us. You boys (pointing) are angering me, but worse: you are disappointing the Lord God, and I cannot say what He may decide. (Turning to Elazar and Itamar) Well. What of you other two—I’m sorry, I forget your names. My younger sons. What is your life’s wish, to serve God, or yourselves?

Elazar: Never fear, Poppa—I mean, Milord—we have discussed it, Itamar and I, and priesting is the way we intend to go.

Aaron: Priesting? What audacity—

Itamar: Sorry, Poppa: serving as kohanim, priests.

Aaron (sighing heavily): Well, I see that I’m all dressed in my robes as Kohen Gadol. Would you boys care to leave me, for a bit?

The Sons, together: Of course, Poppa. We’ll be right outside, if you need us (Leaving the tent).

Aaron: Am I alone? Good. O Lord God! You know that I have tried to be a good and faithful servant. True, I may not have been there all the time when my boys were growing up—my dear wife, Elisheva bat Amminadav, had to raise them virtually alone, while I was off freeing our people and serving You. But now, what has happened? I never wished for this high eminence, this priesthood—but it is Your decision, and I must abide by it. Truly, I wished only to become a mediator, to seek out those who were quarrelling, or had a lawsuit, and adjudicate between the parties. And I believe that I would have done a good job. But now, Lord, I have spoken with my sons, and I fear what may happen to our family priesthood. Will there be a time in the future when different priestly dynasties fight over this honor? I have seen cloudy portents of this in prophecy, but the results are unclear. Dear Lord, teach my sons that we must do all for Israel’s sake, and not for our own interests—for that way lies—who knows? And Thy will be done. Amen!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Terumah: Do Not Dare Question

Terumah: Sacrifice vs. Prayer

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Scene: The Building of the Mishkan, the Holy Place where Aaron and his sons will conduct sacrificial offerings, in the sight of God and all Israel. Betzalel, the consummate architect, builder, craftsman, sculptor, and painter (among many other talents) is shouting orders at his men: “Watch that curtain—don’t tear it!” “Elihu, have you kicked over that bucket of gold paint again?” etc. 

Betzalel: Nu, nu, Chaverim; let’s speed it along. I promised High Priest Aaron that we would be done in two weeks. (Hums to himself; he is avidly enjoying this) Only we’ll never finish, Machloket, if you aren’t careful with those acacia-wood poles! Don’t treat them like tent-poles, my Friend.

(Chorus off: “Don’t worry, Boss Betzalel; we know what we’re doing.”)

Betzalel (sighing): That’s what I was afraid of. Well, perhaps now I can finish my matza and cheese from breakfast—I say now, a man building the most important structure in the world has no time to eat, much less to think!

Enter Safkan ben Emet, a wandering, self-styled philosopher.

Safkan: Good day, Master Betzalel. (He bows)

Betzalel (his mouth full of matza, he grabs a water-jug and takes a healthy swig): Oh. It’s you. Yes, yes; good day, Friend Safkan. Haven’t you business over in the camp, with—with—Baruch the Blacksmith? I saw you two arguing—I mean, discussing—something, yesterday.

Safkan (smiling): Yes, we were having at it: I was asking why horses require shoes, while camels and oxen do not; after all, they are all beasts of burden.

Betzalel (finishing his cheese): Can’t help you there, Safkan. Well; it’s nice seeing you, but I have a Mishkan to build, and can’t be bothered with small talk. Good—

Safkan: Have you not time for one question?

Betzalel: (sighing) Well, well: one question. Please, make it quick. We must sink the holes for the courtyard poles, and I must get started on the Golden Menorah.

Safkan: Lovely. And yet—and yet—

Betzalel (impatient): Well? Come, and speak quickly, Safkan. I know your tricks: you confuse and obfuscate all, with your pointed queries.

Safkan: All the more important, when you claim to be building “the most important building in the world,” as you say. How do you know?

Betzalel: Safkan, dear Safkan—I am no philosopher. I am a man of measurements, tools, and stitchery—though the Sisterhood is doing most of that. I—

Safkan: But you must have some sort of idea, what with your being the Chief Boss of this project.

Betzalel: True. Still and all, I do not contemplate the spiritual aspect of this Mishkan; my purpose make it beautiful and get it done, preferably as soon as possible. Perhaps you would do better to consult High Priest Aaron, or, better, Rabbi Moses. They could, I am certain, give you an answer better than I possibly could. And now, I really must bid you farewell: I have a job to carry out.

(Enter High Priest Aaron, looking worried.)

Betzalel: Aaron Ha-Kohen! We were just speaking of you. Safkan, here—

Aaron (looking disgusted): Have I a lack of madmen, that you bring me yet another? Really, Betzalel—I just left my two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, who have hatched yet another ridiculous idea—they want to send messengers to the pagan Moabites and Edomites, to see if they will worship with us! Can you imagine anything so foolish? I—

Betzalel: Softly, High Priest; ears are listening. Here, Safkan wishes to ask you a question.

(He departs, calling: “You there, Choni! Be careful on that ladder!”)

Aaron: Oh, great. (Sighs) What can I do for you, Safkan?

Safkan: I was just questioning Friend Betzalel about this grand spiritual structure he is building, and you, Sir, are supervising—what is its purpose and meaning?

Aaron: Purpose? Meaning? Why, to worship the One True God, of course. Really, Safkan—sometimes, your questions are outrageous, but this one is, frankly, simpleminded. (Patiently) Still, I am a lover of peace, and a pursuer of peace, and so will endeavor to answer you. It’s elementary: God gives us cattle, for example. We eat them, and enjoy other benefits from them. God, therefore, deserves a goodly number of cows in return, which we dispatch to Him via burnt-offerings. Simple, isn’t it?

Safkan: But why should God’s Holy House be an abattoir? I find the idea revolting.

Aaron: Are you a vegan?

Safkan: Not I: I do enjoy the smell and taste of meat, but hardly find it conducive to worship.

Aaron: (impatiently) Well, what would you have me do?

Safkan: I believe it would be far, far more spiritual to sit in a quiet circle, and, using poetry, communicate our feelings to our God. We could include a Jewish lecture—call it “A Word of Torah.” Why do you think, Milord Priest?

Aaron: Humph! No, no, it wouldn’t work.

Safkan: Why not? I have been meandering through the camp, questioning our people, and the support is there—more for prayer, as I call it, than sacrifice.

Aaron: (whispering) Safkan, I beg you, do not speak any more of this radical prayer idea of yours—I will be forced to consult with Marshal Joshua and Rabbi Moses my brother, and have you condemned for heresy. With a snap of my fingers, I can summon the Israelite Security Guards, and have you taken away, to a camp outside the precincts of the camp.

Safkan: Why, what have I done? I am merely a philosopher, asking my ethical and spiritual questions—whatever could be amiss with my honest querying?

Aaron: (sighing) I see that you will not cease from this dangerous, heretical notion of yours—what is it? Prayer?

Safkan: Yes, and I claim a thinking man’s right to question your self-serving sacrificial system….

Aaron: I have heard enough. Guards!

(Two burly guards appear, seize Safkan, and begin to carry him off: )

Guard 1: We will place him in the Black Tent of Custody, Master High Priest.

Aaron: Good. Thank you. Put a gag in his mouth, if he calls out while you are dragging him through the camp, as an example to others.

(They leave, hauling Safkan with them. Enter Moses)

Moses: All peaceful here, Brother?

Aaron: It was not, but I took care of it. One troublesome individual.

Moses: H’m—I believe I know to whom you are referring. Ah! Does the Mishkan not gleam in the sunlight?

Aaron: It does indeed, Brother; it does (He smiles broadly).

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Mishpatim: The Pavement of Heaven

Mishpatim: The Paving-Blocks of Heaven

by Rabbi David Mark

“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders of Israel ascended; they saw the God of Israel. Under His feet there appeared the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand againt the leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.”
--Exodus 24:9-11

            My name is Yonatan ben Hoseef ben Zevulun, Stranger. I am very happy that you found my tent. We are not friends, having just met, and so, I am able to pour out my heart to you; an old friend might think me insane. Briefly, I just participated in the most remarkable journey any mortal could experience, led by our Rabbi Moses. It has convinced me that the man is not just a teacher and a miracle-worker, but also a mystic.

            Why, do you ask? I will tell you. Moses had begun receiving Torah from the Lord GOD—it was workaday ordinances: laws governing the proper care of cattle, how we are to run our farms once we enter Canaan—and who knows when, or if, that will happen? Yes: I know that God has promised it, and I have as much faith as the next man—but this same God is so mercurial, so quick to change His mind, that I doubt whether all of us escapees from our Egyptian prison will make it there alive.

            Well, no matter: I will rejoice, even at the end of my life, if my son and granddaughters make it there, and either wrest it bodily from the Canaanite pagans, or infiltrate the land gradually. I have witnessed the Ten Plagues, seen the flower of Egypt’s cavalry flung into and drowned in the Sea of Reeds. After all our sufferings at Pharaoh’s hands (and those of his father and grandfather, too), that warms my vengeful heart in a manner part of me finds disquieting.

            Still, no matter. I promised you a tale of a mystical nature, and you shall have it. I am not an old man, but, because my father Hoseef died young, in Egypt—he was measuring the boundaries of one of Ramesses’s monuments to himself, when a craneload of sandstone blocks accidentally dropped on him—I inherited his office of zaken, a tribal elder. On that basis, I attended their next meeting. The older elders—strange to be saying that—were hesitant to accept me. One of the most aged graybeards, a rascal named Letzneel ben Shoteh, challenged me:

            “You there, you Yonatan! How dare you enter our sacred assembly? How can you lay claim to any knowledge of the Law?”

            But I swiftly put him into his place. Coolly, I replied:
            “Since the Torah has not been given yet, Milord Letzneel, I will learn it, I promise you, as quickly as any of you. And it is a fact that we young ones learn more quickly than others who pretend to a knowledge of the Law; we are unafraid to admit our shortcomings, and absorb more quickly, than prideful elders.”

            That quick answer put the old slug into his place. He took his seat, muttering, and the other Elders quickly voted to admit me, to represent my tribe. Zevulun.

            Aaron came to our meeting, and requested that we adjourn quickly—it seems that Milord Rabbi Moses wished us to accompany him, if not to the top of Sinai, then close by—so it seemed. We arose, formed a line in order of seniority and succession, and followed our High Priest.
            As we marched by twos through the Camp of Israel, the common folk gave way before us, and a few cheered for us—really, since Moses had arrived in Egypt and taken over leadership of our people, we Elders had not met on a regular basis; there was no need. Our Prophet would receive messages from God, and tell the people directly. We were a remnant of an earlier day, going all the way back to Jacob’s passing, and his sons seeking a more equitable way to solve tribal disagreements.

            In the midst of all this pomp and lack-of-circumstance, I realized that I was getting hungry—I am a cobbler, and, with all of Moses’s lectures, had lost time from work; orders were coming due. I had rushed to my work that morning. In my hurrying, I had grabbed merely a pita, dipped it into some hummus, and crammed it into my mouth. Too late, I realized that I had not uttered the appropriate bracha, or blessing, and so, following that first bite, I mumbled, “B’rich Mar d’hai pita”—"Blessed be the Master of this pita,” which I hoped would please God. I feared that the sound of my empty belly rumbling might disturb whatever ceremonies were to take place—I saw Aaron at our head, and figured that he and his elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, would make some sort of offering.

            Still, my hunger persisted—and, as one would figure, I felt a headache coming on. Normally, my dear wife Uriella bat Elchanan oo’Machshefa would put a cool, wet cloth on my forehead, and do her best to keep our little ones from playing in the tent, which was not easy to do, especially on a hot desert day. But Uriella was far behind me in the camp, and there were no cool cloths among our parade of ancients. From far in the front, I saw Aaron gesturing animatedly and saying something to our front rank—I plucked at the sleeve of the man in front of me, but he could not hear, either: he was old and deaf. My headache, meanwhile, pounded away.

            The last thing I remember of our troop of elders was Aaron holding up his hands with his fingers spread in the well-known priestly-blessing fashion. I looked at his hands—something inside of me urged me to do so, or, perhaps, I hoped that this talisman might relieve my head-pounding.

            Instead, there was a flash of light and a cloud of something smelling like incense—the light slowly faded, and I could not see to see—I shut my eyes in fear. When I opened them, I was standing, not on desert sand, but on a sapphire sort of pavement. I dared not look up, but heard a thundering voice—could this be the Invisible God of Whom Moses had spoken? I feared that to look upon Him was death, but did sneak a peek at the throne—it was all pearl-coated gold. And my headache, Blessed be God, was gone. It was a miracle.

            I did look at both sides, away from the Throne, and saw tables laden with fruits and nuts and sweet biscuits, along with every good thing. The foremost elders—I noted among them the laggard who wished to exclude me from the throng—were first at the tables, and did eat and drink. What holy food there was: oranges sweet as the honey of Eden, wine laid up since the days of Creation, and all in abundance. We were there for—how long? Days? Hours? Seconds?—but eventually returned to earth, I am not exactly sure how. They who understand, will understand.

            I would love, indeed, to return, and ask questions of this God, but I doubt it will ever happen again. Still, I am grateful for our miracle, which is a deep secret; Moses has promised not to include it in the Holy Scroll. I now believe, most wholeheartedly, in the One True God, the God of Israel. May He protect us on our way!