Parashat Noah – What We Do And Why We Do It

וְעַתָּה לֹא יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת

Parashat Noach contains two main stories, the story of the Flood and the story of the Tower of Bavel. Neither of these stories depict man in a particularly positive light, with the only hero, Noah, declared righteous at the beginning of his story and passed out drunk and indecent at the end. However there is something unique about the story of the Tower of Bavel that sets it apart from not only the story of the Flood, but also the preceding stories of the first religious and moral transgressions. The Tower of Bavel is unique in that it depicts ‘א as relating to the people in an almost adversarial manner. ‘א scatters them across the land (Bereishit 11:8, 9), the exact thing they had been trying to avoid happening (11:4). The people begin each step of their construction with the phrase, “Come, let us” (11:3, 4), and ‘א turns this around on them when he decides to mix up their languages, saying, “Come, let us go down, and there confound their language” (11:7). Perhaps the strongest indicator is ‘א’s statement where He seems concerned about what the people might do next. “And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, with one language for all of them, and this is what they begin to do; And now nothing will be beyond their reach that they intend to do” (11:6). This verse is jarring not only because ‘א sounds like someone worried about what the people on the other side might do next, but also because unity and cooperation are generally thought of as causes for celebration, not destruction. By contrast, ‘א reacts to the first religious and moral sins like a disappointed parent, first giving the transgressor a chance to repent, and only then punishing them after they attempt to shirk the responsibility for their actions (3:8-19; 4:9-15), and by the generation of the Flood ‘א just seems saddened and regretful (6:6). ‘א’s adversarial tone by the Tower of Bavel stands out against the background of the preceding narratives. The reason for this tone can be found in nature of the sin of the Tower of Bavel, however, the nature of this sin is not at all clear from the text, and requires delving into the historical context of the ancient city of Bavel[1].

To this day if a person goes to the spot where Bavel once stood they will see the ruins of the great tower that once stood there. This tower was a place of pagan worship, dedicated to the god Marduwas, and it was renown throughout the region as the “The House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” At the temple atop the tower the priests would “meet” the gods, in line with meaning of the Aramaic name for the city, “Gate of the Gods[2].” This was the grandest of such towers, but they were not an uncommon phenomenon in the ancient near east. Many kings had built, or restored, such towers, and often their dedications claimed that they “reached the heavens” (as 11:4) and “made a name” for the king, even earning the king a place among the gods. While building a tower for pagan worship would be problematic in its own right, the idea of a person becoming a god is a direct attack on the basic idea of monotheism, that ‘א is God, and no other.

The sin of the Tower of Bavel is a function of a group of people working together not just for the sake of Idolatry, but in order to challenge ‘א’s very nature as uniquely divine. Thus the adversarial tone in the story is not a function of ‘א setting himself against the people, but of the people setting themselves against ‘א. If then had not said, “Come, let us” build a tower against ‘א, then He would not have said, “Come, let us” destroy the tower. If they had not tried to gather together at the Tower, they would not have required scattering. And if they had not been gathered against ‘א, then their unity would not have been a reason for destruction, but a reason for celebration.

The narrative of the Tower of Bavel is a story of the crushing of ancient idolatry, but it is also more than that. The Tower of Bavel story, in its lack of clarity, challenges the reader to consider not just what the people were doing, but also why they were doing it. The fact that the people were unified is meaningless in the face of their larger intentions. Unity is not its own justification, as it can just as easily be used to build as to destroy. In the Tower of Bavel narrative, the Torah challenges us to examine not only our actions but also why we are doing them, as even the best actions can be made meaningless, or worse, by the wrong intentions. When we do anything in our daily lives, we are meant to ask, are we just doing this to make a name for ourselves, or does it serve some greater, divine, purpose?

[1] For an excellent discussion of some of the differing views of the Rishonim regarding the nature of the sin, as well as how they fit with the historical background of the text, see this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet, from which much of the information in the next paragraph was culled.

[2] It is noteworthy that the only place in Tanakh where a similar phrase occurs is in Bereishit 28:17, when Yaakov exclaims, “and this is the Gate of Heaven,” after having a vision of ‘א in a dream. This is just one of a variety of parallels between the two passages, a greater discussion of which can be found in R’ Yitzchak Etshalom’s lecture “Archaeology in Tanach.”

Parashat Bereishit – Dualities of Creation, Dualities of Man

בְּצֶלֶם אֱ׳לֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ

Sefer Bereishit starts out by depicting ‘א’s creation of existence, a depiction that has come under attack from a number of perspectives. Perhaps the most well known attack is the way it does not at all match the current scientific models for the origin of the universe. The religious responses to this have been threefold, either reinterpreting the text to fit with modern science, asserting that the Torah is essentially a religious document and does not intend a scientific description of Creation, or just ignoring the issue entirely. Slightly less well known, though far from unheard of, is the attack from the school of Biblical Criticism referred to as the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis is based off of the idea that the Torah is composed of texts derived from different, and often contradictory or redundant, source texts. A prime example of where critics see multiple sources is the first two chapters of Sefer Bereishit, which are split into Bereishit 1:1-2:3 and Bereishit 2:4-3:24. They point out a number of contradictions found in these two pericopes, such as where the creation of Man falls out in the order of creation, and how long the whole process takes. In the first chapter of Bereishit, Man is created on the sixth day, after all of the plants and animals and the rest of the natural world (1:26-30). In the second chapter, Man comes first and is in fact a precondition for the existence of plant and animals; they only exist due to Man (2:5, 18-20). In contrast to the measured, seven day process of the first chapter, the second chapter depicts creation as occurring in a day. “These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven” (Bereishit 2:4). Based on these, and other, contradictions they see the two passages as having originated as two separate creation stories. This approach is applied quite liberally throughout the rest of Tanakh[1]. Starting with R’ Mordechai Breuer[2], religious scholars[3] have actually embraced this method of finding different voices in the text of the Torah, without giving up on the idea that the Torah was revealed to Moshe by ‘א. Being a prophetic text, the Torah is understood to deal with divine truths too complex to necessarily be written down without being somewhat contradictory. Similarly, the Torah also depicts the nature of Man as being complex, and thus subject to self-contradiction. Walt Whitman depicted human nature as similarly complex[4].

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.) [Song of Myself, 51]

These contradictions are particularly manifest in the two versions of the Creation of Man found at the beginning of Sefer Bereishit, and a careful analysis of them points toward the Biblical view of Man’s nature.

The first chapter of Sefer Bereishit is characterized primarily by being incredibly ordered. Everything goes exactly according to ‘א’s Will, and He sees that it is good. Each of the creations of the first three days sets up for the creation that occurs three days after it, the light (Day 1) setting up for the cosmos (Day 4), the water and skies (Day 2) setting up for the fish and the birds (Day 5), and the land and the plants (Day 3) setting up for the animals and for Man (Day 6). Everything is set up so that it will run naturally forever. The celestial bodies will govern the seasons forever, and all the plants and animals can continue their species. One of these orderly creations is Man. However, Man is something of an anomaly in this ordered process, as the only creature that is created in the image of ‘א, the Creator. Thus man is both Creature and Creator. Specifically, the Image of God is manifest as Man being a dominating force[5] in the world, as explicated by the blessing Man receives from ‘א, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth” (Bereishit 1:28). Man is given the ability to be in charge of every living thing, and to consume all plant-life (1:29).

In contrast, the second chapter of Bereishit depicts Man as existing to serve a purpose, rather than other things existing to serve Man’s purposes. Man’s creation fills a specific need, “and there was no a man to work the ground” (2:5), and then Man is given a corresponding assignment, “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it” (2:15). Man exists to serve a purpose. This stands in direct contradiction to the first chapter, but it would be a mistake to assume the two chapters only contradict. In many ways the second chapter builds on the first. The first chapter depicts Man as part of the orderly process of Creation, and the second chapter goes out of its way to hammer home the fact that Man is essentially just like every other living thing. When Man is created from the earth the Torah says, “And Adam became a living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה)” (Bereishit 2:7). Then when ‘א creates the animals they are each referred to as a living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה) (Bereishit 2:19). Moreover, the possibility is entertained that the proper helper for Man might be one of the animals (2:18-20). Where in chapter 1 Man and the animals are differentiated by Man’s being created in the Image of ‘א, in the second chapter they seem to be part of essentially the same category. However, as the second chapter progresses Man is differentiated from the animals in a manner separate from their shared nature as creatures. In contrast to the animals, it is stated regarding Man, “And the Lord God commanded the man” (2:16). Man’s uniqueness is not a function of his innate nature, but of his being commanded. This builds on the way the second chapter of Bereishit depicts Man as created  for a specific purpose.

The two creation stories depict two different understandings of the nature of Man. The first chapter sees Man as somehow dominant and superior to the other creations. He can use all of them to serve his purposes. The second chapter sees Man as inherently equal to the other creatures, and intended to serve a purpose, to care for those creations, and to follow ‘א’s command. These understandings are very different, and they certainly contradict, but they do not have to be at odds with one another. The two approaches play off each other and integrate very interestingly. Perhaps it is the unique ability of Man, as per Chapter 1, that makes incumbent upon him unique responsibility, as per chapter 2. Chapter 1 sees Man as having a unique power over nature; Chapter 2 ask what Man is going to do with that power to serve ‘א and the world. And even if in their essence the two understandings of Man are at odds, they can be applied practically in very similar ways. As a creature, Man should feel solidarity with all life, and therefore should be careful not to abuse it. As a creator, Man has a responsibility to be benevolent and care for those less fortunate. We are complex beings, and to paint us with a simple brush is to ignore what makes us great and obscures all that we have to give.

[1] For a discussion of some of the problematic aspects of the Documentary Hypothesis, from a literary perspective, see here.

[2] He based this approach, among other things, on the midrash that says that the two names of ‘א, Elohim and YVHV, correspond to Divine Justice and Divine Compassion. The first chapter of Bereishit uses exclusively the name Elohim, while the second uses YHVH.

[3] While I don’t agree with everything he says, here or elsewhere, an excellent depiction of this method by R’ Menachem Leibtag can be found here.

[4] These internal tensions of Man are also discussed by, among others, the Hermeneutic Philosopher Paul Ricoeur, by R’ Joseph Soloveitchik in “The Lonely Man of Faith,” and by myself in my devar torah for Parashat Re’eh 5774.

[5] This also fits with the Ancient Near Eastern context of the phrase, “Image of God.” Outside of the Torah, this phrase is only applied to kings. The Torah applies it to all men, declaring them all equal. For more on this, see R’ Shai Held’s devar torah on Bereishit 5775.

Yom Kippur 5775 – Cleansing The Mishkan, Cleansing Our Lives

לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ׳הוָה תִּטְהָרוּ

The sixteenth chapter of Sefer Vayikra describes the details[1] of the Kohen HaGadol’s ritual service in the Mishkan/Mikdash for Yom HaKippurim. The Kohen HaGadol goes back and forth, changing out of various sets of clothing, slaughtering certain animals, and using those animals’ blood to purify the Mikdash/Mishkan. The purpose of all of these rites is explicitly described in Vayikra 16:32-34.

32 And the priest, who shall be anointed and who shall be consecrated to be priest in his father’s stead, shall perform the cleansing (כפר), and shall put on the linen garments, the holy garments. 33 And he shall cleanse (כפר) the most holy place, and he shall cleanse (כפר) the tent of meeting and the altar; and he shall cleanse (כפר) the priests and all the people of the assembly. 34 And this shall be an everlasting statute for you, to cleanse (כפר) the children of Israel of all their sins once a year.’ And he did as the LORD commanded Moses.

The purpose of the rituals of Yom Kippur is to cleanse the Nation of Israel and the Mikdash from the Impurity that their sins have caused. While it seems intuitive that Bnei Yisrael would need to be cleansed from their sins, it seems rather arbitrary and strange that the Mikdash and the Altar therein would need to be cleansed from the transgressions of Bnei Yisrael. How are the two connected? Answering this question requires delving into the cultural and historical context of Israel’s Impurity laws in general[2], and the Yom HaKippurim rituals in specific, which reveals the incredible power and importance they attribute to the actions of Bnei Yisrael.

The entering of the Kohen HaGadol to the holy of holies on Yom HaKippurim is closely paralleled by the entrance of the King of Babylonia to the Temple of Marduk on the fifth day of Akitu, accompanied by the high priest[3]. However, as with other such parallels, what is striking is not the large amount of similarities but the differences between the two sets of rituals. The most important difference in these specific rituals is who the rituals are focused on. Once inside the temple, the King would declare, “I have not sinned, O Lord of the universe, and I have not neglected your heavenly might.” The focus is entirely on the King and things he might have done. In stark contrast, the rites of Yom Kippur focus on the people themselves. “And he shall cleanse the priests and all the people of the assembly. And this shall be an everlasting statute for you, to cleanse the children of Israel of all their sins once a year” (Vayikra 16:33b-34a). Where the only person really valued by the Babylonian ritual is the King, the Yom HaKippurim service makes it clear that every member of Bnei Yisrael is important, and thus each and every Israelite must be purified.

Above and beyond the specific rituals of Yom HaKippurim, there are important contrasts between the whole system of Impurity Laws as found in the Torah and those from the surrounding cultures[4]. The various cultures of the Ancient Near East were full of such impurity laws, and they all shared a common purpose of fighting the demonic. In their mythologies, the gods were in constant struggle with demons, who drew their power from Impurity. Therefore any source of impurity, whether a corpse or a body emission or loose hairs and fingernails, aided the demons in their fight against the gods. It was for this reason that impure people were not allowed access to the temple, popularly thought of as the living space of the god, for fear that they would cause impurity therein and make the god of that temple vulnerable to the demons. In a case of a large build-up of Impurity in a temple, the god of that temple could even be driven away, forced out of their own abode. The yearly purification-rituals were intended to cleanse the temple of any impurities that might have developed anyway, and thus strengthen the god.

The Israelite conception of Impurity deviates strongly from this. Instead of focusing on the demonic, the Torah’s purity laws express the great tension between Life and Death, with Impurity resulting from events and processes associated with Death[5]. The most obvious example of this is Tsara’at, which, in addition to being a debilitating disease, causes the afflicted to resemble a corpse. Hence, when Miriam is afflicted with Tsara’at,  Aharon pleads, “Let her not be like a corpse” (Bamidbar 12:12). The Torah sees impurity not as empowering some mythological demonic force, but as an expression of the profound tension between Life and Death. Thus when someone or something is impure and cannot enter the Mikdash, this is a function of sensitivity to the great value of Life.

The laws of Tumah and Taharah, Impurity and Purity, are part of the Torah’s larger emphasis on Life, as seen in the command to the nation to “Choose Life” (Devarim 30:19). Throughout Sefer Devarim there is a profound emphasis placed on the value of Life and on Life as a goal of keeping the Torah. It is due to this emphasis that deliberate transgressions of the Torah create impurity that can be cleansed only by the rituals of Yom HaKippurim[6]. Intentional violations of the covenant between Bnei Yisrael and ‘א create impurity that affects the Mishkan so dramatically that it has to have a special ceremony to remove it, rather than being removed by normal atonement processes.

Where the various cultures of the Ancient Near East saw their gods as threatened by demons, the Torah says that ‘א’s presence is impinged upon by Death, and Man’s hand it it. When we break away from the Torah, we break away from a life-affirming covenant with ‘א, and we push away the presence of the Living God. It is reminiscent of an aphorism of the Kotzker Rebbe. “Where is God? Wherever you let him in.” The Yom HaKippurim rites in the Mikdash reaffirm ‘א’s desire to live amongst His People Israel. However they also make it clear that ‘א has made His being present dependent upon us. We no longer have the Bet HaMikdash, or the Mishkan, but the same is true in our own lives. When we affirm ‘א’s Torah, and when we embrace Life, we invite ‘א into our lives. But when we break away from the Torah we push Him away. Yom HaKippurim is a time when ‘א re-enters our lives, expecting us to have done our part to invite him back in. Throughout the liturgy of Yom HaKippurim, ‘א forgives us even before we do Teshuvah[7]. He returns to us, it is up to us to empty ourselves of the things we have done wrong, and to return to Him.

[1] A step-by-step, in depth, detailing of the ritual is recorded in the mishnayot of Masekhet Yoma.

[2] For those uncomfortable taking such an approach to understanding the mitsvot, I would point out that Rambam applied this approach rather liberally in Moreh Nevukhim, and I would add that archaeology has shown Rambam to be rather correct in doing so.

[3] A little bit on this parallel can be found in this less than excellent Ha’Aretz article. For a  more comprehensive  discussion with far better analysis, see the introduction to J. Milgrom’s commentary on Sefer Vayikra.

[4] For more, see J. Milgrom, “The Rationale for Biblical Impurity.” Additionally, see the introduction to J. Milgrom’s commentary on Sefer Vayikra.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Jewish Study Bible, Vayikra 16:1-34n.

[7] R’ Amnon Bazak.

Parashat Tazria 5774 – “And the Kohen Sees..”

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַנֶּגַע

Parashat Tazria contains the procedural instructions for dealing with occurrences of Tsara’at[1]. The Torah’s description of Tsara’at is a malady that affects the skin with scaly lesions, but that’s about all that is made clear from the text. The symptoms don’t seem to match up with any known dermatological conditions in existence today[2]. This fact, far from being inconvenient, makes perfect sense in terms of the context in which Tsara’at appears in the Torah. Tsara’at in the Torah doesn’t show up in a section about the curing of ailments, rather in the context of Tumah and Taharah. The Torah is not concerned with the medical issue of Tsara’at, rather with the religious implications. The focus in the discussion of Tsara’at is not on the healing of the disease, but on the responsibilities of the Kohen.

The Kohen’s responsibility in a case of Tsara’at essentially amounts to confirming whether or not it is indeed Tsara’at. The blemish is shown to the Kohen and then the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at or not, or isolates the person for a week or two until a determination can be made. When the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at, the person becomes Taamei until their purification can be completed. If the Kohen determines that it is not Tsara’at then the person is Tahor. This seemingly simple process actually depicts one of the most unique characteristics of the Jewish religion.

In most ancient cultures, the priesthood was greatly involved in the medical issues of the community, much like the Kohanim and Tsara’at. However, in other religions the priests were involved in the actual healing process, as opposed to the Kohanim. The Kohanim simply examine the diseased area to determine if the blemish actually is Tsara’at. In other ancient religions the priests would recite incantations and perform rituals to cleanse and cure the affected area, something not found in Judaism. The Kohanim are, in fact, never involved in healing. In Tanakh, that job falls to the “man of god”, the prophet.

Prophets throughout Tanakh heal people from a variety of illnesses. Tsara’at itself is a disease often healed by a prophet[3]. In Bamidbar 12 Miriam is struck with Tsara’at as punishment for speaking ill of Moshe, and is only healed after Moshe prays for her. In Shemot 4:6-7, Moshe causes his hand to become afflicted with, and then healed of, Tsara’at. In II Kings 5, Na’aman is healed of Tsara’at by a procedure he is instructed to perform by the prophet Elisha. These are only some  of the biblical examples of prophets healing people. While both the prophet and the priest are men of God, only the “Man of God” is a healer.

While both serve the religious needs of the people, the Prophet and the Priest have very different roles. The priest is responsible for the continuing routines of the Jewish Religion, for the things that do not change in the service of ‘א. The prophet is a vehicle for change, a fiery response to an untenable norm. The prophet receives prophecy suddenly, while the priest is part of a chain of service starting before him and continuing after. The priest carries out and conveys the timeless will of ‘א that stretches through eternity. The prophet receives and relays the timely will of ‘א that is needed in that second.

This distinction is critical for understanding the assignment of the role of healer to the prophet rather than the priest. The occurrence and curing of Tsara’at is a function of the will of ‘א. While priests fulfill the will of ‘א in a general sense, they cannot compare to the prophets. The unique feature of Israelite prophecy is the status of the prophet as a “messenger  of ‘א”. Thus it is not really the prophet who does the healing, it is ‘א. The prophet merely conveys and out carries out His will.

Judaism today is much more a religion of priests than of prophets. We cannot hear ‘א’s timely will, what He thinks needs to be fixed on a day to day basis. Instead, we cling to the Will of ‘א as given in the Torah, we grab on to the Eternal Word. Instead of ‘א telling us what to do and when, we keep his Halakha and let it guide our lives. The Metsora, the person afflicted with tsara’at, does not go to the Prophet to ask why they have been afflicted; they go to the Kohen to ask what this means for their ability to approach ‘א. So too in the struggles of modern life. There are no prophets today to explain why things happen, and we ought not look for them. Instead, we should take time to examine who we have been, and see who we can be from this point forward.

 [1] This Devar Torah has been Influenced throughout by The Religion of Israel, Y. Kaufmann, and the Anchor Bible Commentary to Vayikra, J. Milgrom.

[2] The problem of identification is  two-fold: Firstly, the symptoms. Psoriasis is close, but it still doesn’t fit perfectly. Secondly, and more importantly, the treatment. There’s no such skin condition that would get noticeably better in just a week or two. (J. Milgrom, Chapter 13, Comment A)

[3] While these cases have been used to explain that Tsara’at is received for sins against Man or sins against God, most of them can really be read either way. (J. Milgrom, Ibid.)