Thursday, July 08, 2004



This week begins the denouement of the story of the Torah. The history of Moshe and the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness for forty years is about to come to an end. The weekly Torah portion, entitled Pinchas, the name of the main character in the opening section, lays out a capsule history of the People of Israel, as well as a comprehensive list of sabbath and holiday observances, complete with the required sacrifices and other offerings.

Many modern people -- Jewish and non -- at least in the West, express revulsion at the notion of sacrifices. Certain Conservative Jewish congregations do not say the "Musaf" prayer on shabbat or holidays, because of its connection to the sacrificaes. The word Musaf, which means "additional" refers to the additional sacrifices that were brought on the sabbath or holidayts. It is a bit odd, as the regular daily prayers are also linked to sacrifices that were brought daily in the Temple. These groups do say the regular shabbat morning prayer, but then, out of protest against animal swacrifice, do not say the musaf. Go figure...

The RamBaM -- Moses Maimonides -- wrote in his "Guide for the Confused" (Hebrew title "Moreh Nevuchim" usually called "Guide for the Perplexed". The Hebrew word is the same as the one commonly pronounced "nebbuch" and means a confused, lost person, someone who can't figure out which way is up.) that the Hebrews had just come out of Egypt after living there for 400 years. During that period, they were exposed to all religions of the world -- except, of course, Judaism, which did not yet exist, as the Torah had not been given. To us, the lost souls wandering in the desert, there was no religion that did not comprise ritual practices, and most practices contained some form of offering and / or animal sacrifice. The Rambam says that, if G-d had told us NOT to sacrifice animals, it would have been as incomprehensible as if G-d were to come to us today and tell us: don't keep kosher, don't put on tefillin, and whatever you do, don't keep shabbat! The Rambam actually agrees that the purpose of all our rituals and practices is to come into a close relationship with G-d -- I believe the Rambam actually states that it is the direct relationship with G-d that is the ideal, and that, in a perfect world, there would be no ritual observance. Still, we are human, and we live in the world of process, a world that is cyclical in nature, a world that is dualistic. We need ritual. We can not survive without it. A Buddhist sage -- I can't remember who, so I unfortunately can not give credit where due -- obsereved that many Westerners balk at the notion of Seeking Refuge in the Buddha. But, he said, we all seek refuge all the time. Many of us seek refuge in drugs, others in money, sex, power, vioilence... seeking refuge is a basic human activity. Why not, then, do it consciously, and do it in a way that will produce benefit, both for the individual seeker of refuge, and for all sentient beings? That's a hard one to argue against!

What does this have to do with Pinchas?

The middle three books of Torah tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, and of forty years of wandering in the desert. Actually, the only narrative covers the first year after the exodus, and the last year -- the fortieth year -- before our wandering ended. The rabbis tell us that, for the intervening 38 years, G-d stopped speaking to Moshe. Our story resumed a couple of weeks ago, at the Parsha (Torah weekly portion) called Hukkat, which begins with the commandment of the Red Heifer. After that mitzvah is given, which enables us to purify ourselves during our wanderings in the desert, G-d leaves off speaking to Moshe and only comes back 38 years later, to tell Moshe that he and Aharon will die without ever entering the Promised Land. Talk about a kick in the head!

In this week's Parshah, Pinchas is given G-d's "Covenant of Peace" and is confirmed as Aharon's successor. Pinchas is the son of Elazar, Aharon's third son and the successor to Aharon as Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Pinchas, who had not yet been born when Aharon and his four sons were inaugurated and anointed as Kohanim -- Priests -- had to be affirmed separately, so that it would be clear that the Kahuna (the Priesthood) would be eternally hereditary. This is more problematic because Pinchas first came to our attention last week for killing a Hebrew man who was having sex publicly with a non-Hebrew woman. His impulsive action for What Is Right, analogous to Moshe's slaying the Egyptian man who was beating a Hebrew slave, brought him into the public eye. The midrash says that Moshe and the Elders wanted to ostracize him for his violent act -- much as Moshe had been forced to flee Egypt after killing the Egyptian man in a spontaneous act. This is when G-d stepped in and announced that Pinchas would inherit the Covenant of Peace. There were different families whose sons became Kohen Gadol -- it alternated between the family of Elazar, Pinchas' father, and Ithamar, who was Elazar's younger brother. Zadok, a descendant of Pinchas, was the Kohen Gadol who anointed David King, and every Kohen Gadol after Zadok was in the direct line of Pinchas.

The Torah has been spinning a theme of G-d's program being brought in small stages down to the earthly level. At the outset, it is not even clear that the Torah exists, much less that it will be given to humans. By this point, now we have learned that Moshe will die, G-d is forcing us to grow up and take responsibility. The mechanisms and structures of leadership, of social justice, of holiness are all being spread further and further down the societal pyramid that is the Hebrew Nation -- that is about to become the Jewish People.

G-d has commanded us to be a National of Priests and a Holy People. In this Parshah, we are given a specific set of instructions -- the entire Torah is a "How To", a "User's Guide to Holiness." Like the animal sacrifices, it is clear from thetext itself that we are meant to outgrow certain immediate practices in the interest of higher spiritual goals. Like the notion of Pinchas killing the couple in the midst of the camp, before the entire people, there are certain practices which, while praiseworthy in the eyes of G-d at the time, are not available to us as remedies. That is the program we have embarked on. As was told to me by Rabbi Dan Shevitz -- whom we know and revere by his rabbinic acronym, the RaDaSh -- Jewish exegesis is not about what DOES the text mean, but about what CAN it mean. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav says: Interpret the text as many different ways as you possibly can. Just don't change the Halachah (the Law).

I have a very hard time calling myself anything. I reject labels. The word "orthodox" means "same thinking". For most of us today, it may be more accurate to say "ortho-prax". I try to keep shabbat, to learn and teach Torah, and to come close to G-d. There is so much in mainstream Orthodoxy that I find troubling. And yet...

To those who have stopped saying Musaf because they abhor animal sacrifice, I say: there is frequently a clash between what we know to be Halachah, and our own sensibility. Intellectually, spiritually, and in terms of personal emotional development and self-awareness, it is more fruitful to struggle with the inconsistencies that arise from the complexity of being human, than to dispense with Thngs We Don't Like. Judaism CAN mean so many things, has so much profound spiritual, social, intellectual and personal wisdom and wealth that is all there for the taking. Why would we subtract from the base? Rather, let us add to it our own personal struggle.

-- yours for a better world

moshe silver