Tetzave 97 -- Altars in the Judaic Tradition
Altars are found in many, many places where ancient men lived. In the Middle East, the cradle of civilization and the birth place of Judeo-Christianity, they abound everywhere and date back to the beginning of civilization. Indeed, who is to say that civilization did not begin around an altar somewhere. Many years ago I read an anthropological account suggesting that society was brought together by fear. Primitive man was afraid of his environment. Fear drove him to observe his environment, to seek to find a pattern in the circumstances around him. He noticed that day follows night follows day, that hot days are followed by cold days, that the trees shed leaves and it time get new leaves. In time he came to know and feel comfortable with his predictable, cyclical experiences -- but he still feared wild animals, earth quakes, floods and lightening and many other events that existed in his natural environment but were rather spontaneous, and did not follow a routine -- and therefore were not predictable. Man lived alone because he did not have the most rudimentary social graces. He lived by his wits and by his raw strength. He trusted no one, especially no other humans who were at least as smart as, and possibly more powerful than, himself. Men banded together because they somehow got the idea that they can be protected -- by something, not by one another, since they didn't yet learn to trust one another. This something was a belief in some supernatural power. Thus, we can build a hypothetical model of "the first human to discover religion," who noticed that he behaved in a certain specific manner when he was not harmed by a beast or by lighting (while some other humans were), and thereafter repeated this behavior in the belief that it will help him to avoid harm. Now if he succeeded in staying out of harm's way, and if his "peculiar" behavior was observed by others, who recognized this as a "ritualistic" behavior, possibly something such as offering a gift to a power he believed to be protecting him from "supernatural" harm possibly "place" related (such as a tree or a large rock), the others would want to join him under the umbrella of this "protection." He would be free of supernatural harm for no particular reason, of course but you could not convince him or his followers of it. We call this kind of ritual superstitious behavior. However, that man would have become the first "priest" his superstition the first religion, and his followers the first society.
There are many names for that place where the hypothetical offering was made: altar, mound, platform, reliquary, sacrificial table, sanctum, and shrine. The term "altar" comes from old English, possibly also related to a Latin word ADOLARE that means to burn up. In the Hebrew tradition, which is our roots, the word is MIZBEAKH - and its root is ZAVAKH, which means slaughter, as in a sacrifice. In Genesis 22 we read of Abraham binding his son on the altar and getting ready to perform the slaughter with his knife when he is stopped by the Lord. However, most often we read of the altar as being the place where the animal that has been slaughtered and dressed is actually either burned to ashes or parts of its carcass is burned while the rest is cooked for a meal for the priests, the Levites and the person who made the offering. It is interesting to note and important to keep in mind that an altar, in the Hebrew tradition, was not strictly the place of the slaughter or the burning of the sacrifice animal (or its parts), but could also be a "table" where grain offerings, wine offerings, and bread offerings could be placed before God. It could also have been the place, a pedestal, where the incense offering would be made. Finally, we need must keep in mind that altar also had non-sacrificial functions, such as testimony and sanctuary. In fact, the account of the "first" offering does not speak of where the offering was made. In Genesis 4:3,4 we read, " And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat of it."
Altars, in the Hebrew Scriptures, were constructed of earth, stone, wood and/or metal. With all the archeological work going on in the holy land in recent decades, many stone altar have been found, some predating the Judaic tradition, such as the altars found in Gezer, Megiddo, and Arad. Also in the Sinai, Nabatian altars were found predating the Hebrew tradition. No earth altars have been discovered, probably because of the fact that they were so susceptible to the ravages of time, weather, and beast. However, Exodus, 20:21, specifically orders building earth altars: "An altar of earth you shall make to me, and shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings, and your peace offerings, your sheep, and your oxen; in all places where I cause my name to be pronounced I will come to you, and I will bless you."
The first record of an altar being built, in the Torah, is in Genesis 8:20 -- predating the beginning of the Jewish tradition. It reads, "And Noah built an altar to the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar." This was, indeed, a sacrificial altar. Next we come upon the different kind of altar, a place of witnessing for God. This is the beginning of the Abrahamic tradition. Genesis 12:7-8, "And the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, To your seed will I give this land; and there he built an altar to the Lord, who appeared to him. And he moved from there to a mountain in the east of Beth-El, and pitched his tent, having Beth-El on the west, and Hai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord."
The Abrahamic tradition continued with his son, Isaac, as we read in Genesis 26:24,25 "And the Lord appeared to him the same night, and said, I am the God of Abraham your father; fear not, for I am with you, and will bless you, and multiply your seed for my servant Abrahams sake. And he built an altar there, and called upon the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there; and there Isaacs servants dug a well." And in Genesis 33:19,20 "And he bought a parcel of a field, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechems father, for a hundred pieces of money. And he erected there an altar, and called it El-Elohe-Israel [meaning Lord God of Israel]." This altar was more a monument than an altar, altogether.
In Exodus 17:15,16 we read, "And Moses built an altar, and called its name Adonai-Nissi; For he said, Because the Lord has sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." This, also, would have been a monument, a memorial.
In Exodus 24:4-6 we read for the first time in the Hebraic tradition of an offering that was consecrated on an altar: "And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basins; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar."
The first place of Jewish worship was the Tabernacle, built in the Sinai desert by Moses after Gods specific instructions. Ask any expert what was the core, the essence of the Tabernacle built by the Israelites in the desert and Ill bet you that ninety nine out of a hundred will say that it was the altar, the place where the sacrifices were offered to God. But, if you consider the order in which things are mentioned to be an indication of what is essential and what is secondary, consider the text in Exodus 25:8-11 "And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it. And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, within and without shalt thou overlay it, and shalt make upon it a crown of gold round about." So the Hebrew scriptures tell us to build an ark, describing the measurements and construction of this ark in great detail. A close examination of the text makes it clear that this "ark" was not a cabinet or closet, but rather a big box, as the Ark had no legs. This ark was called "the Holy Ark" or "The Ark of Witness" and is the same item that became such a big hit with Steven Spielbergs film, "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Now, to be sure, there was also an altar in the Tabernacle in fact there was more than one of them, as we read in Exodus 27:1-8, " And you shall make an altar of shittim wood, five cubits long, and five cubits broad; the altar shall be square; and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make it horns upon its four corners; its horns shall be of the same; and you shall overlay it with bronze. And you shall make pans to receive its ashes, and its shovels, and its basins, and its forks, and its firepans; all its utensils you shall make of bronze." And in Exodus 30:1-6, we read about another altar, one that was not for animal sacrifices: "And you shall make an altar to burn incense upon; of shittim wood shall you make it. A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth; square shall it be; and two cubits shall be its height; its horns shall be of the same. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, its top, and the sides around it, and its horns; and you shall make for it around a rim of gold. And two golden rings shall you make for it under its rim, by its two corners, upon its two sides shall you make it; and they shall be holders for the carrying poles. And you shall make the poles of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold. And you shall put it before the veil that is by the ark of the Testimony, before the covering that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you."
Joshua (8:30) built an altar to the Lord, as did Gideon, King Saul, and many others. Only the priests were commissioned to offer sacrifices on the altar, but, of course, this rule, like so many others, was not always obeyed. King Solomon built the first Temple of God in Jerusalem, and that became the permanent place of the Altar of the God of the Hebrews.
In this week's portion from the Torah we read of the consecration of Aaron, Moshe's brother, and Aaron's four sons, as the priests in the Tabernacle. We have a full description of their vestments and the ritual they were to follow. We read towards the end of the portion, "This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord; where I will meet you, to speak there to you. And there I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. And I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting, and the altar; I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons, to minister to me in the priests office. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God." [Ex.29:42-45] It is not the altar of God that is holy and important, and it is not Aaron and his seed that consecrate Israel as a special people. Rather, and for all time, it is the fact that "veshakhanti btokh beney Yisrael vha'yiti lahem l'elohim -- and I shall dwell in the midst of the children of Yisrael, and I shall be for them The Lord." May His presence never depart from amongst us, and may we never forget that He IS our God, our Father, our Ever-present Redeemer. Amen
Tetzave 5758 -- Shabbat Zakhor
This Shabbat we are reading from two Torah scrolls, in one we read from Shmot, Exodus 27:20 to 30:10, and in the other we read from Dvarim, 25:17-19. The first reading deals with the consecration of the cohanim, the priests of the Jewish people -- a small band of people who were anointed, set apart and dedicated to the service of God for the People of Israel; the second reading deals with the need to eradicate evil -- to remove for all times the intractable enemy. "Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt, how he met you along the way and attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall come about when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget." How do we relate this passage to the role of the cohanim?
I would like to suggest to you that there is a connection -- and that the connection is the character of different people, from their birth -- and maybe even before their birth -- and from their upbringing, to their nature and their character. The Amalek were a people who lived on the edge of society, scavengers and outcasts. There is no "land of Amalek" in the Torah or in ancient history. No relics of Amalekite civilization has been unearthed. I believe that the term is a generic for a human type, a type that has existed in different times in different lands: despoilers and destroyers, a people who live by the sword and perish by the sword. Such people were Babylonians and Summerians, Greeks and Romans, Tartars and Huns. They came, they saw, and they plundered. Their society was marked by militarism, brutality and a total lack of compassion. The last of the Amalekites are still around -- neo-nazis, mullahs, Pot-Pohl in Cambodia, Id Amin Dada in Uganda, the colonels in Argentina and Saadam Hussien in Iraq -- all of them conducting the affairs of state as a cult of death and destruction.
And on the other hand you have the tradition of Judaism, the first monotheistic society that was founded on the ideals of love, truth, mercy, and compassion. Where a despot rules in secret, in Judaism everything is open and above board. It is interesting to note how the priesthood was to be upright and honest. Even their vestments, whose makeup we read about this week, are made so as to keep the cleric available and observable by the people at large. Listen to this: "And you shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. And there shall be an opening at its top in the middle of it; around its opening there shall be a binding of woven work, as it were the opening of a coat of mail, that it may not be torn. And you shall make on its hem pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet material, all around on its hem, and bells of gold between them all around: A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around on the hem of the robe. And it shall be on Aaron when he ministers; and its tinkling may be heard when he enters and leaves the holy place before the Lord, that he may not die." [Ex. 28:31-35] Commentary explains that there were 72 pomegranates and bells of gold -- and these bells would make a sound like that of gentle wind chimes, calling the people in the outer court to take heed of the fact that the priestly activity is at hand, and that they must concentrate their own devotion to the service of God, responding as we read in the Avodah section of the Yom Kippur liturgy, "Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le'olam va'ed" -- Blessed be His glorious kingship forever and ever.
Recognizing God's sovereignty and witnessing to it, the entire congregation was motivated to resolve and determine to live by His teachings, to follow in His path, and to aspire to His nearness by emulating his qualities, trying to be like Him. Thus, both in ancient times and today, we confirm the Image of God in which humanity was fashioned -- a humanity that is completely the opposite of the character and nature of the Amalekites. Thus, humanity is the path of life, and Judaism is a teaching of holiness and priesthood of an entire people in line with the teaching in the Torah that instructed Israel to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." [Ex. 19:6] May we be ever mindful of our role and of our task. Amen
SHABBAT ZAKHOR -- PARASHAT TZAVEH 5759
This is a special Shabbat, one of four special Shabbatot that herald the arrival of "the month of Spring," Nisan, the Time of our Freedom. This Shabbat we shall read in the Torah, "You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly. In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is before the covenant, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a perpetual ordinance to be observed throughout their generations by the Israelites." [Ex. 27:20] Next the Torah speaks of the investment of the priests with special clothing that will mark their official standing. These items of clothing are known as "vestments" -- note the relation of this word to the process of making Aaron and his sons the official priests, cohanim, for the Children of Israel -- their 'investment.' It is not surprising to learn that the matter of their vestments takes more than half of this week's portion, being mentioned last in chapter 29, verse 20, "The sacred vestments of Aaron shall be passed on to his sons after him; they shall be anointed in them and ordained in them. The son who is priest in his place shall wear them seven days, when he comes into the tent of meeting to minister in the holy place." So, the purpose of the first two verses we read this week is to 'shed light' -- to remind us that we need to have things "in the sunshine" at all times. Once in the open, the Torah tells us to recognize authority -- the priesthood, by giving it special "trappings" of office -- a "uniform."
Judaism was aware, long ago, that clothing does not make the man -- it is the man who brings honor to the clothing. The Hebrew for uniform is "madim" or "bigdey srad." "Madim" is plural for "mad," which means 'measure' -- and the cloths then become the measure of the person wearing them -- or vice versa. "Bigdey srad" is a two word term, the first, meaning clothes, and the second having no meaning beside this word. Some sages comment that it means "multicolored," -- since the description of the vestment speaks of a dark cloth with red and blue running through it. Others suggest that the word is an acronym, 'sin,' for simkha, 'resh,' for ra'a'ya, and 'dalet,' for d'vekut. Simkha is joy -- for we must have joy to serve God. Ra'a'ya comes from the verb "ra'ah," meaning seeing. Ra'a'ya means visage, how we look or what our appearance is like. There is a concept in Judaism that is called "kvod hamakom" -- the honor of the place, or the presence of God. Ra'aya teaches us that there needs to have a respectability of vision when one is before God -- and that we must look at the world as we want to be seen. That is the meaning of Ra'a'ya. "D'vekut" is devotion -- it comes from the root to adhere or become attached. One who serves with no conviction is not a true follower, and certainly cannot inspire others. One who has conviction and is willing to act upon his conviction is capable of transmitting his conviction to others -- and therefore he is a good candidate for leadership.
This Shabbat bears its own special name, Shabbat Zakhor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. It always falls on the Shabbat before Purim and is marked in the synagogue by the reading of a short passage from the book of Deuteronomy which begins with the word "Zakhor," remember -- and ends with "al tisakakh," do not forget! [Deut. 25:17-19] The text implores Israel, once settled in the promised land, to eradicate every trace of its archenemy Amalek, from whom Haman is descended, and hence the choice of this passage before Purim. Much of Judaism consists of remembering and transmitting the record of Gods intervention, the experiences of national degradation, national achievement and the treasures of revelation. Mosess parting words to Israel fix the pattern: "Remember the days of old. Consider the years of ages past; ask your father. He will inform you, your elders. They will tell you." [Deut. 32:7] History, and not a particular place, is the arena in which Israel witnesses the awesome presence of God. And, therefore, we treasure a shared past, forever retold, which defines the character of the people. So this week's portion teaches us about honor, about truth, and about service -- which must be recognized and applauded -- and about evil, base and devoid of reason, which must be eradicated.
We remember the past through events, such as God's resting on the seventh day and hallowing it; such as the exodus from Egypt and the experience at Sinai. We also remember our past through the vestments, the cloths of the officials, the priests in the Temple. The white cloth that is used on the high holidays for the lectern covers, the Torah covers, and the robes used by the officiants -- are all a remembrance of "bigdey srad" -- of the clothing of Simkha, Ra'a'ya and D'vekut. Let us always remember to keep our visage, the way we look, in the spirit of our Torah lessons of joy, presence and great conviction. Further, let us remember "Amalek," and purge evil from within and without. Amen
This shabbat we read in the Torah Exodus 27:20 to 30:10 beginning with "You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly. In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is before the covenant, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a perpetual ordinance to be observed throughout their generations by the Israelites." [Ex. 27:20,21] Reading this passage we learn of the need to have the "eternal light" lamp burn on in the Tabernacle, the place of Jewish worship build by the Israelites in the desert, and the role of Aaron and his sons as those who officiate. If we read something into the text, and suspect that maybe they didn't have sufficient oil for the lamp -- we come up with the first Middle East Oil Crisis!
The text continues with, "And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother for glory and for beauty. And you shall speak to all who are wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aarons garments to consecrate him, that he may minister to me in the priests office. And these are the garments which they shall make; a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, and an embroidered coat, a mitre, and a girdle; and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, and his sons, that he may minister to me in the priests office. And they shall take gold, and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen. And they shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, and of purple, of scarlet, and fine twined linen, with skilful work. [the text continues on for thirty one more verses and concludes] And you shall make a plate of pure gold, and engrave upon it, like the engravings of a signet, "Holiness to the Lord". And you shall put it on a blue lace, that it may be upon the mitre; upon the front of the mitre it shall be. And it shall be upon Aarons forehead, that Aaron may bear any guilt incurred in the holy offering, which the people of Israel hallow in all their holy gifts; and it shall be always upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord. And you shall embroider the coat of fine linen, and you shall make the mitre of fine linen, and you shall make the girdle of needlework. And for Aarons sons you shall make coats, and you shall make for them girdles, and turbans shall you make for them, for glory and for beauty." [Ex. 28:2-5 36-40]
Try to envision in your minds eyes Aaron, the High Priest, wearing the vestments of his office, clothing with interwoven gold threads. A gold front piece hung on his forehead, suspended by threads of royal blue. He wore a breast plate that was adorned with twelve precious jewels. Can you see it? I can, and my first reaction is, "heavy!"
The Torah text above concludes with the words, "for glory and for beauty" - strangly, the same words with which this passage began thirty some verses ago, "And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother for glory and for beauty." Why do we have this lesson transmitted to us in the beginning and the end of the instructions for the making of the vestments?
The sages ask, "does God need pomp and pageantry, extravagance and splendor?" Of course, you know that they ask because they already have an answer for us. They answer their question at once with a resounding "no!" They point out that Moshe was Gods choice for His priest, that is to say for the one who will serve Him by hearing His words and transmitting them faithfully to His people. But the people ah well, the people are a different matter. They love Moshe when he delivers, and they hate him when he demands. They love him when they are down and hate him when they are up. Oh, yes, they also hate him when they are down, blaming him for being down. He is just too different for them all business and no fun... The people want the glitz and razmataz of a Hollywood production. No wonder so many of us have made it in that business!
For these people, "amkha yisrael" you need the glory and the beauty to keep their interest, to keep them coming to the place where God is worshiped. Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, in teaching about the purpose of prayer, said that prayer may not necessarily bring you salvation but it will make you worthy of salvation. The vestments of the priest, like the beauty of the great synagogues and the ornaments of the Torah, are mere fly paper to grab us and keep our interest, while the Torah imbues us (seemingly against our inclination) with its holiness, teaching us a way of life that is directed by God, for glory and for beauty. His glory and our beauty, or maybe vice-versa. Either way, we win. Either way, we come out ahead. Hallelujah! May we be privileged to so live, to render Him homage and to bask in His eminence always.
This weeks reading in the Torah, the portion called Tetzaveh, is from Exodus 27:20 to 30:10. This is quite strange - we start two verses before the end of one chapter, and we end 10 verses into a fourth chapter. And heres something else strange: the two verses at the beginning of the portion are not on the same subject of the next chapter, which deals with the vestments of Aharon and his sons and their consecration as priests. As Im sure youll have concluded by now - the last ten verses dont finish the subject of the last chapter but rather they are on a "new" subject.
The first two verse read, "And you shall command the people of Israel, that they bring you pure beaten oil olive for the light, for the lamp to burn always. In the Tent of Meeting outside the veil, which is before the Testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the Lord; it shall be a statute forever to their generations on behalf of the people of Israel." [Ex. 27:20,21] The verses from chapter 30 deal with the altar, "And you shall make an altar to burn incense upon; of shittim wood shall you make it... And Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he dresses the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at evening, he shall burn incense upon it, an everlasting incense before the Lord throughout your generations. You shall offer no strange incense on it, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meal offering; nor shall you pour drink offering on it. And Aaron shall make an atonement upon its horns once a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonements; once a year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations; it is most holy to the Lord." [Ex. 30-1...7-10] So we start with the lighting of the Eternal Light, and we end with the incense altar which shall give off a fine fragrance while the light is attended to.
You see, there is something open and lit up about the work of the Cohen, the priest who serves in holiness. There is also something very special and unknown about the Cohanim, just as there is with the events of Purim, which we celebrate this Shabbat - well, actually it was on Friday for most mortals, but in Jerusalem, and other great, walled cities, they have "Shushan Purim" on the next day. Do I have your attention? Are you on the edge of your seat, asking, "what is he talking about?" Have no fear. I am about to inform you about the whole thing.
I have often wandered why the Purim book is called "Megilat Esther," when the "hero" of the events, on the face of it, it would seem, is Mordekhaŭ. After all, he is the one who raised Esther, the little orphan. It was he who saved the king from the conspiracy of Bigtan and Teresh. It was also he who went to Esther and informed her, "that she should go to the king, to make supplication to him, and entreat him for her people." [Esther 4:8] Esther was not keen on his idea, saying, "I have not been called to come to the king these thirty days." [Esther 4:11] Mordekhay had to get a little tough with her, saying, "Think not yourself that in the kings palace you shall escape, any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but you and your fathers house shall be destroyed. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" [Esther 4:13,14]
This is where Esther assumes the mantle of brave rescuer of her people. Esther recognizes that Haman is much too powerful and dangerous to challenge directly. She recognizes that she will have to entrap him, and in all probability she also made a deal with Harvonah, a small time servant of the king, to ignite the kings wrath when the moment seemed right to him. She did not come to the king to ask for a favor, putting herself at a disadvantage, but rather to invite the king and his "favored" minister to a private party, putting herself in the advantageous position of having the two men obliged to return favor for favor. She knew well that she did not have the political advantage at the first party, and so she bade her time and waited for the second party.
Time was working against Esther, and at the second party she made the dire accusation: someone is trying to harm her personally, as well as all her kin - her extended family. The king is challenged, and is enraged when his new queen indicts his minister. However, note: he does not immediately demand the ministers arrest. He merely leaves the room to cool down, to get a level head before making his mind up on the course of action he should take. To this point, Haman has the advantage. He is a trusted friend and co-player in the game of statecraft. He has been a servant for years, while Esther is a recent "acquisition." Had he remained calm and waited to reason with the king upon his return from the garden - his plans would have proceeded as they had been prepared, and Esther would have lost her hand.
This, I suppose, is where we put our trust in God, who created imperfection in mankind. Haman was unsure of himself. He made a number of errors. He remained behind with Esther, and he sought to plead his case, begging Esthers pardon. He fell to his knees and was in that position when the king reappeared, observed the scene and jumped to the conclusion that Haman was making a move on his new queen. In rage is exclaimed, "Will he also force the queen with me present in the house?" [Esther 7:8] Putting two and two together, the king reached the wrong conclusion, as Esther would have wanted to do. She now smiled to Harvonah, "And Harvonah, one of the eunuchs, said before the king, Behold also, the gallows fifty cubits high, which Haman had made for Mordecai, who had spoken good for the king, stands in the house of Haman. Then the king said, Hang him on it." [Esther 7:8,9] The game was played, the lot was cast, and the kings consort won the day. Esther earned her place in history and in the titles of the most important Books of all times. Thus, with courage and craft, with guile and divine guidance, the People of the covenant were saved and the corruptor, Haman, was out played at his own game. The accuser stood accused, and the gallows he prepared served for his own execution. What more can we say that has not been stated in our Tanakh?" "Ken Yovdu kol oyvekha, Adonay - veohavav ketzet hashemesh bitehilato! So let all your enemies perish, O Lord; but let those who love him be as the sun when he goes forth in his might." [Judges 5:31]
Tetzave - Zakhor 5762
is a special Shabbat - one on which we read from two Torah scrolls. In the first
one we read the sequential portion for this week: Shmot, Exodus 27:20 to 30:10.
In the other we read from Dvarim, Deuteronomy, 25:17-19. The first reading deals
with the consecration of the cohanim, the priests of the Jewish people. The
second reading deals with the need to eradicate evil, and relates to the coming
festival of Purim, when Haman's plot to annihilate the Jews failed because of
Queen Ester and her uncle, Mordekha'y. Listen to the words of the Torah: "Remember
what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt, how he met
you along the way and attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when
you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall come about
when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies,
in the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance to possess,
you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget."
This is harsh language - remove for all times the intractable, pernicious, insidious
How do we relate the consecration of the priests to the annihilation of Amalek? We can see Cohanim and Amalek as opposing poles - positive and negative forces. One does the bidding of God, the other desecrates the image of God in which we are created. Cohanim served the people and brought them close to God. The Amalek were a people who lived on the edge of society, scavengers and outcasts. There has never been a "land of Amalek" - either in the Torah or in the history of ancient civilizations. No relics of Amalekite civilization has been unearthed. I believe that the term is a generic name for a human type, one that has existed in different times in different lands: despoilers and destroyers, a people who live by the sword and perish by the sword. Such people were Babylonians and Summerians, Greeks and Romans, Tartars and Huns. They came, they saw, and they plundered. Their society was marked by militarism, brutality and a total lack of compassion. The last of the Amalekites are still around -- neo-nazis, skin-heads, white supremacists, Saadam Hussien in Iraq and Basheer Assad in Syria (and their regimes, to be sure) - the Ayatollahs of Iran and Bin Laden and his sheikhs and mullahs, -- all of them conducting the affairs of state as a cult of death and destruction. The coin of the cohanim is tenderness - and that of Amalek is terror. What we learn from the short but definitive and decisive Torah text is that when confronted with Amalek - there is no room for tenderness, affection or pity. The Torah, this fountainhead of compassion, sympathy and pathos, does not mince its words, ordaining and enacting a definite policy: "you shall blot out the memory" of this pernicious negative force. There are no "extenuating circumstances," as we learn in the special "haftarah" reading from the prophet, telling us that the old Seer, Samuel, a man of peace and compassion who had never before held a sword in his hand, was driven by the zeal of God to avenge the evil done by Agag, king of Amalek: "And Samuel said, As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women. And Samuel cut Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal." [Samuel 15:33]
The face of "Amalek" has changed, but the character remains the same. For ages the term was reserved for nations, or coalitions of nations, whose armies attacked peace-loving peoples whom they attempted to subjugate. In the last few decades, however, political scientists and military analysts have begun to take note of conflicts between actors (which I call "Amalek"), non-state terrorist groups (sponsored and financed by nations that claim to have no quarrel with anyone) and peace-loving nations that are trying to preserve the welfare of their citizens.
The most obvious and recent example of such "Amalek" is Bin Laden's terrorist organization, al-Qaida - the "trigger" of our President's declaration of "War against Terrorism." Before that, there have been a series of such "Amalek attacks," including Israel's war against Hizbullah in Lebanon, the war in Chechnia, the war in the former Yugoslavia, the Gulf war and the Kosovo war. Until the attack on the U.S. on September 11, it was always suggested by observers of the conflict between the nations and the terrorists that the nations are, somehow, at fault. It was axiomatic that size was an indication of evil intention. The "smaller" group was taken for victim, the "larger" for bully.
There is only one problem with this view: it is totally wrong! A close examination will make it quite clear that the terrorists are not a little "ant" pitted against the giant "ant-eater" - rather they are the visible tip of the humongous iceberg like the one that attacked and destroyed the "unsinkable" Titanic. The new Amalek has one distinguishing character, namely, "Radical Islamism." It is a most dangerous and virulent mutation of Islam.
Radical Islamism is a totalitarian movement aimed at establishing its hegemony worldwide. Its policy would (1) divide humanity into two groups: those defined as "righteous Moslems" and those defined as "infidels;" (2) legitimize and extend human rights abuses including slavery on a massive scale; (3) support religious wars against non-Islamist Moslems and non-Moslem "infidels" worldwide; (4) establish a fundamentalist regime similar to that of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Sudan, to disenfranchise, subjugate and control men women and "infidels" by an autocratic elite of clerics and power-brokers - and (5) employ a global economic resource (oil) as a weapon against non-Islamist and "moderate" Moslem nations in the service of its goals.
We must never forget these irrefutable historical facts of Radical Islamism:
(1) Radical Islamists seek to establish the supremacy of their version of Islam over all other faiths through "Global Jihad" - holy war.
(2) Radical Islamists subscribe to an anachronistic and widely discredited version of Islam, which is a universal, monotheistic faith, the source of inspiration to hundreds of millions of Moslems worldwide.
(3) Radical Islamism confers an inferior status to "the People of the Book" - Jews and Christians, called "Dhimmi." All non-Moslems are considered inferior.
(4)Radical Islamism sanctions war, terror, and deceit to achieve its goals.
(5) Radical Islamists totally ignore the concept of basic Human Rights.
In the areas under their control they write revisionist histories of their actions, denying the identity and history of the nations they have subjugated and burying the evidence of the Jihad that they waged against native peoples. In the West, they fund educational programs aimed at erasing their crimes from history. Radical Islamists are penetrating the public educational systems in Moslem lands, to impose their view on their victims' world - with the unwitting assistance of their victims. In this way, they obliterate the footprints of their predecessors, and prepare for their takeover of power, by violent and racist means, to assume absolute rule, decreed by their beliefs.
We need to be aware of who this enemy, who wishes to see us eradicated, is. We need to prepare for the life or death struggle - and we must prevail. For we are the nation of Cohanim, loving peace and pursuing it - and obliterating the Amalek forever - for the good of the rest of humanity. Amen
This shabbat we
read in the Torah the portion called Tetzave, which is found in Sh'mot - Exodus
- 27:20 to 30:10. The text begins with "You shall further command the Israelites
to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be
set up to burn regularly. In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is
before the covenant, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning
before the Lord. It shall be a perpetual ordinance to be observed throughout
their generations by the Israelites." [Ex. 27:20,21]
It is interesting to note that beginning with last week's portion, the remainder of the book of Sh'mot is given over almost exclusively to the details of the building of the Tabernacle. "The dwelling place of the Lord," is how it was called - Mishkan, in Hebrew, relating to the word "shekhinah" which is "the presence of God," His being with us in space as well as in time. The details of the construction of the mishkan make it quite obvious that there was emphasis on the vessels and appointments inside the tent while from the outside it was "just a tent."
Every morning, a Jew recites these passages: "Elu devarim she'eyn la'hem she'ur These are the deed for which there is no prescribed measure: Leaving crops at the corner of a field for the poor, offering first Fruits as a gift to the Temple, bringing special offering to the Temple on the three Festivals, doing deeds of lovingkindness, And studying Torah." [Mishna Peah 1:1] We go on to read from the Talmud, "These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit and continue to Yield fruit in time to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of Lovingkindness; attending the house of study punctually, Morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; Helping the needy bride; attending the dead; probing the Meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and Another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all." [Talmud, Shabbat 127a]
The sages asked, if you look at the list of mitzvot that the Mishna teaches us are "without measure" tzedakah, avodah, and gemilut khasadim (deeds of lovingkindness) how can you compare those to studying Torah? Just sitting and learning Torah many might say it is a waste of time... And when the Talmud goes the extra step and speaks of mitzvot that give double dividends here in this world and in the world to come honoring parents; doing deeds of Lovingkindness; attending the house of study punctually, Morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; Helping the needy bride; attending the dead; probing the Meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and Another, and between husband and wife we can well ask, how can they end with "Vetalmud Torah keneged Kulam And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all?"
A story is told of a Marine who was the sole survivor of a transport ship torpedoed in the Pacific during World War Two. He lived alone on a small atoll for a number of years before the Navy found him and brought him back to civilization. Before leaving "his Island," he gave his rescuers a grand tour of his domain. He showed them the hut he build to live in, the contraption he rigged to save rain water, his little vegetable garden and his hoard of coconuts. Surveying the view from his hut, one of the rescuers noticed a second hut a little ways off among the trees. Queried about the nature of this second hut, the marine explained, "Why, that's my synagogue..." And when asked about yet another, much less impressive lean-to a ways off by the beach, he explained, "Oh, that's the old synagogue... You'll never catch me in that place!" Some call this attitude an "edifice complex..." No tent would have please him, for sure!
Another story is told, this time about a Jew, named Kalba Savu'a, who lived in the days after the destruction of the second temple. He was a rich farmer and had many workers on his farm. One of them was called Akiba. The rich farmer's daughter, Rakhel, saw Akiba tending the sheep. He was so patient and loving, and took such care to keep the herd from harm. Rakhel thought, "such a man would make a good shepherd to the People Israel." Akiba was illiterate he did not know an Aleph from a Tav. Rakhel offered to marry him if he would go and study Torah. Her father thought she was attracted to him for his ruddy complexion, and forbade the marriage. When she married in spite of his edict, he sent her away and vowed to strike her out of his will.
Meanwhile, Akiba learned to read, and studied Torah and became accomplished in Mishna and became a master of disputation and decision on matters small and great about the Jewish way of life, Halakhah. Rakhel lived alone and awaited his return in abject poverty, earning a meager living as a wash-woman. After many years, Akiba returned one day with hundreds of disciples and students to the town where his wife and the rich farmer lived. Kalba Savu'a was old and lonely, and he wanted to renew his relation with his daughter. He came to "the great sage" to get an opinion: could he break his vow and take back his daughter. He told his tale to Akiba, and when he was done Akiba asked him: "Did you expel her out of malice?" "No," replied the unfortunate father, "I chased her out because she cared more for a swarthy shepherd than for honoring her father..."
"Well, then," replied the sage, "your vow is nullified. You were not aware that your daughter married for Torah." The father looked puzzled and surprised. Akiba continued, "Rakhel, your daughter, married me, the shepherd Akiba, on condition that I learn Torah. I am what I am today because of her. She is the light by which my Torah was gotten. I owe her my Torah, and you owe her an apology..." Akiba and Kalba Savu'a fell into each other's arms, and with tears of joy they joined Rakhel in praising God. The sages explain that for her deed, King Solomon coined the verse, "Sheker hakhen vhevel ha'yofi isha yir'at adona'y hi tithalal Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman who reveres the Lord shall be praised." [Proverbs 31:30]
And so we see that the appearance of Tabernacle from the outside was not an issue, and that inside the mishkan a light burned, spreading warmth and enlightenment to all who came in, teaching "honoring parents; doing deeds of Lovingkindness; attending the house of study punctually, Morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; Helping the needy bride; attending the dead; probing the Meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and Another, and between husband and wife." These teachings are as pure and valuable as the pure oil that was commanded to fuel the menorah in the mishkan. May we never forget them, and may they enrich and enlighten our path forever.
This Shabbat we
are reading from two Torah scrolls, in one we read the sequential portion of
Tetzaveh, from Shmot, Exodus 27:20 to 30:10, and in the other we read from Dvarim,
25:17-19. The first reading deals with the consecration of the cohanim, the
priests of the Jewish people -- a small band of people who were anointed, set
apart and dedicated to the service of God for the People of Israel. The reason
we read from the second scroll is because we are coming on the holiday of Purim,
which celebrates the escape of the Jews in the Persian empire from an edict
of annuhilation at the hand of a rabid Anti-Semite, Haman the Agagite. The second
reading deals with the need to eradicate evil -- to remove for all times the
intractable enemy. "Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when
you came out from Egypt, how he met you along the way and attacked among you
all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary; and he did not
fear God. Therefore it shall come about when the Lord your God has given you
rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land which the Lord your God
gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek
from under heaven; you must not forget." [Deuteronomy 25:17-19]
We also read a special haftarah on this Shabbat, from I Samuel, chapter 15, verses 2 to 34. It is the story of the Seer, Samuel, instructing King Saul, first king of Israel, to fulfill the command of God concerning the Amalek. Saul fails to follow to the letter God's command, and Samuel is left no choice but to kill the Amalekite king, Agag (kin to Haman), and inform Saul that God will take his blessing from him and anoint another to rule over Israel.
Many scholars and theologians are perplexed by the severity of God's decree concerning the Amalekites, and His turning away from the king of Israel that He has chosen for them. In fact, they point out this instance to show that the God of Israel is a cruel and vindictive God without any measure of pity or mercy. However, this judgement of the Almighty is rather quick to come by and shows a desire to judge in haste.
This is something that God does not do!
In the Torah, and later in Jewish history, Judaism had to face many enemies. It started with the Egyptians, was followed by the Medianites, the Edomites, the Amonites, the Philistines, the Ashurites, the Babylonians, the Samaritans, and that's before we got tangled with the Greeks and the Romans. Yet, we were not commanded the hate all those "enemies," and in some cases, such as the Egyptians, we are specifically told not to keep a grudge against them, "You shall not loathe an Edomite; for he is your brother; you shall not loathe an Egyptian; because you were a stranger in his land." [Ibid. 23:8] So God is really full of mercy and loving kindness. And if that is so, why the edict of annihilation of the Amalekites? And why judge Saul so harshly?
One may say that God was much more aware than the Israelites of human nature. He recognized that "the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" [Genesis 8:21] - but that only means that man needs to be taught right from wrong. However, God also recognized what few humans are willing to concede: that some humans are evil to the core, and there is no chance to change their minds or hearts. You might call these people "professional haters," or "core anti-Semites." These people are the "Hamans/Hitlers" of history.
Haman wishes to eradicate the Jews because one single Jew refused to bow as he passed by him. He is willing to go to any trouble, any expense, to fulfill his evil inclination. The Megillah tells us of his pleading with king Ahashverus, "let it be decreed that they may be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those who have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king's treasuries." [Esther, 3:9] Likewise Adolph Hitler made his war on the Jews a condition of his reign over Germany. He stated on more than one occasion that either the Jews will perish and his "Reich" will last for a thousand years - or the Jews will survive, and the German Reich will be no more.
One cannot say that the decree concerning the Amalek was given at a different time and place, and no longer needs to be studies or followed. The time of Exodus was thirty five hundred years ago. The time of Haman was some twenty five hundred years ago. Two thousand years ago it was the Roman ruler, Hedrian, who wished to put an end to Jewish existence; a thousand years ago it was a Roman pope, and five huindred years ago it was Torquemada, chief inquisitor of Spain, and a mere seventy years ago it was the Austrian corporal.
It is not over. Not when synagogues are bombed in Turkey, schools are torched in Marseilles, community centers are exploded in Buenos aires, and children in a school bus are killed and maimed in Israel. The Amalekite is still here, and it is our job to raise our voice in warning, and it is for the authorities to engage him in battle to the very end. It is the same enemy who killed the airline passengers, the innocent men and women in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. America is a nation in the spiritual image of the People of Israel.
Remember, and don't ever forget. Do not forgive, and do not tire of the battle. It is the battle for survival; it is the war of the sons of light against the sons of darkness. We must never give up, and we CAN SHOW NO MERCY TO THE INTRACTABLE ENEMY - for it is the enemy of peace and justice and freedom. God has challenged us to wage this war, for Him - but really for ourselves.
This shabbat we
read in the Torah the portion called “Tetzave,” found in the book
of Exodus 27:20 to 30:10 – beginning with “Ve’ata tetzave
et bney yisrael – You shall further command the Israelites to bring you
pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn
regularly. In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is before the covenant,
Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It
shall be a perpetual ordinance to be observed throughout their generations by
the Israelites.” [Ex. 27:20,21] Reading this passage we learn of the mitzvah
to have the "ner tamid – eternal light" lamp to burn constantly
in the Tabernacle, the first place of Jewish worship build by the Israelites
in the desert, and the role of Aaron and his sons as those who officiated in
Let us spend a few minutes this evening reviewing this passage and its many ramification, particularly vis-a-vis the celebration of the “appointed seasons of the Lord.” [Lev. 23:2]
Every Jewish house of worship contains an “eternal light.” It has been so from the first, the Tabernacle built in the desert, to the newest sanctuary dedicated to the worship of the Lord God of Israel, our own Beth El dream-come-true. Why do we have this eternal ‘flame’ burning in our sanctuary? Other faiths have a manifestation of their God present for all to see – a Buddha or a cross or a crescent moon, to name but a few. We were forbidden to make “any engraved image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” [Ex. 20:4] To remind us of the “Presence [Shekhina]” of God with us, we have the light of the ner tamid. God acts through light. His creation began with light. He is the power of enlightment. The Hebrew word for light is ‘or’ – aleph, vav, resh. God began his work of creation with light, and He finished it with Shabbat, which is the day He hallowed, to make those who celebrate it enjoy its rest and be empowered by its holiness. What can be more natural than to welcome the Shabbat, God’s crown of creation, with the light of candles, representing His Presence, His premordial light by which all creation began.
It is prescribed in our tradition that we welcome the Shabbat with the light of candles. Why light the candle? The commentators explain that God meant for Shabbat to be “the most desirable of days [‘khemdat yamim’],” and for that to happen, light must be brought into our night. Most people are not aware that there is no mention of kindling the Shabbat lights in the Torah – which means that it is not really a “mitzvah” – and yet, in the Talmud [Bavli, Shabbat 25:2] it states that “lighting the candle for Shabbat is an obligation.” There is actually a conflict in the custom of lighting Shabbat candles. As a rule, one recites a blessing before fulfilling the mitzvah. Thus we recite “hamotzi” before we eat the bread, and we recite kiddush before we drink the wine. Yet, we must kindle the flame before we recite the blessing – and why? Because when we recite the blessing, we usher in the Shabbat. Once we do that, we are not allowed to kindle a flame. That is why the women, who do the lighting and the blessing of the candles, are taught to change the routine, light the candles first, and shield their eyes with their hands while reciting the brakha – thus, the covered eyes are in the dark, as if the candles were not yet lit. Only after the brakha had been recited do they look at the flame and respond to it with the blessing, “Shabbat Shalom – a good Shabbat to one and all.”
The “woman of the house” has the obligation to kindle and recite the blessing of the candles. If there is no woman, a girl, even a little girl (as long as she knows the words and is familiar with the manner of reciting them) can do this “duty.” Only where a female is not present at all should a man do the candle lighting and blessing. Commentary explain that there are two reasons for this – one ‘positive’ and one ‘negative.’ They point out that God created the woman to be the help-mate of man, and hence, she should be the one to usher the special time into her and his home. It also points out that in the Garden of Eden, it was she who ‘led him to eat the forbidden fruit, thus driving him away from his God.’ It is fitting, therefore, that she should lead him back to the Presence of God in the sanctuary of the Shabbat.
The blessing the woman says is “lehadlik ner shel shabbat” – to kindle the candle of Shabbat. It would follow therefore, that only one candle needs to be lit. In fact, though, most people light two of more candles. Some light three, others four, five, six – or more. What is the reason for the plurality of the candles? The origin of the use of two candles is in the two words spoken in the Aseret Hadibrot (the Ten Statements at Sinai), as reported in Exodus, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” [Ex.20:8] and in Deuteronomy, “Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it” [Deu. 5:12] – for each of these words by which the Shabbat was ordained we light one candle. Some light one candle for each member of the family - parents and their children. Some light for their parents and even grandparents. The tradition of seven candles, like the menorah that stood in the Tabernacle, commemorates the seven days, six of creation plus the Shabbat. Ten candles recall the Ten Statements at Sinai, and even twelve are sometimes lit - for the twelve children of Father Israel – or for the twelve tribes of Bnai-Yisrael, the people that settled the Promised land.
It is believed that it was from the lighting and blessing of the Shabbat candles that the tradition of lighting candles for the holidays has also been extended – and, of course, the eight candles of the Festival of Lights, the feast of rededication, Khanukkah.
The candle that burned in our first sanctuary is commemorated in the ner tamid in our synagogue; the candles that burn in Jewish homes commemorate and remind us that we are the people whom God blessed by giving them that tabernacle, by giving them the day He hallowed, to rejoice, to turn away the darkness, to bring love and fellowship to all who bask in the Creators Light of Shekhina – His Holy Presence. Amen
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