Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sister Act

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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The weekly Torah episode is T’eruma – Hebrew for ‘The Donation’ – in which fundraising is born, blueprints are drawn, and the first Jewish synagogue comes into being, detail by detailed detail, down to the hem of the priestly gowns. If you are not interested in interior design, the next few Torah portions are a challenge as they basically describe the erection of the Mishkan – Hebrew for ‘Tabernacle’, the mobile dwelling home for the Divine, down to the last crimson stitch, golden bolt and donor listing. But there’s more here than meets the eye. Modern synagogues may look nothing like this biblical ancestor but many of the basic patterns that constitute the symbols, symmetry, and mystery of sacred Jewish architecture at this time, owe their origin to this desert tent, covered with goat skins. And one of the elements that link the modern temple to the original Mishkan is the often overlooked, lovingly mocked, and secretly feared perennial pillar of religious society: the Sisterhood.

Women’s wisdom, artistry, and generosity are mentioned several times in the description of the Tabernacle, but it is ultimately an all male operation run by a hierarchy of the sons of Levi. Or is it? One verse in this week’s episode presents a literal ‘cover up’ of one interesting detail of the holy tent, revealing a glimpse into the repressed origins of the sisterhood societies. The verse describes the walls of the tent, billowing curtains of purple and blue linen:

The five curtains shall be coupled together one to another; and other five curtains shall be coupled one to another. (Exodus 26:3 King James Bible)

Some translators substitute ‘curtains’ for ‘cloths’, ‘drapes’ or ‘tapestries’, and they also differ on the word ‘coupled’ – often preferring ‘joined’.

But we find it very curious that none of the known translators into English (or Aramaic) pick on the real translation challenge in this verse – the unusual Hebrew words that can only be literally translated as; ‘ And the five curtains will link together, ‘AS A WOMAN TO HER SISTER.’
That’s right – the original sisterhood - and no credit due. The image is startling – the walls of the home for the Shekina – Hebrew for ‘The Divine Presence’, is depicted in the image of the protective feminine: sister holding sister.
Perhaps this is an instance where there are shadings of words in the original that just will not come into English, challenging the translators to render the intimate and erotic sense of these seemingly dry details of construction.

The translation of the sister-eros into a mere mechanical joining of the curtains raises an even larger issue. What other traces of the divine feminine are hidden in the furniture and furnishings of the original Hebrew home for Divine Love?
Behind these curtains, we suspect, more surprises await in the following chapters. It’s always in the small print and where you are least expected. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mishpatim: The Charge to Recharge

verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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Remember when your cell phone ran out of power just as you needed it most? Or worse – your car out of gas in the middle of nowhere, or worse yet – you, on any given day of overload, experiencing ‘major burn out’? These may seem like modern problems, but they’ve been addressed thousands of years ago, and in this week’s Torah episode, Mishpatim – Hebrew for ‘Laws’, the vital law for anti-burn-out is reiterated, among a motley crew of laws and regulations for kosher (aka holistic) living.

The one law that grabs our attention is the one that, perhaps, we need the most: how to take time out, and refresh, or recharge, or recreate. These are all synonyms for one mysterious word that appears here in relation to the keeping of the Sabbath – a word that means both the human soul AND the action that is required for ongoing maintenance of the soul. Somewhere in this linguistic puzzle is, perhaps, a key to sustainable living.

Exodus 23:12

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed. (JPS)

The word translated as refreshed is the Hebrew word naphash, translated elsewhere as ‘rest’, ‘quiet’, ‘pause’, or ‘may-pause-for-breath’.

The word Nephesh makes its first appearance in the creation narratives -Genesis 2:7: ‘And God blew into his nostrils the breath of life and adam became a living being. The word translated here as being is nephesh, which shares the same root consonants as the word naphash for which our translators give us refreshed. The words in Hebrew are akin, but in English that kinship between ‘soul’ and ‘rest’ disappears.

For modern creatures craving sacred time, and effective time management, this word/law retrieves the concept of Re:Creation – another word that has lost its original force (re-creation) and now suggests everything from golf to drugs.

And so Lauviticus would like to suggest:

For six days you will work, and on the seventh day have rest, so that your household rests, and all who work for you, and with you may re-create.

How do you recreate? And is it enough to recharge your batteries?

Thursday, February 08, 2007


verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This weekly Torah episode is ‘Jethro’ – honoring Moses’ Father-in-Law, who was also High Priest of Midian, the indigenous people of the Sinai Peninsula. Jethro journeys towards the Hebrew encampment at the foot of the Mountain of God, bringing along the First Family – Zippora and the two sons of Moses. Not much is told in the text about the family reunion, but we are told that Jethro, impressed by the deeds of the Hebrew Deity, proclaims his faith in this new God. Thus, several commentaries and traditions identity Jethro as the first official convert – a Hebrew by Choice.
Choice – choosing and being chosen - is the key motif in this story. Jethro’s personal revelation is a prelude to the big act of The Revelation – Live from Mount Sinai, complete with thunder, lightning, and thick clouds. The Hebrew people, only chapters ago an enslaved mass, are now invited (and possibly commanded) to make the choice of becoming a sacred nation – a God-Chosen tribe. But unlike Jethro – who returns to the tents of Midian – the Hebrews are here to stay, and under the billowing mountain they become the Chosen People – a dense, challenging and oddly translated expression appearing here for the first time, verbatim from God:
Exodus 19:5 Now, then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the Earth is mine. (KJV)
The Hebrew word SEGULA – translated here as ‘treasured possession’ is elsewhere translated as ‘special property’, ‘’peculiar treasure’, ‘unique merit’ and ‘special treasure’. The Pseudo-Jonathan, translated:’ you shall be more beloved before Me than all the peoples on the face of the earth.’
The word SEGULA has legal overtones denoting valued property to which "one has exclusive possession," and all our translators are struggling with this word/concept that summarizes this binding and conditional covenant.
There’s much to say about the CHOSEN PEOPLE concept and not all of it is happy. The historical ‘othernesses’ of the Hebrew tribe that premiers here this week has yielded both pride – and painful prejudice. In the 2007 Global village, with Anti Semitism (disguised and/or fueled by anti-Zionism) on the rise again, the Chosen issue spans politics, theology, and socio-economic tensions that impact the lives of millions. Can Jewish Identify continue to thrive while deeply examining and deconstructing this notion of ‘elite human squad’?
Interestingly, the original Hebrew term does not in itself imply either exclusivity or pre-eminence. A plausible reading is that God considers Israel a cherished people, a jewel in the crown of nations, but not the crown itself.
In support of this sense of Israel being one special nation with its own unique gifts among other special nations, we note that the word SEGULA may also mean ‘purple’ – as in the color. Although it is famously a regal color - purple is only one hue in a spectrum, and it draws its composition from reds and blues. In the divine palate a color may be distinct yet not superior to other colors. Maybe we are not the Chosen people – what a relief! Maybe this is just a fashion statement (It is Fashion week in NYC!) and not a social boundary…Maybe we’re entitled to be known as The Purple People?
Either way, this is one of those Biblical cases where translation becomes much more than a semantic case in point, and an opportunity for us to boldly explore how our past and present meet to create a better future.
Whether as a parent with children or a leader with colleagues, we all know the challenge of seeing and articulating value without creating invidious comparisons. Where in your family and workplace do you struggle with the issues of ‘special’ and value and how do you remind each person of their unique place?

Thursday, February 01, 2007


verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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What would you pack if you ran away from home?

This week, in the portion called ‘B’Shalach’, the great escape known as The Exodus continues, and the Hebrew runaways famously wade in the waters of the Sea of Reeds. (This is also one of the most infamous mistranslations and cartographic errors in biblical history –never meant to be read as the ‘Red Sea’).

No matter what one imagines the Exodus to be – historical, mythical, both or neither – the powerful image of a human mass fleeing towards freedom chased by soldiers is painfully familiar from war torn areas worldwide. And, like many modern attempts to personalize the stories of mass migrations – we focus on what may have been the plight of individuals, capturing the image of one person, or one family, allowing intimate details to tell the bigger, often incomprehensible tales of our lives.

In this story, we are focusing on one word, describing either what the Hebrews packed along, and/or who they left behind.

Exodus 13:18 ‘But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.’ (JPS Bible)

The Hebrew word ‘CHAMUSHIM’ is most often translated as ‘armed’, ‘harnessed’, ‘equipped for battle’, and ‘bearing weapons’. In 2007, Jews with weapons are not uncommon(mostly Israeli soldiers but also Sandra Froman, the new president of the NRA – a Jewish woman!) but it is startling to think of this image in the translations and imaginations of Bible readers prior to 1948. Later on in the exodus story, once they cross the sea, Miriam leads the people in song, and drums accompany her. It is comforting to know that musical instruments, and not just weapons (and matza) are what our ancestral runways packed for the road, functional and symbolic at the same time.

But there is another way to translate the word ‘Chamushim” – reading it not from the root for ‘weapon’ but from the word for the number ‘Five’ – ‘Chamesh’. Interestingly, various Jewish commentaries and translators stayed away from the weapons motif and went with the breakdown of the people into units of five. For instance, the Pseudo Jonathon translates this verse as: “…and every one of the sons of Israel left Egypt, with five children each. “

Yet another interpretive translation is that of the 11th Century CE commentator Rashi, who quotes Rabbinic sources: ‘Only one of five Hebrews left Egypt, while the other four who refused to leave died during the three days of darkness.’

According to this oral tradition, the Hebrews are not leaving with weapons – they are leaving with diminished numbers and much loss. How many prefer to stay behind in the familiar realities, even if oppressive? and how many choose to leap into the unknown?

One of out five, or one plus five, with weapons and with drums, the heroes and heroines of this ancient journey sing their way across a Sea of Reeds, encounter Manna, thirst for water, and win their first battle, all within four chapters. Next stop: Mount Sinai.

And we, on our ongoing coming out into Self - what do we pack for the journeys across the threshold of new possibilities? And what or who, this time round, do we leave behind?