Friday, March 30, 2007

Bread of Hope

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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Last week we ventured into the mysterious terrain of the Leviticus sacrificial cult and its possible modern application - obviously a subject of some interest since we got some great comments and discussions. This week we are delving deeper into the small print of the priestly procedures, focusing on one element that has a lot to do with the upcoming holiday of Passover: the mysterious matza.

If you pause to think of it, Passover is a product of an elegant evolution – what started 2,000 years ago or so as a ceremonial BBQ conducted outdoors under a full moon, with greasy hands, freshly slaughtered lamb and quick words of praise has turned into an elaborate feast full of obligatory nuance. We may have lost the BBQ but we did retain some of the key ingredients, including a carbohydrate much loved, loathed, and possibly lost in translation. What is interesting about this week's Torah episode, Tzav, is that it shows us how matza was not a food item exclusively reserved for Passover – rather, it is a sacred food item identified with the priestly privilege and with the boundaries of what is or is not 'kosher' or 'holy' all year round. Chapter 6 in Leviticus describes the procedure of the 'gift offering' – a donation of flour or grain handled by the sons of Aaron the high priest themselves. Verses 7 and 8 describe what they do with the leftovers:

'What is left of the offering shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons; it shall be eaten as unleavened cakes in the sacred precinct, they shall eat it in the enclosure of the tent of meeting… It shall not be baked with leaven."

The Hebrew for 'unleavened cakes' is 'Matzot', translated elsewhere as 'bread without yeast', 'unleavened bread', 'flat baked goods' or 'holy things'. The focus is on a type of bread that did not involve the natural process of 'rising' – yeastless, basic, the simplest form of nutrition. Matzot appear all thru Leviticus – a familiar item on several other sacrificial procedures that have nothing to do with Passover. So how did they become the icon most recognized with this holiday?

We know Matza from the story of the hurried escape from Egypt – the original fast food on the run, sanctified and commoditized. While this may be true history and Judeo Gastronomic mythology, it is also possible that the practice of eating this symbolic bread existed separately, as a way to honor life's basic sanctity and nutrition. The priests had to eat the leftover matzot at a specific time and place – much like our modern obligation regarding Passover. Symbolic and still unleavened, this is one tough cracker that has made it into history and rose to the top of the Jewish food list – yeast or no yeast. Ultimately, the matza became an icon of potential, of hopeful possibilities yet to come. It is the bread of hope.

This Passover, as you take your first bite of this biblical bread, we invite you to take your time, appreciate the sacredness of the moment, the amazing history of what you are about to ingest, and the transmitted half-baked mystery that helps keep some nights more exciting and special than all others.

Have a delicious and meaningful Passover!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Give it Some Thought.

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This week Lauviticus does Leviticus – the third book of the five opens with a divine call to worship, followed by endless instructions and recipes for specifics of this complex worship – the appropriate operational maintenance of the holy tent. Other than serving as the resting place for God’s presence on earth, the tabernacle functioned as the nerve center of the newly formed Hebraic Cult – focusing on the ongoing exchange of human gifts and Divine favor. The technical term for this exchange system is known in English as ‘sacrifice’ derived from the Latin word for ‘sacred’. Throughout the ancient world, sacrifices (mostly of animals and vegetation, though is some cases of humans) were the primal and primary method of celebrating the connection between earth and heaven, life and death. The food would be most often divided between the people present, the rest would burn on the altar as the smoke would rise vertically and reach heaven, and a visceral, sensory experience offered divine consolations, expiation, and healing to the person in need.
What of this ancient technology lingers today? And what of the semantics of this discontinued praxis continues to play a role in our contemporary
forms of worship and social interaction? As usual, we find that some of
the intricate meaning of this concept is lost in translation, and in this case the word in question is the very root of the matter. The word ‘Korban’
– most often translated as ‘offering’, appears at the very top of the book, Chapter 1, verse 2:

Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of livestock to the LORD, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock. (JPS)

‘Offering’ is the most popular way of translating ‘Korban’, followed by ‘sacrifice’. The Targum, gives us the old fashioned "oblation," and Everett Fox gives us "near-offering," which captures the root meaning in the word korban, which means "to come near."

Clearly all this offering of grain and animal was in part the practical
means by which the priests, who did not work otherwise, were fed, and the
God they served was propitiated. But it was also the means by which the common person experienced some connection to the sacrificial cult, some drawing near. The offering was a sacrifice in part because it meant giving up some part of your capital, maybe even a part of your very being – a substitution for self.

What might be the equivalent for us in the modern world of the act of korban? What might we do that could cost us something and bring us closer to the mystery of life, death, past and future? What other words may best address this system of spiritual intimacy – succeeding where ‘offering’ or ‘sacrifice’ simply seem too archaic and bloody?

In the late 19th century, a German Jewish scholar by the name of Samson Raphael Hirsch wrestled with the German translation of the sacrificial concept, concluding that ‘ It is most regrettable that we have no word which really reproduces the idea which lies in the expression Korban… this term is used exclusively with reference to man's relation to God and can only be understood from the meaning which lies in its root, KRV: to approach, to come near, and so to get into close relationship with the Divine.’

So what do you call the act of meditation, or a gym work out, or a fundraising campaign, or volunteering at a soup kitchen – all valid ways of dealing with one’s issues and coming closer to one’s self, and one’s community, via an active performance of sorts. Maybe the key here is the word ‘give’, in all its ramifications. And so Lauviticus would like to
suggest: ‘You shall bring your Giving’.

We’d LOVE feedback on this one. GIVE IT SOME THOUGHT!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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Exodus exits this week, mission accomplished: the Hebrew Nation is born and
on its way home. The book ends with the last moments of preparation for
cutting the ribbon – activation of the brand new sanctuary to the Deity who
delivered deliverance. Poetically, the saga that started with slaves
building bricks of bitterness concludes with a community of artisans
erecting a home for God. Another book-end motif of the birth-myth of the
Hebrews is the profound, but underplayed role of the women. In this weekly
double Torah Episode 'Vakhel Pekudei' – lost in the lists of generous
contributions to the tabernacle, hides a word – and hides a story about
survival, sexual arousal, and feminine intelligence – hinting at the erotic
and mystical dimensions of the sacred.

It all begins innocently enough; when it was time for the construction of
the Sacred Sink – a washing station for the tabernacle employees – the
Levites. This is the only plumbing device featured in the plans for the
mishkan, and the construction called for brass or copper, but the source of
this donated metal proved to be a source of some contention.

Exodus chapter 38:8
And he made the laver of brass, and the base thereof of brass, of the
mirrors of the serving women that did service at the door of the tent of
meeting. (JPS)

Who are these women and what are they doing at the tent's threshold and
what's with the mirrors? The Hebrew ' b'marot hatzov'ot' does not
explicitly mention women, but the verse identifies the keepers of the
mirrors as 'feminine' and 'assembled' leading to multiple translations:
"mirrors of the women who assembled," " mirrors of the ministering women
that ministered at the door of the tent of meeting.", " women who performed
tasks," "women who served at the entrance," "mirrors of the
women-work-force" or "crowds of women who crowded before the tent".
The Pseudo Jonathan delivers a curious version – covering up a bigger story:

'And he made the brazen Laver, and its foundation of brass, from the brazen
mirrors of the pious women, who, at the season, came to pray at the door of
the tabernacle of appointment, standing with their oblations, giving thanks
and confession, and returning to their husbands, the mothers of righteous
children, who had been purified from the uncleanness of their blood.'

Brazen mirrors?? What this translation alludes to is a lesser known legend,
quoted by Rashi – tracing the mirrors all the way back to Egypt, where they
served as sex toys – raising the oppressed and repressed Hebraic libido and
bumping up the population surveys: 'When their husbands were weary from the
hard labor, they would bring them food and drink, give them to eat and take
the mirrors. Each one would look into the mirror together with her husband
and tease him with words saying: "I am more beautiful than you." In the
course of this they would arouse their husbands' desire and copulate.'

Moses, according to the legend, did not want those 'brazen mirrors' in his
new tent, but the Holy One, intervened, instructing the inclusion of these
sacred objects of vanity in the very place where bodies would be sanctified
for divine service.

The Hebrew word for 'mirror' is very similar 'mar-aa' and is also related to
the Hebrew word for 'vision'. Thus, as the second book of Moses ends, amid
smoke and mirrors, the visionaries, midwives, artists and freed slaves join
to tell the hopeful tale of freedom over oppression – political, sexual,
religious and aesthetic. Just in time for Passover.

Next time you wash your hands in your bathroom sink, ponder, where in your
personal sanctuary is the erotic elevated into the sacred?

Next week – Leviticus: welcome to God's kitchen.

Friday, March 09, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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The weekly Torah episode is Ki Tisa – Hebrew for 'The Census' – in which, among other special guests, the infamous Golden Calf shows up. Moses, up on the mountain is downloading revelation, while his brother Aaron is down below – in charge of the impatient masses - hungry for their fix of the divine dose. The gods they know from Egypt are tangible and sensory – they have faces, eyes, and glitzy substance you can dance around. They have no patience for an abstract faceless God. And so, the first religious fundraising campaign takes place, and one sacred young bull emerges from the fires, a product of countless earrings. The people are ecstatic and they point at the idol exclaiming ‘This IS your deity, Israel!’ – the ancient predecessor to ‘IN GOD WE TRUST’. This would have been a funny story had it not ended so tragically, what with the wrath of Moses, the breaking of the Ten Commandments, and a civil war with 3,000 casualties. What are we make of this story, and what possible relevance may it have for modern times, when worship, money, idolatry and fundamentalism all seem to be so hopelessly interwoven? The Israelites really believed they were celebrating the divine, but how far do good intentions go? All they wanted was fast food and instant gratification – don’t we all? One key to help untangle this theological mess may be hidden in the one Hebrew word used to describe what exactly they did on that day – a word, not surprisingly, translated in a variety of different ways.

Ex 32:6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry.

The Hebrew word used here is LETZACHEK meaning to laugh, mock, or play. It is, famously, the word that gives Isaac his name – ‘the one who will laugh’. It is also a word repeated through the Bible to denote sexual play, general foolery, and, possibly, bloodshed.

In this case, the translators give us ‘rose to make merry’, while the King James and JPS offers ‘rose to dance’ and Artscroll likes "got up to revel;" The Pseudo-Jonathan translation uses the quaint "rose up to disport themselves with strange service’.

The fact is that , as usual, no single word in English will serve up the array of meanings in the Hebrew from the innocent to the erotic, from the pagan to the playful. In the end we like "revel" because this word both stands alone and appears inside the English word "revelation." Revel makes a connection between what is occurring on the top of the mountain and what is happening at its base. This almost reminds us of the holiday we just celebrated – Purim – where the instruction is to celebrate the divine truth by being completely intoxicated –a sacred paradox, a fusion transcending what is top and bottom, mind and body, right and wrong.

Lauviticus would like to suggest: ‘ And eagerly they woke up early on the next day, and lit the fires, and offered the meat; and the people sat down to eat and to drink and rose to revel. ‘

Tell us, honestly, had you been there, at the foot of Sinai, with no Moses in sight, would you have reveled??

Friday, March 02, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This week’s Torah tale, ‘Tetzave’ – Hebrew for ‘Command’ describes the couture of the tabernacle team, just in case you haven’t had enough of the red carpet coverage of the Oscars. This year, the text is linked to yet another high drama – the scroll of Queen Esther, which will be publicly chanted on Saturday nights to the sound of groggers. Purim, the Jewish Carnival, owes its name to the Babylonian word ‘Puru’ – ‘lottery’, an etymological and historical nod to the pagan origin of the holiday and its namesake. Originally marked as Babylonian New Year, Puru was celebrated with drinking, masks, and a ritualized lottery in which the fates of the coming year were divined, presided over by Ishtar and Marduk – top ranking deities. Intriguing elements of fate, lottery, and the seemingly random turn of events are part of the Purim story, where Esther and Mordechai preside (replacing Ishatr and Marduk) But as fate would have it - Esther has more to do with this week’s torah text, and especially to the lost Hebraic art of fortune-telling, a skill conducted by the High Priest using a weird an oracular object whose precise purpose may have been lost in translation.

Chapter 28 in Exodus describes the High Priests’ elaborate uniform, complete with a golden breastplate, decorated with twelve gemstones for the twelve tribes of Israel. This device is not just decorative – it is a functional, wearable, very expensive and very beautiful communication device:

"Place in the breastplate the Urim and Tummim, and they will be over Aaron's heart when he comes before God. Aaron will carry the judgment of the Children of Israel."

‘Urim and Thummim’ is not translated into any of the known English versions of the Bible, leaving the reader to rely on footnotes and classic commentary. Most opinions agree that this is the name for a fortune telling apparatus, used by the High Priest as vehicle to determine major policy decisions, straight from God. Various oracles are not unusual in religious societies, then and now – Tibetan practices, for instance, comes to mind. Literally translated, ‘Urim’ means ‘Lights’ and ‘Thummim’ may mean ‘Perfect’ or ‘Truth’. In the Biblical book of Samuel, for instance, the device is used as a binary oracle – responding to people’s questions with a ‘yes or no’ output – activating several of the gemstones to ‘light up the truth’. Do we go to war? Who is the next leader? Questions like these and others seem to have been reserved for the oracle’s usage though it is possible that more mundane issues of mass appeal were addressed as well (‘who will win best actor?’) Eventually, mysteriously, the device vanished and its usage discontinued. But the obscure technology lingers, surprisingly, The Urim and Thummin have become an essential part of Mormon symbolism, supposedly used by Joseph Smith to received revelation and translate unknown tongues. And they also showed up in New Haven - prominently displayed on the Yale Universality Shield – where, since 1736 the Hebrew motto has been translated in Latin as ‘Lux et Veritas’ – ‘Light and Truth’.

High priest, Mormon prophet, Persian Queen, or Yale grad, all share the human desire to meet – or to become - the oracle – to know what’s ahead. But then comes Purim, an obligatory non-sense driven holiday, on which we are instructed to precisely not know – not know what is ahead or behind, right or wrong, good or bad. Purim is a rude holiday, marking the ‘as if’ lottery of existence, the randomness of life, the chaos which is the ups and downs of reality – come what may. Maybe.

The moon if full this coming weekend, the oracle of the High Priest meets the mask of Queen Esther: a sacred arsenal of truth seeking tools, conveniently packaged for efficient use. Go for it, and have someone drive you home