Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
CATCH A WAVE -- Numbers 8:13
The Numbers:13 Project
Have the Levites stand in front of Aaron and his sons and then present them as a wave offering to the Lord. Numbers 8:13
I invented a ritual and didn’t tell anyone that I made it up.
During the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), the tradition in synagogue is to form a procession of those carrying the four species noted in the Bible for the holiday – myrtle, willow, citron and, important to my ritual, palm branch. The spectacle is as old as it is humorous. Though the chant as we circle the sanctuary is a very serious “save us, save us,” the solemn recitation of God’s attributes as most of the assembled shuffle to the prescribed melody is part Gregorian, part pagan and more than slightly carnal. The ancient soul within me feels a part of a practice thousands of years old. The modern funny bone within me cannot help but giggle.
That’s not the ritual I made up. Mine comes at the end, when the procession dissolves into a crowd of people in the front of the sanctuary looking like a forest of date-palm sprouts. The liturgy at that point includes a reference to the “wave offering” in the Temple, and it was our custom to sing a rousing melody to the words, “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance…” At that point, I would take my place before the assemblage, face them as I might were I the conductor of an All-Palm Orchestra, and begin to wave my four species back and forth. Of course, everyone followed suit. It looked like a breeze in a small grove or, perhaps, a very tiny ballpark where the fans have lost interest in the game.
I say it is a ritual because, after very few years, the congregation needed no prompting. In fact, though I have retired from my congregational duties (and not shared my private amusement with my successor), the congregation continues to do the wave without me. It makes me gleeful. I have little remorse that anyone who spent years in my synagogue and then joined elsewhere would wonder why that ritual is not performed in their new congregation. Jocularity, jocularity.
It could be that the pious among my readers will take great umbrage at my appropriation of sacred practice. To you I say, “Sorry about that, Chief.” But though I won’t pretend to piety in introducing my little ceremonial addendum, I take a certain satisfaction that I engaged a whole cohort of people who had little in common other than being Jewish in a moment that gave them a sense of being an integral part of a greater whole. Old and young, religiously fluent and unfamiliar, denominationally diverse, theologically serious and culturally flippant, everyone was able to catch the wave. For a minute, they understood themselves to be a part of something both unifying and mysterious (“Why are we waving?” someone would always ask me. I always deflected the question.).
Moments like my little private joke have a very serious public function. The larger the crowd, the more diverse it will certainly be. In a crowd of almost 330 million, the current population of the United States, there are almost as many opinions. (Thank goodness it isn’t 330 million Jews – there would be 440 million opinions.) We need common rituals, open to all, to give us a sense of belonging to a large community. They must connect us to the old and persuade us that it is renewed in our time. They save us, and they bless our people.
I am tempted to say that the ritual of buying a mattress on federal holiday weekends is what seems to unify Americans, but I am afraid you will take that seriously and it will cost you hundreds of dollars. We do have rituals – Thanksgiving dinner, Memorial Day remembrances – and cookouts, Labor Day picnics and campaign kick-offs. Not everyone participates in them the same way, and many of them have precious little to do with the reason for the holiday they mark, but they give us a sense of belonging together.
Of course, the most prominent of all is the Fourth of July. It is a day to celebrate our founding, our common heritage, our mission and values. Communities large and small have processions (or, if you prefer, parades) made up of all kinds of citizens and residents, doing the kinds of things the founding generation never did. They wave from the backs of convertibles, ride tiny cars in formation, play patriotic music badly on under-practiced brass instruments, dress small children in blue shirts festooned with patches and pack numbers and march them in the hot sun. Those are rituals that sound as ridiculous as waving palm branches when I describe them that way, but they have unifying meaning to the folks along the parade route, even if they can’t tell you what it is. At the end of the day, we light up the sky with fireworks displays, a Chinese custom that we nonetheless imagine recalls the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air.
There is a lot to argue about in the United States these days, but we all ought to rise up in outrage at any attempt to appropriate Independence Day for partisan (well, in fact, personal) purposes. It seems to many, including me, that some of the seams that hold us together are starting to give way. What tightens them are turkey dinners, hot dogs, tee-ball games and Sousa marches. When some narcissist wants to transform a national palm-waving into a manufactured testimonial to himself, it is time to take back the night.
Save our people and bless our inheritance.
HOSTESS GIFTS -- Numbers 7:13
The Numbers:13 Project
His offering: one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal offering; Numbers 7:13
Over the course of our forty-plus years of welcoming guests into our home, my wife and I have been the recipients of many tokens of appreciation. I was taught to call them “hostess gifts,” though I am certain that nomenclature is outdated. The custom, however, has continued, and one of the ways you can tell if someone was raised to be familiar with social graces is if there is a small gift in hand upon arrival as a guest.
Frequently, a bottle of wine or a small arrangement of flowers suffices. But just as often, the creativity of the gift is most impressive. It needn’t be expensive; we have received unusual spices, a salt cellar, candles, a decorated cork for a bottle, coasters and small packages of dried fruit. Some people have put great thought into finding something they think will appeal to our Jewish values. Some have contributed to what they know are our interests and hobbies. A few have honored us with something home-made. Occasionally there is an exotic liqueur.
Likewise, we have tried to imagine what our hosts would appreciate. An interesting spoon, a small picture frame, a refrigerator magnet that is either not tacky (hard to find) or uber-tacky (harder to find), assorted teas – these are items that tell our hosts how much we appreciate the thought that went into the invitation, and that it was reciprocated.
I do not know where this custom originated, but I like to imagine it goes deep into history. I once visited an exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem that seemed to me to be a collection of rows and rows of idols, lined up as if they were warehoused for future sale. The first thing that came to my mind was the story of Abraham’s father, Terach, who was an idol merchant. But the guide told me my assumptions were all wrong. The tableau was indeed a pagan temple, but the figures were not the idols. They were the worshipers. This particular sect believed that the more hours spent in praising and appeasing the local gods, the more likely that blessings would rain down on them. But people have to tend to the fields, raise families, address the necessities of life. To make it possible to meet a level of piety and live a day-to-day life, people commissioned statues of themselves and placed them in the temple as “permanent residents.” They were therefore always present in “body” and spirit.
There were many jokes made at the expense of that custom and modern-day habits of attending worship. But kidding aside, there was something profound about the custom. Members of this community could live perpetually in the presence of the divine by gifting themselves to the temple.
When we have overnight guests, they almost always say, upon leaving, “I hope I didn’t leave anything behind.” And I usually respond, “If you did, it just means you want to come back again.” Leaving something of yourself with a host or hostess makes you a “permanent resident” of their home. Without overstaying your welcome or interfering with your need to get back to your life, you can leave a piece of yourself as a token of your bond of friendship or love.
In my imagination at least, the origin of the hostess gift – and especially choosing a gift that is a reminder of the one who gives it – is not only an expression of appreciation, but also of connection. Without being intrusive, the guest will always find something of herself or himself in a home that has been welcoming.
Those gifts that were brought to the tabernacle performed the same function. Graven images of self were no more acceptable than those of God. But a lovely silver bowl, some fine oil, other objects and foods that would sustain the tabernacle and its attendants were gifts of appreciation that also gave the donor and his tribe a sense of being “permanent residents,” a part of them always present in the holy precincts of God’s dwelling place among the people. Anyone entering would recognize a part of themselves and feel at home.
Can the same effect be accomplished with a bottle of wine or a small picture frame? Maybe, maybe not. But the heartfelt offering of a guest will long be remembered by the host, and the gracious acceptance by the host will lone be remembered by the guest. And that’s close enough for me.
The Numbers:13 Project
This is the ritual for the nazirite: On the day that his term as nazirite is completed, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Numbers 6:13
Every winter my wife and I have a friendly argument about which of Irving Berlin’s two Christmas movies is better – “Holiday Inn” or “White Christmas.” Both are filled with great music and mediocre music, classic production numbers, implausible plot twists and enough misogynistic, racist and classist imagery to fill an encyclopedia (whatever that is).
I am a partisan of “Holiday Inn,” though I admit to loving Danny Kaye (who is in “White Christmas” only). I must acknowledge, however, that the ridiculous surprise near the end of the movie (a secret reunion of WWII veterans to cheer up their retired and depressed general) is very moving in that suspension-of-disbelief context.
General Waverly, played by Dean Jagger, finds himself bumbling around a farm in Vermont ten years after the war. Bing Crosby goes on television to summon the troops, introducing his appeal with a musical question: What can you do with a general when he stops being a general? He sings about how the retired general is hailed for his service, but otherwise without function in society.
(Never mind that Dwight Eisenhower was the president when the movie was made…)
When Christmas Eve arrives, the veterans of General Waverly’s command suddenly appear in uniform and precision formation. Having been tricked into wearing his own uniform, the general reviews the troops and regains his sense of purpose (presumably).
Perhaps it sounds a little ridiculous in today’s world where retired senior military officers wind up on faculties, corporate boards and White House staffs and the rank-and-file veterans are the ones looking for work, but the point is the same regardless of rank at the time of discharge. Those in military service – most especially those who answered duty’s call with a sense of purpose – find themselves casting about for ways to find fulfillment and meaning when their last tour comes to an end. It is not only about a decent job, but dignity and significance in employment is perhaps the simplest place to start.
A combat service person serves in a particular type of way. The nazir, a man who takes on a regimen of physical self-denial for a period of his life devoted to God, serves in a very different way. Limited in time by this section of the Bible, when he finishes his service he is (as the verse says) brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting. There, he is initiated into a ritual that seems designed to remind him of what it is like to be a spiritual civilian rather than a monastic. (Look it up if you are unfamiliar.)
It is not easy to go from a life of intensely regimented service to one of personal independence. I imagine that’s especially true if the higher purpose that guides your service is not so readily accessible outside the structure. It is the responsibility of those who were the beneficiaries of that service to welcome the veterans back into civilian life and to create a community in which that higher purpose finds some expression.
I certainly do not mean to suggest that there is some pathology that afflicts service people or nazirites upon their discharge. In fact, the re-entry they experience is only a preview for everyone else. Sooner or later, everyone retires from their day job (and some do so frequently!). Love it or tolerate it, work provides context and meaning and a certain structure that becomes ingrained. When it is time to walk away, not merely for a little vacation or professional development, that sense of purpose and expectation may be hard to come by. And if the work environment is also a place of community, the transition is even more complicated.
Very precious few of us will have Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye organize a surprise testimonial for us (or, I don’t know, Beyoncé and Ricky Martin). But each of us knows someone who has set aside some years of service and transitioned to a completely different kind of life. They need more than “thank you for your service,” more than an interest in who they were in that role. They need to know that the purpose they pursued has meaning outside the service for which they are being thanked.
If for no other reason, we need to make for a society in which those ideas and ideals find tangible expression. That’s our role in showing appreciation to those who have set aside a time of their life to serve the rest of us.
And may all your Christmases be white. Well, that’s the way both movies end, anyway.
The Numbers: 13 Project
in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her — Numbers 5:13
Adultery is wrong. It is a sin. There is nothing frivolous about it, and it is not a victimless crime.
Throughout my career as a rabbi, I have listened to a variety of people try to explain to me why the affair they were having was not really adultery. One guy tried to suggest that according to the Bible only women could commit adultery. Another guy told me his paramour was in a loveless marriage and only the formality of dissolution was missing from ending the relationship. A woman insisted that she and her lover were meant for each other, but he would maintain his promise to provide an intact family for his children, etc. I wasn’t having any of it, and I told them so, flat out, and it turned out that not a one of them did a better job convincing themselves than convincing me.
Hey, I am not heartless about certain circumstances. I know that there are occasions when incapacity brings an abrupt end to intimacy but not to love and that the healthier partner seeks solace with someone else, even sometimes with the encouragement of the spouse. Certainly, the sexist laws of divorce in our tradition ought to be interpreted out of existence to free the woman anchored to a spiteful husband. I am not as judgmental in those circumstances but being understanding is not the same as offering the approval of Jewish tradition.
I read the statistics and I know that there is a likelihood that many of the people reading this column have violated the exclusivity of their marital commitments. Please don’t gather from my intransigence that I find you irredeemable. You have dealt with your own shame and, if you were discovered, with the painful process of restoring trust (or losing it altogether). I suggest only one thing: don’t do it again.
And here is the reason. A person willing to betray the most intimate of relationships will not hesitate to betray the less intimate of relationships. If you sleep around outside your marriage, you will do all sorts of lesser transgressions to cover it up. You will justify lying to your children, your parents, your friends. You will divert money to your endeavor.
And if you get away with it – especially multiple times – you will develop a smug belief that you can get away with any deception and, what’s more, you are entitled to get away with those deceptions.
A serial adulterer should not be entrusted with moral authority. Such a person has none.
I expect that you would not be surprised to hear those words from the pulpit of any good fundamentalist preacher of any religious tradition. (Well, you might be surprised to be in that kind of house of worship, but if you were there…you know what I mean.)
I am not a fundamentalist, but I have believed these things about serial adulterers for a long, long time. I believe them strongly enough to declare that I have never considered betraying my wife whom I love with deep devotion.
I believed these things before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. And I believe them now. Anyone who has been surprised at the way the president has tossed integrity, principles and friends under the bus has not been paying attention to the man’s marital life. Anyone who is shocked, shocked at the underhanded business practices, stiffing of contractors and unfulfilled promises before he took office never listened to him on the Howard Stern Show. And anyone who wonders how a person elected to the most honored and powerful position in the world could violate his commitment to protect and defend the Constitution isn’t thinking about hush money, catch-and-kill news stories and grabbing them…oh, you know.
If he betrays his wife, whoever she may be at the moment, then he will betray you. And he has.
I know about all the other presidents, men of big appetites and presumptions of their own aphrodisiacal qualities. With maybe one exception, we haven’t had one of those guys in a couple of generations. And if I am wrong, at least they were not boastful about it.
Adultery is wrong. It is a sin. There is nothing frivolous about it, and it is not a victimless crime. Its victims are named Ivana, Marla, Melania and [your name here].