This week's Torah portion, Parashat P'kudei, brings the Book of Exodus to a close. The Israelites — who by this point in our story have been freed from Egyptian slavery, stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and the Torah, and in this week's parashah, completed the construction of the Tabernacle — are finally ready for their long years of wandering that will take up the rest of the Torah's narrative.
If your only exposure to the Book of Exodus was through children's Bible stories, Hollywood, or even the Jewish calendar, you might easily overlook the part of the story about the Tabernacle. Big stories like the liberation from Egypt, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the building of the Golden Calf, and God's appearance at the Burning Bush are almost always portrayed as the major events of the Book of Exodus. The building of the Tabernacle — the portable sanctuary that will serve as God's dwelling-place among the Israelite camp during their wanderings — barely even registers. But when Moses finally completes the Tabernacle in this week's Torah portion, it is after five weekly Torah portions, fifteen chapters, and almost half the Book of Exodus that are mostly devoted to the detailed and often repetitive description of the Tabernacle.
On Wednesday, August 7th, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out onto a steel wire strung across the 130-foot gap between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York — close to 1,350 feet above the ground. After a 45-minute performance he was asked, "Weren't you afraid that you were going to die?" While conceding, he replied, "If I die, what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion."
Parashat Sh'mini contains the important and troubling story of Nadab and Abihu. It is the eighth day of the ceremony of consecrating the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the priests. Aaron and his sons have been sacrificing animals all week long. Fire comes down from heaven and consumes the offerings, and all is going according to plan. Suddenly Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron's sons, bring an additional offering of incense, which had not been commanded. They are immediately consumed by Divine fire; their bodies are dragged out of the Mishkan while Aaron remains silent.
In his book The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition,1 Dr. Arthur Kleinman makes an important distinction between illness and disease. He writes:
Illness refers to how the sick person and the members of the family or wider social network perceive, live with, and respond to symptoms and disability. . . . Disease, however, is what the practitioner creates in the recasting of illness in terms of theories of disorder.
We see this distinction between illness and disease clearly in Parashat Tazria in the laws concerning tzaraat,2 — a skin ailment sometimes translated as "leprosy," its diagnosis, and the treatment of those afflicted with it.
The priests are practitioners. They want to know exactly what disease this person with a skin rash has, what are its symptoms, and — most important — what the person did to "get" the disease. In Leviticus 13:2-3 we read:
When a person has on the skin of the body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of the body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of the body. . . . when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce the person unclean.
Theologian Elizabeth Dodson Gray notes: "Women's bodies may be the hardest place for women to find sacredness" ( Sacred Dimensions of Women's Experience, 1988, p. 197). Our society sends negative messages to women from earliest childhood about the expected perfection of their physiques and the disappointments of any flaws in the female form. Parashat M'tzora, then, with its focus on menstrual impurity (15:19-24), seems to impart the same kind of unfavorable sense. Rejecting our own received biases and patriarchal assumptions about menstruation, however, can help us form a contemporary view of these so-called taboos.
The Torah reading for the first day of Pesach, which falls on Shabbat this year, comes from chapters 12 and 13 of the Book of Exodus, and discusses one of the most well-known topics of the holiday — matzah. We find the multiple commandments to both refrain from all chametz (leavened foods) and to eat matzah, in verses 15-20 of chapter 12. Then, we hear the familiar "historical" reason why the Israelites "baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt . . . since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves" (Exodus 12:39).
What is the difference between individual spiritual experiences and collective experiences? Is one more powerful than the other? And, if so, what does that mean? Rabbi Rick Jacobs teaches how Parshat Pikudei highlights what can happen when communities become holy.
How can we be religious innovators, keeping the essence of tradition, but remembering how far we can go? Learn about these themes in Vayikra with Rabbi Rick Jacobs.
Four ways to listen:
Is there a spiritual or moral dimension to how we choose what we eat? Parashat Sh'mini from the book of Leviticus opens up a conversation about keeping kosher – Rabbi Rick Jacobs moves it along.
Five ways to listen:
Vayikra, Leviticus, is my favorite book in the Torah. Its first portion, also called Vayikra, appears to deal mainly with the priestly cult and laws of sacrifice. But our discussion will show, this describes the portion and successive ones only at the most basic, p'shat, or "simple" level. As an introduction to all the upcoming portions of Leviticus, let's look at six crucial lessons I believe are in the third book of our Torah.