The Revelation on Mt. Sinai . . . the giving of the Ten Commandments . . . our Torah portion, Yitro, describes the scene with great fanfare. The text has given cinematographers plenty of good material: thunder and lightning, smoke rising up into the sky, the whole mountain shaking violently, and the loud blaring of a horn, sometimes specifically called a shofar. Miraculous? Inspiring? Awesome? Yes, our Sages teach, but it was also really, really noisy.
When the medieval rabbis read about Sinai, they focus our attention on that seemingly unimportant detail of just how loud it all must have been. One medieval commentator, the French rabbi known as Rashbam, teaches that the description of God answering Moses "in thunder" is really a metaphor about the volume of God's voice—God had to shout to be heard over all of the other noise at Sinai! (see Rashbam on Exodus 19:19). And God was shouting for good reason. "The blast [of the shofar] was louder than any sound that had ever been heard before," Rashbam's contemporary, the Spanish sage Ibn Ezra writes on Exodus 19:16.
Following the giving of the Ten Commandments in last week’s Torah portion,Parashat Mishpatim brings us a diverse collection of civil, criminal, ritual, and ethical laws. Included in the parashah is a section of text that has become relevant to a topic that is highly contested in our day.
Next month, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, a challenge to a restrictive Texas abortion law. It will be the first time in more than 20 years that the Supreme Court has heard an abortion case.
Anyone who has lived in New York City is familiar with the challenges of "small-space living." When I was apartment hunting in New York, I looked at one apartment where the kitchen was so small, the refrigerator was placed directly in front of the kitchen sink. In order to wash your dishes, the real estate agent explained, you could just stand off to the side and reach in. In the apartment I ended up taking, one of the bedrooms could only fit a bed — no other furniture at all. Luckily, my roommate was short enough to be able to stand underneath a loft bed to access a desk and a dresser.
Since I left New York, though, the concept of small-space living has come into vogue. HGTV, for example, currently airs three series on the glamour of living in spaces with an average size of 180 square feet. An article describes, "For some, the tiny house movement has become a way of life, adjusting to a smaller space and fewer possessions, with a goal of saving money and focusing on relationships and experiences."1
Just a few years after leaving New York City, when my husband and I moved into our not-so-tiny house, I remember wondering how we would ever fill the space. It was so much bigger than any of the apartments I'd lived in. I quickly got used to life in a house, and I'll admit that I much prefer it to the tiny apartment with the side-access sink. But a beautiful midrash on this week's Torah portion, Parashat T'rumah, suggests that God might think about things a little differently.
This week's Torah portion, Parashat T'tzaveh, continues the detailed instructions for the building and decoration of the Tabernacle, our ancestors' portable sanctuary during the years of wandering in the desert. Most of the details discussed in T'tzaveh, like bejeweled vestments to be worn by the priests, are exotically unfamiliar to Jews today. But the parashah opens with a description that seems much more familiar to anyone who has spent time inside a synagogue sanctuary. "You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly," God tells Moses (Exodus 27:20). But the last two words — ner tamid — can also be translated as "eternal light."
This week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, interrupts the description of the building of the Tabernacle with a long narrative section that includes the story of the Golden Calf, the smashing of the Ten Commandments, the carving of the second set of tablets, and — although perhaps less famously — the most chutzpadik (impertinent) question in the whole Torah.
The question comes after Moses has negotiated twice with God on behalf of the Israelites: first, with moderate success, when he asks God to forgive the people for the sin of the idolatrous Golden Calf; and second, when he successfully convinces God to lead the Israelites along the next stage of their journey.
But Moses' next negotiation with God is not on behalf of the Israelites, but for himself. Out of the blue, it seems, just as God has acceded to his second request, Moses speaks up again. "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" he says to God (Exodus 33:18).
"I hope you are excited for the birds!" our guide said to us.
We had just arrived in Tanzania for a safari, and suddenly, I was concerned that we had been assigned to the wrong jeep. "Oh, we're not birdwatchers," I explained. "We came for the regular safari — lions, leopards, rhinos — that sort of thing." I was looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the rarest and most exotic animals on the planet. Leopards, for example, are famously difficult to spot, and the black rhino is so endangered that there are thought to be only about 5,000 left on the planet.
"But we like birds, too," my husband assured the guide. "We're excited to see them." The guide nodded in approval. "Some people tell me, 'Nicholas, we came all this way for the rhinos and leopards! Don't waste our time with all these birds!' "
The next day I got my first glimpse at why people might be excited for the winged creatures when Nicholas showed us what was, perhaps, the most beautiful bird I've ever seen up close. The feathers on its back were the colors of a peacock, iridescent blue and teal and navy. It was tiny — the size of a small songbird with a belly like a robin, a rich orangey-red, and bright white eyes against a black head. "He's beautiful," I said. "Suberb starling!" Nicholas instructed, while I admired the colors. "Superb" really was the right word. I felt lucky that we had caught a glimpse at such a stunning, unusual being.
"A very common bird!" Nicholas exclaimed. "We will see many of them!"
And so we did. In addition to a few gorgeous leopards, one spectacular rhino walking in the distance, and a week's worth of other exotic wildlife, we saw superb starlings every day: on shrubs, on dead tree stumps, flying by our jeep, walking around every picnic area, even perched outside every bathroom that we stopped at. It was one of the most delightful surprises of the safari: I never tired of them: every single time, those birds took my breath away. Everywhere we went, their presence ensured that there was beauty.
Beautiful, colorful, and rare things are the subject of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayak'heil, which continues the Book of Exodus' long description of the building of the Tabernacle. The Israelites are asked to bring their most valuable belongings: precious metals, expensively dyed colorful thread, spices and oils, gemstones of every variety, even dolphin skins (Exodus 35:5-9). With all of these materials, the community's craftsmen will make the most precious of all physical spaces: a place where God will dwell in the people's midst.
The Torah portion, Naso, refers extensively to laws regarding the unfaithful wife. It is hard to say anything positive about this law, and I'm not motivated to try to do so. I want to focus my critical reading of this law on one detail that may, at first read, look marginal: the part in the ceremony when "the priest shall bare the woman’s head "(Num. 5:18).