May 9, 2015 – 20 Iyyar 5775
Annual (Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23: Etz Hayim p. 717; Hertz p. 513
Triennial (Leviticus 22:17 – 23:22): Etz Hayim p. 722; Hertz p. 517
Haftarah (Ezekiel 44:15 – 31): Etz Hayim p. 735; Hertz p. 528
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Laws of holiness continue in this portion, with the first two chapters focusing on the priesthood. Priests are not allowed to be near a dead body (with the exception of select family members), to cut the corners of their beards, to marry a divorcee, to have a bodily “defect,” or to offer sacrifices while ritually impure. Furthermore, lay people are not allowed to eat certain offerings or to offer a blemished animal as a sacrifice; animals must be at least eight days old to be offered (and cannot be offered on the same day as its parent); and thanksgiving offerings must be eaten on the same day they are sacrificed.
Holy days are detailed: Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In addition, a farmer must offer his first grain crop of the year as an offering to God; clear olive oil must be used to light a nightly flame in the Tent of Meeting; and two rows of bread should be offered to God each Shabbat.
In one of the few narratives in the book of Leviticus, a man with an Israelite mother and Egyptian father blasphemes God’s name; God orders Moses to have the man stoned to death. God adds that violent crimes must have fitting penalties.
Theme #1: All My Leaven
In the first month, on the 14th day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord, and on the 15th day of that month the Lord's Feast of Unleavened Bread. You shall eat unleavened bread for seven days. On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. Seven days you shall make gifts to the Lord. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. (Leviticus 23:5-8)
We tend to think of Passover as one holiday with multiple themes; many claim that there was a time when it was multiple holidays.
Since in the late biblical period the two occasions, Passover and the Feast of Matzoth, became blended into one holiday commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, it is clear that considerable history and development attach to these sacred days. The varied accounts in different portions of Scripture strengthen this impression. Thus, with regard to date, some passages prescribe Passover merely for the Abib. In other passages the month and day are enumerated precisely. Sometimes this designated month is called “First Month”; sometimes it called Nisan, the name still used in the Jewish calendar. Ultimately the Passover-Matzoth festival was one of the three occasions for which a pilgrimage to the Temple was enjoined. -- Samuel Sandmel, The Hebrew Scriptures
This festival had its origin in the nomadic period of the tribes’ existence and thus reflects the mythical and “primitive” thinking of an ancient time. -- Peter T. Vogt, Deuteronomic Theology and the Significance of Torah: A Reappraisal
Questions for Discussion:
Sandmel reminds us that the holiday that we now observe as Passover may have been two different holidays initially, and became merged into one holiday celebrating both the springtime and the Exodus. When we observe Passover, does the holiday feel like a "mashup" of sorts? Or does the idea of rebirth describe both the springtime and the emotions of the Israelites leaving Egypt? What other natural connections might link these two ancient festivals?
Vogt claims that Passover emerged from ancient tribal biases. Since these tribes were nomadic, is there a sense of a lack of permanence that permeates the observance of the modern holiday? Does the statement "Next Year in Jerusalem" at the end of our seders indicate that we still are on the lookout for a place to call our own?
Theme #2: Spring Fling
And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering -- the day after the sabbath -- you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week -- fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:15-16)
Just like Passover, Shavuot has its roots in both agricultural and sacrificial patterns, not necessarily in historical events.
You are to observe Shavuot, the festival commemorating the Giving of the Law not only for the sake of the statutes for which we would never have felt a need if they had not been set down in the Torah, but also in thanksgiving for the laws which readily make sense even to the human mind, such as the laws pertaining to compassion on the unfortunate and charity to the poor. For experience has shown that, without faith in God, man is liable to become like a wild beast which has not a spark of compassion and is therefore capable of committing the basest crimes in order to satisfy his selfish desires. Only if you will observe the commandments concerning the leaving of parts of your harvest for the poor and the stranger are you permitted to proclaim the festival of Shavuot as “a holy convocation” to give thanks even for such readily understandable commandments of charity and compassion as these, for had the Torah not been given, you might never had come to observe them. -- Meshekh Hakhmah
Every Shavuot, Rabbi Yosef would say, “Prepare me a feast of a third-born calf! If not for this day which is the source of it all, why! there are lots of “Joes” out there on the streets.” – BT Pesahim 68b
No symbolic ritual was instituted for Shavuot to mark the Sinaitic Revelation, for the reason that it cannot be translated into the tangible language of symbol. The Children of Israel had been commanded to take heed “that you saw no likeness on the day that the Lord spoke unto you at the Horeb from the midst of the fire”, so as not to become involved in any idolatrous, anthropomorphic conception of the divinity. They were simply bidden to commemorate the historic experience. They would celebrate on the day of the giving of the Law the conclusion of the harvest as well, to give thanks to Him on bringing their first-fruits to the Sanctuary and acknowledge that He is the Lord of all to Whom it was meant to pay homage and Whose commandments they were to obey. By this they would reenact the promise they made on Sinai, “We shall do and we shall hearken.” -- David Hoffmann
Questions for Discussion:
Meshekh Hakhmah believes that observance of the Torah is necessary for us to act with proper compassion and selflessness, and that we would never have those traits were it not for the Torah. Is it possible for people to think and act ethically without a religious context? If so, what is the basis of their ethics? Is it possible that their ethics may have their basis in religious texts, even if they themselves do not observe the religion itself?
Rabbi Yosef's quote in Pesahim shows that he believes that observance of the Torah -- even in its finest details -- makes him special, more than just an "ordinary Joe." How does the Torah enable us to feel special? Are there passages from the Torah that allow us to feel "more special" than others?
Just as Passover is an amalgamation of a springtime festival and a celebration of the Exodus, Hoffmann attempts to find a link between the aspect of Shavuot linked to the conclusion of the harvest and the aspect related to the Revelation at Mount Sinai. Does he succeed? Does the story of the giving of the Torah provide a fitting conclusion to the Exodus narrative, in the same way that the season of Shavuot provides a proper conclusion to the harvest?