Category Archives: Torah Ecology

Torah Ecology: Behar-Behukotai (Lev. 25:1-27:34)

This portion expresses one of the most soaring, beautiful, inspirational ideas in the entire Torah. I’m just going to free-float with it a little, enjoy the words and the resonances, the lofty ideas and the vision.

The Torah talks about G-d, humanity and creation and the relationship between them. Over and over the Torah portrays the ethical consciousness that pervades everything. In the Garden or beyond its border, activity in each realm affects the rest. In the words of the Tom Dundee song, “It’s all such a delicate balance, takes away just as much as it gives, to live it is real, to love it is to feel, you’re part of what everything is.”

The Torah then narrows the focus to a local community, a group of people entrusted to create the Garden in their midst, a place to till the soil and cultivate just relations between neighbors, a place where there should be no violence or bloodshed.

Then in Leviticus 20:22, we read these words, seemingly harsh, “Ye shall therefore keep all My statutes, and all Mine ordinances, and do them, that the land, whither I bring you to dwell therein, vomit you not out.” This elaborates an amazing theme of Torah, though, that all of creation is continuous with transcendence, all is in a “delicate balance,” and human transgression in one part of the environment causes severe consequences throughout. G-d turns G-d’s back, and the land vomits out the offenders.

These words remind us of human independence and responsibility in the fabric of creation and invite reflection today as we face unprecedented migrations and disruptions across the globe, a return of repressive regimes and catastrophic climate changes.

Chapter 25 of Leviticus, the first section of Behar-Behukotai, develops the idea of the Shabbaton and the Jubilee Year, exalted, visionary concepts:

Lev. 25:4 But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the LORD; thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard (וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת, שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ–שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה: שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע, וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר).

Lev. 25:10 And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family (וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם, אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה, וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ, לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ; יוֹבֵל הִוא, תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם, וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל-אֲחֻזָּתוֹ, וְאִישׁ אֶל-מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁב).

We could rely on a rationalist interpretation of these words and say these ancients knew about crop rotation and letting the land lie fallow as ways to improve production.  That intention is probably there, but we miss the larger meaning if we stop at that. As G-d and humanity work six days and rest on the seventh, the land works six years and rests in the seventh. The delicate balance between G-d, humanity and creation comes with rest for all, freedom and an opportunity for every part of creation and G-d’s self to lean back and appreciate the result of their work.

This majestic order and rhythm, pervaded by ethical consciousness, finds expression in the 50th year as well, the Jubilee Year, when liberty is proclaimed throughout the land. Seven cycles of seven years plus one year, like the eighth day after a birth or the eighth day after a cycle of purification, and everything returns to its place in the natural order, an order founded on freedom and resulting in a harmonious balance throughout the whole environment of what is. Those who suffered misfortune, were impoverished and had to sell their land or themselves into servitude return to their possession or their families. It is a time for rejoicing, when creation regains its original balance and order, the land no less than its inhabitants.

What an astonishing idea. I have to wonder, if all of creation participated in a Shabbaton, regular times of rest, to appreciate, enjoy and feel gratitude for the fruits of our labors, would the world work differently? If we understood the potential devastation that results from impulsive, thoughtless actions, would we cultivate our capacity for conscious choice? If we lived the ideal of the Jubilee, recognizing that we are all part of the fabric of everything that is, that the natural order of things is founded on freedom and the dignity of G-d, creation and our fellow human beings, accepting with humility and gratitude our place in the fabric of all that is, what would it be like?

Torah Ecology: Emor (Lev 21:1-24:23)

It’s hard not to notice that the last chapter in the portion that precedes this week, Kedoshim, concerns a stoning and the last chapter in this week’s portion, Emor, does as well. This signals me to an organizational scheme that doesn’t quite correspond to this week’s portion.

Structure communicates meaning, particularly in the relationship between the parts of the structure. As someone once said, the parts of a house may have little significance as isolated items, but in a built house, the relationship of each part to any other signifies something. While this portion is a work in progress, I notice the following structure when I include the stoning at the end of Kedoshim:

1a – Stoning (seed to Molech, ghosts, familiar spirits, sexual immorality – blood is upon them, so land doesn’t cast you out) – 20:2, 27

2a – Priests (no death contact or mourning rituals, no contact with sexual immorality, no blemishes) – 21:1 – 21:24

3a – Holy things (priests cannot approach or eat holy things when they are impure, others never) – 22:1 – 22:16

** – Offerings (No blemishes, no foreigners, sacrificial animals must be older than 7 days) – 22:17 – 22:33

3b – Holy times (Shavuot 7 weeks + 1 day – 7 lambs; Rosh Hashana 7th mo. 1st da.; Yom Kippur 7th mo. 10th da.; Sukkot 7th mo. 15th da. – 1st fruits 7 days) – 23:1 – 23:43

2b – Priests (Kindle perpetual light, set Shabbat (7th da.) cakes in order, eat priestly food) – 24:1 – 24:9

1b – Stoning (Blasphemer, Law of Retaliation, same law for stranger & home born) – 24:10 – 24:23

I’ll elaborate a little on the elements of this structure. Stonings bracket the section, referring to presence in the land — when the most recent focus of the text was the desert encampment.

“The people of the land shall stone him with stones…” (עַם הָאָרֶץ, יִרְגְּמֻהוּ בָאָבֶן) and “…so the land doesn’t vomit you out…” (וְלֹא-תָקִיא אֶתְכֶם, הָאָרֶץ). The other end of the bracket, the stoning for the blasphemer, also refers, somewhat more obliquely, to the land: “…’Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home-born…'” (מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם, כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח יִהְיֶה).

The number 7 also plays prominently in this segment, beginning with the center of the chiasm and continuing through 3b and 2b. We know the number play is intentional since only two of three pilgrimage festivals are mentioned. Passover, the third, isn’t mentioned because it’s in the first month so wouldn’t add to the scheme. The number seven generally signals creation — either the stories and their associated themes or the created world.

Priests form parallel components with what priests must not do if they are to maintain their purity in 2a and what they must do as their sacred duties forever in 2b. Finally in 3a and 3b, we have holy things and holy times.

While stonings for giving “seed” to another god and blasphemy envelope the chiasm, offerings serve as the centerpiece of it and of service to G-d in the land.  The land itself becomes part of the dramatic interaction, vomiting out its inhabitants who give to Molech what is due to G-d.

This structure reveals a relationship between G-d, creation and humanity on one level and on another, more specific, level between G-d, the land of Israel and the Israelites. All are actors in a drama, essentially another creation story, that elaborates these relationships. On the borders of the creation story is the ever-present possibility of a roll back of creation similar to the one portrayed in the Ten Plagues that befell the Egyptians.


Jewish Virtual Library has this to say about stoning:

“Many of the crimes for which any biblical punishment is prescribed carry the death penalty. The three methods of executing criminals found in the Bible are stoning, burning, and hanging.

“Stoning was the instinctive, violent expression of popular wrath (Ex. 17:4, 8:22; Num. 14:10; I Sam. 30:6; I Kings 12:18; II Chron. 10:18), and is often expressly prescribed as a mode of execution (Lev. 20:2, 27, 24:16; Num. 15:35; Deut. 13:11, 17:5, 21:21, 22:21, et al.). As the survival of vindicta publica, it was and remained characterized by the active participation of the whole populace (Lev. 24:16; Num. 15:35; Deut. 17:7; et al.) – all the people had to pelt the guilty one with stones until he died. Stonings were presumably the standard form of judicial execution in biblical times (Lev. 24:23; Num. 15:36; I Kings 21:13; II Chron. 24:21).”


Accordingly I understand the two stonings that bracket this material as public acts to avert catastrophe for the entire community. Giving seed to Molech, chasing after ghosts and familiar spirits, certain kinds of sexual immorality, and blaspheming are crimes against the body of Israel and will result in their being “vomited” from the land, essentially a roll back of creation for the whole Israelite community.

In this way, the section elaborates familiar Torah themes (creating a world and rolling back creation) applied specifically to the Israelites in the land of Israel.

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Torah Ecology: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim (Lev 16:1-18:30, 19:1-20:27)

If the first three chapters of Genesis set out the framework for the Torah project, Leviticus 16 forms its narrative heart. Positioned between the Purity Code and the Holiness Code, it ties together two parts of a central Torah concept in a dramatic Day of Atonement ritual of two goats, one for the Lord and one for Azazel.

In this way, Leviticus is the center of the narrative structure of the Torah. This narrative, beginning in the Garden account of Genesis, lays out a theology and an ontology and details the relationships between G-d, creation and human beings. It teaches how human beings, body and soul inextricably linked, can navigate through the real world and come close to G-d.

In the Garden story, the biblical text provides this theology and anthropology in the symbolism of the two trees. Leviticus actualizes the story in real life beyond the Garden through ritual (purity) and ethical (holiness) codes, the first governing the relationship between G-d and human beings, the second among human beings. In the Day of Atonement ritual, a carefully orchestrated series of events culminates in a two-goat rite. The first is for the Lord, sacrificed on the altar, the second for Azazel, sent alive into “the solitary place.” The first goat removes ritual sins, sins against G-d, while the second removes ethical sins, sins against one’s fellow human being, sins that destroy community.


Leviticus actualizes the creation stories of the first three chapters of Genesis. The Garden story tells us of two trees, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the center of the Garden, indeed in the center of the story, the other the Tree of Life.  These two trees describe a theology and an ontology, answering questions about who God is, who the human being is, how they were intended to relate and how they do relate in an exilic world:  

And the Lord G-d said, “Now that humanity (ha-Adam) has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”  So the Lord G-d banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken.  He drove the human out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents a capacity for moral consciousness, which human beings share with G-d once they eat from that Tree. The Tree of Life represents a way in which the human being is radically different from G-d, namely s/he dies.  When the first humans eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the center of the Garden, they, and all of creation through them, are barred from the Tree of Life: “What if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!


From the last Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, “what happened in the Garden changed the entire structure of creation forever. On one side of the act of eating from the Tree is a harmonious system of differences, a world in which all creatures live in harmony and there is no bloodshed and no death. On the other side is exile into a blood-soaked world, a world in which the most basic act of nourishing oneself requires taking life. Like blood that both purifies and generates impurity, eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is an ambivalent image of love and unself-conscious obedience vs. full consciousness and moral responsibility.

“Humanity made the choice for full responsibility, becoming G-d-like in that way. In the process of making that choice, however, they generated consequences for all of creation, and they bear responsibility for every death. The reminders of the human role in altering the nature of creation with consequences for everything in it are birth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions, and the strange organic decay, perhaps living death, associated with leprosy. Thus birth, death, disease, food and sexuality are the points at which human beings confront their responsibility in this radically altered world.”


Chapter 16 of Leviticus is a bridge:

  1. On one side of the bridge are the purity regulations, connected with the Tree of Life, that culminate in Tazria-Metzora. These purity regulations concern birth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions and leprosy, signifying that part of our ontology that is non-volitional and part of nature. In the body/soul equation, purity regulations have to do with our body. Blood generates impurity outside the ritual frame in its association with death and violence — and inside the ritual frame purifies and atones. For the purpose of “drawing near” to G-d, a person engages in a set of rituals to separate from impurity, that characteristic which defines us as part of the created world.
  2. On the other side of the Chapter 16 bridge at the beginning of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim are the holiness regulations, matters of choice (volitional) and therefore of morality. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents these regulations. Holiness regulations have to do with our “soul.”

If we consider that all death is brutal, that no healthy creature seeks or wants death, the Purity Code reminds us that we are part of a world at once both beautiful and brutal. The Garden story tells us that as conscious, decision-making beings, we are responsible and enmeshed in guilt: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked…” (Gen. 3:7).  From last week’s portion, “Tazria-Metzora forces us to stop and consider an inescapable brutality at the core of life…”

The Purity Code requires the Holiness Code that follows chapter 16, which “reminds us of the moral demand that we do what we can to make life a little less brutal.” Through our moral choices, a decision-making capacity we have as humans that is represented in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, we have a G-d-like ability, and we must exercise it.

Failing to follow the commandments of the Holiness Code, whose driving purpose is to reduce the brutality of our existence and give it meaning, neglects our G-d-like nature for which we paid so dearly. We are then wholly driven by nature and instinct. Even moments of love and compassion or our vaunted human intelligence do not distinguish us from animals who also feel love and compassion and are also intelligent.

The purity regulations and the holiness regulations are clearly different in kind but, like body and soul, inextricably linked.


This week’s Torah portion, again a double portion, begins with Chapter 16 of Leviticus. This chapter contains the very strange episode of the goat for Azazel. Volumes have been written attempting to understand the meaning of these passages and who or what, exactly Azazel is. I’m going to bypass all of that and just try to focus on what the words in front of me seem to convey.

The portion begins with a reference to a story told in Lev. 10. In that story, Nadav and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, die when they offer “strange fire” at the altar in what was otherwise a supreme moment for the Aaronides in the newly built Tabernacle.  The reference accompanies a reminder of the danger in “coming close” to G-d, offering sacrifices (korbanot, sacrifices, means coming close): “Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover.” (Lev. 16:2)

Forewarned how important it is to follow the purification rituals, an elaborate series of preparations involving bathing in water and changing clothes leads into the first round of sacrifices. A second series of preparations follows those sacrifices, leading into the second round. Between the sin offerings and the burnt offerings, the goat for Azazel is sent into the wilderness, to “a land that is cut off” (I think a closer translation is “solitary” or “separated”).


16:3: Aaron is to bring a young bullock for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering. He kills the bullock of the sin-offering to make atonement for himself and his house and purifies the ark cover with its blood.

16:5: Aaron is to take two he-goats for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering on behalf of the Israelites. He takes the Israelites’ 2 he-goats and sets them before the Lord at the Tent of Meeting. Lots are cast on the 2 goats, “one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel.” The goat for the Lord is a sin-offering, which Aaron kills “for the people,” bringing its blood to sprinkle on and before the ark cover as he did with the blood of the bullock.

16:16: Having made atonement for himself and his house and for the people of Israel, Aaron then makes atonement for the holy place (the Tabernacle) because of their (the people of Israel) impurity and transgressions: “and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwelleth with them in the midst of their impurities” (הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם). A curious statement, that the Tabernacle “lives” with the people of Israel in this sea of impurities.

16:20: When Aaron finishes atoning for the “holy place” and the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he deals with the other goat, the goat for Azazel:

“And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness.” (וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת-שְׁתֵּי יָדָו, עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי, וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲו‍ֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-כָּל-פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל-חַטֹּאתָם; וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל-רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר, וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד-אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה).

“And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.” (וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲו‍ֹנֹתָם, אֶל-אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה; וְשִׁלַּח אֶת-הַשָּׂעִיר, בַּמִּדְבָּר).

16:23-24: The burnt offerings require another change of clothing and more bathing, after which Aaron sacrifices the two rams and makes the fat of the sin-offering smoke on the altar. The burnt offerings “make atonement for himself (Aaron) and for the people.”

Just to recount: Aaron bathes and changes his garments, then kills the bullock of the sin-offering to make atonement for himself and his house. He kills the goat for the Lord, a sin-offering on behalf of the people of Israel. He atones for and purifies the ark cover, the Holy of Holies, the altar and the Tent of Meeting. He places the sins of the community on the head of the goat for Azazel and dispatches him to the “solitary” place, then changes his garments and bathes again. He sacrifices the burnt offering and makes “atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel” and makes smoke on the altar from the fat of the sin-offering. Finally, we have wrap-up activities, removing the remains of the sin-offerings outside the camp. Those who let the goat for Azazel go and who burn the remains of the offerings wash their clothes, bathe and return to the camp.


What is going on here? Multiple purifications, multiple atonements, multiple sin-offerings. Shouldn’t one be enough? Why the goat for Azazel? And for what do the burnt offerings atone after all the sin-offerings and purifications and sending away the goat with all the sins of the community on its head?

Lev. 16:17 provides a clue. This verse tells us “there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he (Aaron) goeth in to make atonement in the holy place, until he come out, and have made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel.” This suggests a total house-cleaning, but in this case, impurities and sin are swept out the door before any can re-enter. The priests’ job is to clean the house, preparing it as a place for G-d and Israel to meet.

Impurity is tangible, and sin, when it enters the world, has body. Once atonement is offered and the meeting place for the divine-human encounter purified, the now lifeless impurities and sins must be removed like the skins and flesh and dung of the sin-offerings (the bullock and goat) when they are taken outside the camp and burned (Lev. 16:26). The sins on the head of the goat for Azazel parallel the lifeless remains of the sacrificial animals. The ritual parallels confirm this idea as both he who lets the goat for Azazel go and he who burns the impure remains of the sin-offering outside the camp wash their clothes and bathe before returning to the camp.

In another parallel, the goat for Azazel that carries away the moral sins of the community corresponds to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil while the goat for the Lord that purifies the Israelites and the Tabernacle corresponds to the Tree of Life.

Only when this lifeless refuse exits the camp can Aaron “offer his burnt-offering and the burnt-offering of the people,” completing the atonement process for himself and the people.

There is one more clue to what is happening, and this brings us full circle to the two trees and the associated holiness and purity themes. Lev. 16:16 describes the atonement in dual terms: “he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the children of Israel, and because of their…sins; and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwelleth with them in the midst of their impurities.” Lev. 16:19 refers solely to impurity:  “And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and purify it, and hallow it from the impurities of the children of Israel.”

Impurity is never used to describe the sins the goat carries out of the camp into the wilderness, only three words which do not typically refer to impurity but rather to moral misconduct: “And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins.

We read the dual terminology only one more time, and this is in a wrap-up passage describing the meaning of the whole occasion: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to purify you; from all your sins shall ye be pure before the LORD.” (Lev. 16:30)

This is what I read in Chapter 16 and why I place it at the center of the Torah: the first round of offerings, the bullock for Aaron and the goat for the Israelites, atone and serve to remove impurities from the environment and temporarily from Aaron and the Israelites so they may “draw near” to G-d. The remains of the sacrificial animals bearing impurities are removed from the camp and burned.

Similarly, the goat for Azazel carries the lifeless bodies of moral infractions, sins, outside the camp into a place that is “solitary” or “separated.” These are acts that destroy community and must be removed from it.

Lev. 16:30 in summing up indicates that at this most holy moment, a total house-cleaning is accomplished, the lifeless shells of impurities and moral infractions are gone, Israel is both pure and holy, and Israel and G-d meet.

A question remains in my mind about the nature of impurity. I have said before that I think impurity is more an issue of definition than a moral category. Impurity describes the nature of the human being bound by nature. It is involuntary and is a function of having a body. It is a transitory state. Rituals separate a person from their impurity for the purpose of coming close to G-d. Why, then, does chapter 16 link it so inextricably to holiness, our moral consciousness, our soul?

I believe that the preceding portion, Tazria-Metzora, with its allusions to the creation story, provide us that answer. Impurity has an overarching moral dimension in that it is associated with the first humans’ “meal in the Garden,” as they thoughtlessly eat from the tree with no real consideration of consequences. In that moment, in altering the structure of creation, they catapult themselves, all those who follow, indeed all of creation, into a world that is not only beautiful and nourishing but brutal and deadly.

The only antidote to this condition, the only possible balance for the consequences of their action, is to extend the realm of holiness, of moral consciousness. In this way, impurity/our bodies and holiness/our souls are inextricably and eternally linked as we struggle to fulfill our nature.


Note: I have tried to stay away from homiletics and specific faith interpretations in these analyses and use “evidence” from within the text to try to understand what it wants to say. I want to diverge from that for a moment to comment from a personal perspective on these last two double portions, for me both fascinating and difficult.

I find myself understanding, for the first time in my life, something about the idea of “original sin” and how interpreters might derive such a concept from the text, that somehow, through our bodies, we are trapped in a cycle of sin. The allusions in Leviticus’ Purity Code to the Garden story of Genesis give me a glimpse of a biblical awareness of human responsibility for our condition, even guilt.

As I experiment with a vegan diet, I become aware that no matter what I do, I cannot disentangle myself from responsibility for death and destruction.  Perhaps it is a human conceit to imagine we can extract ourselves from that cycle.  Even someone who eats plants kills. How many habitats do we unknowingly destroy when we till the soil? How many creatures do we knowingly kill because if we didn’t, we’d never harvest a bite? I seem to remember Kafka wrote about this problem in Der Hunger Künstler.

Part of me thinks it’s a continuum. We each must find our place on the continuum of taking and nurturing, contributing to death and brutality and to beauty and life. Each of us is required to make value judgments and difficult moral decisions. Part of me appreciates how some find meaning in a religion that says someone paid the giant debt humanity owes, removing our “guilt.” And part of me appreciates my own religion that offers a path to navigate through the world as it is, keeping my sights set not on extracting myself but on being the best I can be and working to expand the realm of holiness.

These are things I think about as I read these blood-soaked passages of Leviticus. When I visualize the scene in the Tabernacle, terrified animals, the bleating and bellowing, the slaughter, the blood, the stench, I’m horrified, and I wonder, how could this possibly have meaning? Somehow it did, and somehow the meaning is communicated in these texts if you look closely. The text evidences an awareness of human responsibility, even guilt, an awareness of the profound paradox of life and the debt humanity owes for its privileged position. Somehow sacrifice in its time paid a portion of that debt and allowed the Israelites to come near to G-d.

I also think of 9 billion land animals bred in the U.S. each year just to kill for food and trillions of aquatic animals.  I think of how that happens with most of us not even knowing about it and if we know about it not really experiencing responsibility for the commercialization of life and the suffering and carnage and brutality we cause with what’s on our plates. Then I see us right back at the tree in the middle of the Garden, poised to eat without consciously pondering the awesome consequences for ourselves and the rest of creation when we take that bite.

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Explaining My Torah Ecology Project

For those of you who follow my blog and who are puzzled with my Torah Ecology posts or find them unreadable…I would like to explain. In a few words, my blog is about religion and food and the intersection between them. This has been a lifelong interest.

This year I decided on a project to closely analyze the Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) portion by portion with an eye to food, animal rights and the environment. It is a research project using my own brain instead of outside commentaries and references telling me what the material says, although I occasionally look at material outside the text itself. Writing helps me think, and putting it into my blog preserves my thoughts for me and keeps me on schedule, moving through.

I am familiar with both traditional and modern techniques for reading the text including source criticism. I choose to treat the text I have in front of me as a unified document and to see what I can discover. The (Jewish) portions are simply an arbitrary division I chose to work with so I could manage the material.

Sometimes I see things I can’t figure out but want to note and come back to. Sometimes I include the Hebrew as a reminder to myself. Often the writing is heavy, heavier if I’m really searching — as has been the case in the last few weeks dealing with the sacrificial system. I also hope there are some insights in what I write.

Next year, with the perspective of close study of the entire Torah, I will go back and edit week-by-week. The year following, I will collect rabbinic comments on each portion. The year following, I will collect Christian comments on each portion. In the final year of my project, I will edit it all, write an introduction and a conclusion and publish it as a book.

I believe one thing it will show is how Judaism and Christianity developed from biblical religion — both legitimately springing from the same text but emphasizing different things and living in different historical/cultural contexts and therefore developing in different directions.

More importantly for my specific purpose in doing this, I think it will provide a biblically based foundation for thinking about food, the environment and animal rights — and it will show (me, at least) where Judaism and Christianity took those foundational concepts.

I’m not “speaking for” any religious perspective, just trying to understand a text that has been deeply meaningful in my own life and directs my action in the world. I’m interested in seeing what two interpretive traditions have seen in that text and done with it. And I continue to be interested in seeing how people across times and cultures and circumstances deal with the basic paradox of human existence, that it requires taking life to live.

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Torah Ecology: Tazria-Metzora (Lev 12:1-15:33)

Once upon a time I had a teacher who assigned me to read and report on a book titled Nizzahon Vetus, more fully titled, THE JEWISH-CHRISTIAN DEBATE IN THE HIGH MIDDLE AGES: A CRITICAL EDITION OF THE NIẒẒAḤON VETUS. The book is a compendium of medieval Christian-Jewish forced debates.

I confess I was frustrated and more than a little irritated with the assignment, which didn’t seem to correspond to any of my current interests. Have you ever tried to read an encyclopedia? If you have, you can understand my frustration.

I usually fell asleep after two or three entries. I had this gnawing feeling I had been set up to fail the final exam, which was the report on this very unreadable book, the kind of thing you might buy and stick on your shelf as a reference. As my irritation grew, so did my determination to find something comprehensive and significant to develop for my report.

I started to notice repeating words and themes and decided to treat this very unliterary piece of work like a piece of literature. I tracked the themes and repeating words. This, by the way, was in the days before computers were in every home.

Sometimes the most arcane texts reveal unexpected riches. In that case, I was startled by the accumulation of blood imagery, a medieval obsession with blood. Jews, rendered impure by contact with blood and forbidden to consume it, could not comprehend the idea of a deity passing through the birth canal, graphically described in terms of blood. Christians were convinced that Jews engaged in nefarious activities with the blood of Christians. Both were in a constant state of shock at who they assumed the other was. There was a gulf between their worlds, and it was filled with blood.

This week as I studied Tazria-Metzora, a combined portion that culminates the Purity Code in Leviticus, I remembered that experience studying Nizzahon Vetus. The recollection was stirred by two things: the encyclopedic nature of the material and the way blood dripped, poured, splashed and spilled through nearly every word of the narrative.


As I suggested last week with Shemini, Leviticus’ codes actualize the second creation story of Genesis, the Garden story.  The Purity Codes are a constant reminder that we are part of nature in all its beauty and brutality. We are born and we die, and in between we are subject to organic decay. The Holiness Code reminds us of the G-d-like part of our nature, our moral understanding and ability to make moral decisions.

Blood is the scarlet thread that winds through the narrative and ties it all together. Blood makes a person impure…and blood purifies. It represents life, and it represents death, operating at the boundary between life and death. Blood expresses thanks…and it atones, paying a debt humanity owes, a choice for freedom and moral consciousness that catapulted us into a world of life and death. Somehow the blood of slaughtered creatures accumulating on the altar demands that we exercise our moral faculty, a distinguishing capability that came at such a high price.

Blood is at the center of the priestly religion of the Torah. If we can set aside the strangeness of this text from our contemporary perspective and pay attention to the details of blood, the contexts in which it appears, how it is treated in each context, how the contexts relate, we can begin to understand something about the meaning of sacrifice in this text.

For Shemini, I proposed these thoughts about blood:

“As the priests operate at the boundary between life and death and creation and Transcendence on behalf of the Israelites, blood is a boundary issue. It represents life, but outside of a living creature represents death. It purifies in a ritual setting but outside of cultic worship creates impurity.

“In the symbolic shorthand of the Torah, The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis tells us how human beings are like G-d. The Tree of Life and Death tells us how they are different from G-d.

“As a bloodless ‘meal’ generates the events that led to this situation (eating from the Tree), blood-filled meals centered around the altar represent a path to repair. Since a human being generated the crack in creation, human life is due for the repair — but G-d substitutes animals for the Israelites.”

In some earlier work on Niddah, the purity regulations surrounding childbirth and menstruation, I found:

“…blood has the power to communicate impurity. (Stephen) Geller attaches this negative valence to the violence that is part of human nature and which results in unlawful bloodshed. As part of lawful bloodshed, that is, as part of the sacrificial system, blood purifies.

“…Geller’s (analysis) furthers our understanding of blood in describing its dual power: ‘To [the priestly writer] blood is, in the ‘old dispensation’ of Noah, a symbol of human sinfulness. In the ‘new dispensation’ of Sinai it is to become the means of atonement for sin.’

“In the vocabulary of ritual impurity, blood … purifies (e.g., the consecration of the priests in Leviticus 8 and the parallel purification of the lepers in Leviticus 14). In the Yom Kippur ritual, it purifies the community. Out of context, it renders a person impure.

“At the same time, however, there is an absolute prohibition on the consumption of blood (Lev. 3:17, 7:26, 17:10-14, Deut. 12:15-16, 20-24). This prohibition applies in the context of sacrificial worship as well as outside of it — and extends not only to Israel but to all human beings (Gen. 9:4). It is presented along with a prohibition of murder.

“The rationale appended to the law is that the life is in the blood (Lev. 17:11, 14, Deut. 12:23). Only God “consumes” life and death; the human being is barred from consuming the blood as s/he is barred from the Garden lest s/he eat from the Tree of Life and Death.”


On a quick count, I find at least 25 uses of the number 7 with reference to a woman’s days of impurity after the birth of a boy,  or the days of impurity for a suspected outbreak of leprosy of humans, textiles or houses, or a woman’s days of impurity for menstruation. There are additional oblique references when 7 is doubled to 14 days of impurity following the birth of a female child.

The number 7 always recalls the creation story, and this particular portion is full to overflowing with those allusions. In addition, two verses, 13:2 and 13:9, use the word “Adam” אָדָם to refer to a man declared leprous by the priest. In 13:29 and 13:38, the words “Ish” and “Isha,” וְאִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה, refer to a man or a woman who are pronounced “pure” by the priest, without manifestations that conform to leprosy. “Adam” for the leper rather than “Ish” is another clear reference to the creation story.

It is hard to disregard the links through allusion between the number 7, impurity associated with childbirth, menstruation, leprosy, blood and the Garden creation story. When a woman’s “days of purification” are fulfilled, she is “cleansed from the fountain of her blood” and offers a lamb and a pigeon or turtle-dove or two pigeons or two turtle-doves.  One of the set is a burnt-offering, but the other is a sin-offering. Why a sin-offering after childbirth? A guilt-offering after an episode with leprosy? The association to the Garden story gives us a hint.

What happened in the Garden changed the entire structure of creation forever. On one side of the act of eating from the Tree is a harmonious system of differences, a world in which all creatures live in harmony and there is no bloodshed and no death. On the other side is exile into a blood-soaked world, a world in which the most basic act of nourishing oneself requires taking life. Like blood that both purifies and generates impurity, eating from the Tree is an ambivalent image of love and obedience vs. becoming fully conscious and morally responsible.

Humanity made the choice for full responsibility, becoming god-like in that way. In the process of making that choice, however, they generated consequences for all of creation, and they bear responsibility for every death. The reminders of the human role in altering the nature of creation with consequences for everything in it are birth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions, and the strange organic decay, perhaps living death, associated with leprosy. Thus birth, death, food and sexuality are the points at which human beings confront their responsibility in this radically altered world.

Perhaps the human choice would have been less ambiguous had it been made consciously, thoughtfully. In the story, though, there was no consideration of consequences, Adam and Eve’s own or the rest of their world. This failure to choose consciously is the real sin and the one for which they and those who follow must atone. Blood for blood, death for death.


Tazria-Metzora forces us to stop and consider an inescapable brutality at the core of life.  The biblical authors recognized it. The medievals recognized it. They had their ways of coping and urging us to confront it and exercise our moral nature, improving our world. Tazria-Metzora reminds us of the moral demand that we do what we can to make life a little less brutal.

When we fully absorb these words and the reality behind them, they demand that we set aside all the mechanisms we have for ignoring and escaping a brutal reality at the base of life. They demand that we face injustice in the world and respond with whole hearts. They demand our attention to pain and suffering and ignorance and indifference. They demand that we consider the consequences of our fully conscious choices, doing what we can to minimize the suffering of all creatures and of the planet, doing what we can to improve life for us all.

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Torah Ecology: Shemini (Lev 9:1-11:47)

A Tale of Two Trees (Gen 2:4-3:24)

Relationship, as psychologists tell us, depends as much on separation between entities as it does on connection. The Torah is a story of two trees and three domains. Through the symbolism of the two trees, it tells us how the domains are similar, how they are different and how they relate.

Understanding the domains and relationships set out in the second and third chapters of Genesis is a foundation to understanding the book of Leviticus, in particular the portion this week, Shemini.

In the second and third chapters of Genesis/Bereishit, the Torah identifies three domains:

  • Transcendence/G-d
  • Creation/Nature (earth, air and water and the life in them)
  • Human

The story in these chapters tells us that Transcendence, although part of creation through free choice as when G-d walks in the Garden, is not controlled by the processes of creation.

The story also tells us that human beings become god-like with respect to moral reasoning and decision-making capability — but differ from G-d in that post “exile,” they are part of nature.

G-d tells Adam and Eve that if they eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden, they will surely die (מוֹת תָּמוּת). Instead, when the human beings eat from that Tree, not only they but all of creation become subject to the processes of nature. This tells us that human beings are like the rest of nature and all of nature, all creatures, every plant and every cell, differs from G-d in this critical way.

Adam and Eve do not eat from the Tree of Life and Death, and the expulsion from the Garden with keruvim (cherubs) guarding the entry against their return tells us they never will. Death is part of the life of every organism.

It’s tempting to say that while human beings are like the rest of creation in being subject to life and death, they differ from it in their capacity for moral reasoning. There is evidence to suggest that is the biblical point of view, and it is the ability for moral reasoning that privileges humans over the animal world. The symbolic evidence for this claim is Adam and Eve’s awareness of their sexuality as a moral, not an instinctual, issue.

While death is part of life for humanity, differentiating human beings from G-d, moral decision-making capability symbolized in sexual awareness differentiates humans from the rest of nature, specifically animals.

At the same time, this differentiation isn’t categorical, and an animal, the snake, is also accountable for the transgression in the Garden.  It is, perhaps, best to leave the boundary between humanity and nature less focused, noting only that humanity has a defined role with regard to Transcendence, nature and other living beings, which we discover as we read the rest of the Torah. The Torah describes correct human relationships with these other domains, tested with a local community  (Israelites) after the failure of globalism.

The Garden is an ideal world where all creatures live in harmony, and there is no bloodshed and no death. Adam and Eve share this space not only with the rest of creation but with Transcendence as G-d walks through the Garden. In exile, the boundaries between domains become sharper as relationships intensify and become more complex, centering around life, death, blood, food, sexuality and the capacity for moral reasoning.

G-d is not part of the cycle of life and death, but the rest of nature is; yet there are also divisions within the world of nature. In the new creation post-flood, humans are alienated from their environment, engaging in hard labor to reap benefits from an unyielding earth. Mirroring the divine-human relationship, the relationship with the animal kingdom is defined by life and death and who controls the boundary:

Gen 9:3-4: “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all wherewith the ground teemeth, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered.  Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all …” וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם, יִהְיֶה, עַל כָּל-חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ, וְעַל כָּל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם; בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל-דְּגֵי הַיָּם, בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ. כָּל-רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא-חַי, לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה:  כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כֹּל.

Miscellaneous Notes on Genesis/Bereishit 

1) Food and eating (Adam and Eve eat from the Tree) generate the chain of events leading to boundary-setting focused around life, death, blood, food, sexuality and the capacity for moral reasoning.

2) Self-aware sexuality symbolizes the transition to moral reasoning and decision-making capability. Where G-d “creates” life, human beings “beget,” a function of relationship.

3) Humans in the post-deluvian world are permitted ALL living creatures for food. We know from Gen 7:2-3 that these creatures include those that are “impure:”

“Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee seven and seven, each with his mate; and of the beasts that are not clean two [and two], each with his mate…of the fowl also of the air, seven and seven, male and female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth” (מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ. גַּם מֵעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, לְחַיּוֹת זֶרַע, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ).

This week’s portion, Shemini, brings in a host of dietary prohibitions related to “impure” creatures in the animal domain (land), the bird domain (air) and the domain of fishes (water). I explain these new instructions by pointing out that the prohibitions are delivered not to all humanity but to a local community, the Israelites, as part of instructions that define not only their relationships with creation and Transcendence but their task in the world.

Shemini Actualizes The Story

Shemini actualizes through regulations in a local community the relationships between domains put forward in the Garden creation story.

Leviticus 9 and 10 deal with the priests, who operate at the boundary between life and death, creation and Transcendence. Leviticus 11 deals with the Israelites as they come up against the same boundary with regard to animal consumption. In this portion, we see repeated use of the terms holy, pure and impure.

What do these terms mean? The explanation above of chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis helps with definitions.

Holiness. Adam and Eve eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, gaining the capability of moral reasoning. The holiness regulations of Leviticus actualize the symbolism of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden story. Holiness in Leviticus is associated with morality, volitional issues. Now that the human being has the capacity for moral reasoning and is responsible to exercise it, holiness regulations show human beings how to choose correctly in exercising their capacity. The intent of these regulations is to transform the Israelites into a holy people, people exercising moral judgment in the real world beyond the Garden.

We also learn that holiness is a reciprocal process, a relationship. G-d makes the Israelites holy in the sense that G-d provides the laws, the path to holiness. Through their action, the Israelites sanctify G-d or make G-d holy. Following the death of Aaron’s sons, Moses says to Aaron: “This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified (made holy), and before all the people I will be glorified” (הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד).

Purity. Adam and Eve do not eat from the Tree of Life and Death. Their action and consequent expulsion from the Garden make all creation subject to the processes of nature, including sexuality for procreation, and death. The purity regulations of Leviticus and other sections of the Torah detail these processes to include child-birth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions and leprosy (organic decay), all non-volitional matters, in the language of the Torah, purity issues.

The meaning of the Tree of Life and Death in Genesis is actualized in Leviticus in the purity regulations dealing with natural processes that generate temporary impurity. Purity regulations govern how to reestablish a state of purity to allow close contact with G-d. Following these regulations establishes a ritual space where, for a time, the Israelite is more god-like, temporarily pure and holy as G-d is both pure and holy.

While purity is not a moral issue per se, these regulations are an inextricable part of expanding the domain of holiness in the world. Our bodies which are subject to natural law differentiate us from Transcendence — but without them we would have no opportunity to transform ourselves into holy people, broadening the domain of holiness in the world.

We also see that as much as blood was absent from the narrative in Genesis 2-3, it continues a journey toward omnipresence in these three chapters that make up Shemini, occurring 6 times:

  • 3 times referring to purifying the altar
  • 1 time referring to the burnt offering
  • 1 time referring to the peace offering
  • 1 time referring to the missing goat of the sin offering

As the priests operate at the boundary between life and death and creation and Transcendence on behalf of the Israelites, blood is a boundary issue. It represents life, but outside of a living creature represents death. It purifies in a ritual setting but outside of cultic worship creates impurity.

In the symbolic shorthand of the Torah, The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis tells us how human beings are like G-d. The Tree of Life and Death tells us how they are different from G-d. As a bloodless “meal” generates the events that led to this situation (eating from the Tree), blood-filled meals centered around the altar represent a path to repair. Since a human being generated the crack in creation, human life is due for the repair — but G-d substitutes animals for the Israelites.

The precariousness of this substitution is evident in the story of Nadav and Abihu in 9:23-10:20, a continuation of the narrative of Aaronide decline that began in Exodus 32. Just as many of the Children of Israel died at the hand of the Levites that day for the sin of the Golden Calf, so the sons of Aaron die on this day for the sin of “strange fire.” Just as the boundary-crossing action of Adam and Eve precipitated an irreparable rupture in the relationship between G-d and creation, Aaron’s action in leading the people in worshiping the calf precipitated irreparable damage in the relationship between the Aaronides, the priests who navigate at the boundary of life and death,  and G-d.

The careless, boundary-crossing action of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, reveals a familial flaw, and they themselves become the atoning sacrifice, a sin offering, as we learn when Moses tells their relatives to remove the ashes outside the camp just as they do the sin offering.

As fire comes forth from before the Lord and consumes the burnt offering and fat on the altar in Lev 9:24, fire comes forth from before the Lord and devours Nadav and Abihu. Again, the imagery of eating accompanies the fact of lives that include death:

Lev 10:2 – And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD (וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְה וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה).

Ex 24:17 – And the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel – (וּמַרְאֵה כְּבוֹד יְהוָה, כְּאֵשׁ אֹכֶלֶת בְּרֹאשׁ הָהָר, לְעֵינֵי, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל).

If the Tabernacle is the Garden, and the altar in the middle of it is the Tree in the middle of the Garden, the priests standing in for the people of Israel are Adam and Eve. Their “strange fire” parallels eating from the Tree, bringing about a cataclysmic result, this time suffered by the priests, not the Israelites whom they represent and not all of creation. Aaron understands the nature of this transgression and priestly responsibility in it as they represent and substitute for the people, even for all creation. He learned the lesson of the Calf and accepts the consequence, standing in silence when Moses tells him not to mourn his sons but to leave that to the Israelite community.

Priests in Shemini

“Shemini details two sets of laws, laws for the priests related to sacrificial worship and laws for the Israelites related to what living creatures they can eat. The rationale for the dietary laws is very explicit: “For I am the LORD that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיֹת לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי). Gen 11:45. From this we understand that the Israelites’ job is to become a holy people.

So, too, is the “job” of the priests explicit and the reasons for the regulations that apply to them: “that you die not…that you may put difference between the holy and the common, and between the impure and the pure…that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.” (Lev:9-11). The purity regulations preserve the lives of those who operate at the boundary, they provide the training and knowledge necessary to differentiate between the pure and the impure, and they prepare the priests to be Israel’s teachers as they take a leadership role in the transformation of the people.

In the Torah universe, when one approaches G-d, one must be as “like” G-d as possible. G-d is holy, and the Israelites have the potential for holiness. G-d is pure, that is, not subject to the processes of nature, to birth and death. While nothing that lives can escape impurity, subjection to the processes of nature, impurity is a temporary and changeable state except for certain animals who are permanently impure for reasons I’ll examine below. Ritual is a mechanism that allows a person to be pure for a space in time. Time (often 8 days), water, blood and changing to special garments effect the transformation to a state of purity.

But like the two Trees in the Garden, holiness and purity are inextricably linked. Without a body subject to impurity, there is no opportunity to exercise moral decision-making capability that leads to holiness. Without moral decision-making capability, a human being has only instinctual awareness of life and death and no need or ability to transcend that dimension through ritual. In a cost-benefit analysis, a human being can as well be the sacrifice as any other animal.

Torah aims to bring the Israelite close to G-d by transforming the Israelite into a god-like being, both holy (making right moral decisions) and pure (temporarily beyond the processes of birth and death and decay). This transformation places the worshiping Israelite temporarily back in the Garden, a frame where all of creation lives in harmony and co-extensively with G-d and the rest of creation. The ritual frame actualizes memory, generating the energy to extend the domain of holiness in the world.

As I seek to understand the mechanism of sacrifice, I find it difficult to understand the idea of activating the harmony of the Garden with its co-extensive domains and bloodlessness on the basis of a blood-filled sacrificial ritual. As the paradox that sustaining life requires taking life is insoluble, perhaps too, there is no resolution to the paradox embedded in these rituals other than to recognize them as part of a struggle toward extending the boundaries of holiness in the real world in which we live beyond the Garden.

Animal Food in Shemini

While the choice of what to eat is a matter of holiness (volitional), the state of being in creation generates impurity and is a matter of purity (non-volitional).

Some creatures are impure by definition, and the Torah specifies them by class defined by domain or environment, earth, air and water. These creatures are forbidden to the Israelite as food in this new set of prohibitions related to meat-eating.

  • Lev 11:1-8 – earth creatures you can eat and 4 exceptions
  • Lev 11:9-12 – water creatures you can eat and those you cannot, including swarming creatures in waters
  • Lev 11:13 -19 – air creatures (fowl); Lev 20-25 swarming winged insects with 4 exceptions
  • Lev 11:26-28 – earth creatures you cannot eat including swarming things with specifics

Generally the Torah detests “swarming” creatures, whether on the land, in the waters or in the air. I have the thought that “swarming” suggested chaos and lawlessness, generating horror in the Israelite imagination.

Water creatures are the most vague, the only category without specific examples to illustrate it. In “Food Regulation in Biblical Law,” submitted to the Harvard Law School, Wendy Ann Wilkenfeld summarizes the many theories offered through history about the meaning of these dietary prohibitions. In that paper, she reports Jacob Milgrom’s comments that the ancient Israelites had limited knowledge of fish and their habits since they did not have a lot of access to fish for geographic and cultural reasons.

While the lists of forbidden earth and air creatures (birds) are more specific, there are no category specifics offered for air creatures except for insects. The birds mentioned, however, are all birds of prey (Lev 11:13-19).

Similarly, animals on paws of Lev 11:27 and animals without the dual traits of chewing their cud and cloven feet are either carnivores, omnivores or while technically herbivores, occasionally eat other creatures (Lev 11:4-11:8).

It’s tempting to say the guiding principle is that impure creatures and thus the creatures forbidden to the Israelites for consumption are those which eat other creatures and the animals permitted for consumption are herbivores.  This observation connects again to the second and third chapters of Genesis where all creatures, including humans, were vegan.

I think, though, that creatures are permitted or forbidden based on whether or not they eat blood, which a predator, omnivore, carnivore or occasional carnivore does. Blood is forbidden for all humanity, not just Israelites, since “the life is in the blood.” In a further elaboration for Israelites striving for holiness, animals who eat blood are impure and prohibited to them. The blood prohibition, then, is a paradoxical statement of reverence for life.

My intuition tells me that much of the cultic system is a framework for dealing with the fact of bloodshed in the world including the blood shed involved in eating other living creatures. It deals with the central paradox of life that incontrovertibly includes death, that in eating, we take life, a fact that requires atonement, a restoration of balance and harmony between domains.

The dietary regulations present a measured approach to conscious choice eating rather than a totalitarian approach. This measured approach is, perhaps, a statement of some humility before the mystery and paradox of life in which sustaining life requires taking life. There is no escape from that paradox, and atonement for the inevitable sins against life we commit in being part of nature is necessary.

On the larger scale, the atonement is for the human action that created this situation for all creation, and human life is what is due as repayment, making animal sacrifice an act of compassion toward G-d’s people. This act of compassion preserves in life those whose job it is to enlarge the boundaries of holiness in creation, creating an ever-larger framework for a harmonious relationship with the rest of creation and Transcendence.

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Passover: You shall eat it “in panic”

“The Crossing of the Red Sea” by Nicolas Poussin
Nicolas Poussin • Public domain

“And thus shall ye eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste–it is the LORD’S passover” (וְכָכָה, תֹּאכְלוּ אֹתוֹ–מָתְנֵיכֶם חֲגֻרִים, נַעֲלֵיכֶם בְּרַגְלֵיכֶם וּמַקֶּלְכֶם בְּיֶדְכֶם; וַאֲכַלְתֶּם אֹתוֹ בְּחִפָּזוֹן, פֶּסַח הוּא לַיהוָה). – Ex 12:11

As we approach Passover, our rabbi focused in class yesterday on the Hebrew word, chipazon (“in haste” – בְּחִפָּזוֹן). “In haste” is the usual translation. He suggested the word really means, “in panic.” He talked about the idea that the Israelites were slaves, and that is a brutal and terrible state of being, but they had been there for 400 years, and they knew what to expect, knew what the next day would be like. The idea that this was their last evening where they were and that the next day they would begin their journey toward freedom and a new (and yet unknown) world was both exhilarating and terrifying, hence panic.

I recalled my own study of Va-era and Bo a few weeks back in which I focused on the past, the place where the Israelites were (rather than the future, where they were going, my rabbi’s focus) when I analyzed the Ten Plagues. I saw the Ten Plagues as a roll back of creation for the world of the Egyptians, a return to a pre-creation state of darkness and void with no future.

The Red Sea Crossing story emphasizes this theme: rushing forward in panic with the world behind dissolving and no clear vision of what is ahead.

These two ideas together, expressed in crossing through the sea, capture for me the Passover moment, בְּחִפָּזוֹן or panic, poised between the dissolution of the old world and the unknowability of what is to come, striking out toward the future based solely on faith.

I have been there, although as my Dad once suggested, without the faith. I experienced it as depression and terror. It is a powerful experience, and truly, it is faith that alleviates it and drives us forward. At that time so many years ago, I guess I finally did discover the rudiments of a faith of some sort, a voice from somewhere that said it was worth holding on, that something might yet come even though I couldn’t visualize it. I will think about that experience at my Seder this year, reliving the Exodus “as if” I were there.

I will think about our world today in which old orders dissolve all around us, and we drive forward despite our difficulty visualizing the future. I will imagine us crossing a great sea בְּחִפָּזוֹן, in panic, holding onto shreds of a faith that the new world we build will be a good one, one filled with justice for all creatures and all creation.

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Torah Ecology: Tzav (Lev 6:1-8:36)

Limestone Sculpture of the Old Testament Priest Aaron, ca. 1170. From Cathedral of Noyon, northern France. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Tzav continues the story of love, betrayal, jealousy and restoration begun in Ki Tissa, the Golden Calf episode. Ki Tissa was a remarkable account of “the deep wound in G-d that results from Israelite infidelity, a statement of the profound interdependence of the Israelites not only on the rest of their world and on each other but on G-d — and G-d on the Israelites.” In Tzav, we see evidence of efforts to restore the ruptured relationship between Aaron and G-d at the same time that we see hints of an ongoing disturbance in the relationship.

In a pattern we’ve come to recognize, the portion is structured with a series of seven speeches, marked by variations of the introduction, “And the Lord spoke to (x,y,z), saying…” (וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-??? לֵּאמֹר) – Lev 6:1, 6:12, 6:17, 7:22, 7:28 and 8:1). The seventh speech (Lev 8:31) contains a surprise, though: “And Moses said to Aaron and his sons…” (וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל-בָּנָיו)

While we’d expect this seventh unit to begin as the first six did, va-yidaber Adonai (the Lord spoke), it begins instead with va-yomer Moshe (Moses said).  In the rest of vs. 8:31, there is ongoing confusion about the source of the commands:  “And Moses said unto Aaron and to his sons: ‘Boil the flesh at the door of the tent of meeting; and there eat it and the bread that is in the basket of consecration, as I commanded, saying: Aaron and his sons shall eat it.'” (וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל-בָּנָיו, בַּשְּׁלוּ אֶת-הַבָּשָׂר פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וְשָׁם תֹּאכְלוּ אֹתוֹ, וְאֶת-הַלֶּחֶם אֲשֶׁר בְּסַל הַמִּלֻּאִים:  כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוֵּיתִי לֵאמֹר, אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו יֹאכְלֻהוּ) Who is “I”? It seems as though it should be G-d, but Moses delivers his speech in the first person in such a way that it seems to be Moses himself.

Two verses later, in Lev 8:33-34, Moses continues his instructions saying, “And ye shall not go out from the door of the tent of meeting seven days, until the days of your consecration be fulfilled; for He shall consecrate you seven days. As hath been done this day, so the LORD hath commanded to do, to make atonement for you.” (וּמִפֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא תֵצְאוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים–עַד יוֹם מְלֹאת, יְמֵי מִלֻּאֵיכֶם:  כִּי שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, יְמַלֵּא אֶת-יֶדְכֶם. כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה–צִוָּה יְהוָה לַעֲשֹׂת, לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם) With the third person pronoun “He,” we clearly understand the words are coming through Moses but from G-d, and the last statement confirms it, “the Lord commanded.” This subtle shift focuses attention on the change in presentation in vs. 31, with the words seeming to come from Moses, not G-d.

One other oddity of presentation hints at the meaning. In Lev 6:3, as the G-d speaks to Moses, G-d says, “And the priest shall put on his linen garment, and his linen breeches shall he put upon his flesh…” (וְלָבַשׁ הַכֹּהֵן מִדּוֹ בַד, וּמִכְנְסֵי-בַד יִלְבַּשׁ עַל-בְּשָׂרוֹ) That added detail, “upon his flesh,” is striking. The word “flesh” (בְּשָׂר – basar) is used repeatedly throughout this section, twelve times to be exact. In only one instance, Lev. 6:3, does it refer to the flesh of a human being. Every other reference is to an animal sacrifice.  In this way the text suggests that Aaron, like the sacrifice that substitutes for him and atones for him and the Israelites whom he represents, has an animal nature. Yes, part of his nature is also G-d-like, but here, the choice of the word basar focuses on that part of Aaron driven by instinct and emotion, ignoring his purpose-driven, G-d-like part.

On the one hand, we have a breach in the communication protocol, with Moses commanding Aaron, not G-d commanding Aaron through Moses. We could call this sloppy editing on the part of the redactor, but I believe it is more purposeful. Along with referring to Aaron’s “flesh,” his animal nature, I think the text suggests that all is not yet right in the world post-Calf. Aaron has not fully regained trust and stature.

Another interesting repeating word in this week’s portion is “excision” (generally applied in passive form – וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא – that person will be excised or cut off).

Karet (‘excision’) is the biblical penalty, for certain offences, of being ‘cut off from the people’; for example, for failing to be circumcised (Genesis 17:14); for eating leaven on Passover (Exodus 12:19); and for committing incest (Leviticus 20:17).” In Tzav, the word appears four times:

  • Lev 7:20 – But the soul that eateth of the flesh of the sacrifice of peace-offerings, that pertain unto the LORD, having his uncleanness upon him, that soul shall be cut off from his people (וְהַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר-תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר, מִזֶּבַח הַשְּׁלָמִים אֲשֶׁר לַיהוָה, וְטֻמְאָתוֹ, עָלָיו–וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, מֵעַמֶּיהָ).
  • Lev 7:21 – And when any one shall touch any unclean thing, whether it be the uncleanness of man, or an unclean beast, or any unclean detestable thing, and eat of the flesh of the sacrifice of peace-offerings, which pertain unto the LORD, that soul shall be cut off from his people (וְנֶפֶשׁ כִּי-תִגַּע בְּכָל-טָמֵא, בְּטֻמְאַת אָדָם אוֹ בִּבְהֵמָה טְמֵאָה אוֹ בְּכָל-שֶׁקֶץ טָמֵא, וְאָכַל מִבְּשַׂר-זֶבַח הַשְּׁלָמִים, אֲשֶׁר לַיהוָה–וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, מֵעַמֶּיהָ).
  • Lev. 7:25 – For whosoever eateth the fat of the beast, of which men present an offering made by fire unto the LORD, even the soul that eateth it shall be cut off from his people (כִּי, כָּל-אֹכֵל חֵלֶב, מִן-הַבְּהֵמָה, אֲשֶׁר יַקְרִיב מִמֶּנָּה אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה–וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הָאֹכֶלֶת, מֵעַמֶּיהָ).
  • Lev 7:27 – Whosoever it be that eateth any blood, that soul shall be cut off from his people (כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר-תֹּאכַל כָּל-דָּם–וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, מֵעַמֶּיהָ).

In these instances, the sins that generate karet, excision, are eating the sacrifice of peace while unclean (7:20) with elaboration of that in 7:21; eating the fat of the sacrifice by fire; and eating the blood of the sacrifice.

The term raises multiple questions. Why karet, excision, and not the phrase used elsewhere, “he shall be put to death?” Milgrom suggests that “the penalty of karet is limited to purely religious offences and is never enjoined for offences such as murder, the penalty for which is judicial execution.”

It is curious that in contrast to referring to Aaron’s person in Lev 6:3 with בְּשָׂר – basar (“flesh”), the text refers to the Israelites in these four passages with נֶפֶשׁ – nefesh (“soul”).  While basar focuses on the animal nature of the human being, nefesh focuses on our G-d-like nature. This supports Milgrom’s analysis, and we can understand karet as a punishment for those who reject that part of themselves that is G-d-like. This makes them ineligible for inclusion with a people G-d intends should be holy as G-d is holy.

These passages also remind us of a profound biblical discomfort with meat-eating as it is segregated from other consumption and circumscribed with many regulations about what one can eat, where one can eat it and how one must eat it. Failure to meet these exacting requirements is subject to severe punishment. Interestingly, the punishment is cast in terms of the duality of the human being. One may continue to “live,” but it is no longer a life in the community, a purpose-driven full life of body and soul, but rather a life driven only by instinct and emotions of the moment.

Similarly Aaron failed to fulfill his mission as a purpose-driven nefesh, acting instead on the level of basar – flesh. While the word karet is not used for Aaron, he does, indeed, seem to be “cut off” from his formerly exalted position. References to him usually include his sons (Aaron and his sons), as if the mantle of authority is passing to them. Aaron was not in evidence during the building of the tabernacle, and communication with G-d remains disrupted. From being the man G-d assigned to be Moses’ “prophet” (Ex 7:1-2), to speak for him to Pharaoh, Aaron is now silenced and silent.

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Torah Ecology: Vayikra (Lev 1:1-5:26)

The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 535. Purification of women. Leviticus cap 12 vv 2-5.


The first chapters of Genesis tell a story about the creation of the world.  It’s easy to read the story as a fanciful tale of a world without death, a world in which all of nature lives together in beautiful harmony. All needs are satisfied until something goes wrong.

It’s also possible to read the story on other levels and to find other messages. It is a theology and an anthropology, telling us something about the nature of G-d and the nature of human beings.

There are two trees in the Garden, one the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and one the Tree of Life and Death. Adam and Eve eat of the first and gain moral judgment and with it the responsibility for making moral decisions. They are cast from the Garden with keruvim (cherubs) barring the gate so they cannot reenter:

“And the Lord God said, ‘Now that man (ha-Adam) has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”  So the Lord God banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken.  He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the keruvim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.'” Genesis 3:22 – 24

We learn that human beings are like G-d in having moral judgment, but they are unlike G-d in being part of nature, subject, like everything in creation, to death.  What an amazing statement! Human beings differ from other creatures in just one way, the one way in which they are like G-d: they have the potential for moral reasoning and decision-making, for acting in the world on the basis of morality.


Just as we can read Genesis on more than one level, so we can read the Book of Leviticus, which gives concrete form to the theology and anthropology presented in Genesis. Leviticus appears to be a mere “how-to” manual for offering sacrifices, a natural next-step in the narrative we began in Exodus with building the tabernacle and ordaining the priests. More than that, though, it deepens our understanding of our nature as human beings and how we stand in relationship to G-d and nature. It is a treatise on conscious moral choice.

Leviticus is also a “how-to”manual for “drawing close” to G-d, connecting the finite and infinity.  The root of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, means “come close.”

The Israelite comes close to G-d in two ways that reflect the Genesis narrative: by being holy and pure.  Leviticus as a whole defines through ethical and ritual practice the relationship described in Genesis between God, human beings and nature.  This definition centers around the idea that God is both holy (makes the right moral choices) and pure (does not have a body and consequently is not subject to death and organic processes).

Conversely, the human being, like God, knows right from wrong and freely chooses; but the human being, unlike God, has a body that is subject to death and decay.  Holiness is essentially a moral category and a representation of similarity.  Impurity represents difference.

In approaching G-d, an Israelite should be “holy” as G-d is holy. This means they should make those moral choices that the Torah describes as holy. But how can a person become “pure” like G-d in order to come close, karov? And this is one important function of sacrifice, to remove ritual impurity, making the worshiper temporarily both holy and pure in the ritual space, ready to come close to G-d.

This portion shows us the close and inextricable link between body and soul, keva (routine) and kevannah (intention). We approach G-d as whole people, body and soul, both pure and holy, through the routine of ritual and through our intentional action in the world.

The portion deals with both voluntary sacrifices (burnt, meal and peace offerings) and required sacrifices. Required sacrifices occur in response to sins of two kinds, intentional and unintentional.

Intentional sin, making a conscious choice to sin, requires a conscious process of the mind and soul to rectify the relationship between G-d and human beings or between human beings and other human beings. One heals a relationship damaged by intentional sin with intention (kevannah) as well as a “routine” or ritual (keva).

But how do we understand unintentional sin? Why would we be held morally accountable simply because we were careless or unaware or forgot or didn’t know something? Of seven types of sins listed, the fourth and fifth are unintentional sins:

Lev 5:4 – “or if any one swear clearly with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man shall utter clearly with an oath, and it be hid from him; and, when he knoweth of it, be guilty in one of these things…” (אוֹ נֶפֶשׁ כִּי תִשָּׁבַע לְבַטֵּא בִשְׂפָתַיִם לְהָרַע אוֹ לְהֵיטִיב, לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יְבַטֵּא הָאָדָם בִּשְׁבֻעָה–וְנֶעְלַם מִמֶּנּוּ; וְהוּא-יָדַע וְאָשֵׁם, לְאַחַת מֵאֵלֶּה).

Lev 5:17 – “And if any one sin, and do any of the things which the LORD hath commanded not to be done, though he know it not, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity.” (וְאִם-נֶפֶשׁ, כִּי תֶחֱטָא, וְעָשְׂתָה אַחַת מִכָּל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵעָשֶׂינָה; וְלֹא-יָדַע וְאָשֵׁם, וְנָשָׂא עֲו‍ֹנוֹ).

In the first case, a person makes an oath carelessly, then because of his/her lack of intention, forgets the oath and fails to fulfill a promise. The second case is a restatement of a well-known principle of law, that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for failing to follow it.

As Rabbi Jonathan Saks points out in The Dimensions of Sin, “Regardless of guilt and responsibility, if we commit a sin we have objectively transgressed a boundary. The word chet (Hebrew for “sin”) means to miss the mark, to stray, to deviate from the proper path. We have committed an act that somehow disturbs the moral balance of the world.”

In the case of unintentional sins, carelessness and forgetfulness, lack of mindfulness we might say, and ignorance of the law do not change the fact that a deviation occurred, and it has consequences. The unintentional sin, too, must be addressed. The unintentional sin is treated in the ritual frame with just as much weight as the intentional sins against one’s neighbor in Lev 5:21-22: keeping a deposit, failing to keep a pledge, robbery, oppression, keeping a lost item instead of returning it. The sacrificial routine is the same for both sets of sins, unintentional and intentional.

What an amazing thought, that carelessness and ignorance are as sinful as robbery, that not only intentional sins but unintentional sins, lack of mindfulness, disturb the moral balance of the world. Our lack of conscious intention in any moment has an impact! There are consequences, and we must do something to address our carelessness before we can acquire the wholeness of mind and body required to approach transcendence.


The structure of this portion provides a path for the Israelite, bound by his/her own finite nature, to connect to transcendence, a path by which the Israelite becomes both holy and pure, becomes like divinity for a space in time, in order to “draw close.”

The portion reminds us of our potential as human beings for moral consciousness and of our responsibility to make moral decisions. Even when we fail to exercise our unique characteristic for viewing the world through a moral prism and living responsibly in that dimension, we are responsible for the tears in the fabric of creation and in our relationship with G-d and must set it right.

Finally, we learn again that only in our capacity for moral consciousness and our responsibility to make moral decisions are we different from other life in creation. To be human, we must be morally aware, making moral decisions. That is our defining characteristic, the one thing that makes us G-d-like. In every moment that we fail to exercise our moral judgment, make fully aware conscious choices, we are animals, sentient beings experiencing a desire to live, love and feel compassion, fear and anger.

Nowhere is our failure more apparent than at the table when we eat without full awareness of the source of our food. Meals are a constant reminder of inadvertent sin, the sin of inattention that tears a hole in the fabric of creation as we carelessly take life. The details of the sacrificial “meal” demanded attention and awareness, and that full awareness had the potential to jolt a person into full awareness, to bring about repair.


There are some themes I’d like to follow-up on in this portion but won’t in this post. I’ll share the structure here and point to some things that take my attention, though:

Speech #1 (Lev 1:1)
Burnt Offerings (Olah) How-To

  • Herd
  • Flock
  • Fowl

Meal Offering (Minchah) How-To

  • Uncooked
  • Oven
  • Griddled
  • Stew
  • No Honey or Leaven (offer as First Fruits)
  • Yes Salt (Salt of the “Covenant”)
  • First Fruits – Parched Corn ) with Honey & Leaven)

Peace Offering (Shlemah) How-To

  • Herd
  • Flock: Lamb
  • Flock: Goat
  • (Note: Lev 3:17 – Eat neither fat nor blood)

Speech #2 (Lev 4:1)

Sins by class

  • Priest – Bullock – blood sprinkled 7x
  • Congregation of Israel – Bullock – blood sprinkled 7x
  • Ruler/Nasi – Goat
  • Common People – Goat/Lamb – female

Sins by type

1. If begged not to report something witnessed and don’t
2. If touch something unclean
3. If touch an unclean human being
4. If make a careless oath and forget about it

Speech #3 (Lev 4:5-14)
5. Touch or use the Holy Things of the Lord inadvertently
6. Break a law you don’t know – certainly guilty

Speech #4 (Lev 5:20)
7. Deal falsely with neighbor (transgress against the Lord) with regard to:

  • Deposit
  • Pledge
  • Robbery
  • Oppression
  • Keeping a lost thing

These things take my attention, and I’d like to explore them more fully:

  • The number 7, which in the context of the Bible refers to creation. Blood is sprinkled against the altar seven times in the course of a required sin offering for a priest who sins or when the whole Congregation of Israel sins. In addition, the inadvertent sins enumerated through Speeches 2, 3 and 4 number seven.
  • Certain sacrifices require a male animal and others a female animal.
  • The owner of the sacrificial animal performs smicha, laying on of hands, in four instances, Lev 1:4, 3:2, 3:8 and 3:13.  These passages augment the idea that the sacrifice is a stand-in for the owner or sinner.
  • The location and use of the phrase, “sweet savor to the Lord” (אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ-נִיחוֹחַ לַיהוָה) – Lev 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2; 3:5, 11, 16.
  • The location and use of the phrase, “and the priest shall make atonement for him as concerning his sin, and he shall be forgiven”(וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן מֵחַטָּאתוֹ, וְנִסְלַח לו)  – Lev 4:26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18, 26.
  • Why salt in particular is associated with “covenant,” why salt and honey are not part of regular voluntary offerings, only First Fruits, and I’d like to fill in the significance of reserving the fat and blood for G-d (in addition the biblical statement that “the life is in the blood.”)

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Torah Ecology: Vayakhel-Pekudei (Ex 35:1-40:38)

Sometimes it’s more about what’s not said than what is. That is the case in the coming week’s Torah portion, a double, Vayahkel-Pekudei.


If the first half of Tetzaveh represented the apex of Aaron’s power and authority as high priest, and the second half represented his foolishness and weakness as a leader, Vayahkel-Pekudei represents the nadir of his power.  Aaron’s dramatic fall from grace shows up in what’s not said.

In Tetzaveh, in Ex 28:35-29:44, the sacral vestments are made for Aaron. Aaron carries the names of the twelve sons of Jacob on his person, and Aaron enters the sanctuary. The frontlet of gold that says “Holy to the Lord” is for Aaron’s forehead. Aaron and his sons go to the entrance of the Ohel Moed and are washed and anointed there. Aaron and his sons conduct the sacrifices and prepare and eat their share at the entrance to the Ohel. Only Aaron and his sons are consecrated to service.

In Vayahkel-Pekudei, we have what seems at first glance to be an instant replay of those passages from Tetzaveh, except this week’s portion focuses on the time after the Golden Calf episode and after Moses removed the Ohel Moed from the Tabernacle precinct to meet with G-d alone, only Joshua sharing his encampment. Aaron is mentioned only seven times during this double portion, in Ex 35:19, 38:23, 39:1, 33:42, 40:12, 40:13 and 40:31.  One of those seven mentions is of Aaron’s sons, not Aaron himself.

More startling is that Aaron is not included with the community in bringing offerings for the tabernacle or in preparing any part of this home for G-d. Contrast this with the fact that the participation of the women, otherwise not cultic leaders, is mentioned in relation to the offerings, in making parts of the tabernacle and in service “at the door of the tent.”

Finally, when the tabernacle is raised, in the 1st month, the second year, the first day of the month, Moses is the one who raises it, who lays the sockets, sets up boards, puts in bars, rears up pillars, and spreads a tent over the Tabernacle. It is Moses who puts a table in the Tent of Meeting and sets a row of bread, places the candlestick and lights the lamps before the Lord “as commanded by the Lord.” Wait, wasn’t Aaron supposed to do that, also by command of the Lord? And didn’t he in fact do it in an earlier process?

There’s more yet. Moses puts the golden altar of incense in the Tent of Meeting and burns incense, also “as the Lord commanded Moses.” He puts up the screen door of the tent to the Tabernacle, the altar of burnt offering at the door of the Tabernacle — and offers the burnt offering and meal offering, “as the Lord commanded Moses.” He set the laver between the Tent of Meeting and the altar for water to wash — so Moses and Aaron and his sons could wash their hands and feet, “when they went into the tent of meeting, and when they came near unto the altar, they should wash; as the LORD commanded Moses” (בְּבֹאָם אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וּבְקָרְבָתָם אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ–יִרְחָצוּ:  כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה),

Aaron’s demotion from leadership and meeting with G-d, even through the sacrificial worship which is his area of responsibility, is signified by the silence of the text in regard to him. He simply disappears while Moses takes over all functions, judge, prophet, priest and master builder.

Certainly Moses could never have raised the giant structure by himself — but the text means to tell us that Moses, and Moses alone, is responsible for raising and overseeing the desert Tabernacle, G-d’s home among the Israelites, “as the Lord commanded Moses” (כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה). Leadership of the community cannot again be entrusted to Aaron, even in Aaron’s own realm of responsibility.


As Aaron recedes from view while Moses grows bigger than life, making everything happen just as G-d requires, we see a more inclusive community emerging.  Moses assembles and speaks to “all the congregation of the Children of Israel” (וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם).

And all the congregation of the Children of Israel is involved in the great work of building the desert tabernacle, from the offerings of the raw materials that make it up to the hand work required. As we have seen, Aaron and his sons are mentioned in this process only in the most peripheral, passive way, in relation to their garments, serving as an envelope around the story of the Israelites work:

Ex 35:19 – “the plaited garments, for ministering in the holy place, the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons, to minister in the priest’s office” (אֶת-בִּגְדֵי הַשְּׂרָד, לְשָׁרֵת בַּקֹּדֶשׁ:  אֶת-בִּגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, וְאֶת-בִּגְדֵי בָנָיו לְכַהֵן).

Ex 39:1- 31 – “And of the blue, and purple, and scarlet, they made plaited garments, for ministering in the holy place, and made the holy garments for Aaron, as the LORD commanded Moses” (וּמִן-הַתְּכֵלֶת וְהָאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת הַשָּׁנִי, עָשׂוּ בִגְדֵי-שְׂרָד לְשָׁרֵת בַּקֹּדֶשׁ; וַיַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת-בִּגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר לְאַהֲרֹן, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה)…”And they made the plate of the holy crown of pure gold, and wrote upon it a writing, like the engravings of a signet: HOLY TO THE LORD. And they tied unto it a thread of blue, to fasten it upon the mitre above; as the LORD commanded Moses. Thus was finished all the work…” (וַיַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת-צִיץ נֵזֶר-הַקֹּדֶשׁ, זָהָב טָהוֹר; וַיִּכְתְּבוּ עָלָיו, מִכְתַּב פִּתּוּחֵי חוֹתָם–קֹדֶשׁ, לַיהוָה. וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלָיו פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת, לָתֵת עַל-הַמִּצְנֶפֶת מִלְמָעְלָה, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה. וַתֵּכֶל–כָּל-עֲבֹדַת, מִשְׁכַּן אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד).

Within that envelope, we see the Israelites industriously engaged both in contributing and in working, all the Israelites, those who are “wise-hearted” (חֲכַם-לֵב), who have a “willing heart” (נְדִיב לֵב), who “devise skillful works” (לַחְשֹׁב, מַחֲשָׁבֹת), whose “heart stirred them with wisdom” ( נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ בְּחָכְמָה), who are filled with the spirit of G-d in “wisdom, knowledge and understanding” (בְּחָכְמָה בִּתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת).  In a text that can often be so sparse as to be cryptic, these phrases occur at least 22 times, serving as a refrain.

The Israelites come and they come, bringing their gifts and their skills, pouring out their great love for G-d.  They bring so much that Bezalel and Oholiab, the chief artisans, must finally speak to Moses, telling him the people have brought much more than enough: “The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work, which the LORD commanded to make” (וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, מַרְבִּים הָעָם לְהָבִיא, מִדֵּי הָעֲבֹדָה לַמְּלָאכָה, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָהּ).

In case we miss the point that every Israelite is involved, that every Israelite’s heart is stirred to this great task, that every Israelite is filled with wisdom and has skills to offer, and that every Israelite is asked to stop bringing, the text details it for us:

Ex 35:22 – “And they came, both men and women” (וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, עַל-הַנָּשִׁים)

Ex 35:25-26 – “And all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet, and the fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun the goats’ hair” (וְכָל-אִשָּׁה חַכְמַת-לֵב, בְּיָדֶיהָ טָווּ; וַיָּבִיאוּ מַטְוֶה, אֶת-הַתְּכֵלֶת וְאֶת-הָאַרְגָּמָן, אֶת-תּוֹלַעַת הַשָּׁנִי, וְאֶת-הַשֵּׁשׁ. וְכָל-הַנָּשִׁים–אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂא לִבָּן אֹתָנָה, בְּחָכְמָה:  טָווּ, אֶת-הָעִזִּים).

Ex 35:27 – “And the rulers brought the onyx stones, and the stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate; and the spice, and the oil, for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense” (וְהַנְּשִׂאִם הֵבִיאוּ–אֵת אַבְנֵי הַשֹּׁהַם, וְאֵת אַבְנֵי הַמִּלֻּאִים:  לָאֵפוֹד, וְלַחֹשֶׁן. וְאֶת-הַבֹּשֶׂם, וְאֶת-הַשָּׁמֶן:  לְמָאוֹר–וּלְשֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה, וְלִקְטֹרֶת הַסַּמִּים).

Ex 35:29 – “The children of Israel brought a freewill-offering unto the LORD; every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which the LORD had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made” (כָּל-אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה, אֲשֶׁר נָדַב לִבָּם אֹתָם, לְהָבִיא לְכָל-הַמְּלָאכָה, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה–הֵבִיאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל נְדָבָה, לַיהוָה),

Ex 35:30-34 – “the LORD hath called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah…both he, and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan” (קָרָא יְהוָה בְּשֵׁם, בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן-אוּרִי בֶן-חוּר, לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה…הוּא, וְאָהֳלִיאָב בֶּן-אֲחִיסָמָךְ לְמַטֵּה-דָן). – the artisans

Ex 36:6 – “‘Let neither man nor woman make any more work for the offering of the sanctuary.’ So the people were restrained from bringing” (אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה אַל-יַעֲשׂוּ-עוֹד מְלָאכָה, לִתְרוּמַת הַקֹּדֶשׁ; וַיִּכָּלֵא הָעָם, מֵהָבִיא).

When the people complete their joy-filled work, inspired by love and devotion, and before Moses begins his work of erecting the tabernacle, Moses blesses them: “And Moses saw all the work, and, behold, they had done it; as the LORD had commanded, even so had they done it. And Moses blessed them” (וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-כָּל-הַמְּלָאכָה, וְהִנֵּה עָשׂוּ אֹתָהּ–כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, כֵּן עָשׂוּ; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, מֹשֶׁה).

The sacrificial cult, so prominent in the first story of the building of the Tabernacle, recedes along with Aaron and his sons, the priests — and the people, in such a poignant and heartfelt way, under the leadership of Moses, express their profound and overflowing love through the gifts they bring, both goods and skills.

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