Inch By Inch And Row By Row…

Today was my first day back at the farm for the season. Although it was my first day, others have been hard at work, installing a new greenhouse (greens through December! yay!), planting starter plants, getting in leeks and garlic and greens and more.

It was a beautiful, windy day, and I enjoyed the sunshine along with the fast-moving clouds. It’s an exciting time as we all look forward to those food boxes starting to fill up with wonderful things to eat.

I learned to use a stirrup hoe today — and another kind of hoe, one to run down the middle of the bed to pull a wider swath of weeds, one to run over the little leek plants to remove weeds on either side. When I finished weeding with my hoes, I walked over to take a look at our new greenhouse and then back to the fields to weed a few rows of garlic.

By the time I finished up, I was exhausted but oh so happy. Here are some highlights from this beautiful place where I work! If you are in the Algonquin/Dundee/Cary/Geneva/Crystal Lake/Woodstock area and would like to enjoy a weekly or bi-weekly box of beautiful, fresh, organic produce, check out Bob’s Fresh and Local and sign up for a share.

Compost pile where I get to take my veggie waste every week.
The leeks I hoed.
Garlic rows for hand weeding.

The old greenhouse…and our big beautiful new one.

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

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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Another Take On The Garden Of Eden

I often say that translation is interpretation. There is a powerful example of this fact in the creation stories of Genesis. I can’t help but wonder how history would have played out had two words been translated differently.


Adam is a word we all recognize, the name of the first human being in both creation stories. It is usually translated “man”:

Gen 1:26 And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָאָרֶץ, וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ, הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.

Gen 1:27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.

Gen 2:15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.

The second creation story continues with G-d telling Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, then bringing the animals before Adam to name. Then this passage:

Gen 3:21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the place with flesh instead thereof.

וַיַּפֵּל יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים תַּרְדֵּמָה עַל-הָאָדָם, וַיִּישָׁן; וַיִּקַּח, אַחַת מִצַּלְעֹתָיו, וַיִּסְגֹּר בָּשָׂר, תַּחְתֶּנָּה.

Gen 3:23 And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman (אִשָּׁה), because she was taken out of Man (אִישׁ).’

וַיֹּאמֶר, הָאָדָם, זֹאת הַפַּעַם עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי, וּבָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי; לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה, כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקְחָה-זֹּאת.

Gen 3:24 Therefore shall a man (אִישׁ) leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife (אִשְׁתּוֹ), and they shall be one flesh.

עַל-כֵּן, יַעֲזָב-אִישׁ, אֶת-אָבִיו, וְאֶת-אִמּוֹ; וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ, וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד.

Reading in English immediately presents a grammatical problem: in Gen 1:26, G-d refers to G-d’s’ self as “us” and similarly refers to Adam as “them.”

The problem is easily solved when we understand that Adam doesn’t mean “man” until Gen 3:23 and following when it becomes the name of a specific man, the first man.

Until then, Adam, which comes from the word, “Adamah,” a feminine noun meaning earth, means something else: earth creature, both male and female. Gen 1:27 from the first creation story clearly indicates a simultaneous creation of male (זָכָר – zachar) and female (נְקֵבָה – n’kevah). As it turns out, the second creation story does as well. Adam is both male and female until G-d separates them into man (אִישׁ – ish) and woman (אִשָּׁה – isha).

Consider the implications of a clear statement of the simultaneous creation of man and woman in terms of “in the image.” I’m not talking here just about the idea, which many who don’t read Hebrew as well as many who do, assume anyway, that both male and female are in the image of G-d. We don’t need to make assumptions, though, about what the text says or over-interpret it. We just need to read it at the simplest level in Hebrew, and that statement is obvious.

This translation also explains the confusing pronouns in Gen 1:26 when G-d says, “Let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion…”  Us? Them?

Suppose we imagine that G-d is a unity, containing both male and female. Male and female separated in the created world symbolizes the idea that creation is a system of differences. G-d refers to G-d’s own (unified) plurality, as “us.” Similarly G-d refers to the single earth creature created in G-d’s image, Adam, as “them.”

In essence, the pattern in how Adam is used in the original Hebrew elaborates an important theology and anthropology contained in the story, G-d is a unity, and creation is a system of differences symbolized by sexual difference.


The word arum appears in four places in Gen 3:

Gen 3:1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field.

וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה

Gen 3:7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked

וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם

Gen 3:10 I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

אֶת-קֹלְךָ שָׁמַעְתִּי בַּגָּן; וָאִירָא כִּי-עֵירֹם אָנֹכִי

Gen 3:11 Who told thee that thou wast naked?

?מִי הִגִּיד לְךָ, כִּי עֵירֹם אָתָּה

A word used four times in 27 short verses, skillfully, intentionally, just as we saw Adam skilfully worked into a text with man and woman in order to make a truthful statement within the world view, or internal logic, of the text. Outside of this text, a version of the word occurs in 11 other places in the Hebrew Bible, 8 of them in Proverbs, where it is generally translated “prudent.” Strong’s Concordance provides these definitions:  crafty, shrewd, sensible.

Translators of these four passages from Genesis almost universally use “crafty,” “subtle” or “shrewd” for the snake and “naked” for the human beings. Consider how differently we might understand this text if we understood the Hebrew and associated all its meanings with the word. Consider how differently we might understand it had different translations been chosen, for example, what if the serpent were more naked than any beast of the field. Certainly that would make sense — the serpent does appear naked in relation to beasts of the field who generally have a coat of fur. The serpent’s nakedness would elevate the serpent to the level of human beings, who also have no coat of fur.

Or consider if the human beings were prudent, sensible, subtle, even shrewd? Those translations would also fit in a statement about their eyes being opened, and it would totally transform our understanding of the story.


Over the years I have studied this story, I have thought several different things about the nature of the act in the middle of the story and the middle of the Garden, eating from the Tree or the Meal in the Garden, as I like to call it.

Reconsidering the meaning of arum by doing the obvious and translating it the same way for the serpent as for the humans suggests at least one possibility to me: the human beings at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil made an unconscious decision to eat, a decision without “prudent” consideration of consequences. The consequences of this unconscious decision were catastrophic for all of creation. In becoming conscious, fully aware and capable of conscious choices, arum, they also become aware their action brought consequences. As they realized, after the fact, the enormity of those consequences, they are afraid. This idea certainly provides a framework for the Torah’s fierce focus on conscious choice in all things!


The internal logic of the text, the messages that might be in it, revealed through the text’s own literary clues, tells us two other stories as well. It tells us a story about the power of a translation that is always interpretation. When a translator chooses a word to use from a range of possibilities, that translator creates a new narrative which hopefully has its own internal logic. That translation then shapes a culture and a world view.

Imagine the impact over centuries of a narrative that focuses on the secondary status of women, human disobedience, sin, sexual shame and death. Then imagine how those centuries might have developed informed by a narrative that suggests the simultaneous creation of woman and man, in the image of G-d, who become conscious or prudent and thereby aware of the consequences of their earlier thoughtless or unconscious action and whose raison d’etre is to grow toward fully conscious living, making choices in full contemplation and consciouness of their consequences and implications.

Consider for a moment who, in that society, would end up honored and who shamed and punished.

This exploration tells us another story about the usefulness of taking the details of a narrative as they are presented, following its patterns and trying to discern its internal logic rather than imposing the logic of a different narrative on it. Interpretive traditions are different from the original narrative. These interpretive traditions have their own internal logic and meaning and must be understood in the same way as the sacred texts we have received, on their own terms.

Exploring first the biblical text as I have received it to discover what I can of its own internal logic, then to see how interpretive traditions developed from it, is my project in Torah Ecology.

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

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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A Falafel Feast for Israel Day

This past weekend, I prepared (with a little help from my friends at MCJC) a Falafel Feast for 100 on Israel Day.  The pictures, with the exception of one my son took a while back of the finished product, are from an iPhone so not the best.

We served up Falafel two ways, in a tray with Moroccan Eggplant Salad, Israeli (Jerusalem) Salad with Tahina, Hummus, Muhammara, Moroccan Sweet Potatoes and Red Cabbage Slaw … pickled turnips and for the daring, Harif or Z’hug — or in a wrap with Lebanese Pita (from my friends at Sanabel Bakery in Chicago), Hummus and Israeli Salad with Tahina (or any other choice), pickled turnips and Harif or Z’hug on the side.

All the recipes are in this blog except for the Tahina, which I now see I never posted. I’ll do that soon!

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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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I focus on food because…

What we eat shapes ethical consciousness. It is a key to social and environmental justice and to restoring harmony in our relationships with our world and with G-d. It has the power to dull our senses or stir our sense of joy and gratitude. What we eat contributes to vibrant spiritual and physical health or burdens us with illness and an unnamed heaviness and dread. I focus on food because it’s something I can do. With every mouthful, we have an opportunity to choose life for ourselves and for all sentient beings.

“…choose life, that you may live, you and your children…” (וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ).  Deut 30:19

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I needed this kale and quinoa salad today…

After making soups and soft foods for weeks for Andy, I had a serious longing for something crunchy…and spring made me think of greens and other good garden veggies. A family member served up a wonderful salad yesterday, which I’ll share another time after I make it, but it had carrots, quinoa and chickpeas in it, which inspired my cooking session this morning. When I was at Costco the other day, they served up a quinoa tabouleh that had mung beans in it, which I’ve never cooked with before, and that added a little more inspiration.  Here’s the result:


  • Quinoa, 1/2 cup dried
  • Chickpeas, 1/2 cup dried
  • Mung beans, 1/4 cup dried
  • Carrots, 1-2 good-sized carrots
  • Apricots, 6 dried, organic, unsulfured
  • Olives, Green Mediterranean, 8-10
  • Green onions, 3-4
  • Kale, 6-8 leaves
  • Romaine, 6-8 leaves
  • Red cabbage, 1/8 small head, chopped
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1 TB or less
  • Lemon, juice of 1 to 1-1/2
  • Salt, sprinkling, to taste
  • Szeged hot paprika, sprinkling, to taste


  1. Cook the quinoa, chickpeas and mung beans separately. For 1/2 cup quinoa, I use 1 cup of water and 1/4 tsp. salt, and it takes about 15 minutes. For the chickpeas, I use 1/2 cup chickpeas and 2 cups of water, and it takes about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. For the mung beans, I use 1/4 cup mung beans, 1 cup of water, and it takes about half an hour. You’ll need to keep an eye on these — they should remain firm. These can all be cooked ahead and set aside or refrigerated.
  2. Wash, cut up and cook the carrots until just tender.
  3. Wash the kale, Romaine, red cabbage and green onions and chop roughly. Wash and dry, then sprinkle a little olive oil over them and rub in.
  4.  Chop the apricots and olives, and toss into the greens with the cooked and cooled carrots.
  5. Add the lemon juice, salt and hot paprika to taste and toss again.
  6. Finally add the cooked and cooled quinoa, chickpeas and mung beans, taste, and adjust seasoning.

The salad is a wonderful blend of textures and flavors with the slightest hint of Middle Eastern sweet and salty from the apricots and olives. A lovely entry to spring.

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