Today we, as an adult b’nai mitzvah class, are reading the first third of Beha’alotecha, or Numbers, Chapter 8 through Chapter 9, verse 14. Overall this part of Beha’alotecha is about different aspects of the system of ritual purity and impurity.
The beginning of chapter 8 is about the lampstand inside the Tabernacle and how to place it and light it. Exodus Chapter 25, verses 31- 40 described the construction of the lampstand. It was “hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal.” Aaron, a Levite and high priest, was responsible for the lighting of the lampstand.
The next section of Chapter 8 details the purification of the Levites. Because the Levites were priests in service of “the Tent of Meeting” they had to have a higher degree of ritual purity than the general Israelite population.
Chapter 9 verse 1-14 deals with Passover. In verse 6 some men who were “unclean by reason of a corpse” asked Moses why this should prevent them from offering the Passover sacrifice at the same time as the rest of the community.
Moses speaks to God on their behalf. God responds by giving the men a do over or a Second Passover. Anyone who is “defiled” by a corpse or is on a long journey could still offer a Passover sacrifice but a month later. They were to eat the sacrifice with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They were to observe all the rules and rituals of the original Passover sacrifice.
All cases of ritual impurity required some remediation. The three major sources of impurity were human corpses and some animal carcasses, Zara ‘at or skin disease, and genital discharges. In the case of human corpses the impurity lasted seven days and could cause other people as well as objects that came in contact with the originally ritually impure person to become impure.
Because someone who touched a corpse was impure for seven days, such an impurity is what prevented the men in verse 6 from attending the Passover festival and making the required sacrifice.
Ritual impurity was not a moral failing. Ritual impurity was a spiritual issue for the Israelites and a way to keep the holy and the profane separate. It allowed the community to keep the Temple and the objects in it as sacred.
Because the men who had touched the corpses were not suffering from a moral lapse, God gave them a chance, once they were ritually pure, to partake in a Passover sacrifice. God was not as accommodating to people who had no reason not to observe Passover. In verse 13 he tells Moses that if “a man is clean … (and) refrains from offering Passover sacrifice” he will be estranged from his kin and have to “bear his guilt.”
God also required that the stranger living within the Israelite community celebrate Passover. “There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.”
Today, Pesach Sheni on the 14th of Iyar (the Second Passover) is a very minor Jewish holiday that some Orthodox Jews celebrate. Those who celebrate refrain from saying the Tachanun, supplications which are normally not said on holidays. Some also eat left-over matzo as a way to commemorate the sacrificial offering.
When I was first randomly assigned my parsha, I was very surprised to see that it dealt with issues of ritual impurity. I regularly attend Lunch and Learn with Rabbi Weiner and we spent a lot of time last year studying the biblical and rabbinic laws about ritual purity and impurity. This study is part of a larger process of studying Halacha or Jewish laws.
The first thing we studied was the Halacha of Passover observance, another irony. Around the time we were studying ritual purity and impurity, I attended a funeral on Long Island. The synagogue had a pamphlet from Gutterman’s funeral directors entitled “What is a Jewish Funeral.”
The issues of ritual impurity from contact with a corpse are no longer a factor in contemporary Jewish life. The only aspect of ritual impurity that is still a Halachic issue is genital discharges, particularly female menstruation.
There are, however, many rules and customs surrounding death and funerals. The Gutterman pamphlet provided some general rules to follow. The two that struck me as interesting are “visiting with and viewing the remains are contrary to Jewish law, and “flowers and music have no place at the Jewish funeral service.”
The Halacha of funerals is obviously large and complex. This year, unfortunately, I have thought more about Jewish funerals and the rituals surrounding the death of a loved one. In December, my brother Fred died following a short but intense period of having ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. I got a tremendous amount of comfort from following the Jewish rituals associated with death and funerals. I sat Shiva for seven days and tried to say Kaddish as often as I could during that period. I also felt the support and compassion of this community when many people attended a Shiva service at my home.
As part of preparing for this B’Nai Mitzvah, I have tried to attend the Tuesday morning Masorti minyan as often as I can. My own experience with the death of a loved one has made me realize how meaningful it is for a person in mourning or observing a Yharzeit to be able to say Kaddish. It is a mitzvah to make up the minyan of ten that allows this to happen.
For the ancient Israelites ritual allowed them to develop and maintain a sense of community; distinguishing and preserving sacred space. In the twentieth-first century our needs are not that different. Ritual provides a sense of structure and can generate bonds that tie us together as a community.
There is no longer a central Temple, but each of us can try to foster and preserve sacred space both internally and externally. For me, studying Halacha and preparing for this day as a Bat Mitzvah has enabled me to go further and deeper along my own journey toward sacred space.
I have chosen to alter some of the wording of the Torah blessings to better reflect my feelings and thoughts about God and Judaism. In the traditional blessing the word for God is Adonai which actually means my lords. I have chosen to use Yah to convey an all-encompassing sense of breath and life. Yah is also linguistically closer to Yud Hay Vav Hay.
The Torah blessings are usually in the masculine. Hebrew is a highly gendered language. There is no easy way to say something in a gender neutral manner. Because I am a woman I wanted the blessing to represent my identity and underpin the legitimacy of all women’s right to be fully present in receiving the Torah.
The traditional blessing portrays the Jewish people as having been “singled out from all the peoples” to receive the Torah. I do not believe any one group, peoples, or nation is chosen above any other. One’s religion is a personal belief, representing each person’s individual but equal journey.
Finally the blessing refers to God as a king of all worlds. I did not want any language of power or domination in my blessing. The blessing I will read refers to God as Source of life.
- October 2016
- January 2016
- September 2015
- February 2015
- November 2014
- June 2014
- February 2014
- June 2013
- March 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- September 2012
- May 2012
- April 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- October 2011
- February 2011
- January 2011
- December 2010
- November 2010
- October 2010
- September 2010
- August 2010