Tuesday, February 23, 2010

High Fasion

If, like mine, your religious instruction (or Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments”) led you to imagine that the dialogue between G-d and Moses focused entirely on law-giving, then, like me, you might be surprised to realize how much of their interchange in this week’s portion is about the details of the Tabernacle’s construction and the fine points of the vestments for the high priest.

Dear G-d, who specified the pomegranates
alternating on the high priest’s hem
with bells of gold; who listed chrysolite
and jasper for the breastplate of decision;
lapis lazuli incised with names
of all twelve tribes; who ordered that the headdress
be gold, and the ephod* gold, crimson, and blue—
forgive Your daughter, who interrupts her prayer
to notice the red felt hat two pews away.

*An elaborate tunic, part of the priest’s vestments

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tabernacle in the Desert

It’s easy to forget, as we start to read this week about the building of the elaborate Tabernacle, where the children of Israel were building it. Somehow, in the middle of the wilderness, they managed to find gold, silver, copper, lapis lazuli, fine linen, goats' hair, acacia wood, oil, spices, incense, and dolphin skins! There’s actually a fair amount of debate about what those “dolphins” (takhash in Hebrew) might be. Translations have included ermine, badger, antelope, okapi, giraffe, and dugong. According to the Babylonian Talmud and Rashi’s commentary, the takhash was a kosher, multicolored beast with a single horn, which came into being for the sole purpose of building the Tabernacle.

Gold we know they asked of the Egyptians—
and received—and silver for the clasps.
Cassia they gathered from the wadis,
though myrrh and frankincense were likely spoil,
a queen of Egypt having sent to Punt
for thirty-one small tubs of incense trees,
borne to Thebes aboard her royal barge.
Linen, too, they may have learned to heckle
for their one-time masters, enormous spools
for winding the dead, loaded when they left,
on hapless donkeys, or pounded from wild flax
they found along the way. Acacia bloomed
in the desert, brought by camel caravans
who grazed it on the African savanna
and dropped the seeds at Sinai where the plant
discovered how to hoard the brief rain.
Ram was plentiful, leaping the crags,
and served for sacrifice, horn, and hide.
So far, they might have built their Tabernacle
in perfect solitude, a tribe of nomads
in a waste of granite, sand, and sky.
And yet, those dolphins breach the text like fish
out of water. Takhash. The name itself
darts across the scroll just long enough
for G-d, whose every word created something,
to fashion the perfect covering for the Tent.
Then word and being vanish all at once,
a miracle spent in thirty cubits of curtain.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


“You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk” (Exodus 23:19). Over the centuries, this very specific rule about goats is elaborated into the Jewish dietary law that forbids the mixing of all kinds of meat and any dairy product, largely through the Talmudic procedure of building a “fence around the law”—essentially, adding some extra rules for padding so that the treasured command from the Torah will not be inadvertently transgressed. Some commentators have argued that the laws of Kashrut are based on health considerations—for example that pork was taboo because in the days before refrigeration, it was so often the source of food-borne illness. More traditionally, these laws are regarded as chukim; that is, laws that cannot be explained rationally.

This verse comes to teach us
that the kid may be a calf;
and the liquid, mixed by the dairy
contains the milk of many mothers
so cannot be combined
with the kid or the calf;
that boiling is beside the point;
and that the rule is broken
before we ever eat, by the act
of boiling; that the prohibition
is key to staying our hand,
to knowing the creatures as kin;
and that the law is given
without a reason, practice
for living in the unruly world.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Ten Sayings

What is usually translated in English as the Ten Commandments, in the Torah text is Aseret ha-D'varim, the Ten Things, the Ten Statements, the Ten Declarations, the Ten Words, or the Ten Sayings.

As He created the world with only His voice,
so He tried to say us into goodness.
But we are not the waters, whose only duty
is to swarm, or the sparrow hawk
who flies across the dome of heaven, G-d's thought
incorporated. And if the raptor swoops,
snatching a finch in its talons, tearing the flesh
until the bones and wings, plucked clean, fall
to the ground below, no one calls it murder.
We, alone, lie and steal because the terms
create a failing from the standard stuff
of camouflage and plunder. Our G-d calls us
not to survive like those spiderlings,
feeding of the bodies of their mothers,
not, like the jackal, to eye the cheetah's kill,
but to be human, obedient or sinning,
the only creatures who believe in Him.