Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fixed Times

This week’s parasha includes an enumeration of holidays: “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions” (Leviticus 23:2). But because Jewish holidays are lunar, they actually move around the Roman calendar. If we adhered strictly to the lunar system, the holidays would eventually become disconnected from what they celebrate. Succoth, a harvest holiday, might end up in the winter; Passover, with its symbols of rebirth, might migrate to September. To correct this problem, once every four years, the Jewish calendar adds a leap month.

Every leap year, we lasso the wandering feasts—
Succoth, which strays too far into the rain,
the palm fronds dripping on the challah, returns
to harvest time. Shavuoth replants its roots
in June. Pesach, wrenched from Easter Sunday
at its birth, returns to nodding acquaintance
with its old twin. The Days of Awe blast us,
once more, with heat, our dresses stained with sweat,
as if to remind us that for a people wandering
in the desert, G-d required fixed times.
We do not come from temperate lands or Lords.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

My Father's Kingdom

At the dead center of Torah, midway between Genesis 1 and Deuteronomy 34, comes a group of disparate laws sometimes called the “Holiness Code.” The second of this week's portions, K’doshim, or Holiness, begins by enjoining the whole Israelite community: “You shall be holy, for I, your G-d, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1). How do we accomplish this? The first rule is to revere our parents.

My father could fix anything. The aunts came in procession,
bearing vacuums, beaters, toasters, fans, and he laid hands
upon appliances until they rose up from the dead.
He tightened sprockets, straightened spokes; the bike wheels hummed
the music of the spheres and all their orbits aligned.
He fashioned blazons out of copper salvage, reliquaries
from balsa boxes, still redolent of his cigars; we filled them
with river stones, cicada shells, white cowries he brought back
from some great service rendered to the nation in a far-off place—
each object sacred because he taught us how to notice it.
His bed was high; most weekdays, he descended in a cloud
of talc before we woke, went off to pace the girders, riveting
the I-beams that delimited the corners of our world.
But Sabbath mornings, we could visit him, plump his throne
of pillows, cluster at his feet. We cherubs, whom he lifted
in ecstatic somersaults and pirouettes, we worshipped him.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Goat in the Wilderness

The origin of the "scapegoat" can be found in this week's parasha. In Levitus 16:21, Aaron confesses all of the peoples' sins "on the head of a goat." The animal is then set free in the wilderness. As I tried to picture this ritual, I realized that the Bible is very stingy with description.

There goat is in the text, but no scrub.
No creosote bush clings to the crust of the dunes.
No pale crag martin nests in the cliffs. No cliffs,
orange, gray, or parched. No darkling beetle
with the scavenged barley from their sacks
scuttles like a thief across their path.
No metaphor of any kind. Their eyes
can’t make connections in this wilderness,
which is not like Egypt. They sigh for leeks,
for fish, while a G-d they hardly know
speaks his sentences: “Do not uncover."
"Do not lie down.” It is an abstract world
they will inherit: a Land they’ll never reach,
a holy word, a G-d who turns the face
He does not have toward them and away.

Monday, April 12, 2010


A two-fer today, as we read a double portion this week (and I fly off to Washington tomorrow). Both portions deal with the duties of the priests, who were responsible not only for the purity of the sacrifices but also for the purity of the camp.

In the Emergency Room
One function of the priests was to check people afflicted with various communicable diseases and sequester those who might pose a danger of infection. The passage reminded me of a trip to the emergency room, where the doctors' insistent questions can have the same incantatory quality as these priestly examinations: "If the priest sees that the eruption has covered the whole body — he shall pronounce the affected person clean; he is clean, for he has turned all white. But as soon as undiscolored flesh appears in it, he shall be unclean; when the priest sees the undiscolored flesh, he shall pronounce him unclean. The undiscolored flesh is unclean; it is leprosy. But if the undiscolored flesh again turns white, he shall come to the priest, and the priest shall examine him: if the affection has turned white, the priest shall pronounce the affected person clean; he is clean" (Leviticus 13:13-17).
Are you having any pain in your arm, in your chest, in your heart?
Is there tingling in your hand, in your shoulder if you twist toward your back?
Can you breathe when you lie down, when you rise up, and when you walk?
On a scale of one to ten, is your pain like the breaking of a rod on a rock?
On the treadmill, do you trudge like a woman climbing stairs
with their tops in the sky? Do you sense the plasma pound in your veins
as the cuff constricts your arm like the fingers of a demon? Is the pattern
on the screen of your breathing and your heart, prophetic as a screed
on the evils of your youth? If the enzymes in your blood betray damage
to your core, can you live outside the camp of the hearty and the well?

Plague House
One of the afflictions the priests checked for, sometimes translated as leprosy, was a kind of lesion that might appear on a person, a fabric, or the wall of a house. It was the duty of the householder to report potential infection with the odd locution, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house” (14:35). But according to the Talmud, "The house affected by the plague never existed and is not destined to exist. It was stated for the purpose of edification" (Sanhedren 71a).
This house, with green and reddish veins
that spread through the grout like sepsis
streaking from a lesion to the heart,
does not exist and never has,
the rabbis say. Why
of all the implausible stories—
talking asses, parting seas—
should this wall blossom
into parable? Deconstructing
the erupting house, stone
by imaginary stone,
carrying the abstract debris
to an unclean place outside the city
that will come to be inside
the Land, we learn that what is hard—
plaster, rock, timber, plague—
is a kind of language, pointing
to something realer than we know.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Eighth Day

Against the background of the rules that dominate Leviticus, the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, makes a harrowing contrast. The seven-day priestly ordination ceremony has just been completed. The two young men now go to make an offering, and they are consumed by the sacrificial fire. Why? The text says it is because they offered “alien” or “strange” fire. We are supposed to accept this as the divine rationale, but I am hardly the first person to find this a thin explanation. In fact, I have come to believe that Moses got this one wrong. He seems especially obtuse when he berates Aaron and his remaining nephews for not eating that day’s sin offering. Perhaps there is no room for accidents in Moses' theology, but could he not just leave these deaths as something we don’t understand?

And Nadav, whose name meant “giving,” and Abihu,
“G-d, my father,” went to offer sprigs
of incense, the first fruits of their new work.
They wore their linen breeches; they washed their feet,
for they were rightly reverent. But fire,
as fire will, broke free from their pans,
lit the sashes—woven with such care
of purple, red, and blue—like wicks, and they,
like candles, burned. There is no why to this.
Say “alien fire,” and we’re already stumbling
in the mortal realm of commentary.

Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's remaining sons, and said, "Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord. Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded." And Aaron spoke to Moses, "See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?" And when Moses heard this, he approved. (Leviticus 10:17-19)

So many mitzvoth*—To know that G-d exists.
Not to add to the commandments of Torah.
Surely Aaron understood those now.
But what of the six hundred and eleven?
To set the showbread and the frankincense
before the Lord. To keep the fire burning
on the altar of the sacrifices.
To help the beast of burden if he stumbles
under his load. Not to defile yourself
by contact with the dead. Not to test
the word of G-d. Not to bear a grudge
or slay the innocent or take revenge.
And if the priest, having watched his sons
be dragged, by their singed tunics, outside the camp,
(and he, barred from rending his sacred vestments
or touching their dear, charred forms) should cry out,
should refuse to eat—even the sin
offering—what Lord would not approve?

* There are 613 mitzvoth or commandments in the Torah, dealing with everything from the treatment of the poor to marriage to various ritual practices. A number deal specifically with the duties of the priests.