Friday, May 29, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Naso – Blessings

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, (Num. 4:21-7:89) contains the priestly benediction.  God tells Moses that the priests are to bless the people with the following words: “May God bless and keep you.  May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.  May God’s face be lifted up unto you, and may God grant you peace.” (Num. 6:24-26).  

Why would God instruct the priests to offer blessing?  Doesn’t blessing come from God alone?  Isaac Arama, a commentator of 15th century Spain, raises the question, “What purpose is served by the fact that this precept enjoins that these benedictions should proceed from the priests to the people?  Surely it is He on high Who blesses and what is gained or added whether the priests bless or refrain from doing so?  Is it up to them to assist Him?”  The commentators find an answer by using an analogy with agriculture.  God sends the rain and the dew, but the soil cannot benefit by it unless it has been properly plowed and sown.  God requires human assistance in order to bless the children of Israel and to prepare their hearts just as a farmer prepares the ground.

According to this interpretation, we are God’s partners in blessing.  God may ordain blessing, but God doesn’t have any hands to plant and sow, to promote healing, to offer hope or to bring assistance.  The only hands God can use are ours.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

All Covered And Ready To Sprout

Today we planted leeks, broccoli, brussels sprouts (yeah I thought it was brussel sprouts too until I looked at the seed package), cauliflower, Napa cabbage, and kale.   Those were planted in the covered bed. The cover lets in light and air but hopefully keeps out squirrels, birds, and deer.  We can just flip back the front section to water.  The cover should also help speed along the germination process.
In separate containers we planted Yukon Gem potatoes, iron lady tomatoes, and jalapeno peppers.  They are on their own meaning we didn't cover them.
Frankly I figure that if a squirrel bites into a jalapeno it should learn to stay away.  Does that seem harsh?  Gardening is serious business.
Oh yeah, and yesterday we planted a McIntosh apple tree.  It's not in this garden area.
More to come.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Making Sense of the Census

  A text study that I wrote for Hillel about ten years ago, now in  And still relevant.

The following article is reprinted with permission from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
This first sedrah (portion) of the fourth book of the Torah takes up the narrative of the sojourn in the wilderness, and begins with a census of the Israelites by their tribes. It goes on to detail the order in which the tribes would encamp around the Tabernacle, and the order in which they would march when they moved. The sedrah ends with a description of the duties of the Levites in the Tabernacle.
God commanded Moses to take a census of the Israelites just before the building of the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:11-16) and we are told that it has been accomplished (Exodus 38-25-6). That occurrence was only one month before this census is commanded. Why does God need the people to be counted so often?
Rashi comments, “Because they were dear to God, God counts them all the time–when they went out of Egypt, God counted them; when many of them fell for having worshipped the golden calf, God counted them to ascertain how many were left, when the Shechina (divine presence) was about to dwell among them, God again took their census, for on the first day of Nisan the Tabernacle was erected, and shortly afterward, on the first day of Iyar, God counted them.”
Rashi‘s grandson Rashbam presents a more practical reason. The first census was to allow the people to make the half-shekel contribution to the Sanctuary. In this census, the people are preparing the military campaign to take the land (which indeed they would have done at once if not for the regrettable incident with the spies–stay tuned for Parshat Shlah in three weeks) and the purpose of this census was to count the men over the age of 20 for military service.
Ramban mentions these two reasons and adds that, this time, the people are counted by their names, and the census gives each member of the nation a chance to come before Moses and Aaron and be recognized as an individual of personal worth.

Your Torah Navigator

1. Which of the three explanations do you find most compelling?
2. In the census before the Tabernacle, the people were counted as a nation. In this census, they are counted within their tribes. What might be the reason for the two different methods of counting?
The Torah forbids the counting of Jews directly. Even today, when counting for a minyan (quorum) we count “not-one, not-two…” or use a phrase with ten words, or count feet and divide by two. In 2 Samuel 24, King David takes a direct-count census, and as punishment, the nation is struck by a plague. The Talmud supposes that David thought the prohibition of direct counting only applied in Moses’ time. Another explanation is that David did count the people correctly, but that he had no particular reason to conduct a census at all, and was punished for that.

A Word

Perhaps the reluctance to count Israelites, even when there is a good reason to do so, derives from the understanding that it is all too easy to make human beings into statistics. In recent history, the Nazis tried to dehumanize Jews by replacing their names with numbers. As Ramban points out, one of the features of the census in Parsha Bamidbar is that each person is counted, by name, before Moses and Aaron, and recognized as an individual. As we read about current events, how many million homeless, how many hundreds killed in drunk driving accidents, it is important for us to remember that each one of those numbers represents a human being.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Another Type Of Hoop

So the time has come, it seems, to stop thinking about planting seeds and really plant them.  The hoops are in place.  Once the seeds are planted and the soil watered, I'll cover the beds with row cloth.  It will let in the sun and some moisture while keeping out birds and squirrels (hopefully).  It should also protect the delicate new plants from the heavy rains which seem to fall frequently.
The half barrel is for potatoes.  I'm a little uncertain about the potatoes.  It seems that in order to grow potatoes one must first have potatoes which are then stuck in the dirt.  Go figure.
I need to learn about compost -- how and when to use it and how to acquire it.  I know that the town in which we live will provide compost but I'd kind of like to make my own instead of throwing the stuff of which compost is made into the trash.
This is all new to me and I'd appreciate your suggestions and guidance.
I'll keep you posted.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Impossible Dream

Once again, we have a double Torah portion this week.  We read the last two portions of the book of Leviticus, Behar (Lev. 25: 1 – 26:2) and Bechukotai (Lev. 26:3 – 27:34).  

Parshah Behar describes the Sabbatical (shemittah) and Jubilee (yovel) years as they will be observed once the Israelites come into the land.  God directs Moses to tell the people that they may plant and reap for six years, but in the seventh year, the land must be allowed to lie fallow.  Since the Israelites are to be an agricultural people, they too will rest in the Sabbatical year. Following the seventh of seven cycles of years, the fiftieth would be the Jubilee year, in which land that had been bought, sold, traded and exchanged would be returned to the original owners and certain categories of bondsmen and women would be freed.  

 Although the Sabbatical and the Jubilee are obviously related and intertwined, there was a significant difference in their practical application.  Whether or not God’s bounty was sufficient to see the Israelites through the seventh year, we know that the law of the Sabbatical year was obeyed for almost the entire time that the people lived in Israel.  We have no such proof for the observance of the Jubilee.   Some modern scholars think that it was a lofty and dramatic but ultimately unenforceable way of reminding the Israelites that property belonged not to them but to God.  In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rabbi Gunther Plaut states that: “The ideal past, which the jubilee legislation sought to restore, probably never existed”.

The ideal past probably never existed.  The Sabbatical year must have been difficult, but it was manageable.  The Jubilee is an impossible dream.  It expresses a noble goal, but a goal that can never be achieved, because it presupposes that things can be put back as they were and that the past can be restored.  Israel, in its first flush of conquest, took possession of the land that God had promised to its ancestors, and every fifty years, we are bidden to return to that time.  Except that it can’t be done.  People change; they die and are born, they form new families, they move around.  The land changes: there are droughts and floods, trees fall down, rocks slide, landmarks become indistinguishable.  Time takes its toll on the land and the people.  We cannot go back in time.  We can re-enact, we can remember.  But we cannot re-create.

The Jubilee was intended as a means of release, and the lesson of that release for us is spelled out by the impossibility of its observance.  Perhaps what God was trying to teach us by giving us the unmanageable task of re-creating the past is that it even though it can’t be accomplished; humans must try it in order to learn that it will fail.  The Jubilee teaches us that we can’t change the past, or fix it, or bring it back, but we can honor it, and we must remember it.  Because once we have remembered and reconciled with our past, we can be released to go forward and build our future.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Just About There

The fence is up.  The beds are in place and filled with dirt.  The fill dirt should settle down an inch or two.  When that happens I'll mix in some peat moss.  Next steps:
  • buy a couple of soaking hoses.
  • position the hoops for the row covers.
  • plant the seeds.
  • soak well.
  • fasten the row covers to the hoops.
After all of that is said and done the only thing left to do is to hope for the best.
Oh, yeah.  And water.
Next planting is the potatoes.  Also, I'm going to cover the ground with the same cloth I put under the boxes and then I'll cover the cloth with gravel.  Not only will that look nice, it should discourage grass and weeds from filling up the spaces between the boxes.
This is all an adventure.
Adventures can be fun.  They an also be frustrating and a little scary.  It's that unknown thing that keeps cropping up.  So when I said hope for the best, that's part of the adventure, too.
I'll keep you posted.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Emor

This week’s Torah portion, Emor (Lev. 21:1-24:23) sets out with a series of laws governing the priests, continues with a calendar of the festivals and concludes with a brief compendium of laws and with the recounting of one odd incident.

The book of Leviticus does not contain a lot of narrative, but in chapter 24:10-16, we are told of a man whose mother was an Israelite and whose father was an Egyptian.  This man got into a fight with an Israelite in the camp and the son of the Israelite woman and Egyptian man blasphemed by pronouncing God’s unspeakable Name.  The blasphemer’s name is not given but his mother was Shlomit the daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan. He is taken into custody and Moses inquires of God what to do with him.  God tells Moses that the punishment for pronouncing the Holy Name is death by stoning, and ends with these words: “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike; for I the Lord am your God.” (Lev. 24:22) Moses relays God’s decree to the people of Israel and they take the blasphemer out of the camp and stone him to death.  

What is the point of this story?  If it is simply that a blasphemer is to be punished by death, why accentuate this offender’s mixed heritage?  If it is that the same law applies to the citizen and sojourner, why mention the fight between the blasphemer and the other Israelite?  Is this man considered an Israelite, or a foreigner?  And isn’t it interesting that he utters the Holy Name, but his own name is not given, only his mother’s and grandfather’s?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Why I Chose Raised Beds For Vegetables

All four beds are out in the garden area plus a much smaller bed. I bought row fabric to cover the beds lest, should anything actually sprout, I'm not just feeding the squirrels and the deer.  Pretty soon it will be time to plant -- after the fence goes up and the dirt goes in probably in reverse order.
I chose to use raised beds for just about all of the reasons below.
Pros of Raised-Bed Gardening:
  • More control over the location of the garden
  • Ability to choose the best soil for your particular plants
  • More efficient draining
  • Can be easier on backs and knees due to less bending and stooping
  • Easier to keep out weeds
  • The soil warms up earlier in a raised bed, so you can plant earlier and extend your growing season
  • Better ability to keep out ground-dwelling pests
The reasons below for not using raised beds didn't seem that compelling.
Cons of Raised-Bed Gardening:
  • Can be more expensive to get started
  • Require careful planning to make sure there is enough room for plants that need to spread out, and to ensure that you can reach the middle to tend the plants
  • Because raised beds drain so efficiently, they will also need to be watered more often and my require an irrigation system
If things go well I will probably also put in some containers.  There's quite a bit of space in the area I've chosen.
Raised Beds Versus Containers?
At first glance, raised beds can look like large containers. But raised beds do not  have bottoms like a planter or box would – they are built directly on top of the ground. Some raised beds don’t have walls at all, and are simply piles of soil mounded on top of the existing soil! Veggie container gardening is another great option to consider if you’re working with limited yard space or less-than-ideal soil conditions.

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Acharei Mot and Kedoshim

                This week brings us another double Torah portion, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim  ( Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27).  The first of these two portions begins with the words, “God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron” and lays out a series of laws.  The first set explains how the priests of the Temple are to establish boundaries in order that no more of them shall die while serving God in the Temple, especially in the Holy of Holies.  There follows a short set of rules for sacrificing animals, and for eating meat in other instances, and the largest part of the chapter then deals with forbidden sexual relationships.

                At the beginning of this last section comes a verse, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, which, if a person does, he shall live by them.” (Lev. 18:5). The phrase “and live by them” is used in the Talmud as a prooftext to uphold the principle of pekuach nefesh, saving a human life. In the words of Rabbi Pinchas Peli, author of Torah Today, “The laws of Torah are to be life-giving and are abrogated when they result in the opposite or are endangering life.”  With a very few notable exceptions, Jews are not expected to die for our faith.

                Jewish laws should be broken when keeping them would endanger human life.  We are to live by them, says the Talmud, not die by them.