Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 6th Iyyar 5776, 14th May 2016
How appropriate that we read about the special days and festivals in today’s parsha, a few days after celebrating Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, and a week after Yom Hashoah. These new additions to our calendar are different from the days described in the Torah, but they bear great meaning because their context is so personal.
The festivals are one of three main subjects of today’s parsha, the other two being priestly purity and the story of the man who goes out and curses God. Priestly purity is a continuation of the subject of purity that has been paramount in Vayikra. The priests must avoid the contamination caused by contact with the dead, and the sacrifices they bring must be without blemishes or imperfections. The main point is that everything having to do with serving in the Tabernacle/temple has to be as pure as possible.
The holidays are enumerated – Shabbat, the three pilgrimage holidays, and what we call Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and what we do on them. Matza on Pesach, bringing sheaves of barley – the omer – until Shavuot, the blowing of the shofar and the fasting and torturing of our souls on the high holidays, and the booths we sit in, and the four species that we hold and wave on Succoth.
The subject of holidays is interesting because it combines God-given instructions and human decisions. These are the days of the Lord which you will call holy convocations. And from this we learn that we call the shots as to when holidays actually fall.
I’ll give you an example. We celebrated Rosh Chodesh Sunday and Monday. Yet the molad, the actual initial appearance of the new moon, was on Friday. In other words, Rosh Chodesh should have been Saturday, or Saturday and Sunday. But it wasn’t because WE were given the right to determine when the holidays will fall.
This fits in with the whole concept of time, which has been discussed at length, several times and with great perspicacity by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs. Obviously, time is a human creation. Days were the gift of nature – created by the darkness-light cycle. Humans thought up hours and minutes, and it was the Torah that introduced the seven-day week and the idea of Shabbat, a holy time during creation when God rested, so that rest effectively became a part of creation.
According to Rabbi Sachs, when the 70 wise men translated the Torah into Greek, the Septuagint, they changed certain things, and one of them was that God created everything in six days, instead of seven and He rested on the seventh day.
What’s the difference, you’ll ask. They felt that Greek readers would not be able to comprehend or accept the idea that rest, doing nothing, is part of creation. How can you be creating something by doing nothing?
But this was a great revelation and justifiably we can contend that Shabbat is one of the most important contributions of Judaism to the world. Letting go of all our petty and even important worries and cares about business, politics, money, infighting, answering emails and stressing ourselves – can do more for our mental and physical health than all the courses and exercises and diets in the world (no matter how important they are!).
So, we see the connection of priestly purity to the book and the place of holidays, but how does the last part of the parsha fit in, the section about an Israelite man who goes out and curses God?
The story is very sketchy and raises more questions than answers. We know his mother’s name, we know he had an Egyptian father. Why is his father important? Today, Jewishness is determined by the maternal line but the paternal side is also important. A child will be a Levite if he is born to a Levite father but not to a Levite mother. Perhaps in those days one’s religious or tribal affiliation was also determined by patriarchal lineage.
The question remains: Why did he curse?
Let’s look at some of the plausible options offered. If he had an Egyptian father, and he saw him drown in the sea with the other Egyptians, that could explain his anger. But then, why wait until now? Perhaps the Egyptian father is mentioned to show that people should stick with their own kind, that intermarriage cannot lead to good things. Perhaps he was discriminated against because of his parentage and just couldn’t take it anymore. The fact is that the Israelites complained against God time and again – but nowhere do we read of them cursing God.
The fact that this story appears after the listing of the holidays could indicate that this plethora of celebrations honoring the God who had smitten this dissident’s family and nation pushed him over the edge.
The story could theoretically be a framework for laying down the punishment for cursing God, but too much space is devoted to it. As I said – more questions than answers.
So the parsha runs the gamut from purity to joint divine and human efforts to determine the dates of the holidays, to the person who can’t take it anymore and curses. We see modern variations of these three themes reiterated in our lives, in the news. We have people who talk about the purity of our army and sound warnings about our actions, and then we have a joint effort, by the cabinet, the Knesset, the public and interested parties to determine what is actually pure, and then we have those who can’t take the balagan and either take the law into their own hands, leave, or suffer (sometimes quietly and sometimes quite vociferously – they curse).
We have just celebrated our country’s 68th anniversary, preceded by a day that commemorated those who gave their lives to the national effort, and before that, those who 70 and 80 years ago were overwhelmed by superior forces of evil.
We have a lot to be thankful for, a lot more to strive for, and a lot of work to do to overcome those whose greatest pleasure comes from cursing us. May we have a healthy and successful 69th year in our land.