Thursday, May 21, 2015

Torah in the Wilderness of Life / Parshat B'midbar and Shavuot 2015-5775

Challenge #1: In twenty-five words or lessWhat is Torah? In ten words? In one word? Did your definition contents (the Five Books of Moses), components (laws, legends, religious history, social and ethical values), what Torah means to you, or something else altogether?

Challenge #2: We begin reading Sefer Bmidbar (the Book of Numbers) this week and usher in Shavuot the moment shabbat departs. Is there a connection between the Wilderness experience and Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), or is this just a curious juxtaposition?

Sefer Bmidbar opens where Sefer Shemot (the Book of Exodus) leaves off: the beginning of the Israelites second year in the Midbar (wilderness). Before them is wilderness in every direction, and 39 years of wandering to go. With the Torah safely tucked away in the ark, the Israelites set out into the Wilderness. The first chapter of Bmidbar paints a picture of exceptional organization and efficiency. On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt (Numbers 1:1), God commands Moses to take a census of the 600,000 males of military age: 20 year and up, and capable of bearing arms. Torah names the chieftains of each tribe and reports the census tallies, tribe by tribe. (It is not for naught that the book is called Numbers in English.) We are then told precisely where each tribal grouping was camped around the Tabernacle: the Israelites, counted and catalogued, are arrayed in perfect precision. Here is one depiction that captures this sense of the Israelites orderly and efficient encampment:

As marvelous as the literary image is, its only an image. The reality is turmoil and chaos. From their plaintive cries at the shores of the Reed Sea that slavery is preferable to freedom, to their worship of the Golden Calf at the base of the very mountain at the very moment where God was delivering the Torah to Moses, to the endless complaints, quarrels, and rebellions that characterize the Israelites next 39 years in the wilderness, we can confidently say that the Israelites time in the wilderness is characterized by discord, dissent, and disorder.

The one semblance of order and continuity in all this is the Torah itself. Shavuot comes to celebrate the gift of Torah, a gift that truly keeps giving. How so? I turn to a commentary by the hasidic master, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev in Kedushat Levi. Commenting on כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה; וַיִּפְקְדֵם, בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי As Adonai commanded Moses, he counted them in the wilderness of Sinai (Numbers 1:19), the Berditchever rebbe writes:

The verse would have made more sense in reverse order: Moses counted them, as God had commanded him [which, indeed, accords with Numbers 1:2-3, where God commands Moses to take a census]. But this appears to be the meaning: God gave the Torah to Israel, and the souls of Israel form the body of the Torah. There are six hundred thousand Jewish souls, parallel to the number of the letters of the Torah.[1] Israel, in other words, are the Torah. Each one of us constitutes one of Torahs letters. By counting Israel, therefore, Moses was learning the Torah. This is the meaning of the verses order. As Adonai commanded Moses means that the Torahs commandment to Moses was the very act of counting Israel. That is also why it says, but do not count the tribe of Levi or lift up their heads among the Israelites (Numbers 1:49). Israel represents the Written Torah while the Levites stand for the Oral Torah. Therefore, of the Levites it says, [Moses] counted them by the mouth of God as he was commanded (Numbers 4:49).

Heres Rabbi Levi Yitzhaks answer to Challenge #1: Torah is people. Certainly it contains the Five Books, and we can categorize its contents as laws or legends or history or ethics or social values, but Torah is people. How do we learn Torah? By counting people, by attending to the needs and concerns of those around us. Torah is all about creating a compassionate and just society; it is about counting people and making people count in our lives. To keep the commandments without regard to the needs of people is unthinkable. To treat Torah as a mere compendium of arcane ritual laws for the truly devout or worse, as a vehicle for boosting ones stature based on scholarshipwithout regard to the needs of everyone, the concerns of the poor, and justice for those sufferingis to violate Torahs core and thereby nullify its holiness. The Berditchever Rebbe understood this well. He is often called the defense attorney of the Jewish people before God. Filled with compassion for people, he would plead with God on their behalf.

The  Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) expresses this understanding in another way, one that has more universal sensitivity. It interprets verses in Sefer Bmidbar chapter 21 that preserve a song the Israelites sang concerning their route through the Wilderness, with stops at Midbar, Mattanah, Nachaliel, Bamot, and Pisgah:

 וּמִמִּדְבָּר, מַתָּנָה.  יט וּמִמַּתָּנָה, נַחֲלִיאֵל; וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵל, בָּמוֹת.  כ וּמִבָּמוֹת, הַגַּיְא אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׂדֵה מוֹאָב--רֹאשׁ, הַפִּסְגָּה; וְנִשְׁקָפָה, עַל-פְּנֵי הַיְשִׁימֹן

And from Midbar to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nachaliel, and from Nachaliel to Bamot and from Bamot to the valley that is in the country of Moab, at the peak of Pisgah, overlooking the wasteland. (Numbers 21:18-20)

In tractate Nedarim 55a,b the Sages explain:

[55a] What is meant by, And from Midbar to Mattanah; and from Mattanah to Nachaliel; and from Naxhaliel to Bamot? He replied, When one makes himself as the Midbar (wilderness), which is free to all, the Torah is presented to him as a gift [mattanah means gift] as it is written, And from the Midbar to Mattanah. And once he has it as a gift, God gives it to him as an inheritance [nachaliel comes from the root meaning inheritance], as it is written, And from Mattanah to Nachaliel. And when God gives it him as an inheritance, he ascends to greatness, as it is written, And from Nachaliel to Bamot [bamot means heights]. But if he exalts himself, the Holy One, blessed be God, casts him down, as it is written, And from Bamot to the valley [the valley is lower than the heights]. Moreover, he is made to sink into the earth, as it is written, Which is pressed down into the desolate soil [pressed down is a play on the word Pisgah, meaning overlooking; here it is understood instead as pressed down or stepped on]. But should he repent [of exalting himself], the Holy One, blessed be God, will raise him again, [55b] as it is written, כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא Every valley shall be exalted (Isaiah 40:4).

The Rabbis describe the spiritual and emotional process of making Torah our own. If we view Torah as free such that all are welcome to subscribe to it and draw wisdom from it, then it is truly a divine gift. Once we understand it to be Gods gift, we come to see it as our sacred inheritance, something that is intimately a part of who we are: where we come from and who we ought to be in the world. But if we misunderstand the inheritance of Torah as a vehicle for self-exaltationa means to raising ourselves above others, be they fellow-Jews, or non-Jewsthen we sink into the earth. The greatness we might have brought to the world through Torah is as if it were trampled underfoot or buried in the ground; it is lost to the world when Torah has become a means of self-aggrandizement. This is a trap it is all too easy to fall into. One who repents of such arrogance, however, will be raised up again by virtue of Torah to participate with humanity in tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

Challenge #2: Is there a connection between the Wilderness experience of the Israelites and Matan Torah (Giving of the Torah)? I believe the answer is yes. The Wilderness experience was one of turmoil and chaos amidst the vision of order and peace. Torah is the means to transforming turmoil chaos into order and peace, person by person, problem by problem, moment by moment. Torah is more than text(s). It is an attitude and a value system and a connection with the divine that inspires us with a vision of what ought to be and suffuses us with the conviction that much is possible.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] In point of fact, there are 304,805 letters in the Torah. Im not sure what the precise source of the tradition is that the number of letters in the Torah corresponds to the number of souls who left Egypt with Moses.It is mentioned in Zohar Chadash, Shir ha-Shirim, p. 74: There are 600,000 letters in the Torah, just as there are 600,000 souls in the twelve tribes of the Israell". It may well be that Kabbalah is the source of this tradition. A popular tradition has it that Yisrael is an acronym for Yesh Shishim Ribo Otiot la-Torah (there are 600,000 letters in the Torah).

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Principle to Live By / Behar-Bechukkotai 2015-5775

(This drash is text-centric. If you like text, dive in. If youre wary, please give it a try. If youre still confused after reading it, know that you are not alone because Talmud texts are confusing to many people, and feel free to be in touch with me. The two Talmudic passages that are discussed in this drash from tractates Shabbat and Rosh Hashanahare included at the end of the drash.)

We think we know what time is. Scientists have defined one second to be 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a hyperfine transition in the 133 caesium atomat least if were all in the same inertial reference frame. Einsteins Special Relativity taught us that its not that simple. Hermann Minkowskis spacetime gave us a very different perspective on the very large scale. But here at home, a day still has 24 hours, an hour has 60 minutes, and the garbage goes out Thursday morning. Most of contemplate the meaning of time in our lives far more than the implications of spacetime for the universe. Steve Jobs said: My favorite things in life dont cost money. Its really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time. More than two centuries earlier, William Penn said: Time is what we want most, but what we use worst. And twenty-one centuries earlier, Pericles said: Time is the wisest counselor of all.

This weeks double portions, Behar and Bechukkotai, has something to say about time. Among the many subjects it takes up is shemittah, the sabbatical year. As an ancient and extraordinarily progressive eco-friendly and anti-poverty institution, shemittah is unsurpassed. Its remarkable. For one in every seven years, the land was permitted to lie fallow to renew itselfa sabbath for the land. All those who had sold themselves into slavery to pay off debts was released and sent home. Land that was sold outside a patrimony due to economic hardship was returned to the original owner. The shemittah is a great leveling institution: the poor were given a new lease on life, an opportunity to begin anew. It turns out that Behar offers us even more wisdom: a principle to live by that speaks to ever facet of life. Tracing the path of that principle, we begin with Chanukah.

The Babylonian Talmud records a famous argument between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai concerning how to light the Chanukah menorah.

Bet Shammai say: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced. But Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. 

We know who won this one because we light one candle the first night and increase by one each night. But did you ever wonder why the School of Hillel held this opinion and why the School of Shammai held the opposite view? Talmud provides two explanations, one attributed to R. Yose b. Avin, and another according to R. Jose b. Zevida (see Shabbat 21b below). The first R. Yose understands the candles in the menorah to be a counting mechanism, a candle-calendar for keeping track of the festival. The difference is that Bet Shammai want to count how many days remain which, given the story of the miraculous cruse of oil that lasted eight days, makes sense; Bet Hillel want to count each day of the festival as it occurs. The second R. Yose tells us that Bet Shammai is concerned with the sacrifices, which makes sense since Chanukah is about the rededication of the Temple and reinstitution of the sacrificial rites; Bet Hillel, however, is aiming for a far more general principle that applies well beyond Chanukah: we promote in sanctity but do not reduce. For Bet Hillel, this principle bespeaks not only the story of Chanukah, but all of Torah and Judaism: it is all about increasing holiness in the world.

Bet Hillel has framed the principle of increasing holiness in very general terms, but it has concrete applications. Tractate Rosh Hashanah (daf 9) considers the situation of holy time. If we want to add to holy time, where do we draw that extra time from? Clearly, from ordinary time. For example: Shabbat begins at sundown Friday and ends at sundown Saturday, but we light the shabbat candles 18 minutes before sundown Friday and do not make havdalah until at least 42 minutes after sundown Saturday. Therefore, while in theory Shabbat is 24 hours long, in reality we keep it for 25 hours. We take 18 minutes from Friday and 42 minutes from Saturday toin the words of the Rabbis—“add from the ordinary on to the holy. We convert ordinary time into holy time.

In tractate Rosh Hashanah, the Sages want to know what the basis in Torah is for this principle. A baraita (Mishnah-era teaching that didnt make it into the Mishnah) is brought that offers as the basis the verse Exodus 34:21: the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and harvest time you shall rest. This is a surprising verse to bring because its about shabbat and, in context, merely means that even during the pressured seasons of plowing and harvest, one must nonetheless cease from work on shabbat.

Talmud then records the differing views of two Sages: R. Akiba and R. Yishmael. R. Akiba understands the verse from Exodus to apply to the shemittah (sabbatical year) because in our Torah portion, Behar, we already find the prohibition of plowing during the sabbatical year: You shall not sow your field (Leviticus 25:4). Therefore, the reference to plowing and harvesting in Exodus 34:21 must refer to something else (since, for R. Akiba, Torah never repeats itself). R. Akiba explains: in the sabbatical year, we are to stop plowing even before the year begins, and refrain from harvesting even after the year ends. In this way, we lengthen the year by a few weeks or perhaps months on both ends, enlarging it, adding from the ordinary on to the holy.

R. Yishmael offers an alternative view. For him, the verse from Exodus pertains to Shabbat. He learns the principle of adding from the ordinary on to the holy from another source: the commandment concerning Yom Kippur. Specifically, he cites Leviticus 23:32: It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your sabbath. R. Yishmael, noting the peculiar wording of the verse, explains that, in fact, we begin fasting before sundown on Yom Kippur, and do not eat until after sundown at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. And so it is: we stop eating prior to sundown and arrive in synagogue prior to sundown because Kol Nidre must be chanted before the sun sets. At the other end, after Yom Kippur, we must pray maariv (evening prayers) and then make havdalah before we break the fast. The day of Yom Kippur is stretched out at both ends, adding from the ordinary on to the holy.

For the Sages, holy time provides a unique and unparalleled opportunity. Lets return to the observations of three wise people, and imagine that they were talking, specifically, about holy time. Pericles: [Holy] Time is the wisest counselor of all. Holy time calls us to stop our normal activity and consider our impact on the world and the lives of others. Holy time carves out space in our lives for meditation, reflection, and prayer: Who are we? Who do we wish to be? What are we doing with our lives? William Penn said: [Holy] time is what we want most, but what we use worst. Holy time affords us the opportunity to live in eternity and to contemplate what might be, on the one hand, and on the other to be wholly in the moment with our thoughts, with those we love, and with all creation. But for that to happen, we need to consciously and purposefully sanctify the time. The Jewish mechanisms for that include lighting candles, kiddush, and other rituals that help us savor holy time. Steve Jobs: My favorite things in life dont cost money. Its really clear that the most precious resource we all have is [holy] time. Imagine holy time as a resource to help us infuse our lives with purpose and meaning, pleasure and joy, reflection and direction, community and eternity. And its free. Hey, if its free, add from the ordinary on to the holy and enjoy! Theres a principle to live by.

Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 21b

            Bet Shammai say: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced. But Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased.
            Ulla said: In the West [Land of Israel] two amoraim, R. Jose b. Avin and R. Jose b. Zevida, differ. [R. Jose b. Avin] maintains that Bet Shammais reason is that it shall correspond to the days [of the festival of Chanukah] still to come, and Bet Hillels reason is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone. But [R. Yose b. Zevida] maintains: Bet Shammai's reason is that it shall correspond to the bullocks [offered as sacrifices on the altar in the Temple] for the Festival; while Bet Hillel's reason is that we promote in [matters of] sanctity but do not reduce.

Babylonian Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah 9a,b

            And how do we know [from Scripture] that we add to from the ordinary on to the holy? As it has been taught: on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and harvest time you shall rest  (Exodus 34:21).
            R. Akiba, [commenting on this,] said: There was no need [for Scripture] to specify the plowing and harvest of the Sabbatical year, since this has already been mentioned [in], You shall not sow your field (Leviticus 25:4). It must therefore refer to plowing on the eve of the sabbatical year that is passing into the sabbatical year, and to harvesting in the sabbatical year that continues into the period after the sabbatical year.
            R. Yishmael said: Just as plowing is optional, so too harvesting [here referred to] is optional, excluding the harvesting of the Omer, which is a mitzvah.
            Whence then does R. Yishmael derive the rule that an addition is to be made from the ordinary on to the holy? He learns it from that which has been taught: And you shall afflict your souls on the ninth day (Leviticus 23:32[1]). I might think [literally] on the ninth day. It therefore says, at evening. If at evening, I might think, after dark. It therefore says, on the ninth day. What, then, am I to understand? That we begin to afflict ourselves [by fasting] while it is yet day. This teaches that we add from the ordinary on to the holy.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Leviticus 23:32 on Yom Kippur: It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your sabbath.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

All Nighter / Emor 2015-5775

In college I rarely went to bed before 1:00 am. Staying up all night was no mean feat, and it was not challenging to bounce back from an all-nighter. That was then and now is now, if you follow my drift. The tradition of staying up all night on Erev Shavuot to study Torah has its origins not in the Bible nor on college campuses, but in the mystical tradition of the 16th century. The first mention comes to us from Moses ben Yehudah ibn Machir of Tzfat in the 16th century, on the basis of the Zohar’s suggestion that anyone wishing to dwell in the “royal palace” (of righteousness) should study Torah throughout the night of Shavuot. But how did they manage to remain awake all night? It would seem that a secret elixir—coffee—is the magic potion, and its introduction into the Near East made possible a new custom that many erroneously think stretches back to the Bible. Elliott Horowitz, in an article that received a great deal of attention when it appeared, suggests, "Where coffee spread, it extended the range of possibilities for making use of the night hours, whether for purposes pious or profane.” Nicely put. With coffee at their disposal, our ancestors could remain awake all night learning (even those older than 35). It may also be that eating dairy for Shavuot was introduced at this time and all the ex-post facto explanations were spun out. Certainly coffee and cheesecake make a nice late night snack.

Not only does Torah say nothing about staying up all night to study Torah on Shavuot, but perhaps more surprisingly are two peculiarities surrounding Torah’s mentions of Shavuot. The first is that Torah rarely employs the term “Shavuot.” The second is that in no instance is the giving of the Torah (revelation) connected with the festival. How can that be?

We stand in the midst of Sefirat ha-Omer (the Counting of the Omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot). This shabbat will mark the 35th day of the Omer. This week’s parashah, Emor, recounts both the festival of Shavuot and the Sefirah. But we don’t find the name of the festival here. Rather, we are told that on the day after “shabbat” (understood to mean the first day of Pesach), a sheaf of grain is to be brought to the priest, who elevates it and offers a yearling lamb along with a minchah (grain offering) and wine libation. This offering inaugurates a counting of seven times seven weeks. The following day—the fiftieth day—a מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה “offering of new grain” (Leviticus 23:16) and two loaves of bread from the new grain are brought along with a variety of animal sacrifices. Exodus 23:16 also refers to Shavuot but by another name: חַג הַקָּצִיר chag ha-katzir (“the harvest festival”). Numbers 28:26 refers to Shavuot as יוֹם הַבִּכּוּרִים yom ha-bikkurim (“the day of first fruits”) and שָׁבֻעֹתֵיכֶם shavuoteichem (“your weeks”). It is only in Deuteronomy 16 (verses 10 and 16) and Exodus 34:22 that we find the term חַג שָׁבֻעֹת chag ha-shavuot (“feast of weeks”) employed.

And while every school child will tell you that Shavuot celebrates Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, i.e., the Revelation of Torah)—that’s why why we study Torah all night long on Shavuot—that connection is not found in Torah itself.  The early Rabbis of the second century are the ones who associated Shavuot (which they called Atzeret) with the Giving of the Torah. In the shadow of the Destruction of the Second Temple, when animal sacrifices were no longer possible and the sheaves could not be brought to the Temple, the Rabbis ascribed new meaning to the festival of Shavuot so that it would continue to have currency in the Jewish community and not become lost. The culmination of the Passover and Omer season became for all Jews a celebration of the Revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai.

We might still wonder: Why does Torah mention sheaves of grain and new loaves, but not the giving of Torah? Rabbi Yitzhak Arama (1420–1494, Spain), author of the work Akedat Yitzhak, offers us an answer:
The commemoration of the Giving of the Torah cannot be limited to a particular time like other matters connected with the festivals, but is a precept that applies at all hours and at all times, as it is written, The Book of the Law shall not move from your youth, and you shall meditate in it day and night (Joshua 1:8). Every day we are commanded that its contents should remain as fresh and as dear to us, as on the day they were given…
Arama seems to be warning us that celebrating one particular day each year as the day on which Torah is given could close us off to the experience every day of receiving Torah.

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619, Prague) also wonders why Torah does not tell us that Torah was given on Shavuot. In his commentary Kli Yakar, he finds the answer in Torah’s mention of the מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה “offering of new grain” (Leviticus 23:16) that marked the fiftieth day, the festival day we know as Shavuot. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim tells us that the offering of grain alludes to Torah, and the new grain refers to new insights and explanations of Torah that keep Torah ever fresh, vibrant, relevant, and exciting. He goes on to explain, “For the words of Torah shall be new to you, and not like old matters that the heart detests. For, in truth, you are commanded to derive novelty each and every day.”

What a marvelous double call to keep Torah alive and and vital. That is a major challenge for us today, one that concerns me greatly. In the scramble to provide clever, innovative, entertaining programing in our synagogues and institutions, I worry that substantive, deep, and meaningful Torah study gets short shrift. (And here I include more than the Pentateuch in the term “Torah”—I include Talmud, midrash, mystical works, and more.) It’s not deemed “cool,” nor sufficiently entertaining in a culture that demands 24/7 entertainment. But study is spiritually fulfilling and I believe many are thirsty for this kind of fulfillment.

Torah defines who we are and Torah binds us together through both time and space. Delving into existing interpretations combined with generating new insights insures that Torah continues to be the glue that holds us together as a people and secures our future.

In a sense, Rabbi Yitzhak Arama and Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz are telling us that every day should be Shavuot. Every day should be one of spiritual inquiry and discovery, affording us an opportunity to find new meanings, new insights, and new expressions of the holy in our lives. I suppose that also means that every day should include cheesecake, too.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Leaving Tophet / Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 2015/5775

Violence erupted on the streets of Baltimore Monday. Shortly after the funeral for Freddie Gray zl concluded, and despite pleas by Grays family that all protests be suspended and the day be devoted to prayer and remembrance, as 3:00 pm rolled around and schools let out, youth and others descended on Mondawmin Mall. Media reported that, in conjunction with three local gangs, looting began, police were attacked, and numerous fires were set. A CVS in West Baltimore was torched and a community center under construction in East Baltimore was engulfed in flames. As evening wore on, African American pastors, to their great credit, called members of the three gangs to meet with them at the Old Shiloh Baptist Church where Freddie Gray had been eulogized earlier in the day.

We watched horrified as the events unfold on our TV screen. Days of largely peaceful demonstration and protest against what appears to be another case of police brutality against a young black man who died in police custody was now being overtaken by violent rioting and looting by people who appeared to be inspired by greed far more than any semblance of righteous anger. In all, it was reported that 15 structures were burned, 144 cars destroyed, dozens of businesses looted, and 20 police officers injured. The National Guard was activated and the city placed under a curfew for perhaps a week.

Of all the words and images that emerged in the following 24 hours, two stand out in my mind. The first is an interview reporter Deborah Weiner conducted at the Old Shiloh Baptist Church with members of three gangs: the Bloods, the Crips, and Black Gorilla Family. You can view it here.[1] The second is a video of Toya Graham, who found her son dressed in black hoodie and face mask to participate in the looting; she pulled him out, screamed at him and smacked him, telling him to go home. I dont want him to become Freddie Gray, she said.  You can see several video clips here.[2]

These scenes of Baltimore, and especially the interview of the gang members and the mother pulling her son off the street, came into sharp focus for me this week as I read the combined Torah portions of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Amidst a long litany of forbidden sexual relationships enumerated in Leviticus chapter 18 (traditionally read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, as well) we find this seemingly out-of-place prohibition against sacrificing children to Molech[3]:

וּמִזַּרְעֲךָ לֹא-תִתֵּן, לְהַעֲבִיר לַמֹּלֶךְ
Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molech. (Leviticus 18:21)

Who or what is Molech, what is this about, and how does it speak to what is happening on the streets of Baltimore and elsewhere in our country?

Molech was an ancient deity, worshiped by the Ammonites, Canaanites, and Phoenicians, that was propitiated by the sacrifice of children. Acharei Mot forbids offering up children to Molech. Kedoshim (Leviticus 20:2-5) tells us that one who goes ahead and sacrifices his children to Molech is to be executed by stoning; but in the next verse we are told that such a person will be punished by karet, the divine punishment of being cut off from the peoplehood of Israel. Despite these dire warnings I Kings 11:7, in describing the many excesses of King Solomon, tells us that he built a high place for Molech. Similarly 2 Chronicles 28:3 and 33:6 and Jeremiah 7:31 and 19:26 know these sacrifices to have happened in a place called Tophet in gai ben-Hinnom the Valley of the son of Hinnom. For example, Jeremiah 32:35 tells us.

וַיִּבְנוּ אֶת-בָּמוֹת הַבַּעַל אֲשֶׁר בְּגֵיא בֶן-הִנֹּם, לְהַעֲבִיר אֶת-בְּנֵיהֶם וְאֶת-בְּנוֹתֵיהֶם לַמֹּלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-צִוִּיתִים וְלֹא עָלְתָה עַל-לִבִּי, לַעֲשׂוֹת הַתּוֹעֵבָה הַזֹּאת--לְמַעַן, הַחֲטִי אֶת-יְהוּדָה
They built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to set apart their sons and their daughters for Molech; which I did not command them, nor did it ever enter My mind that they should do this abomination thereby causing Judah to sin.

The term Gehenna is derived from gai ben-Hinnom. Gehenna is purgatory. Hell on earth. Where children are sacrificed, hell is established in our midst.

The Rabbis, in an attempt to explain what evil could have been so great as to warrant the destruction of the Second Temple by the Babylonians in 70 C.E., employ the image of Tophet in the Valley of the son of Hinnom. They craft a horrifying description of parents who ceremonially process with a variety of offerings to enter concentric gates around a core cultic sacrificial altar. The priests loudly praise each offering, saying May it be sweet and pleasing to you! in order to mask the cries of children who, behind the innermost gate, are being offered up as sacrifices.

Another interpretation of And her uncleanliness on her skirts (Lamentations1:9): There was a place below Jerusalem, called "Tophet." And why did they call it "Tophet"? R. Yudan said: "Because of the fire that was there." And why did they call it the Valley of the son of Hinnom? It was named the valley of [a person named] the son of Hinnom"; and our rabbis said: Because from there they could hear the groaning of their children. There was a great idolatrous image there placed before [the entrance to] seven chambers. Below was a copper stove and in its hand a copper basket. For one who brought an offering of flour they would open the first gate; for an offering of turtle-doves the second gate; for a lamb the third gate; for a ram the fourth gate; for a calf the fifth gate; for an ox the sixth gate; for a human being the seventh gate. The priest would accept it and place it in the copper basket, light the fire underneath, and praise aloud: May it be sweet to you! May it be pleasing to you! Why so much [exclamation]? So that [the parents] would not hear the cries of their children and repent their deed [i.e., change their minds]. (Eichah Rabbah 1:9, Buber ed., pp. 71-72)

Certainly no such place existed in the first century, if ever it did exist. Why are the Rabbis drawing on the image of sacrificing children to Molech? What are they telling us?

It seems to me that the message is that the people are destroying their own future. Sacrificing children is emblematic of their failure to set priorities that insure a healthy, prosperous future for the nation. Narrow, selfish concern with being lauded for minor gifts to Molech conceal the enormous evil of children being sacrificed on an altar none choose to see or hear, behind a series of gates, out of sight, their cries muffled by the affirming praise of priests.

How different are things today? Im not excusing the violence and lootingthere is no excuse for such anti-social and criminal behavior. But at the same time, its important to honestly confront the reality of the lives many of these kids live. Far too many of the schools they attend are deplorably inadequate and under-resourced, the dropout rate is still far too high, and poverty is a crushing existential reality in their lives. Here is a frightening assessment.[4] We still have a drug policy designed to incarcerate black men in obscene numbers, but fewer and fewer vocational programs to convey skills needed to earn a living (click here[5]). Its important to honestly assess the employment situation these young people face. No longer does a full time job pay a living wage.[6] Income equality in America grows each daythe gap is a yawning chasmfueled by the insidious myth that those who dont make it are lazy and undeserving. (Read this.[7]) How many young people, and young black men in particular, are sacrificed on an altar of misconstrued and avaricious capitalism?

II Kings 23:10 tells us that when Josiah ascended to the throne of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E., he ordered the High Priest Hilkiah to use tax monies to clean out the Temple. There Hilkiah discovered סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה the book of the Torah (understood by many scholars as Deuteronomy) which inspired Josiah to institute sweeping reforms to obliterate rampant idolatry introduced by his predecessor Manasseh. Josiah burned the Asherah in the brook of Kidron, cleared the Temple of the vessels and altars for worshiping Ba’al and,

וְטִמֵּא אֶת-הַתֹּפֶת, אֲשֶׁר בְּגֵי בני- (בֶן-) הִנֹּם:  לְבִלְתִּי, לְהַעֲבִיר אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ וְאֶת-בִּתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁלַמֹּלֶךְ
He defiled Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, so that no one could make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech.

It is time to defile Tophet and tear down the altar to Molech. We owe our children far more. It is trite to say that are our futurebut it is true. People who destroy their future degrade their lives and society.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman