Holy Things and Holy Homes – A Teaching from B’midbar

B’midbar, in the wilderness. We begin by taking account of ourselves, by numbering and naming our strengths, assigning our families to their places.

How did the Israelites travel?

The tribes of Issachar, Judah and Zebulon camped at the front, facing east – and the sunrise.  Gad, Reuben and Simeon were located on the south side, wellspring of warmth. On the west, behind the Tabernacle, Manasseh, Ephraim and Benjamin set up their tents. On the north side Asher, Dan and Naphtali. Abraham came into Canaan from the north; the north is our ancient history.

The Levites were named and numbered too after the four sons of Levi. They, too, were placed around the Tabernacle.

The parsha describes their duties: The sons of Aaron were to take care of the service; the sons of Gershon were to care for curtains, hangings, and ropes, of the sanctuary. The sons of Merari were to maintain and care for the Tabernacle’s bones — its posts, crossbars, courtyard, and tent pegs.

The sons of Kohath, the Kohathites, were charged with carrying vessels and objects within the sanctuary – the menorah, the table of showbread, the ark. When it is time to break camp, Aaron and his sons first covered the ark with a purple blue cloth. Over the table of showbread and the menorah, they lay a cloth of purple red cloth. They must protect the altar of gold, the service vessels, the copper altar, the fire pans and the flesh hooks, the scrapers and the basins – all the vessels of Temple service. Then, and only then, only after Aaron and his sons have covered all the holy objects, may the Kohathites enter to take and transport what belongs inside the Tabernacle.

Do this with them, God says to Aaron, that they may live and not die when they touch sacred objects (4:15).

Why such a prohibition? One explanation from our rabbis: Aaron and his sons must cover everything because the clans of Kohath would otherwise find themselves transfixed at the sight of consecrated objects. They would be overpowered, unable to do their work.  Another tradition: The problem the Torah seeks to avoid is just the opposite concern. If holy objects are not covered, the Kohathites might get too used to handling what is sacred. Sacred things will become ordinary. The Kohathites might “die spiritually,” and lose their capacity to see the tabernacle and its hallowed objects as holy things.

Aside from our Torahs, our synagogues do not contain many ritual objects. What do we invest with a sense of sacredness?

Once, some years back, I came home to find my kitchen cabinet doors hanging open, drawers upturned, musical equipment moved out of place and left, discarded, in the hallway. My jewelry had been spilled out of their containers and left tangled and twined together. My tefillin were lying on the flour, half unwound.

After the police left, I moved from room to room. The shofar was left untouched while the back door, kicked in by our burglars, swung awkwardly. Shredded wood lay on the carpet nearby. Each piece of Judaica, one my husband, Ralf, bought for me each year on my birthday – was standing in its accustomed place, whole, clean and bright.

The burglars were not interested in my seder plate, my chanukiahs, my yad. For them, the little wooden figures my mother-in-law, Evelyn, gave us over the years were worth nothing. To me, the little town musicians, the night watchmen, the deer and the goats were magical.

Our homes are sacred. It is there where we can love without fear, cry without restraint, feel free to be ourselves.

Jewish tradition declares that the marriage bed is the second most holy thing that ever was or can be – second only to the Holy of Holies. Our central relationships are sacrosanct; we represent them with real – and hallowed – things. We mark our doors and gates with the injunction to love the godly in and around us with all our hearts and souls and might. Our homes are our sanctuaries, no matter how temporary they may be and no matter how often we move. The things we place inside are holy stuff.



Listen to Leviticus – And Fly Free

Listen to Leviticus.

Who owns the earth? Is it right for some to be rich in every material way and for others to go hungry? Do some people have the right to refuse others the chance to decide where they want to live? How do we create a time or a space in which people cannot be identified in economic terms?

Leviticus takes up all these questions, and more.

Our final readings, B’har and Be?ukkotai, insist that the laws they reveal came from Sinai – despite the fact that Leviticus otherwise often describes its commandments as given over at the Tent of Meeting. But the author wants to make a point at the close of the book: All the Israelites were at Sinai. Everything we know and must know comes from that place of epiphany. B’har begins: “The Holy One spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, and told him: ‘speak to the Israelite people.’”

And what should Moshe say?

Every fifty years the Israelites must mark a sacred time – for themselves and for the land. They must live off whatever the land produces on its own. During the Jubilee year the land is to be left to rest.

Leviticus gives us an idea so radical that it puts our own society to shame. In the fiftieth year, B’har says, we must remember that the earth and everything in it actually belongs to God. The Israelites are mere tenants. God has made the land available to the Israelites, but it may not be exploited for the enrichment of some to the detriment of others.

In the Jubilee year, on the day of Atonement, after the shofar has been blown a last, long, magnificent time, all land reverts back to its original apportioning. Rich or poor, all become equal not only in the eyes of God but in the actual reality they inhabit.

Unity is restored where it has been fractured or assailed. Those who have sunk into poverty will have their self-respect restored. No one can be defined in economic terms during this year. Just as Shabbat asks us to take a time apart from the market, so the Jubilee year asks us – as a whole society – to take a rest from a world defined by buying and selling.

The tenth verse of this parsha is inscribed on our Liberty Bell: “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”

The Hebrew word translated as “release” is d’ror. But d’ror is also the name for a creature of liberty: the swallow. Just as we speak of a “pride” of lions, so one way to speak about swallows as a group is to describe them as a “flight” or “sweep.” The swallow has been called the “bird of freedom” because it cannot endure captivity. Swallows only mate when they are free, only in the wild.

We must be, then, so Leviticus, be free as birds. We must be released, given freedom of movement.

D’ror has also been read from the root dalet-vav-reish, “to dwell.” Leviticus 25:10 could also be telling us that people ought to be guaranteed the freedom to live wherever they wish.

We are living in a country where more tax breaks are in the offing for the wealthiest citizens among us – and we do well to remember the disparities we are talking about here: the top wealthiest one percent of Americans now own at least forty percent of the nation’s wealth; the bottom eighty percent own a mere seven percent.

We are living in a country in which God’s own earth is under assault by those who wish to have unrestrained access to its wealth. National monuments and parks are at risk; some of our officials are so allergic to the word “regulate” that they seem to be willing to deregulate nature out of existence.

As for the chance to live free: last week, an officer from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services attempted to get into an elementary school in New York in order to question a fourth grader – a mere nine or ten-year old.

Leviticus tells us that no Israelite may be taxed beyond their means, that no Israelite should ever endure the shame of poverty, that the land needs to be respected and cared for and that freedom and liberty must be the bedrock on which we build our society.

Shouldn’t we listen to Leviticus – and fly free?


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