All year long I've been reposting old divrei Torah ("words of Torah" -- teachings, mini-sermons, homilies), originally published at the now-defunct blog Radical Torah. It's come to my attention that in the flurry of excitement around my July rabbinic school travels, I missed two weeks' worth of Radical Torah reposts. Whoops!
This week there is no weekly Torah portion -- this coming Shabbat will be Rosh Hashanah, so we'll be reading the special Torah reading assigned to that holiday -- so I'm taking advantage of the gap week in the usual lectionary cycle to post the divrei Torah which I missed posting in July. Apologies for the out-of-season posts!
Here's the first of those back posts: the d'var Torah I wrote for the Torah portion Shlakh-Lecha back in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.
At the very end of this week's Torah portion, Sh'lakh, there's a fascinating juxtaposition of passages. First, four dramatic verses concerning an episode in which the Israelites, in the wilderness, come across a man gathering wood on Shabbat. He is placed in custody, and God instructs Moses to have him put to death, so the Israelites take him outside the camp and stone him.
Then, five dramatic verses instructing Moses to tell the Israelites to put tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of their garments. These fringes, God says, shall be a reminder of all of God's commandments, that we might do them, and not instead follow our heart and eyes in our (idolatrous) lustful urge. The passage ends with the familiar refrain that Adonai is our God who brought us out of Egypt to be our God.
But did God bring us out of Egypt to instruct us in such punitive measures as stoning to death individuals who dared to collect firewood on Shabbat? How can we reconcile the stoning of the man in the first passage (who, as far as the overt text is concerned, was given no chance to repent or change his ways) with the ethical injunction toward righteousness in the second passage, when that stoning may not look righteous to our modern eyes at all?
The JPS Torah Commentary cites the Targum Neofiti in explaining that the story of the woodgatherer was one of four legal cases which came before Moses. In two of them he was quick to act; in two he was slow. He acted quickly in the case of the people who, for reasons of tumah (ritual impurity), could not keep Passover at the appointed time; and he acted quickly in the case of the daughters of Zelophehad. In both of these instances he offered lenient rulings, and offered them quickly so that the involved parties would not suffer while waiting for his word. But Moses was slow to act this time. "This was to teach the judges who would succeed Moses that they should be quick in civil cases and tardy in capital cases, so that they would not be in a hurry to put to death even one condemned to death," the Targum explains.
So Moses was slow and deliberate. Great -- but even so, this man was put to death. The entire community participated, to indicate that they shared the responsibility. By today's standards this is gruesome, and appallingly the accused had no recourse; he was given no opportunity to make teshuvah, to show a change of heart through changed action or through offering appropriate offerings of expiation. Indeed, just a few verses before the passage I've chosen to focus on, we read that someone who defies Adonai will be cut off from the people: cut off, not killed. And yet in this passage the man who defies the law is stoned to death. Can this really have been Israelite practice?
Though the surface of the text seems to say yes, traditional interpretation suggests otherwise. "The biblical capital penalty was so hedged with procedural restrictions that execution, as the Jewish law developed, became next to impossible," writes Jack B. Weinstein, a senior U.S. District Court judge in the Eastern District of New York. (Find this in his essay Death penalty: the Torah and today.) "One ancient rabbi termed a Sanhedrin that permits even one execution in 70 years 'murderous,' and another rabbi said, 'If we had been among the Sanhedrin, no one would have been executed,'" he points out.
Regardless of whether this execution "actually happened," what lesson can we take from its inclusion in Torah? In his d'var Torah The Reminder of Tzitzit, Rabbi Stephen Pik-Nathan connects the story of the woodgatherer with the passage that follows it, the injunction to wear tzitzit. "Following the story of the man stoned for breaking Shabbat with the commandment to wear tzitzit teaches us that if we do not have something to constantly remind us of our commitment to God and the mitzvot we may end up as did the man gathering wood," he writes. By transgressing the law in a public way, the woodgatherer implicitly denigrated the law and the message behind it, that in setting aside time away from workday concerns, we can sanctify our lives and become holy as we understand God to be holy. Does that justify the man's punishment? Probably not for us.
Sanctifying our lives is the intent implicit in the second passage, the lines we recite at the end of the Shema (within the traditional siddur, anyway) about tzitzit. Fringes served as a kind of cosmic reminder of what was important. As an adolescent I treasured the hand-woven "friendship bracelets" that my friends and I made for one another; they were tangible proof of our relationships, constant multicolored reminders of what we meant to each other. (Of course, when relationships frayed the bracelets were easily snipped off -- which messes with my metaphor a little.) For some of us today, laying tefillin and/or wearing tzitzit serves as this kind of reminder of our constant and ongoing relationship with our Source. Just as my wedding band reminds me daily of my joyful connection to my spouse, these ritual objects can remind us daily of a deeper ongoing commitment.
But what about those of us for whom the lines about tzitzit are symbolic at best -- or even unfamiliar, having been excised from the mainstream Reform prayerbook? I imagine that even those of us who have never worn tzitzit can relate to the notion of a mnemonic object designed to remind us to keep our hearts and our intentions holy. In the same way that hearing the call of a shofar or the ringing of a meditation bell can momentarily awaken us into a realization of Presence, fingering the fringe of tzitzit (or the strap of tefillin -- or, some might argue, the red thread of a bracelet, whether from Israel or India) can do the same. Maybe it's the ongoing awakening-to-God that matters, more than the modus operandi by which that awakening comes into play.
This week's portion is full of contradictions. First, a little story packed with vengeance, what Ken Wilber might call "red-meme" thinking, in which transgression is met with death. Then a reminder to focus on the Source of All, the ultimate reality behind our stories and texts and interpretations. This might be Torah in a nutshell: a reflection of humanity's capability to be vengeful and rule-obsessed (and our capability to project that attitude on the Holy One of Blessing), and a manifestation of our capability to see the big picture and remember what really matters.