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Naomi Graetz

The Closure of Ending and Beginning Anew: Parshat Pekudei

THE CLOSED BOOK OF TORAH–graphic by NG

This coming Shabbat we are finishing the Book of Shemot (Exodus) and starting the Book of Leviticus (Va-yikrah). I too finished a book that I have been studying and will begin a new one next week. On Monday, the group that I’ve been teaching on zoom since the beginning of Covid, finished more than two years’ worth of studying the Book of Genesis (Be’reshit). This is a group that I started in our synagogue in Omer in 2009. It started as studying the weekly portions of the Torah (parshat ha-shavua). We then continued with Joshua and worked our way through Judges, the two Samuels; the two Kings; the five Scrolls (Megillot); the 12 Minor prophets (Trei Asar), Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) and then selections from Proverbs (Mishlei). When Covid began, and I started to teach on zoom, people from all over Israel and the U.S. joined our group. We never did finish Proverbs (it got a bit boring) and we decided to study something “lighter” like Genesis.

FINISHING GENESIS

It never occurred to me that it would take us two years to go through the book of Genesis. Ten people showed up for the closing session (Israelis and Americans– one in New Zealand and another in New Mexico). I read the closing verses in Hebrew, we all unmuted and said Hazak hazak ve-nitchazek, drank some wine and then immediately began reading the first chapter of Exodus.  Hopefully, this book will not take us two years to complete—because I promised to skip some of the “boring stuff” (like this week’s parsha).

I made a big deal of finishing the book for two reasons: First of all, it is an accomplishment that people from all over the world have gathered together for two years once a week to study.  At this point we all know and care about each other.  In the last session, we had a chance to talk personally about sibling rivalry we experienced in our youth and its lasting trauma on us –not as bad as Joseph’s trauma. Yet the sharing gave us all some insight into the fraught relationship between him and his brothers.

Second of all, for me this was very personal. Although many synagogues in Israel celebrated Simchat Torah (and were not even aware of what was taking place on October 7th), our synagogue did not. We never collectively finished the book of Deuteronomy (Devarim). Nor did we immediately begin reading the first chapter of the book of Genesis (Breshit) as is the tradition. Since we were not allowed to gather in a crowd and have services the following week, we never read parshat Breshit. So for me and those of us from the South, this was a sort of closure. That’s why I made a big deal of it. Of course, it will never make up for the loss on October 7th; a hell we are still living in.

CLOSING OF BOOKS AND BEGINNING ANEW

How do our sacred biblical books end? And is there a connection (verbal or topical) that leads to some continuity in the next book?  On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection. Let’s look and see:

1) Genesis 50: 24-26 At length, Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Exodus 1: 1-10 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: …The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt.  Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.  But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.

So here we have direct continuity. We follow the tribes into Egypt and we are reminded of Joseph’s death. There will be a new king who will not know Joseph (although I find that hard to believe). The saga that began in Genesis, the promised land to Abraham will now be empty of Israelites for many years—and all because his brothers sold Joseph into slavery. Ironically, these brothers (the tribes of Israel)  will as a nation themselves become slaves in Israel.

2) Exodus 40:33-38 When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of יהוה filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of יהוה filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of יהוה rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

Leviticus 1: 1-4  יהוה called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to יהוה: You shall choose your offering from the herd or from the flock. If your offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall make your offering a male without blemish. You shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before יהוה. You shall lay a hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in your behalf, in expiation for you.

Here the connection is the Tent of the Meeting (Ohel Moed). We ended Exodus with a description of the Ohel Moed and how Moses could not go into the Tent because God’s presence is in there. Presumably the priests would be able to see His presence. It seems as if God’s presence is also outside the tent, because of the cloud  which was always in view for everyone to see (or at least to sense). It would seem in Leviticus that God is still in there speaking to Moses and that no one can enter the tent. Offerings have to be brought to the entrance of the tent. There is no mention of the Cloud! The altar will be outside the tent, but God will be able to smell the pleasant odor of the sacrifice from within the tent.

3) Leviticus 27: 30-33 All tithes from the land, whether seed from the ground or fruit from the tree, are יהוה’s; they are holy to יהוה.  If any party wishes to redeem any tithes, one-fifth must be added to them.  All tithes of the herd or flock—of all that passes under the shepherd’s staff, every tenth one—shall be holy to יהוה.  One must not look out for good as against bad, or make substitution for it. If one does make substitution for it, then it and its substitute shall both be holy: it cannot be redeemed.

Numbers 1: 1-4 On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, יהוה spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite company [of fighters] by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. And Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. Associated with you shall be a participant from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house.

Here the connection is a bit thinner. But both passages deal with accounting and responsibilities. At the end of Leviticus, we are told about tithes and our obligation to give back to God what we have received from him. Not only are they “holy” to God, but you can’t make substitutions. (That I find very ominous—especially as someone who never follows recipes)!  And right after Leviticus’s end, we find ourselves in the second year after the exodus and it is time to take a census. Censuses are always problematic, even today. One always wonders how will they be used by the government. Especially today when big brother is always watching us. Here it would seem that the purpose might be to fulfill the obligation of bearing arms. And today, when the haredim refuse to bear arms to protect the land, one wonders what they are thinking when they read the beginning of Numbers. Some of them threaten to leave, if they are “forced” to bear arms. Biblically speaking, they should, because they are not part of the nation if they refuse to defend it.

4) Numbers 36: 9-13 Thus no inheritance shall pass over from one tribe to another, but the Israelite tribes shall remain bound each to its portion.” The daughters of Zelophehad did as יהוה had commanded Moses: Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, Zelophehad’s daughters, became the wives of their uncles’ sons, becoming wives within clans of descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph; and so their share remained in the tribe of their father’s clan. These are the commandments and regulations that יהוה enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.

Deuteronomy 1: These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab, it is eleven days from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea by the Mount Seir route. — It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses addressed the Israelites in accordance with the instructions that יהוה had given him for them, after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Heshbon, and King Og of Bashan, who dwelt at Ashtaroth [and] Edrei. On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching (באר את התורה הזאת).

Here the connection seems to be geographic. Moses is in Jordan in the land of Moav. The ending of Numbers restricts the rights of inheritance that was given to daughters in an earlier passage. It is interesting that Numbers ends with restrictions that impact one of the richest tribes of Israel right before they are to enter the land of Israel. And the beginning of Deuteronomy seems to be in the same place, but now in the fortieth year; also, right before going into the land. And we are about to hear Moses’s retelling of history from his point of view. Even in his old age, he is still able to communicate clearly and teach Torah to the people.

5) Deuteronomy 34: 8-12 And the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for thirty days. The period of wailing and mourning for Moses came to an end. Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the Israelites heeded him, doing as יהוה had commanded Moses. Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom יהוה singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that יהוה sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.

Genesis 1: 1- When God began to create heaven and earth— the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water— God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and called the darkness Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day. God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water.”

On the surface, there is no connection. If anything, the connection is more evident between the first chapter of Deuteronomy and the last. Moses dies. The people mourn him. No one will ever be as great as Moses. Yet, there is continuity with Joshua who will follow in his footsteps. And we have the beginning of a tradition of laying hands on a person to pass on leadership. There will be no separation–all will continue. There will be order. When we begin to read Genesis, the world starts over again. There is chaos. Where do we start. The principal of starting the world seems to rest on division and separation. On the one hand without order, there is anarchy, but it is sad to think about the fact that in order to maintain order, one has to divide and separate; to have hierarchy; to make decisions about who is more important than the other. We can no longer just sit around in kumbaya fashion. God will rule over man; man will rule over woman, both man and woman will rule over the beasts and the earth—and that is how our world begins.

THE ECLIPSE AND AMOS’S DOOMSDAY PREDICTION

On the other hand, order is necessary—in April there is going to be an eclipse. In ancient times, an eclipse was a fearful thing: Amos saw the eclipse as a punishment to the Israelites who ignored their responsibilities:

 The hour of doom has come …the singing women of the palace shall howl on that day…So many corpses left lying everywhere! Listen to this, you who devour the needy, annihilating the poor of the land…GOD swears: “I will never forget any of their doings.” Shall not the earth shake for this and all that dwell on it mourn?…I will make the sun set at noon, I will darken the earth on a sunny day. I will turn your festivals into mourning and all your songs into dirges…I will make the earth mourn as for an only child, all of it as on a bitter day (Amos: 2-10).

Reading this is chilling; we have just experienced this. Let us hope that things will not get worse before they get better—whatever better might mean—and for whom.  Reading Amos’s prophecy is not very comforting. I may have gotten a mini-closure for myself, but reading this reminds me that so many people have not gotten closure and will not get it for a long time. We all have loads and loads of unfinished business to take care of.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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