The order of tribal sacrifices: Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)


The phrase nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) sounds complicated and intimidating, but in fact the concept advocated by Stephen J. Gould, the late, celebrated historian of science, represents a big idea that speaks to one of society’s major topics of discussion.

Gould argued that science and religion do not contradict one another; rather, they do not intersect in the first place. Science and religion simply ask different questions, he said. You expect, therefore, different answers.

 So, what happens when we pose both sets of questions, the scientific and the religious, to our Torah? Religion asks, “What does God mean to convey?” Science asks, “What do the biblical authors — understood to be human — mean to convey?”

This week’s portion, Naso, describes priestly proscriptions, the broad strokes of the Hebrew calendar, the ordeal of the wife suspected of adultery and the Nazirite vow. It also outlines the procession of the tribes in relation to the sacrificial offerings for the dedication of the altar.

In the procession, a representative of each tribe offers a sacrifice on a given day, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the sequence represents a hierarchy. But if so, it’s not obvious what is behind the hierarchy.

One might expect the order to reflect the birth order of sons of Jacob, who gave their names to the tribes, starting with Reuben and ending with Benjamin. Alternatively, the section might start with tribes bearing the names of Jacob’s most beloved sons, Joseph or Benjamin.

Instead, we start with the tribe of Judah, fourth in the birth order.

A nonreligious reading of Judah’s prominence argues that this section of Torah was written after the destruction of the 10 tribes of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E, at a time when only the tribe of Judah and the remnants of the tribe of Levi survived.

Now, the text describes the wanderings in the desert, a period of time long before the Assyrians and one in which all 13 tribes (Joseph’s sons each merited a half-tribe, raising the number to 13) existed. But it was written, so the scientific reading argues, centuries later in the court or the country of Judah, when the tribe of Judah was the last one standing.

According to the scientific reading of this passage, Judean (that is, Jewish) authors effectively wrote themselves into the most prominent positions — for example, King David’s outstanding prominence in the Bible and Judah’s pride of place in the dedication of the altar, here in Naso.

The religious reader looks for a different explanation for the processional order. The 16th- century commentator Moses Alshech takes Judah’s right to prominence at face value. King David would merely embody Judah’s tribal prerogative, already evident here in the desert long before his reign. Actually, Judah’s tribal right to leadership is clear even earlier, at his father’s deathbed blessing, described at the close of the Book of Genesis: “Judah, your brothers will recognize you … your father’s sons will bow down to you” (Genesis 49:8).

So, according to Alshech, Judah sacrifices first, “because the king is first to bow his head in prayer and the last to raise it back up. … The greater one is, the more humility one displays before one’s Maker.”

Rashi also notes the unexpected order, and he attributes jealousy to the brothers, because they, too, puzzle over it and seem to imagine that the order of sacrifice implies a hierarchy among them. The representative of the tribe of Reuben, the oldest of the brothers, complains to Moses: “If I’m going to be upstaged by my little brother, at least allow me to go second!” (Rashi’s comment to Numbers 7:18). Then the story seems to add insult to injury, when position No. 2 goes to … Issachar!

Scientific, or nonreligious, readings really do diverge fundamentally from religious ones in their core assumptions and approaches. Nevertheless, they converge here, in one of the driest sections of Naso, around a shared textual “irritant,” despite Gould’s premise. Both modes of thought overlap — just a bit — in querying the order of tribal sacrifices.

And even more than that, both modes of thought, the scientific and religious, find their solutions in the realm of human frailty. The scientific questioner concludes that later writers need to impose their own story on the entire narrative of Israel, presumably to validate their survival and stewardship of the covenant. Meanwhile, the religious reading immediately responds to the natural vulnerabilities of tribal power plays with echoes of sibling rivalry.

No reading can overcome or ignore the human impulses that shape our religion or our literary heritage.


Joshua Holo is dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.

Chanukah models of courage


My 4-year-old son is obsessed with superheroes, dressing up at every opportunity as the superhero du jour to do battle with the bad guys lurking around the corner. (My 2-year-old daughter is just as enthusiastic, but at her age all she can really muster is a “meanie” face.)

From a developmental perspective, I know this fantasy play is his way of exercising control over a world he is learning is increasingly out of his control. But I also see other qualities — his desire to be strong, to stand up for the good guys — in short, to be courageous.

Becoming courageous doesn’t happen overnight. It develops when children have opportunities to stand up for what’s right and to take responsible risks. Through experiences my husband and I provide, and the stories we tell them, we can lay some groundwork.

As I think about a central message of the Chanukah story and the way I want to portray it to my kids, models of courage abound. From Judah Maccabee to Judith and Hannah and her seven sons, heroes and heroines fought for the right to be different, to be Jews who refused to assimilate into the prevailing Hellenistic culture.

When Antiochus Epiphanes came to power, and observance of the most basic mitzvot (circumcision, Shabbat celebration and kashrut) were turned into capital offenses, their acts of courage formed the basis of a central narrative of the Chanukah story that has been passed down through the generations.

Consider Judah Maccabee, whose army used guerrilla tactics and religious zeal to defeat the stronger Assyrian-Greek army. He forced the Assyrian Greeks to rescind the policies that forbade Jewish practice, and in 164 B.C.E. liberated the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it as a place of Jewish worship.

Consider Judith, who did her part to prevent the siege of Jerusalem in her hometown of Bethulia by seducing Holfenes, the Assyrian-Greek army general, and then decapitating him. Her bravery is so highly esteemed by the rabbis that it is because of her act of courage that Jewish women are obligated to light Chanukah candles.

And consider Hannah and her seven sons, who refused to bow down to Zeus and Antiochus and eat nonkosher meat. The Book of Maccabees relates that each of her sons and then her mother were tortured to death.

These acts of courage seem extreme and even unpalatable to our modern era — what woman would sacrifice her son, not to mention all seven? And aren’t we a peace-loving people who should not extol brute force?

But they also lead us to a deeper question about the nature of courage. Are there values and beliefs for which we are willing to make great sacrifices, and if any of these values or beliefs were to be violated, would we be stirred to action?

While these figures present us with one narrative of the Chanukah story — of heroism in battle and martyrdom — a second narrative is favored by the ancient rabbis. The story begins with the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the faith that the Jews had that the small cruse of oil, which should have lasted for one day only, could last for eight (in time for others to travel and get more oil).

The second narrative downplays the military victory won by human hands and elevates the story to one in which our faith in God and God’s miracles are kindled. It reminds us that courage is born when we continue to have faith and hope even in our darkest time. Having faith in itself is an important kind of courage.

While the call to be courageous is central to the Chanukah story — spiritually or physically — it is also daunting. But the rabbis offered another way for us to understand how to live a courageous life and be our own heroes.

“Who is a hero?” the rabbis ask. “One who overcomes his urges?” (Mishna, Pirke Avot 4:1).

Overcoming our most natural desires and exercising personal restraint is another kind of heroism. This is a kind of everyday courage.

When we are present in a difficult conversation with someone we care about even though our impulse is to leave, we are a hero. When we resist the urge to say something that we know will offend another person, even if we think it is warranted, we are courageous. When we have vowed not to feed a habit that is destructive to us, and when tempted and resist (a smoke, an extra piece of chocolate cake), we are being our own heroes.

This Chanukah, celebrate all of the dimensions of courage by dedicating each night to one of them:

Candle 1 to the classic Chanukah heroes of Judah Maccabee, Judith and Hannah.

Candle 2 to the courageous acts of our children who welcome a new kid to the school, speak out against bullying or have faith that the next day at school might be a little better than today.

Candle 3 to someone in your community who took up a cause you believe in and fought for it.

Candle 4 to someone in your family — perhaps a parent or grandparent — and a courageous act they performed during their lives.

Candle 5 to American and Israeli soldiers who are fighting to protect values and ideals that are sacred to us.

Candle 6 to the courage that you have exercised by restraint — with a co-worker, spouse, child, friend or parent.

Candle 7 to a person in your life who exemplifies courage the most.

Candle 8 to that quality of courage in ourselves that enables us to bring light into dark places and for the energy to continue to stoke the embers of our own sense of courage.

Right or Righteous?


Have you ever dealt with someone who insisted s/he was right — even smugly so — while actually being objectively, measurably and completely wrong?

Now, let me ask a tougher question: Have you ever been that person? If so, you are in good — and plentiful — company.

In this week’s portion, Vayeshev, Judah marries his son Er to Tamar. But Er is evil, and God takes his life. Because Er dies childless, his brother, Onan, marries Tamar in compliance with the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5). Children from their union would “belong” to Er and perpetuate his name, and therefore also reduce Onan’s portion of the family estate. Onan “spills his seed,” rather than impregnate Tamar. When God takes Onan’s life in punishment, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house to wait for his third son. But Judah considers Tamar a “black widow,” and has no intention of providing her protection and progeny through a third marriage.

A long while later, Judah loses his own spouse. Tamar finds out where his travels will take him following the mourning period, and waits at the crossroads, posing as a prostitute. She requests his distinctive seal, cord and staff for collateral, until the payment of a kid can be delivered. Later, the “prostitute” who has Judah’s proprietary items cannot be found to make the exchange.

About three months later, Judah is told that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. Everyone assumes that Tamar is guilty of harlotry, since she is supposedly awaiting levirate marriage. Judah calls for her to be brought out and burned for adultery. She sends him the seal, cord, and staff with the message: “I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong.” Understanding the lengths to which Tamar has gone, he announces: “She is more right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her my [third] son.” Not only is Tamar’s life spared, one of the twins she carries is Perez, progenitor of David and the Messiah.

Judah thought his first two sons suffered because of Tamar. He thought he was sparing his third son. He thought she betrayed the family. He had it entirely wrong.

To Judah’s credit, he acknowledges the children he sired and the justice of Tamar’s position. He can’t make everything right; he can’t give Tamar a real marriage or compensate her for lost time and honor. Yet his admission of guilt and fallibility makes him not only more likable, but actually more righteous. Saying, “I’m wrong and you’re right” is a crucial step in his moral development. It enables him to repent and in some way compensate for the greatest wrong of his life: selling his brother, Joseph, into slavery.

With Tamar, Judah is proven wrong by the collateral (eravon, 38:18) he leaves behind. Then — and perhaps, therefore — he is able to offer himself as collateral (anochi e’ervenu, 43:9), and protect Benjamin in a way that he failed to protect Joseph years before. When Benjamin is framed for a crime, Judah, having pledged himself (arav, 44:32) for the boy, pleads to be enslaved in his stead. Only in the face of this expression of love and righteousness, does Joseph finally reveal himself and forgive his brothers.

There is a modern-day term for the inability to admit wrongdoing: sociopathy. A conscience that cannot feel guilt is capable of untold evil. An ability to look critically at ourselves, to see where we are wrong, is the beginning of making things right.

Being right — in the narrow sense of “correct” — amounts to very little, if a correct position isn’t also righteous. Joseph is correct in interpreting his dreams of domination and superiority to his family, but he is also insensitive and inflammatory. He is right again, according to midrash, in what he tells his father about his brothers’ bad behavior. But in Jewish law, unlike American, truth is not a defense against defamation. Accuracy is not piety.

Judah wins Joseph’s heart and heals the breach between the brothers not because he is right, but because he is righteous.

I like to think that Judah, after fearing and ignoring Tamar, learns from her. He learns to question his own position and to treat those who may be wrong with kindness. Tamar is right when she advocates for herself, Er, and her future children. And she is righteous in the way she makes her claim. She could have exacted revenge and humiliated Judah, displaying his personal items and publicly naming him as the father. Instead, she sends him a private message that allows him to preserve his dignity.

Tamar takes a risk because Judah might have let her burn, rather than admit he was wrong. In fact, it’s because she could have burned that the rabbis teach, “better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to publicly shame another” (Ketubot 67b). Tamar is willing to risk more than most human beings to be righteous. She is also willing to see more nuance than most of us. Her father-in-law was wrong, but that’s not all he was. Despite the way Judah treated her, Tamar is able to see some decency in him and decides to trust him. Between the time he recognizes his belongings and the time he pronounces “she is more right than I,” they are both in peril. The exchange between them is a gift of grace for and by them both. Tamar is finally recognized, as so many family members long to be. Judah discovers that, though wrong, he can still choose to be righteous. And so can we.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue (www.makom.org).

Why Are We Jews?


“Biblical stories are in our present — in the cheder we cried when we learned of the sale of Joseph — and we rejoiced in his ascendancy to power. There was a freshness, a vigor, a nearness, which we felt in that drama.” — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik

Oh to be a fly on the wall of that great and dramatic confrontation between Judah and Joseph. The scene: Twenty-two years after being sold, Joseph, unbeknownst to his brothers, has ascended to become Egyptian viceroy. Joseph frames his brothers by placing a royal goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph “graciously” offers to exonerate all the brothers — barring Benjamin. Floating between feisty and fearful, Judah, the engineer of Joseph’s sale, walks into the palace to confront a mercurial viceroy and delivers a poignant message climaxing with a plea to free Benjamin:

“For how can I go up to my father if the youth [Benjamin] is not with me lest I see the evil that will befall my father?” (44:34)

In the face of such courage, it is Joseph who crumbles — breaking down into tears and ultimately divulging his identity. How deliciously ironic that this man of control, a teenager in a foreign land who is able to withstand Potiphar’s wife’s temptations and strong enough to remain hidden for more than 22 years, capitulates to Judah.

Wherein lies the power of the Judah personality? Is this the same Judah who initiates the sale of his brother and whose conduct in the Tamar episode raises troubling questions? Equally remarkable is the haunting silence of Judah’s siblings. Why is it Judah alone who stands tall in the face of the hostile viceroy who wants to seize Benjamin? Are they not all certain of the consequent early demise of their father Jacob?

Our sages portray the development of the Judah personality. A picture of transformation emerges. After initiating his brother’s sale, Judah begins to contemplate the enormity of his actions and their effect on Jacob. Shortly thereafter, he is thrust into crisis with his former daughter-in-law, Tamar, who is pregnant with illegitimate twins.

Unlike his role in the Joseph saga, in this epic, Judah does not hold all the cards. He is, after all, the unwitting father (if this story seems puzzling — you might want to read it in its original). Tamar knows, but refuses to vocally pinpoint Judah as the father of her children. Instead she opts to merely present Judah with the evidence and ultimately forces him to make a momentous decision. In the presence of his father and grandfather, comments the Midrash, Judah is confronted with a massive internal crisis. Shall he remain passive or admit that he sired the children? Will Judah choose ephemeral ease over eternal excellence?

“Tzadkah mimeni” (“She is more righteous than I”), Judah declares. (38:26) Two words, no ambiguity and an uncompromising sense of truth. Precisely here, our sages majestically declare, does Judah earn his messianic stripes. Judah has made mistakes in the past, but he is now willing to accept responsibility. The metamorphosis is almost done. For if Judah is able to admit responsibility it is only natural that when the crisis of Benjamin strikes that Judah plays the lead role and proclaims: “Anochi e’ervenu” (“I will be his guarantor.”) (43:9)

It is striking that Judah’s sense of responsibility now transcends his own self and creates a sense of obligation to the other. Ultimately, this proactive responsibility has a profound curative effect, as the brothers are reunited and the family healed.

Often parents in their role as mediators in great sibling struggles are privileged to hear various restatements of “it all started when he hit me back” — an argument of impeccable logic. It is not all right for our children to shirk blame. Sacred duty requires that we invest them with a sense of accountability, however unpleasant or frightening that might be. In our efforts to provide our children with everything, we may deprive them of the great gift of responsibility, engendering in its stead a sense of entitlement.

For the past 2,000 years, our people have been called Yehudim — or Jews — a derivative of the word Judah. We are not Yissachars, Dans, nor are we even Josephs. Perhaps it is because God demands of us to take responsibility for our flaws. Even as we do not control our circumstances, we surely control the way we respond to them. This essential understanding forms the basis of real spirituality. Once we acknowledge that we are accountable for ourselves and indeed for our fellow human beings, we become emboldened to unlock the grand potential stored within.

This Torah Portion originally appeared on Jan. 2, 2004.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at YULA.

Sephardic Survival


“Survivor” as inspiration for Jewish programming?

It seems strange that the divisive show where deceit, backstabbing and empty promises are de rigueur would serve as the inspiration for a Shabbaton that stresses the importance of religious and cultural continuity. Yet Sephardic Tradition and Recreation (STAR) has seized on this pop culture phenomenon and infused it with a positive spin.

STARvivor 2, STAR’s follow-up to its popular STARvivor Shabbaton, is set for Dec. 7-9 at Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu. The first STARvivor, held last April in Malibu, separated 20 teens into three tribes — Issachar, Levi and Judah — complete with their own tribal banners. After Shabbat, the tribes squared off in timed, Jewish-themed competitions: in one, the tribes squeezed juice from grapes into a cup and then recited the “Kiddush,” while another had them build a makeshift home in order to affix a mezuzah.

“You’re basically competing with MTV,” said STAR Media Director Abraham Raphael, 29, who developed the Shabbaton idea. “You want to make sure that whatever you do is going to be sophisticated and exciting.”

Locally, there have been few, if any, events geared toward Sephardic youth outside of synagogues. As a result, many Sephardic teens end up choosing between assimilation or participation in an established system of programs steeped in Ashkenazic traditions.

While there has never been a formal Sephardic population study in Los Angeles, rough estimates by Sephardic organizations place the number somewhere between 75,000 and 150,000, and most agree that the population is dwindling.

“You see a desperation among parents who want to get their kids involved,” Raphael said.

It’s this growing assimilation and loss of Sephardic culture that prompted philanthropist Hyman Jebb Levy to found STAR in 1998. The organization reaches out to students, from elementary to senior high school, with year-round social and recreational programming that emphasizes Sephardic community involvement, the preservation of traditions, and a pride and love for Israel.

“We try to incorporate something in the ritualistic aspect of Judaism, always in the Sephardic minhag [custom],” said Rabbi Brad Schachter, 31, STAR’s executive director. “Whatever it may be, this is how the Sephardim do it.”

Taking another cue from “Survivor,” campers were also videotaped during competitions and at tribal council, where each tribe selected one person to give an impromptu speech about Jewish survival. The resulting footage fueled parents’ demand for a second STARvivor.

“When people saw what we did, they said ‘I want my kids on that. I didn’t realize it was going to be that good.’ Now it’s on to round two,” Raphael said.

During next week’s STARvivor 2, the campers will be separated into four tribes — Simon, Levi, Judah and Issachar — and face all new competitions.

Thankfully, the similarities between the Shabbaton and the television series end when it comes to food. STARvivor 2 will serve authentic kosher Sephardic cuisine, whereas “Survivor” contestants have had to consume such Third World delicacies as grubs, rats and cow’s blood.

STARvivor also differs from other Shabbatons in that it has set a cap at 40 students.

“If you have too many kids it becomes impersonal,” Schachter said.

Danit Namvar, 14, said STAR won over both her and her friends during the Shabbaton by giving the campers a voice.

“At other camps they lecture you, but with STARvivor we get to do fun activities and talk about issues. The people who didn’t go heard how much fun it was, and now they want to go,” Namvar said.

Schachter, who is Ashkenazi, said he welcomes the opportunity to reach out to kids and is more than comfortable working with Sephardim. During a seven-year stint in Israel, Schachter spent four years living in the Old City, where he often sought out Sephardic minyanim.

“Even though I’m not a Sephardi, I feel very connected to their heritage, their history and their passion for Judaism,” said Schachter.

“As far as the customs, I’m learning more and more every day,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to get across, teaching [Sephardi] their own customs that unfortunately have been lost over the generations.”

Despite STAR’s plethora of entertaining activities, it isn’t always fun and games. In March 2000, Levy’s daughter passed away following a battle with cancer. STAR took 30 Talmud Torah students from Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood to visit with Levy as he sat shiva. The sight of the students brought tears to Levy’s eyes.

“We brought them in, and they saw the Sephardic traditions of mourning,” Schachter said. “This was an opportunity to teach them.”

For more information about STARvivor 2, call (818)
782-7359, or visit www.lastar.org .

+