When I wrote A Multi Colored Coat for my kids, I was surprised at just how positive the reception was. People have liked my other books, but the level of praise for this book was even better than I received for Grobar, which I wrote back in 2002. So, what did the Multi Colored Coat, Grobar and Squiggles (Grobar’s sequel) have in common? I thought about it and the answer was that they were fun. Sure, there might have been heavy stuff behind them – but I didn’t just pound away at that, beating on my poor innocent readers’ emotions until they were numb and really quite tired of what I was writing.
I have to say, the feedback makes sense. Given the option between a light-hearted shoot-‘em-up and some existential movie about the nature of life as a bicycle, I’ll generally choose the shoot-‘em-up.
I’d like to think I’m better than that, but I’m not.
Put another way, if I want my writing to actually lift people up, it can’t be pulling them down.
Put yet another way: the world has a whole lot of things pulling us all down. There’s really no need for me to be adding to it. So, I’m going to do something I haven’t encountered much before: A light-hearted and entertaining week dvar Torah. Will I succeed? I have absolutely no idea. I guess you’ll just have to let me know. Furtive smiles ought to cover it.
Enough of my largely pointless explanations about why I’m doing this. I’ve got to buckle down, pretend I know it’s going to be perfectly received, and just get to it.
Okay. This week’s Torah portion involves some traditionally unpleasant stuff. Animal sacrifice. You’ve got the blood, the guts, the body parts, the burning. All sorts of nasty things we prefer not to think about while eating our Shabbat dinner. And yet here it is, shoved in our faces, with all sorts of seemingly useless details about using this animal here and that animal there or these guts here and these guts there . It is pretty nasty, and we haven’t done any of this stuff since the Han Dynasty.
So why the heck do we even care?
The answer is: true love.
Seriously, the offerings are to us what kissing is to most little kids (not my deranged five-year-old, but that’s another issue). They are gross. But once you’re into them, the gross sort of gets superseded by something entirely different.
In this case, true love.
Let me explain. I’ll use examples from a friend. None of these examples have anything to do with me or my actual relationships with anybody else. They are all examples from my friend.
Now, for the purpose of this exercise, the Shechina is going to be feminine. It helps that the Shechina is literally feminine. And we’re going to adopt some very old-fashioned ideas of courtship for this exercise. We’re talking Shang Dynasty era – and I’d never even heard of them before I wrote this sentence. I could explain the antique gender roles, but it is probably more fun just to let you read them and hate me instead for my type-casting. Anyway, here goes.
The first offering we can bring is the Olah offering.
It is a willful offering – expressing a simple desire to give something of yourself to Miss Shechina. The most famous Olah offering of all was Yitzchak. Yeah, we all know Avraham was expressing Fear of G-d and all that. But that was at the end. Earlier on, he had actually decided to give something of himself to G-d. That’s the whole point of child sacrifice. Avraham made the decision to do it. It was a willful decision. A real downer, in its way.
The best example my friend could come up with was when he wanted to give something to this woman he’d started dating (turns out, it was his future wife, some gal named Rebecca). He went to a store, we’ll call it ‘Handley Rock and Jewelry Supply’ and looked through all the various types of stones they had. He ended up picking something he thought she’d like. A nice blue rock – a color he liked – and he had it set on a thin gold chain, cause he was on a budget after all. But it still represented his own effort and will – some expression of what he was capable of. Sure, it was his brother’s idea, but we don’t have to get into that. Anyway, that was kind of an Olah offering. Except of burning it in a dedication to the spiritual world, he stuck it a USPS package and mailed it to Australia.
Anyway – the Olah represents will as well as a simple gift. And we can see it in the offerings. They are male. It Chumash, the male represents the willful while the female represents the actualizing. Okay, I can’t just let that sit there and have you glower or stop reading because of how… ‘Shang Dynasty’ I am. In reproductive terms, the male has to decide to contribute. But that decision doesn’t yield children. The woman has to actually produce them although she lacks inherent will in the matter (with abortion, there is negative will but that’s another story). Adam plants, Adama yields crops. That’s the theme. And I’m sorry it it’s offensive. I didn’t write this stuff.
So the Olah has to be male. And in the case of the little birdy – where it can be very hard to distinguish male and female, so hard that even today they sometimes do genetic tests to work it out – the potentially ‘feminine’ aspects are ripped out. The entrails and the crop – which produces milk. Fun fact, the only bird we bring is a dove. Why? It is the only kosher bird that produces milk for its young. It not only nurtures, it is physically designed to nurture and support the next generation. We don’t just give of ourselves, we bring the best of ourselves.
Anyway, we bring this male offering to the Mishkan, we burn it up, and the Shechina actualizes our will into spiritual energy – a connection to G-d. Think of it as a USPS package with a blue necklace for Hashem.
The next offering? The Mincha offering. And no, it doesn’t involve stopping the car on the way home for 10 minutes of prayer on the side of the road. My friend’s perfect example of a Mincha offering was a book. You see, his potential mother-in-law, who lived in Australia, was a huge Clan of the Cave Bears fan. My friend’s mother happened to be good friends with the author. So, he got his potential mother-in-law an autographed copy of the book. Why? It was quite obnoxious, but he was trying to influence his potential mother-in-law. The classic example is Yitzchak sending nuts, a few local spices, date honey and the such to ‘the man in Egypt.’ He’s trying to influence a good outcome by sending a special gift. Something that shows real care. It is important to get a Mincha offering right. Hashem wasn’t impressed with Cain’s fruit. It was fair, really. Fruit, in the Torah, are always a gift from G-d. So, in an effort to butter up G-d, Cain essentially regifted G-d’s own gift – back to Him, or Her.
I mean, dude, talk about a serious faux pas. He should have known better. Just in case you don’t know better, the Torah specifically tells us we can’t give honey or leavened bread – you know, the things we don’t actually finish.
What should you give when you want to butter up G-d? Oddly, it isn’t a copy of Clan of the Cave Bears. Turns out, you want to show G-d you tried and your trying to be fancy and refined and – last but not least – that are emotionally invested. What do we give? Flour – which involves a tremendous amount of labor (or energy nowadays). Oil – which involves a lot of purification and refinement. And incense – which conveys emotion. The Kohanim, who are meant to be pass-throughs for the people, don’t bring incense. Their emotions aren’t supposed to be a part of the game.
If you want to butter anybody up, this is a pretty good idea. Refinement, hard work and emotion; all in a gift! Next time you want a promotion, or a better haircut, keep this in mind.
Okay, next up is Zevach Shlamim. To me, Zevach means transformation. Think Mizbeach or even Zavat Chalav U’dvash (land of flowing milk and honey). Shalom means ‘complete’. Which is why Jerry Maguire probably didn’t work as well in Hebrew. “you complete me” is at the end of the speech, but he starts off with “hello”, which means ‘complete’… eh, it doesn’t work.
Anyway. This offering is a complete transformation. Like, you’re all in. An engagement ring, perhaps? Obvious, I know. But there y’go. Actually, for my friend, it wasn’t so obvious.
But you can’t just give a woman you just met a ring. You have to, you know, know yourself (I’ve heard that’s important in relationships) and have some feel for your relationship. That’s why the first Zevach Shlamim is only given after Parshat Mishpatim – we know ourselves, we know the beginnings and the crux of our relationship with G-d. We say “Naase v’Nishma” (“We’ll do and we’ll hear”). We are committing. We’re all in. Then we give a Zevach Shalmim.
How do my friend do it? He gave his wife-to-be the ring from a bottle of Coke.
Sometimes my friend disappoints me.
We can give lots of things as a Zevach Shalamim. Male, female, cows, goats, sheep – whatever. The key point is, we put our hands on the animal’s head. We place ourselves in the animal. It is like we’re offering ourselves up. This is a big deal. There are lots of fun details, but I’ll pick just one. A goat isn’t directly called a Zevach Shlamim, even when given as one. Why? Goats are rambunctious. When you decide to represent yourself as a goat and say “I’m all in”, you’re being a bit cheeky.
You know, like giving your fiancé the ring from a plastic bottle of Coke.
After you move in together there’s a whole new category of gifts. My friend doesn’t know anything about this. But apparently, after you have a fight, you can make up and that’s good. When you’re just dating, that’s one thing. But when you’re married and committed, that sort of repair can even make the relationship stronger. Weird, I know. Well, we have the same thing here. After the Mishkan is built, we can bring a Chatat offering. A sin offering. A repair for damages done. I suppose flowers might do. Different parts of the people (or the nation as a whole) are represented by different animals, in the case of the Mishkan. The offerings are very similar to the Zevach Shalamim. Really, you’re reaffirming your dedication – despite mistakes made. My friend says he has a friend who says it can be a very nice and touching thing.
Okay. Let’s say you, um, fail to disclose you’re married while on a business trip. You mislead people. You create a potentially bad situation. We have a perfect example of it in the Torah. Avraham goes to the Pilishtim, doesn’t say Sarah is his wife and bad things result. Avimelech actually says “one of my people might have lain with her and you would have brought upon us asham.” Either hiding things, or being suckered by hidden things, leads to an Asham. My friend’s wife had a cool solution to this. See, he doesn’t wear a wedding ring. So, his wife bought him a coffee mug with the faces of the whole family on it. Voila, nobody would be confused by his ‘status.’ Asham avoided.
But what if there was an asham? Well, you have to make up for it. Perhaps you could symbolically show how you’re giving up your rambunctious self? Goats are rambunctious, but sheep enable rambunctiousness. Either one will do. I like to think it depends on whether you are the deceiver or the deceivee. You pick the offering that represents what you did wrong: either you did the deception yourself or you caused somebody else to be deceived.
So what’s the last set of offerings? A whole bunch of different situations all linked by the offering of a ram. A fear offering. A great example though is stealing from the Holy. This is a no good, very bad, thing. This was a bridge too far, even for my friend. But he had a boss once who bought his wife a vacuum cleaner for their 20th anniversary. We all warned him it was a really really stupid thing to do. He even showed us the model. He was so proud. I have no idea if he is still married… or even alive. But if he is, it probably required an offering like this. The thing is, I can’t even think of that kind of offering. I mean, what the heck do you do to repair a vacuum cleaner anniversary gift? I guess that’s one of the great things about our relationship with Hashem. He gives us, or She gives us, a road out. A symbol. A way of expressing the fact that we really know we screwed up and that we submit to Her will. A ram, reminiscent of the ram offered in place of Yitzchak, is that symbol .
Our relationship with Hashem is so transcendent we can even make up after gifting G-d a heavenly Roomba on Pesach.
Now, I’m not my friend. It just so happens that I don’t give Rebecca offerings. Sure, there are Shabbat flowers once in a while, but that’s it. I pretty much stopped once I replaced that darned Coke ring with something a bit more timeless. But I do give something. I give words. Tefillot, if you will. I know, I know, it isn’t quite the same thing. That physical commitment is missing. But there is something else.
I was listening to a podcast the other day (“the Revolutions podcast”, the guy is a closet Marxist but he knows his stuff and tells a great story). Anyway, he’s started advertising for an online therapy service. As part of his ad, the podcaster argues that naming his problems makes it so much easier to deal with them. He says he gives them an identity so they can be addressed. Of course, I think that often the exact opposite is true. By naming his problems, he makes them real. He takes what was amorphous and somewhat unreal and gives it form and life. I wouldn’t know though, I’m always analyzing everything and live my life in a quaking bundle of labels shouting at me from every direction. Or something. But that’s not the point. Tefillah is. When we say things to our spouses, our children, or even to G-d… we can make what we say real – just by saying it.
The kiss or the sacrifice – that stuff the kids don’t like – they are all the same. They are taking the physical to create the spiritual. But the word? That builds the spiritual too, but by grasping some essential spiritual thread and reinforcing and thickening it we are making it more and more real.
Do we need animal sacrifices today? Heck, I don’t know. Do we need engagement rings or autographed books from Jean Auel? I guess a world of words alone would somehow be higher. But I suspect we really aren’t all there. My mother-in-law really liked that book, probably more than she liked me. Words, especially words developed by people living thousands of years ago, might strengthen a community reality – but they don’t necessarily strengthen our individual reality.
Something more – something more than words – is needed. Animal sacrifice makes us appreciate that there is more than just physical reality. The animal is sacrificed, but something greater is made – a connection with G-d. Confronted with that, made to engage with it, we can better understand what is really important. 77 billion animals a year are sacrificed for food – for our physical needs and desires alone. Maybe a few dedicated to reaching beyond the physical wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Even now, during the Xi dynasty.
Okay, if you liked this, awesome! What I care about, though, is that it was somehow uplifting and helpful. If you think it was – great. Share the uplift with others. You could even enhance it with a copy of A Multi Colored Coat (wink, wink). If you didn’t like this, don’t tell me. Words, after all, create reality. Without them, there is only a happy fantasy of a job well done. I’d think I’d very much prefer the fantasy to a harsh reality. I think it’d be better for my mental health.
And now for two more things.
First. This is Parshat Zachor. We are commanded to erase the memory of Amalek. This could be a commandment to genocide, but that is a real downer so let’s ignore. Amalek’s really problem is that they always saw the worst in a situation and then just wouldn’t let it go. Avraham didn’t help them when Kedarlaomer was rampaging around and they stayed mad about that for hundreds of years. I don’t know anybody like that – nobody I know ever bears a grudge for a long time. But I know somebody not like that. I have a Boer friend who grew up hating the English. They’d done horrible things to his family. The memory of the Boer was preserved and so the hatred was preserved. He decided not to tell his children about what the English had done. He erased the memory. Today, his whole family lives happily in England. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do with Amalek: we’re help them move on by erasing their memory.
Second, here is my take on the Ukrainian situation. A bit of a downer – but all easier to understand this way, I think.