CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020 - 8

VOICES OF TORAH (Continued from page 5)

be ever mindful that the wrong words uttered in one
country may be a cause of death at home or abroad.
The latter, lex talionis, has often been a curse to Jews
in past centuries, proof by antisemites of a Jewish
propensity to heartless vengeance. Yet we know its
intention was to ensure a relational response to loss
rather than give rein to destructive vengeance.
Both the stoning of the blasphemer and the lex talionis
remind us that words have consequences and urge us
to hold to account those whose irresponsible verbal
incontinence wreaks so much damage on individuals
and societies.

Torah does not establish a precise date for Shavuot. To
Exodus (23:14-16 and 34:22), Shavuot is a pilgrimage,
harvest festival; to Numbers 28:26, the time of first
fruits; to Deuteronomy 16:9-10, Shavuot occurs seven
weeks after the commencement of reaping. But precisely
when? Leviticus 23:9-22 presents a fuller picture, but
the phrase mimochorat hashabbat, with the definite
article, is ambiguous. Does this mean whatever shabbat
is chosen? Does shabbat refer to Chag HaPesach? The
following day? The first shabbat after chag?
The ambiguity concerning the commencement of
the Omer, and hence the date of Shavuot, led to
considerable disagreement. Boethusians (named for
Shimon b. Boethus, whom Herod appointed High
Priest in 24 BCE), thought to be a sect of Sadducees,
held that Shavuot always falls on a Sunday, the day
after a Sabbath. M. M'nachot 10:3 (65b) records that in
response to the threat of schism, the Beit Din conducted
the first cutting of an omer's worth of barley with public
pomp and ceremony on 16 Nisan, assuring that Shavuot
would consistently fall on 6 Sivan.
Gemara recounts a curious conversation. An elderly
Boethusian claims mimochorat hashabbat mandates a
Sunday because Moses intended Shavuot to fall on a
Sunday in order to afford the Jewish people a two-day
holiday. Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai rudely dismisses
his explanation with little thought, no cogent argument,
and great disdain.
How many good ideas do we jettison because we
perceive them as coming from competitors or challenges
to our authority?

They declared their pedigree (Numbers 1:18).
Taking a census, whether in the Wilderness of Sinai,
or in the U.S.A., is inherently political. It defines who
is "in" and who is "out" (e.g., the mixed multitude),
how communal assets of the "state" will be allocated
(tribal allotment in Canaan), and the rights and

responsibilities of those being counted.
The burden of proof required inevitably affects
the outcome of the count: too high will result in
an undercount; too low leads to overcount-a
major bone of contention in today's U.S. political
environment. Rashi and Nachmanides disagree on
this very point. Rashi seems to favor a more restrictive
approach: "They 'declared their pedigrees,' having
brought forward genealogical records and witnesses
to the legitimacy of their birth, to connect houses."
Ramban argues: "Despite what Rashi says, I don't
see why they would have to bring documentation
of their tribal status. Rather... [everyone] declared
before Moses and the chieftains, 'I, So-and-so, born
to So-and-so... belonging to the tribe of Reuben' (or
God's b'rit with Israel, as articulated in Parashat
Nitzavim, is that each and every person will have
a share in the Promised Land. Never is it said that
the "mixed multitude" may not settle in Canaan. In
fact, the Gibbeonites (Joshua 9), through subterfuge,
are permitted to remain. This suggests it is more
important not to exclude an actual Israelite from
being included in the inheritance (an undercount)
than to allow a non-Israelite to settle in the land (an
overcount) even through deceit. The current political
debate might learn from this lesson.

Early Reform rabbis pointed out in the 1893
responsum "Circumcision for Adult Proselytes" that
there are no direct descriptions of ritual requirements
for conversion in the Bible. The Amoraim are the
first to prescribe rituals for gerut. In BT Y'vamot
46a-b, they look to Exodus 19-20, the covenant at
Sinai-the reading for the first day of Shavuot-
for ritual precedent. Their opinion emerges from
a disagreement among sages concerning whether
b'rit milah, t'vilah, or both are required for gerut.
Unquestioned, however, is that requirements for gerut
rest on the foundation of the theophany at Sinai.
In his commentary on Y'vamot, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
explains that the Israelites had the halachic status
of gentiles when they were in Egypt. At Sinai
they entered into a national covenant with God,
thereby attaining the status "People of Israel." This
transformation was, in effect, a mass conversion of
the people; therefore, their preparations for revelation
provide a paradigm for the conversion process for all
generations to come.
For the Amoraim, grounding conversion to Judaism
in the precedent at Sinai when the Jewish people
forged a covenant with God, distinct from all
covenants that preceded it, was crucially important.
For gerim to have legitimacy as Jews, they need
a connection that reaches back to Sinai. The

connection is echoed in my community to this day
through the tradition of carrying out the final rituals
of gerut-b'rit milah, beit din, and t'vilah-near the
Chag of Shavuot.

Through Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Blessing,
Numbers 6:23-27), descendants of Aaron invoke
God's protection for Jews. Professor Ellen Davis
writes in Opening Israel's Scriptures that biblical
blessing is a "commitment of one's will to the
flourishing of the other" (p. 28). God does not
supernaturally alter us or the world in response to a
blessing. Rather, blessing expresses that God favors
the recipient(s), that God "walks with us."
Our Sages, understanding that genuine partnership
involves reciprocity, offer in BT Sotah 14a a novel
interpretation of Deuteronomy 13:5, After Adonai
your God you shall walk. "Walking after God"
instructs us to imitate divine actions, such as clothing
the naked, visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved,
and burying the dead. Through purposeful actions of
justice and compassion we bridge the chasm between
us and our ineffable God, forging divine-human
connections, ultimately fulfilling our covenant with
the Divine and the commandment to be holy as God
is holy (Leviticus 19:2). God wants to walk with us,
and we strive to walk with God in holy partnership.
At the same time, our parashah teaches that
God despises falsehoods and that they endanger
the partnership. Generally, milah connotes the
misappropriation or misuse of property dedicated to
God. Robert Alter (The Five Books of Moses, p. 706,
n.6) broadens milah to include human fraud. If the
perpetrator confesses and repents, Torah requires
monetary restitution (Numbers 5:6-7). But most
interesting is that dishonesty offends God. Not
only is lying a disruption bein adam l'chaveiro, it
also repulses God. It is as though truth itself were
God's property, and therefore fraud constitutes
misappropriation, a breach of God's trust.

Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky notes that Numbers
9:15 does not say, "On the day Moses erected the
sanctuary," but rather, On the day the mishkan was
erected. The Slonimer rebbe explains in Netivot
Shalom that Torah's wording redirects us from the
physical tabernacle to the personal, spiritual mishkan
each of us works to construct. Accordingly, he
explains Exodus 25:8, Let them make Me a sanctuary
that I may dwell among them, as telling us that God
wishes the Shechinah to dwell not within the physical
Mishkan, but within each of us. For that to happen,
(Continued on page 7)


CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020

CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020 - 1
CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020 - 2
CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020 - 3
CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020 - 4
CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020 - 5
CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020 - 6
CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020 - 7
CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020 - 8
CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020 - 9
CCAR Newsletter March/April 2020 - 10