Sunday, July 12, 2009

Dvar Pinchas 5769

Dvar Pinchas, - Beth Jacob Congregation, 11 July 2009, Rich Furman

We are starting to see them now, the signs for the Great Minnesota Get Together, the State Fair. It’s a lovely week of celebration, when Snelling Avenue north of University becomes undriveable, when Minnesotans converge upon Our Fair City, the State Capitol, to stroll up and down the midway, buying food from vendors selling out of booths all along Dan Patch avenue, and if you should approach from the north side of the fairgrounds, you will see the RV’s and tents, the temporary dwellings set up by those who have come from all over the state of Minnesota to this place that has been established for them to show off the finest of their fruits, grain, and livestock.

The fair is about celebrating the bounty that has come forth through the summer, it is about coming together as a community, and sharing the bounty that has been granted to us, about wandering through the fine arts building and the arts and crafts building to see the work of one another’s hands, but it is something else too - it is summer’s denouement, and as such, in the midst of the joy, there is that tinge of melancholy, a sense not unlike the fatigue that comes at the end of the day - the Jams and Jellies and pickles that have been tasted and judged are harbingers of winter days to come, the bounty of summer condensed and contracted to carry us through the winter. The fair is as much about preparing for the winter as it is about celebrating the summer. It is about the contraction that follows the expansion of summer. And part of that contraction is minimizing the amount of livestock that needs to be wintered over. Ann Reed touches on this in her song “My Minnesota State Fair:”

Took some time, but now I find the heartbreak of this place,
The shocked and frozen look upon some FFA kid’s face;
If her pig should lose, I s’pose that’s only pure dumb luck
But if her pig’s a winner then she’s next year’s pronto pup

We learn two things from this: first, that the Fair’s pronto pups aren’t exactly built around Hebrew National hot dogs; second, and more poignantly, it also captures the essence of sacrifice, namely that the offerer is parting with something significant, that there is a certain melancholy associated with that parting, and with the loss of life that turns livestock into food.

And with this we begin to touch upon our parsha, Pinchas, which ends by listing the sacrifices associated with Sukkot. Because of the way it is described, outlining the sacrifices day by day, we cannot fail but be impressed by the sheer amount of meat that is being butchered and eaten during this festival. I have always wondered what could possibly be behind this. I am not alone in wondering this; Nigel Savage, writing for Hazon’s Jewish food blog The Jew And The Carrot learned a possible reason when chatting with Aitan Mizrahi, the goat herd for the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, where they would be holding their annual conference in December of 2007.

I should perhaps begin by explaining why Savage was talking with a goatherd in the first place. This was when Rubashkin’s was beginning to receive its well deserved scrutiny from within the Jewish community, and many questions about Sh’chita were coming to light. Many Hazon participants are vegetarian, others eat meat, so the question became how people’s food choices would be affected if they were to witness Sh’chita for themselves. So a decision was made that two goats would be shechted for an erev shabbat meal at the December conference, and so Savage found himself asking Mizrahi about the details.

He learned in his conversation with Mizrahi that Hazon would need to pay to feed the goats between October and December. When he asked why, Aitan explained that male goats are slaughtered in October so that they will not have to be fed during the winter, when the dairy producing females would be in greater need of the food. Savage was surprised at the irony that shechting goats at the conference would extend their life. Mizrahi boiled it down to one basic rule in dairy farming: "No dairy without death"(Paraphrased from Savage) This revelation caused Savage to reflect on

the fact that Pesach and Succot are exactly six months apart – they’re both on the full moon – they’re both seven days long – but on Pesach, biblically, they killed a single paschal lamb; and on Succot there’s this enormous series of sacrifices of bulls – ie male cows?
We may say that the commandments concerning sacrifice are חוקים, to be obeyed for no other reason than that they were given. We may look hard at the numbers and come up with notions like 70 bulls being offered to make expiation for the 70 nations, and 98 sheep to avert the 98 curses in Deuteronomy(Numbers R. XXI:24, Rashi on 29:18). But to me, this explanation rings true: that in the annual cycle of expansion and contraction, the huge number of sacrifices offered uniquely on Sukkot helps to get through the winter by ensuring that the dairy producing females will have sufficient food.

“No dairy without death” is an important point to bear in mind - it points to the dialectic of the autumn, the tension between life and death and the necessary deaths that make survival of the winter possible. One interpretation of the commandment not to seethe a kid in its mother’s milk is that milk represents life and meat is the result of death. Thus, the idea that it is impossible to have dairy without death underscores the tension between life and death that is the essence of the autumn. Deciduous trees drop their leaves in an imitation of death that helps them conserve their life force for the following spring. Bears hibernate, and people take to the indoors, the bounty of summer dried, pickled, canned, or otherwise preserved to carry us through. It will be six months before the next festival - Pesach - because we are hardly expected to travel in winter.

And while this all seems so melancholy, we are, nonetheless, commanded to be happy on Sukkot:

ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון פרי עץ הדר כפת תמרים וענף עץ־עבת וערבי־נחל ושמחתם לפני יהוה אלהיכם שבעת ימים
You shall take for yourselves on the first day fruit of the Hadar tree, branches of palm trees and boughs of myrtle and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days (Lev. 33:40, my translation).

Rejoicing is a key element of the commandment here because, although things are winding down, we have our harvest in, and with the growing season behind us, we can relax. This rejoicing before Adonai is also a reason for the number of sacrifices. Bearing in mind the number of people who pass through the fair and want to eat, imagine what Jerusalem must have been like at Sukkot. We find some sense of this intimated in the revised edition of Plaut’s The Torah, a Modern Commentary:

The procedure [for animal offerings] was basically this: instead of slaughtering the animal privately and eating it privately (as was the overwhelming practice everywhere), it was killed at a special spot, its meat was shared with the sanctuary workers, and it was consumed in an attitude of gratitude, exaltation, repentance, or other sentiment appropriate to the occasion of the sacrifice. Frequently such cultic meals were the only occasions on which the worshipers would or could afford to eat meat. . . . Public offerings like those prescribed for holy days were to reflect the awareness of the whole community that God dwelt in its midst (Plaut, 1090).

The idea that the sacrifice is consumed in an attitude appropriate to the occasion is something that we may miss in the modern context, indeed, the Plaut commentary goes on to express concern about the dysjunct between the modern consumption of meat and the willful ignorance of what goes on in the abbatoir. Hazon’s experiment two years ago was a way of addressing that problem. With our blessings prior to eating we acknowledge God as the Ultimate Source of the foods we eat, and we also take pains acknowledge the immediate source, with specific blessings to remind us that the grape was once on a vine, the potato in the earth, and that by his word all manner of sustenance came into being.

That parshat Pinchas should end with a series of sacrifices serves as a bittersweet reminder that in order to nourish and preserve life demands a certain amount of death. This is the denoument of the story of redemption and revelation that began in Exodus. The Israelites are on the verge of entering the Promised Land, and Moses, who knows he will not be entering, has seen his successor invested before his eyes.

Ultimately, this entire Parsha is about succession; Pinchas becomes heir to the priesthood, which he had not been, having been born too soon (Rashi on 25:13). The daughters of Zelophechad argue successfully for their father’s line of succession, and Moses’ role is passed to Joshua who will be seeking God’s help through Aaron’s heir El’azar.

Works Cited:

Davis, Avrohom. Metsudah Chumash/Rashi. Ktav Pub Inc, 1999.

Plaut, W. and David Stein. The Torah: a Modern Commentary, Revised Edition. Union for Reform Judaism, 2005.

Reed, Ann. “My Minnesota State Fair.” Keepers: Morning Show Favorites. Minnesota: MPR, 1994.

Savage, Nigel. “Schrodinger’s Goat, scapegoats, and the goats of Yom Kippur.” Viewed on: 14 June 2009.

Simon, Maurice. Midrash Rabbah. London: Soncino Press, 1983.