Shabbat this week, in the Intermediate Days (Chol HaMoed) of Passover, has a trio of major readings.  The Torah reading, Exodus 33:12-34:26, covers the period immediately after the sin of the Golden Calf.  It's used both for the Intermediate Shabbat of Passover and Sukkot, because it ends with a description of the observances of the major holidays.  But it's also notable for the "Thirteen Attributes of God," which I'm going to try to focus on in this d'var torah  The haftorah portion, coming from Ezekiel 37:1-14, gives us the famous valley of the dry bones.  And before either of those is read, the book of Song of Songs is read, featuring more eroticism than most people probably expect from the Bible.  Scroll down below the orange squiggly for more on this exciting week.

Having thrown off the yolk of cleaning for Passover, and survived the seders and the arguments they tend to engender, it's now time to turn to the Sabbath.  Passover this year (and next year) falls out in a fashion both incredibly convenient and incredibly disruptive to an observant Jew: two days of full holiday, Yom Tov, which started Monday night and ran through Wednesday, followed by the Sabbath Friday night and Saturday and another two days of Yom Tov this Sunday night through Tuesday.  All told, it means that there are separate times to prepare for each period of no work, but it also means that virtually the entire holiday is filled with, well, holiday.  Compare this to last year's Passover, where the days of Yom Tov fell out as Friday night through Sunday and Thursday night through Saturday.  That required much less preparation.  This year, however, the divrei Torah are difficult to type in the intervening times.

Fortunately, however, this Shabbat features, as noted above, an incredible assortment of sources from which to draw.  And all of them, in some capacity, have a common theme: our relationship to God.  I'm going to try taking them in the order in which they're read, and draw out the clear, and occasionally not so clear ideas that they contain.

The first text to be read is Song of Songs.  Traditionally attributed to King Solomon, it takes the form of an extended love poem.  Some of the analogies are no longer all that meaningful; "your hair is like a flock of goats" may once have been endearing, but it's more likely to get you smacked today.  But other parts still ring true, especially the famous "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."  One particularly notable thing about this book is that it is relatively open in questioning the relationship: it's very clear that the man has a number of wives and women in love with him, though he tells the female character that she is the most important to him and that she surpasses the others.  She, on the other hand, is very clearly in love with him, even as she recognizes some of those problems.  The traditional view of this piece is that it's about the relationship between God and the people Israel...and that understanding actually works here, perhaps better than the author intended.  It seems unclear at points whether God and the Jews really do get along, and just how much love there is present in that relationship.  At other times, however, the Jews don't necessarily get along that well with God.  It seems that he's abandoned them, or doesn't care about them anymore, or doesn't find them "beautiful."  The Bible seems to claim, though, that no matter what, the relationship is still there, ready to be rekindled.

The second text we read is the Torah portion.  Because it's a holiday, we go out of order, and don't read the section that would ordinarily come next after last week's section, Tzav.  Instead, we read, as noted above, from the portion following the sin of the Golden Calf.  It's done on multiple holidays because it serves as a convenient place that mentions both the holiday of spring (Passover) and the harvest festival (Sukkot), but in some ways that's the less interesting part of the text.  Much more interesting is Exodus 34:6-7.

And the Lord passed before him and He called out: "The Lord, the Lord!  A compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness and good faith, keeping kindness for the thousandth generation, bearing crime, trespass, and offense..."
[Translation according to Robert Alter]
That, however, isn't the end of verse seven; it's just the end of the "13 Attributes of Mercy."  The verse continues:
"...yet He does not wholly acquit, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons and sons of sons, to the third generation and the fourth."
This, of course, is a profoundly disturbing addition to modern sensibilities.  To ancient sensibilities, though, it may have been comforting: one wasn't going to be struck down for no reason whatsoever, but rather because one (or one's family) had done something wrong.  Compare, for example, the descriptions of wickedness in the flood narrative from the Bible with the flood narrative from the Epic of Gilgamesh.  In Gilgamesh, mankind is nearly destroyed for being too loud.  The Bible, on the other hand, describes much more wickedness, and has the same God save mankind as the one who brings the flood.  This, too, represents a relationship.  But it's one that's much more disturbing.

Ancient commentators realized that disturbing nature, and were eager to find ways to deal with it.  Most prominently, rabbinic Judaism (and Pharisaic Judaism before it) promoted the idea of an afterlife and a resurrection of the dead, which would solve the problem of Exodus 34:6-7.  God would be merciful in the "world to come."  Punishment in this world didn't mean that one was ultimately doomed, and a lack of punishment didn't mean that one would have gotten away with their sins.  For Christian readers, this is a somewhat timely message, given that it's Easter.  Many of the early Christians were "synagogue followers," non-Jews who hadn't actually converted but who hung around the synagogues and liked the messages they were hearing, if not some of the ritual laws such as circumcision or dietary restrictions.  Jewish commentators also had other ways to deal with the above passage.  Maimonides, a 12th century scholar in Spain and Egypt, felt that divine punishment and reward in this life had been inserted into creation.  The rabbis of the Talmud felt that the First Temple had been destroyed because of idol worship, and Maimonides agreed.  But he saw the mechanism as natural: Jews had spent their time studying the practice of idol worship rather than practices of war, which naturally led to defeat.  Regardless of their methodology, though, the rabbis focused on the first half of 34:6-7, promising a merciful relationship between God and the Jews.

Finally, we get to the additional portion, from Ezekiel.  This is one of the stranger portions of the Bible, though it doesn't quite match up to Ezekiel 1.  Here, God carries Ezekiel spiritually to a valley of dry bones.  Ezekiel prophesies over them, and they are brought back to life.  God informs Ezekiel that they are the bones of Israel, and have lost all hope.  God tells Ezekiel to let them know that he will open their graves and cause them to come up out of their graves, and that they will live in the land of Israel [paraphrased from the JPS 1917 translation].

This is a large part of what sparked the rabbis' imaginations, noted in the previous paragraph.  It became something of a dogmatic point: one of the "Thirteen Principles of Maimonides" is the belief in the resurrection of the dead, and it has become an axiom for Orthodox Jews (see, though, for a more nuanced treatment, Marc Shapiro's The Limits of Orthodox Theology).  It has also become an issue of contention between different streams of Judaism.  The second blessing of the Amidah, the focal prayer of all Jewish services, traditionally ends "Blessed art though, Lord, who gives life to the dead." Early in the Reform movement's history, the blessing was changed to "who gives life to all," as the Reform movement disavowed the literal reincarnation of the dead and the literal divinely brought Messianic age (see the Reform movement's Pittsburgh Platform of 1885).
Regardless of one's views, though, on the literal reincarnation of the dead, this week brings plenty of ways to look at the relationship with God.  Whether viewed as a romantic love affair, a kind master, a stern ruler, or a future hope, there is a two way street here.  There is room for comfort, which we need as we move into the weeks of the Omer, with its traditional mourning rituals, and into Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 7th-8th this year (I'll be writing a d'var torah for that, too, focusing on teaching memory, which will in turn relate back to Passover.)

Shabbat Shalom, and my great apologies for not commenting on this diary until Saturday night, given the almost-Shabbat timing that I'm posting this with.

Originally posted to JLan on Fri Mar 29, 2013 at 03:43 PM PDT.

Also republished by Elders of Zion and Street Prophets .

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