Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sukka 56 a, b

The end of today's daf is worth the entire masechet - well, in terms of my time and energy.

We begin the last daf of Masechet Sukka with a question about blessings.  Which blessings do we recite first, second, last?  And what about on Shabbat?  We learn about a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai over which is said first, the blessing over the day or the blessing over wine.  We know from modern practice that the blessing over wine is said first.  Guess whose argument won?  Beit Hillel, of course.  They argued that the more frequent blessing - the blessing over wine - takes presinecne. They also reasoned that the wine causes the kiddush to be recited; the kiddush is followed by a sanctification o f the day.

I had not known that the ark was not to be left empty.  Instead, the priest on watch would ensure that fruits of the season were sacrificed when there were no other offerings to give.

Our final Mishna of Masechet Sukka is concerned with the watch on Festivals just before or after Shabbat.  Those on watch would either stay late or begin early.  The Mishna ensures that those priests receive their shrewbread which are distributed on Shabbat.  The Mishna states numbers of loaves that are shared.  Only Rabbi Yehuda suggests that the incoming priests take seven loaves and the outgoing take five (when the loaves are distributed on Shabbat).  We learn, as well, where in the Temple this division took place, that the ring used to help with animal slaughter was fixed in place, and that the niche where knives were stored was sealed.

The Gemara seeks to clarify whether or not the watches have equal roles and responsibilities when they serve at different times.  Rev Yehuda's challenge allows the rabbis to discuss a larger question through the particulars of the distribution of shrewbread: how do we compensate people for different work when all roles are valued equally, but some are more important or more time consuming than others?  How do we live with the practice of "equal but different"?  

In feminist analyses of Tanach, much thought has gone into this question.  Perhaps we all have different roles; each is a part of the whole and none is more important than another.  However, why is it that we focus on some roles more than others?  Why do we compensate some roles more handsomely than others?  A traditional response would include the argument that these imbalances are the doing of people, as we are imperfect, and not the intention of G-d.  But we do laud our Sages - and they certainly lauded each other - more than we glorify their mothers, wives, daughters.  If the Sages were biased in their interpretations of G-d's Torah, how can we go against them to create a more balanced and equitable and, perhaps, G-d-like understanding of Torah?

We learn about some of the problems facing our ancestors regarding this watch.  There were 24 families assigned to this duty.  The Bilga watch had a terrible reputation.  That reputation was based either on repeated lateness of some of the family members, or because of Bilga's daughter, Miriam.  The rabbis tell us that Miriam married a Greek soldier and was shunned from the Jewish community.  At some point, she returned and actually kicked at the altar, calling it "wolf, wolf - you consume the property [sheep] of the Jewish people but you do nothing when Jews are facing poverty and homelessness".  The rabbis interpret this as blasphemy, of course.  They wonder whether such words should be blamed on Miriam, her parents, or the entire Bilga family.

Wonderful to end Masechet Sukka with words that allude to a strong tradition of social justice.  Though our rabbis do not praise Miriam for her words - in fact, they do the opposite - those words are evidence of a long line of Jewish women who are not able to quietly accept the notion that people should trust in ritual to enact G-d's justice.  Miriam instead reminds us that there have always been and will always be voices that loudly question the interpretations and practices of those in power.  Why are we giving our hard earned resources to the altar when we are continuing to struggle?

I want to be clear - Miriam criticized the ritual itself.  She was not opposing G-d or the unknown will of G-d.  Miriam opposed a ritual practice that did not lead to the result that it promised.

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