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Thursday, May 9, 2019

Kedoshim and Apocryphal Writings

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So this weeks parsha is Kedoshim. Sometimes called the holiness code, it's a hot mess of do and don't with a really salient reminder to be nice to the stranger who lives among you. 

By chance, which has been remarkably good to me this week, I was recommended something else to explore as well. We're gathering in pieces for an art show component to the shul's annual fund raiser. Some really incredible works have come in and I was keeping the records and organizing the intake. One of the last to drop off art work said after commenting on my name, "Have you read the book of Tobit? I'm not sure it's in your peoples book, but it's worth looking into." I thanked her on my mother's behalf for the compliment to my name, and said I'd look into Tobit. She said she'd read the prophet I was named for too.  

Tobit is not canonical, and so I turned to the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is a collection of biblical tales that were too important to loose, but ended up on the cutting room floor all the same. In my copy by Edgar J. Goodspeed, he comments that the writings of the Apocrypha were not approved by the Puritans and so it's possible that here in america this legacy still dictates what we think of as biblical literature. I've seen enough billboards along roadside in northern Pennsylvania with biblical quotations attributed to God to appreciate the level of misunderstanding about this unique piece of literature we call the bible. 

The book of Tobit is set in the period of the first exile, and revolved around a family of the tribe of Naphtali. Commentary calls it a "charming piece of religious fiction," and having been adapted from combined stories of Ahikar, the Story of the Grateful Dead, and the Egyptian tractate of Khons, taken from Aramaic papyri of the fifth century BCE found in Egypt. A romantic view of Hellenistic period is present as well in the writing. It is however, full of easily cross referenced names of places, events and kingdoms which makes it particularly fun to read especially with thoughts of both Esther and Nehemiah in mind, but elements of Job and Jonah are present as well. 

Tobit the patriarch of the family and narrator describes his place and predicament.  Taken away by the Assyrians to Nineveh he recounts how his own tribe had become lax in observance and even turned to idolatry. 
 ...when I was young, the whole tribe of my forefather Naphtali revolted from the house in Jerusalem, which had been chosen from all the tribes of Israel for all the tribes to offer sacrifice in, and in which the temple of the dwelling of the Most High had been dedicated and built for all ages. So the tribes which had revolted with it would offer sacrifice to the heifer Baal. But I alone went many a time to Jerusalem for the festivals, as the Scripture commands all Israel in an everlasting decree....Book of Tobit 1.4-6
When I became a man, I married Hannah, who was of the stock of our family, and by her I had a son, Tobias. And when carried into captivity to Nineveh, all my brothers and relatives ate the food of the heathen, but I kept myself from eating it, because I remembered god with all my heart... Book of Tobit 1.9-12
Tobit is a pious man and the tale labors over points that we would know from passages of Torah just like Kedoshim, in fact the authors expected us to understand these sections of Torah to make the point of this mans dedication.

The tale is really the take of his fortunes and misfortunes, his son and the triumph of the pious in reward for persevering in a life of observance despite hardship.

Tobit and his son Tobias' adventures are an excellent story, or fable, and it's not hard for the reader to tell they are of blended tales, even without the commentary, but it works. The halftarah we have this week is Amos and rather short, but this tale of triumph for practice I found much more rewarding as a couplet to our portion in a time when Torah is a little devoid of the grandeur of Genesis and Exodus. Amos reveals, as many of the prophets did that in a future time Israel would be redeemed, retake the land, rebuild cities, and live in a prosperous peace of their own labour. It's a nice vision but it's not a tale of adventure in the Levant, it's not a Torah life in action as Tobit provides. Amos is an appetizer, a tidbit of the feast to come if we can focus ourselves.    

Holiness as something of a personal goal should not be undersold. The mindful elevation of the individual though the mitsvot is not without reward. While I don't count on angelic guardianship as a thing anymore than I expect to come across a talking donkey a reminder of a life of conscious choice is due it's place. Kedoshim reminds us that we are temples, each of us to god, and debasement of ourselves is a form if idolatry. But it also takes care to remind us to be kind to the other who has also chosen to live a pious life among us, for they too are vessels of divinity and we understand the burden of trying to keep the statutes in a place hostile to our attempts at a holy life. 

Take a detour after you read the parsha this week just off the margin of Torah into a tale built around it. Does wearing cloth of linen and wool make you less holy? Are puggles or labradoodles an affront to the lord? I don't know, but I think a thoughtless life might be less than we deserve of ourselves and less that we can embody. Be a little more conscious of what we are doing both to ourselves and our neighbors. Surely considering if you can recycle versus throwing away is as important as inspecting shatnez. Being neighborly as important as not mixing seeds. 

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