Walking around the classroom, Rabbi Katz returns the weekly homework assignments, stops at Shira’s desk. “Shira, you know our assignments are to summarize each Torah portion, but you copied every single word.”
“Details are important,” she says, looking at her returned homework. “A ‘C’? You’re giving me a ‘C’?”
Rabbi Katz reminds himself to be gentle. Shira hasn’t been herself. “When you copy instead of summarize, how do I know you understand what the portion’s about?”
Shira purses her lips, crosses her arms, slumps lower in the chair. Rabbi Katz notices the furious tapping of her foot. “If you can summarize for me now, Shira, I’ll raise your grade to a ‘B.’”
She glares for a moment at the blank blackboard, then, “The portion Tezaveh commands Aaron and his sons to wear holy vestments in the Sanctuary and to perform specific ritual sacrifices. The portion gives lots of details.”
“Good summary, yes. Okay, a ‘B.’”
“Rabbi?” Shira asks, “You’re a descendant of Aaron, right, a Cohen ? That’s why you said you couldn’t attend my mother’s funeral.”
“Yes, Shira. Cohanim are supposed to attend funerals only of their immediate family members. Rules of priestly cleanliness and purity.”
“According to Tezaveh , isn’t it also a rule for the Cohanim to wear garments with gold and special stones and threads?”
Rabbi Katz nods, walks to his desk, sits. “Excellent question, Shira. Shows that you’re thinking. I’ll raise your grade to an ‘A.’” He makes a notation in his grade book. “Now, are there any other questions on the — ”
“You haven’t answered my question, rabbi.”
He fixes a gaze that is stern and unyielding — there are a dozen other students in the class, after all, and he must maintain order and respect. “All the details Tezaveh gives about vestments, like its rules about animal sacrifice, applied when we worshipped in the Temple. But now we pray in — ”
“No, rabbi. The rules of Tezaveh were given way before the Temple. All we had back then was a tent in the wilderness.”
“Shira, you wouldn’t want me to follow Tezaveh so closely that I slaughter lambs on the bimah, would you?
“Well, you could at least wear a white linen shirt and pants like the ones we bury people in. They’re modeled on the ancient priests’ clothes, aren’t they?”
“You’re right, and on Yom Kippur, if you remember, those are the garments I wear. With white sneakers.”
“Like the ancient priests really wore sneakers,” other students titter. Shira adds, “We keep a ner tamid in our synagogue, and that’s one of Tezaveh ’s rules for the ancient Sanctuary. So, we’re supposed to follow some of the Torah’s rules but not others?”
Trying to mask his exasperation, Rabbi Katz says, “The ner tamid , our eternal flame, symbolizes the Jewish people, whose mission, as Isaiah put it, is to become a light of the nations.”
“Rabbi, rabbi,” says hand-waving Bobby Gutman, a precocious boy, 12-going-on-20, with curly red hair, horn-rimmed glasses and braces.
“Yes?” Rabbi Katz asks, glad for the distraction.
“I’ve been reading Spinoza—“
“That trouble maker?”
“He says that in ancient times, Judaism was a theocracy. The Lord was King. Priests were like government officials. Maybe they wore fancy clothes to look like noblemen?”
“Spinoza was excommunicated.”
“Well then, what about Dostoevsky’s ideas?”
“Dostoevsky was an antisemite.”
“His Grand Inquisitor explains that religious leaders can use spectacle to control the masses, so maybe Tezaveh orders fancy clothes — ”
Rabbi Katz slaps his palm onto the desk. “We don’t take Torah lessons from goyim ! Tezaveh orders elaborate vestments so that Aaron and his sons show honor to the Almighty.”
“Maybe,” Shira says, clearing her throat, “you could honor the Almighty by helping His children honor their parents, whether living or dead.” Her voice trembles. “That’s one of the Ten Commandments, you know.”
Rabbi Katz wants to say, “How dare you!” but does not. He looks down, contemplates Shira’s agitation. On the one hand, it is his duty as teacher, rabbi, human being, to help a young person cope with the loss of a parent. But what of his duty to follow established rules of priestly cleanliness and purity? At which point do principles of ethics, of Jewish kindness and tikkun olam , healing the world, supersede specific rules of behavior?
“Rabbi?” Bobby Gutman asks. “Rabbi, did you hear Shira’s question? It’s a really good one. Did you hear?”
“Yes,” Rabbi Katz mutters, lifting his eyes to meet Shira’s. “Yes, I assure you, I heard.”
Daniel M. Jaffe, editor of “With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction” (Invisible Cities Press, 2001), lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.