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Beha’halotekha 5778

May 31, 2018

The Waving
A D’var Torah for Beha’alotekha
by Rabbi Jill Hammer

“You shall bring the Levites close before the Divine, and the Israelites shall lay their hands on the Levites, and Aaron shall wave the Levites as a wave-offering before the Divine…”                   Numbers 8:10-11

Among the many kinds of offerings we encounter in the Torah, the one that fascinates me most is the tenufah: the wave-offering.  The root of tenufah comes from a word that means to flutter or undulate. A priest must wave the offering before God at the altar, rather than burning it.  This waving appears to indicate that the entity being waved belongs to God.  The wave-offering is then given to the priests to consume.

This offering is used for the first omer/measure of barley at Pesah, the first fruits at Shavuot, as well as the two loaves of Shavuot (Mishnah Menahot 5:5-6).  The lulav is also waved at the festival of Sukkot.  There are other wave-offerings as well, but it is conspicuous that all three harvest festivals involve this act of waving.  The only “wave-offering” Jews still do today, traditionally, is the waving of the lulav, but we have forgotten that the wave-offering is meant to be performed at all harvest festivals.

Yet we can re-enter this ritual. In a first-fruits ceremony performed at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT, the community performed both the waving of the sheaves and the waving of the hallah as part of a harvest dance, reinventing this harvest offering as a part of Jewish practice.  Everyone in the gathering came into concentric circles, waving the sheaves up, down, north, south, east, and west, while the farmers holding the first fruits and hallah waved them as well.  It moved me profoundly to see this ancient ritual being performed as a reminded that everything belongs to the One, and all the abundance we receive does not truly fall into our domain.

While the Mishnah only specifies that the offering must be waved side to side and up and down there is a long-standing tradition that tenufah refers to a waving moving in the six directions.  (Rabbeinu Bahya to Sukkah 45a).  The six directions indicate “everywhere,” just as in many indigenous communities the six directions represent the cosmos, and rituals performed in six directions are meant to connect with the Creator present throughout the world.

A wave-offering is also associated with the gift of materials for the Tabernacle: even gold and bronze are “waved” according to the language of the Tanakh.  The tenufah is particularly associated with offerings brought by the people from their own bounty: that is, things offered by individuals out of their own produce, their own materials, their own generosity are often “waved.”  So wave-offering involves the giving of something to God, yet it contains a slightly different message than an olah-offering in which something is burned and the smoke rises upward.  Rather than giving the gift “up” to the Divine, the gift touches all the directions, suggesting the Holy is not only upward, but everywhere.   The gift then returns for the use of human beings, weaving humans and the godly together.

The tenufah is the only biblical offering that one is permitted to make using people. In our parashah, the Levites, when they are designated as a priestly class, are waved as a wave-offering.  What can this mean?  If in fact the wave-offering designates an entity as belonging to God, the Levites are, by the ritual, consecrated to God’s service. Yet they are not elevated to heaven but remain in the human world. In our world, their services are primarily meant for the priests, just as the first fruits and the Shavuot loaves are meant for the priests. Like the first-fruits of the harvest, the Levites serve as a connection between divine and human realms, and this is why they are designated using the ritual of wave-offering or tenufah.

But how are the Levites waved?  A number of commentaries suggest the priests actually picked them off the ground and waved them like a lulav, which presents a rather funny and somewhat undignified image. (Not to mention the backs of the kohanim would have hurt the next day.) In this moment, I am imagining the waving of the Levites as being like a dance, where the Levites gesture and turn in the six directions, offering their beings to the One.  In my imagining, they are sacred servants in motion, bringing prayer and service everywhere they go.  In this way, they accompany the dwelling of the Divine on earth.

We might imagine each of us as a Levite, a person with a mission to provide ongoing connection between the physical world and divinity.  Our actions can be like the wave-offering, connecting the abundance of this world with holiness.  May we find ways to acknowledge the Omnipresent in all directions and at all moments.  May we commit to offer ourselves as companions for the people and for the Presence, bringing the sacred everywhere on our journeys.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education of the Academy for Jewish Religion.  She is the founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the author of several books including The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, and The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership.