Reflections on Orlando

In recent days Jews worldwide celebrated the holy day of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, by reading the Book of Ruth. In the story of Ruth, we discover in the relationship between Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, the transformational power of love and faith. Rather than desert Naomi at Naomi’s time of despair, Ruth proclaims, “Wherever you go, I will go. Where you settle, I will settle. Your people will be my people. Your God, my God.” Ultimately, we learn that love and faith are the essential ingredients for making the world whole.

It is through this lens that we might view the tragedy in Orlando that happened this weekend. The gunman possessed neither love nor anything the civilized world would recognize as faith. Our response, therefore, must be nothing less than an outpouring of those two essential ingredients: love and faith. As we extend condolences to the victim’s of terror in Orlando and their families, let us redouble our efforts to bring all peoples together in the pursuit of justice, peace, and loving kindness. When anyone suffers in our world, after all, we all suffer.

At the risk of infuriating many good people who are responsible gun owners, it must also be said that its not just the dead and their families who are victims of gun violence. We are all victims in a sense: victims of those who legally or illicitly peddle in weapons of mass destruction in our cities, civilians who covet their right to own assault weapons, and lawmakers who refuse to pass reasonable legislation to restrict ownership of the most lethal weapons to the military and law enforcement communities.

That mass shootings account for less than half of 1 percent of the 6,025 people shot to death in the United States thus far in 2016 alone, according to GunViolenceArchive.org, is no excuse to accept the status quo. 212 deaths and another 558 injuries, after all, are not insignificant numbers. Even if the numbers were half that, every life matters and deserves to be protected, including the lives of the other 10 people injured in two more mass shootings, one in Brooklyn, one in Fresno, that happened the day after the Orlando massacre.

As flags across America fly at half staff this week, let us resolve to open our hearts to all humanity, to embrace the universal Truth of goodness and brotherhood, to say lovingly and in full voice,  “Where you go, I will go. Your God will be my God. Until death do us part.”

And let us pray that our nation will one day muster the courage to address effectively all aspects of gun violence, not the least of which is the availability of automatic and semi-automatic weapons.

Get Over Yourself! Be Holy.

Kedoshim / קדשים
Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

“Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:18)

This week’s parashah opens with “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” What follows is essentially a handbook on how to be holy. In fact, this parashah, which contains 51 mitzvot (commandments) by a traditional counting, enumerates some of the most important mitzvot in the entire Torah. It is clear that the way become holy is by following as many of the mitzvot as possible. By doing so, we are more likely to become the most ethical, loving people we can be and also distinguish ourselves from a society whose values and norms are sometimes questionable, sometimes antithetical to the whole idea of holiness.

At the core of what it means to be holy is the teaching “love your fellow as yourself.” Hillel, paraphrasing this verse as “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow,” says to an eager student for conversion to Judaism: “This is the entire Torah. All else is commentary!” Rabbi Akiva, a sage who lived from about 40 to 137 CE, considers loving your fellow as yourself a central principle of all of Torah. The verdict is in: loving our fellows as ourselves is key to our mission of becoming a holy people.

Exactly what the verse “love your neighbor as yourself” means, however, is open for interpretation. One interpretation comes from Moses ben Nahman, also known as Nahmanides or Ramban. This great thinker, who lived from 1195 CE to about 1270 CE and lived in Spain and Israel, offers this commentary:

One’s love for others should be equivalent to one’s love for oneself. For sometimes a person might love another in some respects but not all, treating him well (for example) with regard to money matters but not to intellectual ones. If he loved him completely, he would want him to have wealth and property, honor, knowledge and wisdom — but it is human nature that he will always want more of them for himself. The text commands that one should not nurture these petty jealousies, but love one’s fellow with the same unlimited love that one has for oneself.

Nahmanides points to the love of Jonathan, who loved David “as himself” (I Samuel 20:17). Jonathan was the son of Saul, the first king of Israel. Though Jonathan would have been the logical successor to Saul, Jonathan knew that the throne would pass to David. Rather than sabotage David’s ascent to the kingship and grab it for himself, Jonathan “eliminated all jealousy from his heart” and supported David. In other words, Jonathan’s desire for David to become king was as strong as his own desire to become king. Thus, for Nahmanides, at least, Jonathan’s love for David exemplifies the Torah’s ideal.

Among the many ways we could understand “loving our fellows,” Nahmanide’s prescription is certainly among the most difficult to achieve. It’s much easier to treat someone nicely or to not steal from them than it is to extend to them the same heartfelt wishes that you harbor for yourself without falling down the black hole of jealousy. Everyday we interact with people who have things that we wish we had: money, a nice home, a loving family, a high i.q., a winning personality, and on and on. Sometimes they lack what we are fortunate to possess. In any case, how often do we find ourselves saying to ourselves, “I wish I had that more than him or her!” or the opposite “Thank God, I don’t have that.”? The problem is that viewing through the filter of self-interest or judgment is an obstacle to the kind of love that Nahmanides is talking about.

Imagine if we suspended judgment and envy in all our relationships. Not only would we extend to others the kindness we associate with “love,” but we would also work with those against whom we harbor ill feelings to achieve outcomes that allow for the other to feel truly fulfilled. In this scenario, the other would do the same for us. This kind of love may exist in the world, but only in scattered and remote locations. True altruism rarely makes the evening news, but what a world it would be if altruism did trump self-interest in international affairs, business, and personal relationships!

Nahmanides lays down the gauntlet, challenging us to put our egos aside and offer the fullness of our beings to our family, friends and strangers in our midst. In other word, we need to get over ourselves. If we can meet this challenge, we will know what it means to love and we will be on our way to becoming holy.

 

© Rabbi Daniel Aronson, 2014

A Seder Meal Worth the Wait

I recently gave a Powerpoint presentation on “Passover’s Magic Number: 4” in which I shared the following cartoon (http://www.jr.co.il/humor/pass93.htm):

pass93

Anyone who has ever attended a Passover seder can relate to this humor. We’ve all sat through seders that seemed to go on and on even as our stomachs grumbled and we wondered when the matzah ball soup would finally be served.

As funny as this cartoon is, it hints at a serious lesson: whatever is worthwhile in life is worth waiting for. This is certainly true when it comes to freedom. In fact, this teaching about delayed gratification is deeply embedded in the story of our liberation from Egypt. The Torah’s account of the Exodus reminds us how long we were in slavery, how the night the Angel of Death passed over Egypt was a night of vigil, and how the ongoing celebration of Passover would be delayed by forty years. During the seder, too, we taste salt water, bland greens, bitter herbs, charoset (a sweet fruit and nut mixture), and of course, matzah. We wait a long time before the prepared meal, often a masterpiece that has taken days to prepare, makes its way to our tables. It is a meal worth waiting for, and wait we do. So it goes for freedom: nothing is sweeter than freedom and, boy, is it worth waiting for!

The Torah reading for the first day of Passover, when it falls on Shabbat as it does this year, comes from Exodus 21, verses 21 through 51. It is there that we read (verses 40-41): “The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years; at the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of the Lord departed from the land of Egypt.” Four hundred thirty years before the Exodus, our ancestors made their way to Egypt in search of relief from famine. There they found a government and a society that welcomed them. There they prospered. But only for a while.

Most of our sojourn in Egypt was marked by oppression and misery beginning with a pharaoh who “knew not Joseph.” It is legitimate to ask why we suffered for hundreds of years. I will not touch that question here. Suffice it to say, it was our reality and there wasn’t much we could do about it. We had to wait for hundreds of years before God would charge Moses with the task of confronting Pharaoh and that God would ultimately kill the first born of Egypt before Pharaoh would “let our people go.” It would have been better had we not suffered at all, but in the end our freedom was worth waiting for. This despite occasional protests from the masses that it would have been better to die as slaves in Egypt than to withstand the hardships that increased once Moses stood up to Pharaoh and that would continue through the 40 year trek through the wilderness. By the time we made it to the Land of Israel, the Israelites understood how precious their freedom was and how it was worth the wait.

Immediately following the recounting of the length of time we were in Egypt, the Torah tells us (verse 42) “That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages.” On the eve of our liberation, we did not simply pack our bags and leave. Our hasty departure followed a night in which our people at the pesach offering while the screams of the terrified Egyptians arose all around them. That night, a night of vigil, must have felt like an eternity. Because their liberation was delayed ever so slightly, the first taste of freedom was ever so sweeter.

What often gets lost in the telling of the Exodus is what the Torah tells us in verse 25: “And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite.” When would that be? Forty years later! After the first Passover, the next one didn’t happen for another forty years. Perhaps this is because in verses 43 through 49 we learn that males could partake of the pascal offering only after they had been circumcised upon entering the Holy Land.

Or maybe the 40-year gap between the first and second Passovers existed to remind us how some things are worth waiting for. In this case, what was worth waiting for was taking possession of the land that God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Settling the land was the final act of their liberation. Imagine the feeling of stepping into the Land of Israel that first time! No one would have argued that they should return to Egypt, such was the thrill of witnessing this chapter in their people’s history.

No wonder the very first ritual our ancestors performed in Israel was the same one they had performed on the eve of the exodus. The Passover sacrifice bookended the experience of our liberation. This time, like the first time, was well worth the wait. As we sit down for our seders with family and friends in a free and open America and then delay taking our first bite of matzah, but even more so as we delay partaking of our sumptuous seder meals, let us remember all that has come before us and how special this moment is.

Let us drink four times to freedom. It was well worth the wait!

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Dan

Redeeming Metzora from Gossip and Malicious Speech

Parashat Metzora / פרשת מצרע
Torah Portion: Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

One of the most fascinating sections of the Torah is found in this week’s Torah reading, Metzora, which in most years is read together with last week’s reading, Tazria. (This being a leap year in the Hebrew calendar, however, they are read separately.) In Tazria-Metzora, the Torah devotes two whole chapters of Leviticus, 13 and 14, to a discussion of an affliction called tzaraat. Tzaraat manifests differently whether it is suffered by a person, living in the walls of a home, or growing in woven cloth or skin. In all cases, the afflicted is considered tamei, loosely defined as “spiritually unclean,” and in need of purification. If the affliction does not go away, a person is isolated from the community indefinitely, and affected homes and cloth are destroyed. If the priest determines an afflicted person to be healed, on the other hand, the priest oversees two complicated rituals eight days apart to make the afflicted tahor, “spiritually clean,” and able to enter the precinct of the Tabernacle once again.

What is tzaraat? In a person, tzaraat resembles a skin disease, wrongly termed “leprosy” in most translations, the symptoms of which include “a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red” beneath the surface of the skin (Lev. 13:19). In a home or in cloth or skin, it appears as an “eruptive affection” or “plague” resembling greenish or reddish streaks. In short, tzaraat is some kind of skin disease or scary mold.

Interestingly, the Torah offers neither a cause nor an explicit cure for the affliction. Thus, rabbis and scholars from the Temple period in the late centuries of the first millennium BCE until our own day, have offered their own explanations for the outbreak of tzaraat. Most have determined that gossip and malicious speech, lashon hara in Hebrew, is the cause, basing their analysis on verses from the parasha as well as a certain folk etymology of metzora (“motzi ra” means “evil comes out” of one’s mouth). They also generalize from God’s punishment of Miriam with tzaraat following her mean-spirited speech about Moses (Numbers 12) to say that all cases of tzaraat are brought on by God as a punishment for lashon hara.

I have often taken Tazria-Metzora as an opportunity to teach on the folly of lashon hara because I believe it is vitally important to address this most prevalent of practices, which undermines the health of families, friendships and communal life. Notwithstanding my homiletic use of Tazria-Metzora in this way, I actually find it highly problematic to suggest that someone who suffers a disease does so as a result of his or her misdeeds, whatever they might be. I’m not even convinced that our biblical ancestors held that theology, though in the absence of a more sophisticated understanding of disease, they might have.

Rather than focus on the cause of tzaraat, I am drawn to the purification ritual that we find in chapter 14:

This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed.

When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over flowing water (my translation). He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days (Lev. 14:2-8, translation from Jewish Publication Society).

Biblical commentators often link this ritual to the malady of lashon hara. They explain that the birds, through their chirping and chattering, symbolize the tendency to let our speech get out of control. The cedar represents the haughtiness that leads us to engage in gossip and malicious speech, with the low-growing hyssop and the crimson thread or die (or more accurately, the worm that produces the thread or die) representing being brought low as a result of our actions. While these are creative interpretations of the items used in the purification ritual, they feed into the insidious tendency to place blame for suffering on those who suffer.

I want to offer an alternative way of looking at the ritual involving birds, cedar, hyssop, and crimson as a ritual of blessing and renewal following the period of affliction. One of the birds is slaughtered for its blood. Blood is the source of life. Spilling the blood dramatizes the death-like experience of one who is cut off from his/her family, friends and community. Without human connection, life is dull, at best, unbearably miserable, at worst. The one who has recovered from tzaraat has known that death-like experience. As the blood of the bird washes away in the stream of water, the death-like experience is washed away, made something of the past.

Meanwhile, the other bird is set free. The metzora, too, is set free: set free from disease, from isolation, from the prohibition from offering sacrifices to God. The healed sufferer has new wings with which to soar through life. At the same time, the live bird is marked by the blood of the one that was slaughtered. The person who suffered as the metzora may put the suffering behind him/her, but the reality is that the person, just as the bird, is somehow changed by the experience of suffering. The suffering and the isolation are now part of his/her life story, a chapter to be integrated into a larger narrative. How the person who suffered does the work of meaning-making is now up to him/her.

The cedar tree appears in Psalms and in our liturgy as a symbol of uprightness and righteousness. The righteous shall flourish like the palm (tree), shall thrive (grow tall) like a cedar in Lebanon (Psalm 92:13). The one who has suffered is and always has been among the righteous. Though brought low like hyssop physically, spiritually and psychologically, the metzora, now healed and soon to be reunited with society, regains his/her stature as a “cedar” in his/her own esteem. Those who love him/her will surely notice his/her presence, as they would a tall cedar, when he/she returns home.

Finally, we are left with the mystery of life itself. How is it that the dried body of a tiny worm give us such a magnificent dye as this crimson? From something so inconsequential comes something so beautiful. (In Christianity, this worm is a metaphor for Jesus.) This is the same crimson that would become part of the fabric of the Tabernacle itself! Perhaps the crimson is meant to have us savor life itself, cause us to marvel over the human body and its ability to overcome disease.

Together, the birds, cedar, hyssop, and crimson serve to bless the metzora with a life free from suffering, a life of righteousness. They welcome the healed back to the world with all its beauty and mystery. The water, sprayed from the cedar and hyssop upon the metzora seven times, wakes the metzora to a world of wholeness and possibility. With this ritual, there is no stigma, no presumption of wrongdoing, only blessing.

Though our studies of Tazria-Metzora will surely always remind us to guard our tongues, there is much more to discover in these odd, perhaps disturbing, readings. Our biblical ancestors were eager to pronounce the metzora “clean,” not necessarily from sin but from a kind of suffering that could only be overcome in isolation. With this ritual, our ancestors celebrated life, bestowed blessing, and welcoming back one of their own. May this be a model for us as we greet anew those in our midst who have suffered disease or estrangement and are now ready to join their voices to the chorus of life once again.

 

Those Sneaky Pigs

Parashat Shmini / פרשת שמיני

Torah Portion: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Toward the end of parashat Shemini, we read about which animals are considered kosher, i.e. permissible to be eaten when properly slaughtered: “These are the animals that can be eaten from amongst all of the animals of the land. All those that have split-hooves and chew their cud . . . [11:2-3]” Thus: cows, goats, sheep — all kosher; pigs and camels — not kosher.

While the Torah’s use of split-hooves and cud-chewing to differentiate prohibited animals from permissible animals provides an easy-to-follow guide for those new to the kosher scene, the reason for choosing split-hooves and cud-chewing as the determinative criteria for what constitutes a kosher animal is all but clear. Unfortunately, neither the rabbinic sages of the Talmud nor the great biblical commentators of the middle ages bring much light to this issue. While Maimonides posits health as a rationale for the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) over all, a rationale that has been roundly rejected over the centuries, he doesn’t ever venture a guess as to why God deems those animals with split hooves and who chew their cud as more clean than those who have just one or neither of these traits.

It is easy to say, “because God says so” to all those rules and regulations in the Torah that are beyond our comprehension, the rule about hooves and cud being one of them. I don’t entirely reject that notion. Sometimes doing something because “that’s what Jews do,” even when we don’t know why, has its own value: it can instill self-discipline and mindfulness and theoretically unite the Jewish people through uniformity of practice. Even so, I for one would like a “real” reason for this dictate.

While there might not be a practical reason for defining a kosher animal as one whose hooves are cloven and who chews its cud, there is an ethical rationale: to teach us about the importance of integrity. To this end, the pig is a case-in-point. The rabbis write: “When the pig pauses from his gluttony and lies down to rest he stretches out his foot to show his cloven hoof, and pretends that he belongs to the clean kind of animals” (Genesis Rabba 65). The pig wants us to think he’s kosher by showing us his cloven hoof. In reality, though, he fails the second test of a kosher animal: pigs don’t chew their cud. By presenting himself as a kosher animal, the pig stands out as the consummate hypocrite.

Another lesson about integrity comes from a midrash in the Talmud about why the Holy Ark was gilded with gold inside and out: “Raba said: Any scholar whose inside is not like his outside, is no scholar… woe unto the enemies of the scholars, who occupy themselves with the Torah, but have no fear of heaven!” (Yoma 72b). Clearly, the rabbis place a premium on having one’s outer being reflect one’s inner being. They consider it deplorable to present oneself as righteous and erudite while engaging in activities that debase one’s fellow human beings.

The list of people in public life who defy the rabbis’ standard of integrity is all too lengthy. Too many people in whom we place our trust show themselves to be “pigs,” appearing pure and holy but, in truth, seeking their own gratification and power. Perhaps we even know some people like this in our own lives. Perhaps, too, we find ourselves lapsing into hypocrisy and self-interest from time to time. Let’s face it: when it comes to maintaining our integrity, we can all use a reminder from time to time.

Let the Torah’s criteria for what constitutes a kosher animal be our criteria for what constitutes a “kosher” person, i.e. that our inner lives be in concert with our outer lives. This lesson alone is sufficient rationale, in my opinion, for requiring kosher animals to have split hooves on the outside and to chew their cud on the inside.

 

 

Serving the Divine with Ear, Thumb and Big Toe

Parashat Tzav / פרשת צו
Torah Portion: Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

This week we read of the inauguration of the office of the High Priest with the ordination of Aaron and his sons. Interestingly, the word for “ordination” of rabbis that we use today is “smicha,” a term we find in our current parashah that refers to laying hands onto a sacrifice so as to transfer one’s spiritual impurities from one’s self to the animal being sacrificed. For example, we find in Leviticus chapter 8, verse 22, that Moses brought forth “the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head…”

Of course, when a rabbi is ordained today, there are no sacrifices involved. A person of authority may or may not lay hands on the head of the soon-to-be ordained rabbi, but there are no sacrifices. Rather, there are words spoken that charge the rabbi to go out among the people of Israel to teach and inspire.

The ordination of the priests and the ordination of rabbis are similar, though, in one respect: the authority who ordains them charges them to bring their whole selves to the tasks before them. To be a teacher and spiritual leader of the Jewish people requires a commitment of heart and mind, hands and feet. One’s thoughts, one’s actions, and one’s way of going about the world are to be directed toward the Divine.

We see this commitment symbolized in the ordination of Aaron and his sons just after the “ram of ordination” is slaughtered: “Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right food” (Lev. 8:23). This ritual is then replicated for Aaron’s sons.

According to Rabbi Avraham ben Rambam, the son of the great commentator and philosopher Moses Maimonides, this ritual teaches the Kohanim, the priests, a lesson:

The blood upon the ear symbolizes that the Kohanim should always listen to and obey God’s commands. The hand is the organ that grasps things and that is active; so the blood upon the thumb symbolizes that the Kohanim should actively carry out His (sic.) will. And the foot is the organ of movement; so the blood on the big toe symbolizes that the Kohanim should always move with alacrity to serve God. (Art Scroll Stone Edition Humash on Lev. 8:34)

We are free to interpret the symbolism of the ear, thumb and big toe differently from Avraham ben Rambam, but the gist is the same: to be a priest requires whole-bodied commitment. The commitment is no different for those who would serve the Jewish people as rabbis today.

Serving the Divine with one’s whole mind and body is not something that we expect only of Kohanim and rabbis, though. This is an expectation of each and every Jew. Exodus 19:6, God directs Israel through Moses to be to God a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” While the actual priests may have been responsible for overseeing the ritual aspects of communal life, their responsibility to serve God is shared equally with the people they serve. In other words, we are all priests in a way.

The prophet Isaiah has this in mind when he asks in Isaiah 58: “Is this the fast I desire?” He goes on to make the point that God is not satisfied if everyday people go through the rituals of religious life while at the same time living in a way that demeans their fellow human beings and ignores the plight of those in need. To truly serve God entails serving all of humanity and, I would add, caring for all the natural world.

If we are to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” each of us must imagine that our ears, thumbs and big toes are dedicated for sacred purposes. With our ears, we must listen for God’s “voice” in those around us, recognizing that sometimes this takes patience and discernment. With our thumbs, we must go do that which makes our world a better place for all God’s creatures. With our big toes, we are to “walk” in ways that just and righteous, modeling for the world menschlikeit (human decency) and a devotion to tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Along with Aaron and his sons and those today who have devoted their professional lives to sacred service, may each of us see ourselves as ordained to serve the Holy One with our ears, thumbs and big toes.

Shabbat: Time to Curb Your Enthusiasm

Vayakhel / ויקהל
Exodus 35:1 – 38:20

This week in the Torah, the Israelites finally get around to building the Tabernacle. In Vayakhel, Moses gathers (in Hebrew vaykhel) the community and let’s the people know what has to be done. As soon as he is done speaking, the people get to work and start bringing their terumah, freewill donations of materials necessary for the construction of the Tabernacle. By the end of the parashah, the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Pact, and all the other furniture and vessels to be used by the priests are in place.

How Moses begins instructing the people is noteworthy:

“These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Ex. 35, 1-2).

Before Moses begins talking about the labor involved in building the Tabernacle, he lets the workers know that a day of rest lies ahead. Why wouldn’t Moses have given the instructions first and saved the promise of a day of rest for the end? After all, God had done just that when he revealed the instructions for the Tabernacle to Moses: God revealed the instructions and only afterward reminded Moses about the commandment to observe Shabbat.

The medieval commentators on the bible are bothered by this question as well. The preeminent commentator Rashi (1040-1105) answers the question by observing that Moses first gave the commandment about Shabbat so that the people would know that the building of the Tabernacle did not trump the Sabbath.  Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) later adds that God “has already forbidden them in the covenant to do any work on the Sabbath, but here God specifies the punishment for violating the commandment” lest the people should think that each violation of a mitzvah comes with the same punishment. In short, the sages teach us that Moses is making it clear to his followers that Shabbat is a bigger deal than even the construction of the Tabernacle and that the penalty for overlooking this reality is severe.

Given what happens when the people start to bring their offerings for the Tabernacle, I’d say Moses made a good decision. The people are so eager to contribute that Moses has to tell them: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Exodus 36:6). As he begins his instructions the people of Israel, he thus anticipates their zeal. He imagines that the people will get so caught up in building the dwelling place for the Divine presence that they would likely work straight through the seventh day to get the job done if not warned ahead of time.

We should also recall that the construction of the Tabernacle begins immediately after Israel sins by building the Golden Calf and suffers God’s wrath as a result. It is entirely conceivable that Israel would now be so fearful of God that they would think building the Tabernacle – something God actually commands them to build, unlike the Golden Calf – would be more important than the Sabbath. Perhaps the fact that they brought a surplus of materials to the Tabernacle is a manifestation of this zeal.

I believe Moses has something else in mind as well when he begins his instructions with the commandment of Shabbat: reassuring the Israelites that labor post-Exodus is not going to be like labor pre-Exodus. As slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, the Israelites experienced no respite from their backbreaking labors. The last thing Moses wanted is for the people to hear what needed to be done to build the Tabernacle and then have them exhibit a post-traumatic response that would have impeded them from fulfilling God’s command. By uttering the promise of Shabbat before giving the marching orders for the Tabernacle, Moses allays the fears of the Israelites that they are going to suffer now as they had suffered under Pharaoh

The “take away” for us from this week’s parashah is that by observing Shabbat, we are honoring God and celebrating the freedom we have to cease from our labors. Our sages believe that when we fail to observe the day of rest, we don’t actually experience a physical death but we do experience a spiritual death: by working straight through with no breaks, we lose sight of what is of ultimate importance and become detached from all that is truly valuable. If we fail to observe the Sabbath, we might as well still be in Egypt, where we were slaves, unable to escape to Sinai and grow closer to God and to those we love.

Note: I had previously posted this commentary on February 20, 2014 at http://www.tbsholom.org/parashat-vayakhel-exodus-351-3820/2826.

The Attribute of God We’d Rather Not Mention

Parashat Ki Tisa / פרשת כי תשא

Torah Portion: Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

In Parashat Ki Tisa, Moses climbs back up Mt. Sinai to receive the second set of Tablets after he smashed the first set upon witnessing the Israelites rejoicing around the golden calf they had fashioned during his first 40-day absence atop the mountain. This time, however, Moses asks God for the merit of revealing God’s self before him. Agreeing to Moses’s request, God instructs Moses to stand in a cleft in the rock. There God will shield Moses’s face with God’s hand as God passes, lowering the hand only after God had passed. As this scene unfolds, God proclaims the greatness of the Divine One with these words:

“The Lord! the Lord! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 33:6-7)

These two verses contain what the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, of the 16th century consider to be the “thirteen attributes of God.” In explaining why we recite these verses whenever a Festival falls on a weekday, David Teutsch writes, “Reciting the attributes on the Festivals celebrates God’s presence as vividly experienced in the joyous observance of the holiday” (Kol Haneshama Prayerbook for Shabbat and Holidays, 1994, p. 390). We give especial prominence to these attributes when we recite them particularly when the ark is open and the Torah, the mythic word of God, is exposed for all to see.

But the tradition calls for reciting only half of what God proclaims to Moses. What is left unsaid is that God “visits the iniquity of parents upon childrenn and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Ex. 33:7). It seems that the Kabbalists were fine reciting all of God’s positive attributes before the holy ark, but this business of God’s retribution made them squeamish. This is not surprising. Who wants to be thinking of four generations of punishment while during an intense moment of devotion before the Torah?

Still, if we look at the Torah text on its own terms, it appears that God is unabashedly announcing that a component of God’s greatness is, in fact, God’s ability to “visit the iniquity of parents” upon subsquent generations of progeny. Rather than look away from these words in the Torah and pretend they are not there, we should look straight at them and ask in what sense they speak of God’s glory, rather than God’s ugly punitive side.

I’d like to propose that the positive attribute of God alluded to in this verse is God’s ability to teach and reteach generations of children the lessons their parents learned the hard way. If what God is doing is reminding the children of their parents waywardness, there then is an element of mercy in this aspect of God’s being. Taken the right way, the children and the children’s children through four generations will vow not to repeat their parents mistakes.

We might apply this lesson to climate change. Who can argue that all of us living today are paying the price for the callousness of our “parents” in regard to the environment? Perhaps the scientists who’ve opened our eyes to global warming and the activists who are trying to urge individuals and governments to do something about it are themselves acting as agents of God in “visiting the iniquity” of past generations on present and future generations. We shouldn’t vilify them for bearing bad news, but rather praise them for awakening us to the problem and causing us to act.

When we talk about God’s attributes, we are articulating those traits that we imagine are of such high value that we would ascribe them to God. Remembering that we are created in God’s image, i.e. that we are commanded to behave in ways that we imagine emulate God’s actions, these attributes of godliness then say more about us than about God. As we stand before the Torah, we are to recommit ourselves to exhibiting these same attributes, even the one that we’d prefer not to talk about: the one about remembering the mistakes of our ancestors that we need not repeat, whose costs we bear, and whose effects we must ameliorate.

We might not want to talk about God visiting the sins of our parents upon us and our children and our children’s children, but we must heed the greater lesson that the Torah is trying to teach us. While we may not naturally love the “punishing” God, we ought to love and appreciate that attribute of God who enables us to become better human beings.

 

 

Building God’s Dwelling Place: All for The One and The One for All

Parashat Tetzaveh / פרשת תצוה
Torah Portion: Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Beginning with last week’s Torah reading and most of the rest of the Book of Exodus generally deals with establishing the central religious structure and leadership of biblical Israel, that is the mishkan (Tabernacle) and its accoutrements and the priesthood with its garb and ritual ordination. The mishkan itself was viewed by our ancestors as the dwelling place of God on earth, the Ark of the Covenant at its center representing God’s footstool. Yet, the raison d’etre of the mishkan was not as a hermitage for God but as a meeting place for God and Israel. In this sense, then, the mishkan served the needs of the Israelites every bit as much as it was deemed to serve God’s. This was where God could be known to Israel and where Israel could relate God.

In Parashat Terumah, which we read last week, God instructs Moses to “take for me freewill offerings” (Exodus 25:2) that will be used in the construction of the mishkan. As I mentioned in my discussion of Terumah, God asked the people for very specific things, but expected that they would offer them with open hearts. We thus imagine that every Israelite who was able to contribute had some emotional stake in creating God’s dwelling place. The idea that it is incumbent upon all of Israel to make our world hospitable for the Divine Presence is a powerful one that ought to motivate all of humanity today in everything from environmental conservation to just, compassionate governance.

At the same time, however, neither Israel’s largesse toward God nor humanity’s ongoing efforts to prepare the world for God’s indwelling presence are entirely without ulterior motive. Indeed, a counterpoint to “take for me freewill offerings” can be found in the command “take for yourself oil of beaten olives to light the flame (of the menorah) eternally” (Exodus 27:20). In essence, God is saying in these two commands “Do this for me, but do this for yourselves as well. “Mi casa es su casa,” if you will.

Reconstructionist Judaism defines God as “the power that makes for salvation.” I like to interpret that classic phrase of Mordecai Kaplan’s as suggesting that God is present in the goodness, compassion and beauty we human beings experience in this world. To make God manifest, then, we mustn’t expect miracles from on high, but rather work here and now to build our own mishkan out of goodness, compassion and beauty. If we build it, God will come.

When we build a world worthy of God’s inhabitance, we build a world where all beings can be in relation to God. When we build a dwelling place for God, we benefit from knowing that God is present in all that we do, that God is near, that God is real. We are not alone and our acts of lovingkindness and righteousness are not empty. We build a mishkan today not just for God, but for us, too.

I am moved by the complementary language of these two recent Torah portions: “take for me” and “take for you,” do this for my sake AND do this for your sake. In this pre-election cycle, I pray that candidates will emerge victorious who see as their mission not to build a nation and a world out of their own sense of self-importance but to create a space where the Divine can dwell and the lives of all people can be infused with the Holy. It’s best not to take chances, though: let us all now resolve to build the mishkan for God and for all God’s creation.

Not All of Worth is Worthy

Terumah / תרומה
Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Have you ever had the experience of giving a gift, sharing an idea, or making a joke only to find out that your well-intended “offering” is not welcome? If so, you wouldn’t be alone. Even though we are moved to contribute to others what we believe is of value, we often find that others don’t share our assessment of our contribution; for whatever reason, they don’t see in that gift, idea or quip the same worth or worthiness that we see. At these times, it’s not pleasant to feel rebuffed or rejected, but that’s life.

It is true that certain circumstances call for taking risks, saying what’s on our minds even though others may not agree with us or giving a precious gift even if we don’t know how it will be received. If we constantly shy away from offering our thoughts or going for broke, we may never progress. It’s not likely that any of us are wrong all the time, after all. Eventually, we’ll present something acceptable that may also turn out to be the critical missing peace of a complex puzzle.

That said, we are still wise to be thoughtful in our contributions. In making our free-will offerings we should consider how our offerings will be accepted and be aware of what offerings are actually needed. If, for example, someone is baring her soul to us about a very serious matter, we probably don’t want to be making silly puns. (I know from experience!) A thoughtful gesture of reassurance, however, would probably be appreciated.

This lesson applies to communal life as much as to our personal lives. Communities need their members to provide certain resources necessary for the well-being of the community: money, food, material goods, brain power, leg work, and the like. Without these things, bills would go unpaid, the lights would be shut off, people would go hungry, things wouldn’t get done. In short, it is important that we, as members of different communities, know what is needed and contribute as we are able.

While communities rely on philanthropy, we should also know that not all contributions are welcomed. Lots of people, for example, generously donate old books to their synagogue library. The problem is most synagogue libraries barely have room for their current collection. When they do have room, libraries usually give priority to new books or particularly important or, perhaps, rare books. Even then, if the books are covered with dust mites, any responsible librarian would reject the donation or toss the books immediately into the trash. The point being that even in the context of exercising our philanthropic impulses, we must be aware of what our communities really need and what they don’t need.

This is a lesson taught in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, where we read (Exodus 25:1-9):

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.

For our biblical ancestors, there was no more sacred structure than the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that would later become the model for the Temple in Jerusalem. In the biblical imagination, this was God’s home. This was where the priests could be closest to God at the holiest times of the year. Moreover, they imagined that God was the architect and designer of the sanctuary and that God knew exactly what was needed to build it.

The first requirement for God’s sanctuary, before all the “stuff,” was an open heart. Before the list of fabrics, skins, gems, and other materials that would be required for the sanctuary, there appears an injunction to take contributions only from those people whose hearts so moved them. Love of God and community, in effect, was the glue that bound all the other materials together. Indeed, as a nod to Valentine’s Day, I once referred to the Tabernacle as God’s and Israel’s “love shack,” a place where the Jewish people could demonstrate their devotion to God and God could be “emotionally accessible” to the people.

But what were the materials that God wanted for the Divine dwelling? God gave Israel a very specific shopping list. The medieval, Italian rabbi Obadiah Sforno, observes in his commentary to Exodus 25:3 that “no substitutes for the materials listed would be acceptable, such as perishables for instance.” He continues:

Even the kind of gemstones (pearls, for instance) not usable for Aaron’s breastplate, were not accepted. The only type of contributions that were accepted were those that in themselves would be usable in the construction of the Tabernacle and its paraphernalia.

Had we beem there when Moses spoke, we might have asked, “Why these materials and not others?” That’s an interesting question that might have given us solace when Moses then rejected the treasured possessions we had so lovingly brought to the building of God’s home. At the end of the day, however, the answer would have been, “God said so,” and that would have been enough. After all, we love God and want to make God happy.

This story should give us pause when we seek to build God’s dwellings in our own day. We may think everything we possess is worthy to go into the sanctuaries, literal or metaphorical, that we build. That thought is laudable in so far as it expresses our desire to give our “all” to God and community. Nonetheless, sometimes what God and community need is not our “all” but our “some,” some very specific things that will add sanctity to the dwelling. Anything else will be extraneous or, worse, distracting, for while God certainly has a good sense of humor, God can be temperamental, and sometimes even the best puns are best left for another time, if ever.