Tzav: The old and the new rituals

burnt offering

My days and my house are about to be awash (literally!) in ritual preparation. It’s almost Passover, and of all the holidays of the year, this is the one that breathes rituals. From the cleaning of the house, to the special foods prepared, to the specific, formulaic procedure of the Seder itself, Passover is thoroughly ritual-based. So, with this week’s parasha, Tzav, I ponder the idea of “ritual”.

What brings meaning to the ritual?  Is it meaningful only because others have done these things before me? What about over time – what if the meaning attached to the ritual means less and less? Or does it mean more over time?

Tzav is the second parasha in the book of Leviticus. It deals with the rituals of the burnt offering, for both atonement and well-being. It also lays out what offerings the priests can eat, what they can’t eat, and how to “cook” the offerings.   Lots of details, lots of instructions, which is to be expected, since Leviticus is the “Torat HaCohanim”, the Instructions of the High Priests.

What’s a ritual in the first place? Anthropoligist Barbara Myerhoff wrote, “Ritual is the enactment of a wish. It is a display of a state of mind. And above all, it is a performative enterprise.” For the Israelites in the wilderness, these rituals were commanded, (the root word of “tzav”, the name of this week’s parasha, is command.) It’s not “And Moses said…” or “And God said…” Command. Structure was being imposed here on the fledgling society by God, through Moses, and onto Aaron, the High Priest, and his sons. The people who came to the Priest wished to express either contrition for their misdeeds or gratitude for their fortune. There was an understanding between the Israelite and the priest that what was going on in that Tabernacle was going to work; the rituals could affect lives.

When I think of Passover, some of the rituals seem enormously difficult and cumbersome….every year, every time I do them. That would be cleaning, of course, and the Passover dishes, bringing them up from the basement and getting the kitchen ready for the burnt offerings – ok, hopefully, not burnt! Why still do them? Has the meaning gotten lost, or have I needed to infuse those rituals with new meaning? Probably a little of both. Structure is imposed, and others are effortless – like getting my grandmother’s pots out and beginning to cook with them, making the soup only in her pots. My enactment of a wish? That she were here, that she knows how much her things mean to me. My state of mind? Well, that varies, depending on how close we are to Passover and how prepared I feel! But the meaning comes from the repetition, certainly.   As for infusing new meaning in rituals that have gone cold, that’s why we try to make each year’s Seder a bit different. Years ago, for 15 years, I ran a women’s seder. Some of those readings seem dated now, but they certainly breathed new life into an older moment. New readings, new insights, new Haggadot, new faces at the table. And the ritual works, each year it works, each year it affects lives.

It is a continual process, finding the meaning in the ritual. The whole purpose of the Israelite offerings in the wilderness were to bring them closer to God, and following step one, step two accomplished that. I wish the same for the Passover rituals – bringing us closer to that which is Divine, that which is blessed by the Divine. I encourage us all to find the new, the interesting, the quirky, the soulful, the blessed experience of retelling the same old story, so that the blend of old and new resonates within your hearts.

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Vayikra: Cows, sheep, goats and God

goat-sheep-cow-85844094Vayikra – And God called. And so begins a lot of instructions about killing and offering up a lot of animals for all sorts of reasons, all with the purpose of getting closer to God (“korbanot”, the word for offering, comes from the word “karov” – get close to).

Placing the rules and regulations of offering animals within the context of an “am kadosh”, a holy people, beholden to God, asks us to take on the mindset of a wholly different society than the one in which we live today. But as with all Torah, there are lessons to be learned, even if the simple reading seems foreign and disturbing. One example is examining the actual animals identified for offering in this parasha.

In most cases, it’s the cattle, sheep and goat, in descending order of size, and the Commentators wondered why those particular animals. Abarbanel (15th c, Portagal/Spain) pondered the question and says that these animals symbolize the three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Abraham took a calf from among his flock to feed the strangers who came to his tent. “Looking up , he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran to greet them… Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy who hastened to prepare it.” (Gen 18:1-7) The calf was offered up as a gesture of hospitality, and it became the model for openness, being welcoming and generous.   For his efforts, Abraham was told he would have a son, to fulfill God’s plan that he would be the father of a great people. First, he had to become a father.

Isaac is associated with the sheep. When Abraham was told by God to take his son, his only son, the son he loved, Isaac and make him an offering to God, Isaac was ultimately replaced by a ram.   On the walk up the mountain, Isaac asks his father, “Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?’ (Gen 22:7) Later we read, “So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burt offering in place of his son.” (Gen 22:13) Torah is telling us, in part, that offering up a child is not the way to get closer to God.

Finally, Jacob is associated with the goat. In Chapter 27 of Genesis, we read how Jacob brought “two choice kids” to his elderly, blind father, in order to get the blessing of the first born. The young goats provided both the food and the skins Jacob needed to convince Isaac that he was Esau, the elder son. This problematic, deceitful part of the story nevertheless shows how Jacob was fulfilling the prophecy his mother Rebecca had received from God when she was pregnant, that Esau would serve Jacob. By taking the first son’s blessing, Jacob was brought closer to God, especially as he headed into the wilderness. He fled his brother’s anger and in a certain place, he stopped for the night and had a dream.   In it, “Adonai was standing beside him and said, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isac.” (Gen 28:13) And later, we read that Jacob gets even closer to God through God’s angel, when they wrestle, and Jacob becomes Israel; the man becomes the people.

We don’t use animals to get closer to God anymore. We use our words, our prayer, and our actions focused on making the world a better place. But these three animals remind us of some of the important elements of how we get close to God: welcoming all into our tent with generosity of spirit and home, replacing the animals with the devotion of our words and our hearts, and the struggle we engage in every day to understand and internalize the teachings of our history.

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Vayakhel: All hands together

women's hands“And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to Adonai an offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting” (Ex 3:21)

This is Vayakel, one of the “Home Depot” portions of Exodus. Lots of directions, lots of details….LOTS of details of all it took to build the Tent of Meeting. The entire community came together to create a holy space for God to live while amongst the Israelites. There were all sorts of beautiful objects that went into the project: brooches, earrings, rings, all sorts of gold jewelry. There was yarn and linen, in blue, purple, red, gold. Acadia wood, lapis lazuli, copper, silver and more.

They were building the center of the community; it all happened here. And the Torah is quite clear that whatever was brought was done as a “free will offering” (Ex 35:29)

And then we read, “Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to Adonai, came….” (Ex 35:22). The women wove, and spun with their own hands, making the Mishkan beautiful. Their work was essential to the space.

When I read these words, I am curious as to how it developed that women were excluded from holy places as Exodus became living Judaism. There was such joy in creating this space, and it took every heart and hand to do it. Why eliminate so many, with such talent and passion? Why put up obstacles, literally, to access the holy space. It’s not the same to say that there are “other” holy spaces to occupy. The Tent of Meeting, the Mishkan, was indeed the holiest spot in town, and it was created with everyone’s hands.

When I read these words, I am validated in my choices to learn how to chant Torah, to lead a service, to sit next to my husband, to become a full and equal part of what happens in the holy space of prayer.

When I read these words, I am heartened by the women I know who are bringing such creativity and joy to their pulpits, teaching, music and daily Jewish lives.

When I read these words, I think about what my offerings are, how intentional they are. Am I coming to the sacred space with free will and a heart that is moved? Am I honoring those women in the wilderness who made something out of the leftovers of a former life?

And so I continue to read these words.

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Ki Tisa: Touched by holiness

half shekelKi Tissa – it’s all about the Calf, ‘bout the Calf. Though the Golden Calf story does take up a hefty piece of the parasha this week, something else caught my eye; two things, actually.

The beginning of the parasha talks about each person in the community bringing in a specific amount of money, to be taken as “expiation money”; that is, money given as a “reminder before Adonai, as expiation for your persons.” (Ex 30: 16) Everyone brings the same amount- a half-shekel – “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less” (Ex 30:15) This isn’t a capital campaign, or a building fund, or to get your name on a wing of a building. This money is for “kaparah” to ward off plagues, specifically. After all, the Israelites had just seen how devastating plagues could be.  This is money that will remind everyone, poor and rich, what this Tent of Meeting is all about: God.

When the community pays in equally, they share in the results equally. This is a fundamental assumption of the community as it was developing. Everyone benefitted from the relationship with God. To use the rabbinic concept of “kal v’chomer”, or “how much more so”, how much more so are those benefits to be gleaned in our own time, for example, health care. The Affordable Care Act is being debated….again…in front of the Supreme Court….again. There’s an underlying truth in the ACA: It’s not right that a rich person can afford really, really good health care, but the poorer of us get poorer care, if at all. The entire Israelite community benefitted from God’s protection from misfortune. How much more so does our community today benefit from a healthy populace?

There’s another interesting, related passage in Ki Tissa, as the text describes how the Tent of Meeting is to be consecrated, made into a holy space. There are instructions for the table, the utensils, lampstand and fittings, and the laver. We read of the “recipes” – the herbs and spices to be used in consecrating the space: “Thus you shall consecrate them [the individual items] so that they may be most holy: whatever touches them shall be consecrated.” (Ex 30:29) One might think that holy things would be sullied by anyone who touched them, but it’s the other way around. The holiness is transferred, not the impurity. We read of other times when people or things become defiled by forbidden contact. Priests cannot touch a dead body, and if any non-Priests come into contact with the dead, they must go through a purification process. Yet here, the furniture and utensils of the Holy of Holies can spread its status, as they are used in service to God.

When you surround yourself with the holy things that remind you of the unique, holy, blessed purposes in a well-lived life, you become holy, too. Again, how much more so, when you surround yourself with people and ideas that are acting in service to a holy purpose. Having access to the blessing of good health, which l believe benefits the entire community, means having more and more people able to do the work of their lives, making it a better world, raising all who come into contact with the holiness therein.

And on another topic, and a real Torah-stretch, for those in the Chicago area. In Exodus 32:7, in the Golden Calf story, we read that Aaron says the next day would be a great big party, with food and dancing. The verb used is “l’tzachek” Rashi says the verb has sexual implications – it’s the same one used in Genesis, when Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of “dallying” with her when he visited. Well….I’m in a production of “All Shook Up”, an Elvis jukebox musical, playing the mayor who will NOT have that EVIL, SUGGESTIVE music in her town. If you think you can withstand the temptation of “l’tzachek”, come on and rock’n roll to some great music and dancing. March 6 – 15, weekends. Details:


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Tetzaveh: Hiding

maskThis week’s parasha is for those behind the scenes, those unseen, those who don’t appear in the story, but are at work in the background.

For Tetzaveh, that means Moses.  For Purim, that means God.   It’s the Shabbat before Purim, Shabbat Zachor.   For both, it’s a tale of what’s revealed and what’s hidden;  what’s needed for the now, and what’s needed for the later.

Tetzaveh is all about Aaron and establishing the priesthood.  We read about the bling, the clothes, the actual ordination of Aaron as High Priest, and his sons as the first priests, “And they shall have the priesthood as their right for all time.  You shall then ordain Aaron and his sons.” (Ex 29:9)  What follows is a description of the priestly investment.  The priests’  clothes are extraordinary, their ordination rituals are detailed and elaborate.  It’s a solemn celebration.

Tezaveh is also the rare parasha after Exodus in which Moses doesn’t appear at all.  The description of what goes on in building the priesthood goes beyond the travelling troupe in the wilderness – it’s for all time.  The priestly class is what will keep the people together as they enter the Land.  They are the ones that will keep everything Moses said available to the community.  They’re the link to Sinai, bringing the Divine Presence to daily life once Sinai recedes into the past.

Then there’s Pruim – anything but a solemn celebration, and nowhere is God mentioned in the story.  Many commentators have noticed that, and all sorts of interpretations abound. Purim is the story of masks and hiddenness. Even God is hidden, working behind the narrative, like one masked.

The story of Purim plays out in Persia, outside the Land.   From what we can tell,  there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference in the population between Jews and non-Jews.  It seems that only when Esther and Mordecai  step forward and identify themselves as Jews, like when Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman,  does anyone around them know.  The assimilated life in the Diaspora.

So where’s God in Purim?  Where’s Moses in Tetzaveh?  How are they at work in the background?  I think they’re both teaching us how to live without them actually present in front of us.  Moses’ teachings will come through the priests, keeping the people together, focusing through the future on the laws and commandments Moses received.  God is hidden in Purim, only holding back so the people can establish for themselves their public identity as Jews.

These days, between Facebook and Instagram, we play out our lives in the public. We are constantly deciding what we want to reveal and what we want to keep hidden.  We have to decide how obvious we want the Divine Presence to be with us, with who we are, how we act, what our lives mean.

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B’shallach: Higher than angels

Egyptians drowing in the seaTalmud  Tractate Megillah 10b: As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but God silenced the angels, saying, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises!”

It’s Beshallach, when we cross the Sea of Reeds, embarking on our new journey to freedom from slavery in Egypt. After we crossed the waters that had miraculously separated, allowing us to walk on dry land, the Egyptian Army followed after us, led by Pharoah. The waters, however, crashed in on them, drowning them all. Our oppressors were destroyed, our escape ensured, our future ahead of us unencumbered by the slavery of the past.

Then the angels rejoiced, and promptly got scolded by God. The Egyptians may have been our enemies, but they were still creatures who had been created by God. On the surface, the lesson seems to be that we shouldn’t celebrate death.

Yet, that’s exactly what Moses and Miriam do after we get to the other side. Moses leads the people in the song of praise, Shirat HaYam, the song of the sea, saying, “ Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea…[they] are drowned in the Sea of Reeds…You sent forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw…the earth swallowed them..” (Ex 15)

So humans get to rejoice and celebrate the death of their enemies, but it’s bad form for angels to do it? It seems that God expect much more empathy from celestial beings, but there are no such expectations from mere humans, otherwise God would have been upset with the Israelites, too.   Both angels and humans had the same reaction, yet one received immediate disapproval.

This Midrash is teaching us not only that death diminishes us all, but that unlike angels, we can hold the relief and joy at being saved, but not forget that others suffered. We are able to hold opposite and conflicting concepts at the same time.

Right now, there is far too much rejoicing at the deaths of our enemies – all enemies, in fact. We seek the “zero sum game” solutions. If I win, you have to lose, and if you win, I have to lose. Angels may not be able to hold conflicting ideas, but we can, and we must. We must aspire to go higher than the angels. We must be human.

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Bo: Leaving no one behind

break chain     You can tell a lot by what people choose to use for a bluff. So far, in Exodus, Moses has been telling Pharaoh that he wanted to take the Israelites out of Egypt to worship God: “Let My People go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.” (7:16).   After a few plagues, Pharoah says fine, “Go and sacrifice to your God within the land.” (8:21), but Moses says that wouldn’t work, “It would not be right to do this, for what we sacrifice to Adonai our God is untouchable to the Egyptians.” (8:22) And even more detail, “So we must go a distance of three days into the wilderness, and sacrifice to Adonai our God…” (8:23).

Moses and Aaron knew full well they were leaving and not coming back. This was a bluff. But it is in this week’s parasha, Bo, that Moses tips his hand. Pharaoh offers to let the men go, but Moses said, “We will all go, young and old; we will go with our sons and our daughters…” (10:9)

Some commentators suggest that this was Moses’ way of indicating that they weren’t coming back, so everyone had to be on that three –day trip.   But I think Moses is also stating an important concept in the development of the people: everyone is included. Everyone is necessary. Everyone is to take part in praising God, no matter where that praise takes place. Everyone is present, no one is to be removed.

Recently, there have been incidents where women have literally been erased from the scene. After the Paris killings, world leaders came together to demonstrate against the horrific acts. A photo was taken, which included German leader Angela Merkel. When it was run in an ultra-Orthodox paper in Israel, editors removed Ms. Merkel and other women from the photo. In other well-documented incidents, women’s faces in Israel have been removed from ads on the street and their voices from over the air on radio. Those the attempts to do so have been thwarted by enforcement of law, in parts of our community, men feel entitled to leave women behind. Something Moses wasn’t going to do just then.

These very words, “we will all go, young and old, we will go with our sons and our daughters…” come at the very beginning of the formation of the people Israel – the new society, after liberation from slavery. This new society, from its beginning, included everyone. Moses forgot that a few chapters later, when in preparation for the Divine Moment, he changes God’s instructions to speak only to the men of the community, telling them to “stay away from a woman” for three days; God didn’t say that, it was Moses’ edit.   We need to remember Moses’ inclusiveness at the beginning. We must remember and hold high the knowledge that when we first stepped away from slavery, into the new relationship with God and God’s Torah, we ­were all together. Every member of the community was important and required to be there and no one was left behind, forgotten, or silenced.

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