Bamidbar: Hold your head high

hands upBamidbar – in the wilderness – the book of countings – the book of being counted.

Just as Leviticus had another name, the Torah of the Priests, Bamidbar has another name too: Ha’Pikudim – the book of taking note, of noticing, of being noticed. P’K’D – the shoresh is used about Sarah, in Genesis. It’s translated as “remembered” – God remembered Sarah, but it’s more. God “pakad” Sarah. God noticed. God took note of, not just remembered. It’s deeper than that.

This fourth book of the Torah begins “on the first day of the second month, in the second year following the Exodus from the land of Egypt” (1:1). We are still at the mountain. We haven’t moved yet, but it’s time to get on the road. The first thing God does is call for a census. The text says, “s’u et rosh” –lift up the heads and count them, one by one.  The text proceeds to number each of the tribes, each of the tribal heads. They were the leaders of the community, and they needed to literally stand up and be counted.

Things happen when you are counted. You can’t hide. You stop being anonymous. You have to own your identity. Others notice you are there. You not only get counted, but suddenly you count. It matters that you’re there. You have a role to play and you’re not just taking up space.

The Israelites were all together at Sinai, but now in Bamidbar, they begin to be divided up into their tribes. They take note of where they are to stand and march in relation to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. They have roles to play, and it matters where they are. They are being counted by God and Moses and by each other. They have become…accountable. They are accountable to their community, to their leader,to their God.

My grandmother used to say that if you lift your head up above the crowd, someone will come by and slice it off. That was her experience, and it is the experience of so many around the world. To speak out is to risk never speaking again.  It’s hard to stand up and be counted, especially when things matter the most. We are at a time when things matter the most, because much is threatened. Our health , our rights, our natural world, so much is at risk. We can’t all stand up for everything, but each of us can stand up for something. Stand up and be counted.The voices we raise with our heads held high have to be raised only for those who can’t speak on their own, but to keep the righteous roar going.

It’s time to keep speaking out, to be counted and to be accountable toour community, our neighbors, our leaders…especially our leaders…and ourselves. Lift your head up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Behar B’chukotai: Fig trees and fear

washington under fig tree“If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on.

It outlives when I’m gone.

Like the Scripture says: ‘Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

And no one shall make them afraid.’

They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made

I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree.

A moment  alone in the shade.

A home in this nation we’ve made.

One last time.”

Yes, I’m quoting Hamilton, but then Lin Manuel Miranda is referring to Leviticus 26:6 “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone…”  This is part of an if/then clause.  The parasha B’chukotai begins, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments I will grant your rains int heir season so the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.” The whole second half of Leviticus is the Holiness Code, which lays out all sorts of rules about setting up a righteous  society. Watching out for the vulnerable, don’t put stumbling blocks before the blind, don’t bribe judges, and of course, “V’ahavta l’re-echa k’mocha Ani Adonai” (Love your fellow as yourself, I am God) If you follow those rules, then what follows is a land where no one is afraid, where all can rest under their own vines and fig trees. Where there is peace. As Rashi said in commentary, one might think that getting rains and produce will be all one needs. But, “we learn from this that peace is as valuable as everything else put together.”In Hamilton, as in history, Washington knew it was important when to leave. He and the other founding fathers had done their best to establish rules by which to establish a righteous society. They were bold, they had won an unprecedented War of Independence, and they were guided by principles and values that were also unprecedented. Equality. Individual freedom. Everyone’s voice counted (yes, I know some there were some glaring exceptions that took a hundred years or so to work out..and are still being worked out.) Many of those values came from Leviticus – treating everyone with dignity, no matter their circumstances. Being fair and honorable to poor and rich alike, expecting and dispensing justice to the high and low.

The Levitical vision of peace is a society where these values are played out every day, and when they aren’t, fear creeps in. People who aren’t valued don’t find value in others. Feeling like the deck is stacked doesn’t engender trust in others who seem to hold the cards. But that’s not enough to throw it all out the window. Rather, we need to return to those very values – honesty, integrity, dignity, equality –to fix what’s wrong. The values protect us, they don’t make us more vulnerable.

Washington wasn’t the end, he was the beginning. Exodus was the end of an enslaved people, and the beginning of a revolutionary society, based on values the ancient world hadn’t seen before. We need that revolutionary spirit now, to stand firm against those who try to lure us to turn our backs on it.

Everyone deserves to sit under a fig tree and not be afraid.

 

 

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Emor: The work of our hands

hands the worldThe week got away from me. Here’s commentary on Emor from a while back, but updated to what is (sadly) still relevant.

Now here’s an odd story in this week’s parasha, Emor,  not that there aren’t a few odd stories in our Torah.  One day, “There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian.  And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite.  The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the NAME in blasphemy and he was brought to Moses” (Lev. 24:10-11).   The man’s mother was from the tribe of Dan, and he was placed in custody until God made a decision as to what to do with him.

Decision made, this is what they were told to do:  “Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and let all who were within hearing [of him saying the NAME] lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.”  (Lev. 24:13)

Now, putting aside the issue of stoning for a moment, there are a few other interesting aspects to this story.  This individual had violated a community standard in a significant way by pronouncing the NAME of God, one that only Moses had used.  This person crossed a line, and greatly offended the people; since he had offended the entire community, his punishment needed to be communal as well.

There are several interpretations of the “let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head” line.  Rashi (12th c France) said that by laying hands on him, they’re saying “Your blood is on your own head. We’re not to be punished for your death, since you brought it on yourself.”  Bechor Shor (also 12th c France) said by laying hands on the blasphemer’s head, as one does with an offering of say, the goat that absolves the community’s sins,   the members of the town absolve themselves from the sin of that one individual, making them innocent of taking part in a murder; he is indeed guilty, not they.

However, I believe there’s another way to look at this.  Without saying that the community is responsible for the one who went too far, that wrongdoing on an individual’s part is somehow the entire community’s fault, I do think that when everyone must take part in both the conviction and execution of the, well…execution, the community must take notice.  By laying hands on the condemned criminal, as individuals, they are taking responsibility for what’s about to happen.  It’s not happening behind a door – just the opposite, this is supposed to take place in the presence of the entire community, all those who heard him and were affected by his behavior.   This is not to be taken lightly, or ignored, or somehow missed.

We routinely experience individuals in our midst that go too far, stepping over the line of what society has laid out to be offensive behavior. We call it breaking the law.  But at a certain point, when a particular crime is so often repeated, society must ask itself why.  When too many corporations are caught “blaspheming” (ripping off customers or polluting water), we put laws in place to stop the behavior. Today, we moan and cry about the astounding level of gun violence in the country.  Children are gunning down children, and have been for far too long.  We have some laws about this, we arrest the offenders, try them in court, and with our metaphorical hands on their heads, we pass judgment.

I’m not writing in favor or communal death penalties here.  I am, however, saying that the holes in the gun laws are big enough to shoot through. Literally.  And those holes must be closed, shut up tight, so that the legal-blanket better protects the community, as it is supposed to.

Recently, the US Senate acted shamefully by voting down (and it wasn’t even voted down!  There was a majority in favor.  Apparently, it depends on what “majority” means ) closing those loopholes that would have offered protection.  It wasn’t a great bill….I would much prefer that it go further in removing assault weapons and  accessories from the community…but it sure was a start.  By failing to pass the legislation, the Senate placed its communal hands on the wrong heads – the heads of those who gave such grave offense by their blasphemous behavior, saying as Rashi said, “You brought this on yourself.  We are not to blame.”  With great respect, Rashi, I disagree.  The US Senate cannot absolve itself from the responsibility. The Senate is very much to blame, and will remain so until and unless they lay their hands on the heads of those shot down,  to comfort and protect them, not the ones who supply the shooters.  Surely those shooters have offended God by taking lives away,  and they are indeed responsible for their actions.  But the “camp” bears some responsibility in a larger sense, too.

Those of us in the community need to be aware of where our hands are being laid, and it shouldn’t be on the heads of the blasphemers’ partners, those who help keep the holes in the protective blanket wide open.  No, our hands need to create that protection by keeping the blasphemers from bringing their poison into the community in the first place.

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Acharei Mot Kedoshim: Just don’t

holy holyAcharei Mot and Kedoshim are two remarkable parashiot. Kedoshim, literally about holy ways of behaving, beginning with “You (the people) shall be holy, because I (God) am holy.” This was said to the entire community, and what follows is a long and seemingly disjointed list of “don’ts” – Don’t defraud your neighbor, don’t insult the deaf, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, don’t profit by the blood of your neighbor, leave food for the needy, and more. (Leviticus 19)

Certainly, these are hallmarks of a seriously deficient society in terms of moral and ethical behavior. This part of Leviticus is telling us how to build a righteous community, one that is holy because God is holy, and God is telling us to do it. But there is a verse in Acharei Mot, a chapter back, that sets it all up: I am Adonai your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. (Leviticus 18:2-3)

Don’t be like them. Don’t be like those Egyptians. And what did those Egyptians do? They enslaved. They oppressed. They took advantage of an entire people through force and cruelty. They tried to beat the identity out of them. Ultimately, the hallmark of a righteous society, as far as Leviticus is concerned, is  “don’t oppress”. Egypt is the code, the symbol, for unethical, immoral behavior of a nation. This is such a powerful, underlying theme that we read about it 36 times in the entire Torah; we were slaves, we were oppressed, so don’t do it to anybody else. Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable and needy. Just don’t. Don’t do it on a one-to-one basis, like keeping wages from a laborer, and don’t do it on a national level, like stripping an entire group of their rights.

We live in a time where there is a great deal of talk about oppression – who is oppressed, who is the oppressor. Are the needy to be left to fend for themselves? Do we keep an entire group within our borders at a disadvantage because of their income, and do we slam the door on those beyond our borders? Of course, people from all sides of an issue will find their Biblical proof texts to show they’re right, but if you’re using the Hebrew Bible as foundational text, well, it’s hard to overestimate the weight of an idea that is repeated so often: don’t oppress the vulnerable, because you remember what it was like to be oppressed.

Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) said that “nor shall you follow their laws” means that if you get used to following the customs of the oppressors, you will eventually be ruled by those customs. Their practices will become yours. You will lose yourself in their customs, and will become as morally bereft as they are. Don’t be like Egypt. Just don’t.

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Tazria Metzora: Skin deep

tazriaIt is not easy to be a Jewish Taurus, because there’s a chance you might end up with Tazria Metzora as your Bar or Bat Mitzvah portion. It’s hard enough being 13, but to have to find some meaning in skin diseases, well….that’s just really hard.

Tazria Metzora is a double section of the Torah that deals with, among other things, skin diseases, male and female states of impurity. These all were states of tamei, impurity. They weren’t permanent states, but ones that needed a priest to determine the condition, and prescribe some rituals that would bring the individual back into a state of tahor, purity, after an offering and some time outside the camp.

So here’s the thing. It’s really hard for an older, non-Bat Mitzvah Aries to find meaning in this parasha. The one thing that kept going through my head, though, in reading it over and over, was this idea of being comfortable of being one’s skin.

It would have been extremely uncomfortable to have been diagnosed like that in public. The offering of expiation would have been public. He or she would have been banished from the camp, and wouldn’t have come back in until a certain amount of time had passed, clothes had been laundered, and bathing had occurred. Then the priest would have had to pass judgment again. Few in that situation would have been “comfortable in their own skin” at that point.

Confidence may be a common aspiration, but how many of us really attain that kind of confidence? How many of us find most of our confidence in how we look? We check store windows as we walk by, on our way to a meeting. InStyle magazine reported a few years ago that Mint.com had determined women spend over $15,000 on makeup alone over the course of their lives. That’s a lot of foundation; foundation that is covering up skin imperfections, so all looks smooth and clear.

The most beautiful women in the world will find something wrong with their bodies. Successful, accomplished women will still find something wrong with their bodies. And I suppose men experience something like this too, but I can’t speak to that. Bullying, unrealistic expectations, the entire modeling, makeup, and fashion industry only reinforce this – it’s an old and well-documented story. I am as susceptible to it as anyone else is, especially as I get older. To be honest, buying makeup makes me feel like that Bat Mitzvah girl, reading Seventeen Magazine. But take a look at my makeup drawer, and there’s an awful lot of mascara in there.

If we can take any meaning from Tazria Metzora, perhaps it’s that feeling uncomfortable in one’s own skin is a temporary state. We don’t do the ritual offerings, we don’t have a priest publically declare our status, but we do allow those around us to do that. The priests knew that there was nothing unholy about the afflicted individual; that “impurity” was literally only skin deep. We know in our hearts that confidence goes far deeper. Tazria Metzora can help us remember that.

 

 

 

 

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Shemini: Chicken parmesan

chicken parmesam“These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hooves, with clefts through the hooves, and that chews the cud – such you may eat.” (Lev 11:3)

We started keeping kosher when our older children were in preschool. We were about to move to a new house, new kitchen, so we started with two new sets of dishes, silverware, pots and pans.  Why?  In Exodus we’re told “[not] to cook a lamb in its mother’s milk” (Ex 23:19, 34:26) From this,the Rabbis determined that we are not to mix meat and milk ingredients. Goodbye, cheeseburgers.

But it was also goodbye, chicken parmesan, and this is where the Leviticus text comes in. Meat comes from those land animals that have cleft hooves and chew their cud. They’re mammals. They have live births. The give milk to their young. And they’re mammals. None of those descriptions apply to chickens, yet here we are – no cheese on a chicken salad sandwich or ranch dressing on a salad with chicken. Chicken, as my husband calls it, is the “tuna of the land”, and should be pareve, and just like fish, it’s neither milk nor meat.

So when did chicken become meat? Well, clearly it’s not in the Torah, it’s after that. Rabbinic commentary. Naturally, it starts with a maklochet, a disagreement, a long time ago. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Yose lived in the second century BCE. Rabbi Akiba said chicken should be considered meat, and Rabbi Yose said it was pareve. Over the next couple of hundred years, as the Talmud was completed as commentary to the Torah, the majority opinion was that chicken was meat. By the 16th century, the Shulchan Aruch codified chicken as meat. Some of the reasoning was that “if you do X it could lead you to do Y” that is, the “fence around the Torah” argument. Chicken looks like meat, so if you eat it with cheese, who knows – you may make that mistake with steak next. Some say that in the ancient world, meat was pretty rare, and only served at special occasions, like Shabbat. Chicken was seen as a secondary meat, and therefore was to be separated from dairy.

I know there’s nothing wrong with bacon. Pork isn’t unhealthy, and eating meat and milk together is just fine for your digestion. That’s not why I keep kosher. I do it because it connects me across time and space to Jewish life, and it brings an element of intentionality and holiness to the very mundane act of eating, keeping me alive. At least, that’s what is still meaningful to me. But I admit, I’m really challenged by this chicken thing. I have issues with the “fence around the Torah” defense. The fence gets so far away from the law that you don’t even recognize it anymore, or you’re more worried about getting too close than you are about the law itself. Chicken (and turkeys) aren’t mammals, they’re not meat. They don’t have cleft hooves nor do they chew cud. They’re pareve. If logic applies at all (and let’s face it, kashrut defies logic), chicken Caesar salad should be fine. But thousands of years of tradition have a lot of weight, and it weighs on me. But it makes no sense.

I may start putting cheese on my chicken salad sandwich at some point. But not today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tzav: Action words

action wordsBeing a Priest (kohen) wasn’t for wimps.

It was a really difficult, physically demanding job. He takes ashes to the fire and back to the altar. He carries ashes outside the camp. He keeps the fire in the Tabernacle burning. He chops. He cleans. He slaughters. He handles large animals, wrestling them and lifting them and sprinkling their blood and carrying their carcasses. The holy space was smelly and smoky. He changes clothes throughout the day, so he can do his job, and he keeps track of everyone’s status between pure and impure, so he can bring them back to the state of purity. This week’s parasha, Tzav, details it all pretty clearly, and it’s almost exhausting to read.

Like I said, it wasn’t a job for wimps. This time of year doesn’t call for wimps, either. All I can do, or even think about, is cleaning , shopping, cooking, preparing for Passover, which begins in just a few days.

Judaism is often described as “a way of life.” It’s a verb-faith. We are a community of doing. We have a Torah of verbs. We have a history of action, both within our community and with the outside world. To be a Jew is to do Jewish. The late Reb Zalman Shachter Shalomi, founder of the Renewal denomination, used to ask, “How do you Jew?” How do you actively live a Jewish life, not just with protestations of faith or quiet, personal belief, but through doing. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is known for his statement that, while marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights fight, he was praying with his feet.

Did the Priestly verbs make them better priests? Do my verbs make for a better Pesach, or make me a “better Jew?” No. Simply no, not by the idea that if you follow a certain tradition, you’re a better Jew than someone who follows (or creates) different tradition. But in terms of taking action, then well, yes, because to “Jew is to do.” By sitting around a table, telling a story, dipping, eating, making sandwiches, washing, singing, and all the other Passover verbs – yes, you align yourself with both history and future.

Being a Jew isn’t for wimps, because it’s something that takes our engagement, our involvement, on a daily basis. The Priests may not be with us anymore, but their legacy is a life of action words.  To honor their legacy, it’s up to us to keep acting on our Jewish lives, acting in our Jewish lives.

Wishing you all a sweet (and active) Passover.

 

 

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