Ki Tetzei: Moses and Gene Kelly

dignity Gene KellyRemember at the beginning of Singin in the Rain, when Gene Kelly is recalling how he got started in show business? With Donald O’Conner by his side, he says, with a straight face, that the bywords of his life were, “Dignity.  Always dignity.”

Moses is still trying to get the last words in, with this week’s parasha, “Ki Tetse” , making sure the people get it.  There are only three parshiot (portions) left in the whole Torah, and one of them is after Moses dies, so he really is down to the wire here.

Laws and instructions come tumbling out in no particular order.  It’s like a braindump, and Moses is just all over the place – things to do/not do with the Land. Things to/not do with virgins, how to build port-a-potties outside the camp, what to do if you find your neighbor’s ox wandering around your yard. (Hint:  get it back to the owner, but take care of it in the meantime.)

And so we come to the dignity, always dignity:  “When you make a loan of any sort to your countryman, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge.  You must remain outside, while the man to whom you made the loan brings the pledge to you.  If he is a needy man, you shall not go to sleep in his pledge; you must return the pledge to him at sundown… shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger…you must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it…”  (Deut. 24:  10-15)

When you loan someone money, you must respect the dignity of the recipient.  Don’t come into his home to collect; for as Abarbanel  (15thc Portugal) says, “For you would embarrass him by seeing his impoverished situation. Moreover, if he weren’t home, you could be alone with his wife, and either start a quarrel with her, or tarnish her reputation.”  Wait outside and conduct business in public, like respectable men.

If you take a cloak for a collateral, give it back at night- don’t literally strip him of his clothes waiting for payment.  And for God’s sake…literally…, if you hire someone, whether Jewish or not, pay wages on time.  He depends on it, or as Rashi (11th c France) translates, “he carries his life on it.”

Dignity, always dignity.  The daily transactions of life carry with them opportunities to infuse them with holiness and acknowledgement of God’s creation – humanity.  We humans are a most unique creation, and the only one identified as having been made in God’s image.  Torah is telling us to treat each other, no matter the economic conditions, with dignity. Pay a decent wage, and pay it on time.  Don’t humiliate the one who owes you money. This is fundamental to honoring and respecting the inherent dignity in each other.  There will always be an element in society that is needy or vulnerable.  “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer.” The way we treat the neediest among us tells a lot about our society.  With these words in our hearts, how do we assess the righteousness of our society?  Apply these words to fair wage, foreclosures, protecting day laborers from harm, lack of jobs, policies that keep people in poverty, and more.

So that the vulnerable won’t “cry to Adonai against [us] and [we] will incur guilt”, dignity must be our guiding premise.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Shofetim: Faith and Law

scales of justice“When he [the King]  is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll….let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere Adonai his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching…” (Deut. 17:18-19)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  (First Amendment Constitution of the United States of America)

This week’s parasha is Shofetim, one in which the judicial system is laid out for the Israelites, once they get into the Land.  Other things are covered, including what to do with false prophets, ethical warfare, (one of my favorite texts, which I’ll address maybe next year at this time….mark it down) and what to do with the Levite Priests and land holdings.

But this snapshot of a King with a copy of the Teaching by his side struck me as remarkably pertinent in light of the upcoming primaries and elections next year.  So many people this year (ok, mostly Christian men) of faith keep proclaiming the depth of their beliefs, and that this makes them the best candidate for office. They speak of changes they’ll make in the law based on their personal faith system.  And doesn’t the text from Shofetim back that up?  It seems to say that the King should have the Torah by his side, that is, the State shall be ruled through the lens of Faith.  Doesn’t that conflict with the idea of the First Amendment?

No.  Not if you look at both texts carefully. First of all, God isn’t too happy about setting up a King inside the Land anyway.  God feels that the Torah should be good enough.  But, if the people want to be like other nations, and they really want to set up their society with a King, well then, ok, but God has some suggestions.  The Torah text says that the King/Ruler/President/Prime Minister should have a copy of the Law beside him.  He reads it, keeps his faith in God, and observes the Law personally.  If, indeed, one is ruling from within a theocracy, then this would suggest that laws for society and laws within a faith group are one and the same.  The holy texts dictate secular law – or rather, there is no such thing as secular law.   But theocracies don’t work – never have – and we are not a theocracy.  Here, in a multi-cultural, multi-faith (even no faith) society, we make a distinction between faith and law.  Faith guides your personal life, and helps you make decisions about your behavior, but law is determined separately.  This is where the First Amendment comes in:  government doesn’t establish religion.  Government doesn’t legislate from faith.

This is a very nuanced distinction, but one that is so crucial, so important, and so hard to keep in our sights. I can hear you thinking, “Well, Anita….what’s the difference between relying on your faith to pass moral, ethical laws, and having your faith dictate law?”  Like I said, it’s nuanced.  But if the laws you want to pass stem from a point of view that excludes people, or makes one group dictate behavior to another, well then, my guess is it has crossed the line to legislating faith.

I think about this every time I read this passage, because it usually comes around an election (or gearing up for one!)  At the very least, it should make us think carefully about where and how our laws are being developed in this country.

This is a very nuanced distinction, but one that is so crucial, so important, and so hard to keep in our sights. I can hear you thinking, “Well, Anita….what’s the difference between relying on your faith to pass moral, ethical laws, and having your faith dictate law?”  Like I said, it’s nuanced.  But if the laws you want to pass stem from a point of view that excludes people, or makes one group dictate behavior to another, well then, my guess is it has crossed the line to legislating faith.

I think about this every time I read this passage, because it usually comes around an election (or gearing up for one!)  At the very least, it should make us think carefully about where and how our laws are being developed in this country.

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Re’eh: Blessings and Curses

Hello, again.

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  I sort of dropped out for a while, stopped writing weekly, stopped blogging, stopped writing anything but my paid monthly column in the Chicago JUF News.  I’m sorry I didn’t make some sort of announcement, because I really didn’t think it would be this long. I just….stopped.  It was one week.  then it was another week.  And now it’s been months.  You all know how much I love struggling with the text.  Well, I was struggling with other things, and the text was just one more.  So, I didn’t write.  It got easier to let each week go by, and like that late thank you note that gets later because you’re embarrassed at how much time has passed, you still don’t write it.

Things are better now.  The family that needed to get healthier seems to have done so, though I am at a new level of hyper-vigilance and amazed, sometimes, at my ability to make little boxes inside my head and heart.  I open and close them when needed, not letting an open box spill over into what I have to get done in another box.

So, here we are at Re’eh, a week or so away from the beginning of Elul, and a month from the beginning of the New Year.  Re’eh says, “I put before you a blessing and a curse.”  (Deut. 11:26).  Moses reminds the people that if they follow God’s Instructions, they will be blessed, and if they turn away from the path, they won’t.  Moses is talking about when they get into the Land, where Moses knows he won’t be going, so he has to spend  a lot of time (all of Deuteronomy, pretty much) getting last words in.

Re’eh also lays out the three major festivals of the Jewish year, plus the Shemita year, when every seventh year is one where we “practice the remission of debts” (Deut 15:1) so that there will be no needy among the people.  The Shmita is supposed to make sure no one in the community is mired in debt.  And, in true Torah form, after stating the ideal, we read of the reality.  “However, if there is a needy person among you….” (Deut 15:7)  Things don’t always go as we hope.

Moses recaps how to celebrate Passover, how to observe the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot).   These are times of blessings, of remembering, of honoring and acknowledging.  We honor and remember our release from slavery with Pesach.   On Shavuot, we celebrate our march to freedom, to Sinai, to receive the Torah, and the whole community gathers; no one is left out.  And on Sukkot, we remember the wandering, the journey from Torah to the Land.  It wasn’t an easy path; we struggled and fought and battled and lost people along the way, and those moments are harder to honor, and struggle to find the blessings in them.

I think it will take me a while to get back in the swing of things – regularly diving back into the text and sharing my insights, such as they are, re-opening one of those boxes in my head that has been closed for a while.   I’m not sure how many of you even noticed I hadn’t been writing.  For those who did, and wondered……thank you for noticing.

There are times to welcome the blessings and times to ride out the curses. I’ve been doing both.  Let’s ride into the New Year together now.

Shabbat shalom.

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Emor: Who owns your calendar?

M9i4xbxcEI have a sign above the calendar in the kitchen:  If you haven’t written it down, you haven’t told me.  I live by a calendar.  I have to; it was my job (sometimes I think it still is!) to keep track of what everyone was doing, where everyone had to be, and how they were to get there.

The calendar is color-coded on the wall and in my phone, and it’s crucial.

The parasha of Emor is like my calendar.  Well, it is a calendar, actually, and it is crucial.  It’s the entire year in one parasha of the Torah.  If you had to have only a handful of parshiot that defines and forms the Jewish people, I’d say Emor would be one of them, specifically Chapter 23.    First comes Shabbat.  It is the template for all other holidays.  Then, in quick succession, we read about Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and finally Sukkot.

The calendar in my kitchen has kept our family literally on the same page for years, which makes sense because, after all, if you’re going to keep a group of people connected, whether they’re wandering or settled, give them their own calendar.  That will keep them communicating, to be sure.  This works for a family and an entire people.

And, like the sign in my kitchen, since it’s written down, it has been told to the calendar-keeper, it will happen.  Yet there is one big difference between the family schedule and the Jewish people’s calendar as laid out in Emor.  In the family, we chose which activities to do, and decided which ones to write down.  They don’t happen without our actively making them happen.

Not so with the calendar in Emor.  These days – Shabbat, the holidays all around the year – they will happen of their own accord.  Each seventh day it is Shabbat.  Each 14th day of the first month it will be Passover, and seven weeks after that, it will be Shavuot.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will come around when that seventh month begins.  They happen because the Torah is set up that way; it’s calculated to the harvests, it’s calculated to the rhythm of the seasons.  Ballet lessons aren’t like that.

Yes, the special days will happen as the year goes by, but it is our choice to take note of them, to be a part of them.  Especially now, since most of us don’t live on the land, it is harder to feel the rhythm of those sheaves of grain and offerings of fruit and fire.  But each one is an opportunity to connect, to keep feeling the pulse of an entire people through time and across space. We have to make a conscious choice to do so. The river of time that flows around us calls us to take note.

Last month, one of my daughters couldn’t make it home for Passover.  For the first time, she was far away, and for the first time, she held her own Seder.  I sent her recipes and care packages, of course, but the rhythm of the evening was set deep and unique within her.  In her own style, it was a great success. Here was an opportunity she could have passed up, but she intentionally stepped into the river, and touched the moment. She owned the calendar.

When you’re a child, someone else owns the calendar.  As an adult, you own it.  Shabbat and the other marked-off days will happen whether you engage with them or not.   So bring them alive – choose to join in –take note – step into that river of time, and celebrate.

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Acharei Mot: Live

Acharei Mot, this week’s parasha, has a whole lot in it, and a lot of it is sex, sex, and more sex.  Who you can, but mostly who you can’t.

But that’s not what drew my attention this week.  It’s this:  “Adonai spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:  I am Adonai your God, You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan, to which I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws….You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am Adonai” (Lev. 18:1-5) This comes after many verses about Yom Kippur, and before all those verses about sex.

What does it mean, “by which man shall live”?  Surely, people were living in Egypt, living in Canaan, people who didn’t follow these commandments were living all over.  Ramban (13th c Spain) says the purpose of the rules is so that people can live peacefully together, both as individuals and as nations, without killing and harming one another.

People are killing and harming each other a lot these days, in all parts of the world.  It’s not because they’re not Jews, either.  It’s happening by Jews, to Jews; don’t think “we” are immune, but that’s for another piece.  What is it about these particular laws that, if followed, will keep people from killing and harming one another, so much so that God underlines it all with the “I am Adonai” line?

Part of it, I think, is the sex thing.  That is, Leviticus has been all about boundaries, distinctions, and making sure you don’t cross those boundaries or miss those distinctions.  The sexual boundaries that keep one a man from “uncovering the nakedness” of one’s mother, sister, aunt, granddaughter, sister-in-law are crucial for family stability.

But it’s more about dignity, acknowledging human dignity.  I am specifically NOT talking about 18:22, because I do not believe for one minute this verse in any way says homosexuality is wrong. For one interesting take on this, see Coffee Shop Rabbi’s blog: or this excellent piece by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi,

The rules prior to this Chapter 18 text deal with being able to tell when things have gone wrong, when things in the community need to be fixed through atonement and intention.  Notice THIS.  Fix THIS.  Pay attention and make it right.

These rules to make sure you are living in a fair and just society, because, as Ramban states, that’s really what these rules are for.  Create a society in which the poor and vulnerable are cared for, and the boundaries that protect individual dignity are clear.  Those kinds of relationships/families/communities/nations/world can indeed be built or harmed by forgetting about individual dignity.  Know what is supportive of human dignity, that which honors being made in God’s image, and do that.  Always choose that.

The language of Chapter 18 of Leviticus changes; the tone changes, saying, “Stop and listen up!”  What’s important is living in peace so you can acknowledge the beauty and blessings around you.  Psalm 115 says, “The dead do not praise God.”  So, live in a way that will do just that.

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Tazria Metzora: A good friend and wine

glass of wineNobody likes Tazria Metzora.  It’s all about dead animals and dead skin, eruptions and discolorations.  It’s not a pretty parasha.   There’s this hard-to-fathom concept of being unclean and malignant eruptions that a priest has to come and observe, and then proscribe how to get rid of such uncleanliness.  It doesn’t sit right with our sensibilities and sensitivities.

The text makes a distinction (and Leviticus, as noted previously is all about distinctions) between being “touched” by a demon and being cursed, and being in an impure state.  That is, people in Leviticus are described as “tamei” (tough translation, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s call it impure), but they’re not contagious, or haven’t been invaded by evil spirits.  They are merely in an impure state, and there are ways to change status to “tahor” (pure).  It usually involves the priest identifying the problem, and telling the individual to go outside the camp, wash bodies and clothes, and stay separate for a while.  The actual core of the person, their soul, their essence, isn’t forever contaminated.  They’ve just entered a state of tamei, and they can come back from that, back into the camp.  It’s not a fatal diagnosis, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what kind of person s/he is.  You can be a really good guy, and still go through periods of “tamei-ness”; you just have to come out of it.

Souls are not tamei or tahor, but psychological or emotional states certainly are, even if the body is healthy.  We can go around with a tainted perspective, a foul mood, an impure psychological state of mind.  How does Tazria/Metzora speak to us in that way?

Well, I guess (and yes, it’s me, because I’m in a particularly irritated state of mind as I write this) it’s good to know that I don’t have to live in this mind-state. We’ve all been there, the typical bad mood vs. true psychological or emotional instability.  That’s something completely different.  But for the regular old “I’m irritated and annoyed and I’m walking around with a frown”, we can do the equivalent of the priestly RX:  take a shower, change clothes and be alone for a while till we cool down.   It’s good to know, that, like the physical balance swing between tamei and tahor, the normal psychological swing doesn’t reflect who we are essentially, either.  We can be in a tamei state of mind, and then become tahor again.  Instead of priests, we have therapists who will guide us back to health.   Or really good friends, who bring wine.

Hmm.  Wonder why the priests didn’t think of that?

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Sh’mini: Creation in Leviticus?

pig lobster clipartThink about the fact that the Torah was originally a heard, not read, set of stories and instructions.  Good storytellers use all sorts of techniques to make sure their stories are remembered and retold.  One of those ways is a short of shorthand, references that remind their audiences about other stories – the ones they’ve heard a lot.  These are tropes in the minds of the audience, and when you read….or rather, hear Torah with that in mind, interesting things come to light.

I can’t take full credit for this one;  you know I have my Tuesday Torah group, and we came up with some pretty remarkable stuff when we were studying Shemini, this week’s parasha.

Starting with Chapter 11 of Leviticus, we read all about the laws of Kashrut – what’s kosher, what’s not.  The detail is incredible; characteristics of mammals, water creatures, “winged, swarming creatures”.  We are not to eat animals that have died on their own or been killed by other animals.  These are impure, and will make those who partake of these foods impure.  In fact, even the vessels that hold impure food become impure.

Torah categorizes, and so do we.  God puts forth the overriding principles of the entire book of Leviticus:  distinctions and discernments. Leviticus is constantly making distinctions between things, telling the difference between others, making lists and more lists.

Just like Genesis – just like Creation. Day by day, one day at a time, in a very specific order, the world came into being.  The world was populated by lists of animals.  Like this section of Leviticus, Creation is a highly structured tale, and I would think the storytellers would know their audience would recognize the similarities.  Both tales contain instructions on what to do, and what not to do – does a particular tree in the Garden come to mind?

Genesis ordered our world; Leviticus orders our community.  It gives us a way to live in a holy way, for what else is holiness if not making distinctions?  We distinguish between what is pure and impure, what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.  And the only way to make distinctions and make choices is to be aware.  We have to be present.  We have to be intentional.  We need to pay attention.  God wanted us to pay attention to what’s in the world, what’s around us, right from the beginning, starting with permissible food in the Garden.  Now, in Leviticus, we also have to pay attention to the world, too, what is permissible food and what isn’t.  But this time, the distinctions keep us apart, as a community.  We don’t eat what the other folks eat.

The laws of Kashrut teach us how to live – how to survive, actually, literally by what goes into our boies to keep us alive –with intention and discernment.  Some may keep a more traditional kosher, or eco-kosher, or eat differently at home and away, or stay away from ham sandwiches, or not consider kashrut at all.   The point is, in a Leviticus way, through a Jewish lens, there are foods chosen and foods avoided.  At our core as a community, we are told to pay attention.

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