Tazria-Metzora: The cost of being Jewish

can you afford itTazria-Metzora – one of those parshiot (weekly Torah portions) that we either skip over or read with some sort of “yuk” factor interest. It’s all about skin diseases, impurities of the body and building (read the part about a home getting diseased), and isn’t very pleasing to read.

But something did catch my eye this time.

“If however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering.” (Lev 13:8) and later on we read, ”If however he is poor, and his means are insufficient…” (Lev 14:21), and then again,  “He shall then offer one of the turtledoves or pigeons, depending on his means, whichever he can afford, …” (Lev 14:31)

The instances for which these particular offerings are quite different – the first is for a woman who has just given birth, and the second and third for a skin condition, needing to be deemed “cleansed” by the priest. But both have a caveat of affordability. A lamb was more expensive to the individual than a pigeon, and in other cases we read that if even the pigeon is beyond one’s means, a simple flour/meal offering will suffice.

It’s expensive to be Jewish.

Well, that is, if you choose to “do” Jewish in a traditional way – separate dishes, bigger kitchens for storage of those dishes, buying only kosher products,  kosher meat, restricting errands to certain days (“but the sale ends on Saturday!”), membership, donations, and more and more.  Don’t get me started about day school. It shouldn’t be like this. Living an actively identified Jewish life shouldn’t make you feel like bankruptcy is around the corner, or that this is a club that’s only for the wealthy.

The Torah is telling us it shouldn’t be like this, either. The text is quite aware of taking one’s means into consideration when fulfilling a mitzvah, that it shouldn’t break the bank to be deemed “holy” or “acceptable” or even just part of the community.

Last month, as I stood in line at the kosher butcher to buy some food for Passover, the woman in front of me rang up a $1,000 bill for kosher meat. A thousand dollars. For a week’s worth of meat. I’ve heard this before from others, and it leaves me speechless. Far from judging what she serves her family, I’m more astounded at the expectations the community seems to have developed for what constitutes a proper observance of the holiday. I hope she’s got the money to spare; if so, good for her, but if not, I’m more concerned that she feels she has to over-extend to celebrate “the right way.”

I can’t control day school tuition, but I do know people are responding to the cost with their feet – lower enrollment. Our community, on a macro and micro level, needs to take long hard looks at the “cost” of being Jewish, and find the awareness that the Torah already has found. Inclusion in our community can’t be based on what you can afford.

 

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Shemini: Silence

This week, I received a wonderful dvar Torah on Shemini, and decided to share it with you. The Orot Center (Orot means “light”) is a wonderful new adult Jewish learning center, with a unique approach to learning. I’ve been studying for about 10 years with one of the founders, Jane Shapiro, and this piece is written by Rebecca Minkus Lieberman, another founder. Rebecca and Jane are remarkable thinkers, leaders, and teachers.  I hope you enjoy Rebecca’s take on one part of Shemini, when Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu die suddenly in the Tabernacle. Aaron’s response is….well, read on:

As I have gotten older, I have found myself craving – needing – more silence in my days.  When my children were younger and I was at home with them, I often yearned for breaks from the constant engagement and management of their needs, pains, demands. But I don’t think that it was silence that I needed then. Just brief respites, distractions from the full-time work of being ‘on’ with them and their urgent, noisy, needy lives. But now, I know that I need periods of silence each day. I am not speaking of meditation per se, but just silence. A cessation of the doing, the talking, the noise, the ever-growing chatter of matters that need attention and tending. On those days when I forget or neglect to find moments of silence, I’m guaranteed to be more snippy, less patient, less compassionate, less able to care for, attune to, and do for others.

I have found silence to be the simplest, yet most radical tool of opening my heart. Life-giving, actually. One I try to safeguard.

 In this week’s parasha, Shemini, we encounter the painful episode of the seemingly inexplicable killing of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. After the careful construction of the sacrificial system with all of its detailed laws and parameters, these two young men offer their own “esh zarah” – an ‘alien fire’ – an offering that seemed to be spontaneous, outside of the prescribed system of required and regulated offerings to God:

“And Nadab and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.”

 Every year, when we come to this parasha, this episode stops us short and raises so many difficult theological questions that plague our senses of morality and compassion.But Aaron’s response to the tragic death of his children in chapter 10, verse 3 is what I want to explore:

 “And Aaron was silent”

 The Torah does not often name peoples’ silence. Its explicit mention here is startling and important. And silence in the face of this horrible loss does not feel unusual. How else would one react to such unexpected pain and grief than with empty speechlessness? Words are inadequate at such a moment.

 The Hasidic Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Ressler ( 1740 – 1806) invites us to explore the silence of Aaron more deeply:

 “There are four levels of existence: the inanimate (domem), the vegetative, the animal, and the verbal (human).  Sometimes a person has to be on the inanimate level, as in “May my self be as dust” (Berachot 17a). Thus you do not feel the pain that another is causing you, or you do not question God’s actions… This is the sense of Aaron was silent – he brought himself to the inanimate state.

Rashi says that he received a reward for his silence: the Divine word chose to speak to him directly. By lowering himself from the verbal to the inanimate level, he allowed the silent shechinah to rise up to the level of speech.”

 This silent state – domem – that Aaron moved into was the base and foundation of his being, a return to his most elemental state, one before speech enters into one’s way of living. He contracted and retreated to this place, and as a result, his silence was ‘rewarded’: it opened a channel to the Divine. His stepping away from the world of speech allowed for God to step closer towards him. The silence created a pathway to be unlocked between Aaron and the Divine.

 In the Quaker tradition, silence is a prized and usual form of sacred coming-together.  And Heather McRae-Woolf, educator and writer, writes of her experience with the sacred silence of her Quaker practice:

 As a child in Quaker Meeting, I understood that we would sit together in silence and wait. We wait for a sense of the spirit that unites us. Some of us wait for more direct messages from God, while others simply wait for calm…But a silence where you interact with your thoughts is also a sacred act, a way of owning your interior being. Sometimes you need to wade through your thoughts in order to let them settle. My presence to myself, in all its detail, gives me a platform to recognize a unifying divinity, sometimes contained in mundane messages from other people…

We are all focused on becoming present to ourselves so that we can become present to others. Our daily world is a noisy, noisy place. There are times, when life hands us loss and pain, that we are plunged into places of unexpected silence, like Aaron – muted by sorrow and the inexplicable in human life. And there are times when we can intentionally turn towards silence. Make a permanent seat for it at our table. Spread its cloth over the movement of our lives. And perhaps it will unlock something new and unexpected in our hearts. Maybe it will allow us to see and feel in textures we had not known possible.

 Gunilla Norris, poet
 Within each of us there is a silence

—a silence as vast as a universe.

We are afraid of it…and we long for it.

When we experience that silence, we remember

who we are: creatures of the stars, created

from the cooling of this planet, created

from dust and gas, created

from the elements, created

from time and space…created

from silence.

In our present culture,

silence is something like an endangered species…

an endangered fundamental.

The experience of silence is now so rare

that we must cultivate it and treasure it.

This is especially true for shared silence.

Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act.

When we can stand aside from the usual and

perceive the fundamental, change begins to happen.

Our lives align with deeper values

and the lives of others are touched and influenced.

Silence brings us back to basics, to our senses,

to our selves. It locates us. Without that return

we can go so far away from our true natures

that we end up, quite literally, beside ourselves.

We live blindly and act thoughtlessly.

We endanger the delicate balance which sustains

our lives, our communities, and our planet.

Each of us can make a difference.

Politicians and visionaries will not return us

to the sacredness of life.

That will be done by ordinary men and women

who together or alone can say,

“Remember to breathe, remember to feel,

remember to care,

let us do this for our children and ourselves

and our children’s children.

Let us practice for life’s sake.”

 Shabbat Shalom.

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Shabbat HaGadol

Tzmished. If you say it outloud, it will sound like what it is. Confused. Turned around. that’s me right now, which is why some of you may have noticed that I posted a lovely Dvar Torah last week…on the wrong parasha. It wasn’t Tzav, it was Vayikra, the first parasha in the book of Leviticus. My apologies. Pre-Passover prep does that to me.

As you know, I almost always write about Torah portions. Well, this week there is a special Haftorah portion read, the chosen section from Prophets; a Haftorah is read every week along with the Torah portion. Usually, they’re linked somehow through theme, or even a word or two. The section we read this week is from Malachi, and there are a number of passages that remind us of Passover. We’re reminded of what it means to be in awe of God, and be aware of those who act opposite to God’s wishes: Who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said the Lord of Hosts. (Malachi 3:4 – emphasis mine.  Malachi isn’t talking about how many offerings we bring, he’s reminding us that it’s how we treat each other that makes an impact on God.

Later on, Malachi says the heralding of the “Day of Lord of Hosts” will bring Elijah to us: I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents…(Malachi 4:23-24) This passage is recalled at Seder, when we open the door for Elijah to come visit each home. My family always laughs at the idea of reconciling parents and children; truly, if that happens, it will be a Messianic age! But there’s a deeper message.

This year, as we sit around the table with friends, family, strangers, whoever you’ve gathered with, remember that how we treat each other – our children and parents, our spouses, our workers, and the most vulnerable of our society – this is what will improve our world, whether the Messiah comes or not, frankly. Our community needs every voice, every step, every vote, every phone call and email sent to those who swear falsely, cheat laborers, and subvert the cause of the widow, orphan, and stranger. Every year the Passover story, which moves us from oppression to freedom, resonates anew. It’s astounding, really, that such an old story can do that.

I leave you with the lyrics to a song from “Once on this Island”, (lyrics by Stephen Flaherty) which is enjoying a Broadway revival now:

Through the years
We tell the story
We tell the story
Life is why we tell the story
Pain is why we tell the story
Love is why we tell the story
Grief is why we tell the story
Hope is why we tell the story
Faith is why we tell the story

Hope and faith is certainly why we tell the story. May your Seder table be filled with sweetness, joy, loving faces, and a renewed purpose for why we tell the story.

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Tzav: Flexible Matza

matzahOf course, my brain is Pesach-oriented. Kitchen, cleaning, cooking, Seder, shopping, did I mention cleaning? So as I was looking at this week’s parasha, Tzav, I noticed something in the recipe section for the Priestly offerings.

Matzah.

Lev 6:9  “What is left of it shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons; it shall be eaten as unleavened cakes, in the sacred precinct; they shall eat it in the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting.” This is the ritual of the meal offering for the Priests. Some of the offerings the Priests aren’t allowed to eat, but this one is a meal offering.  “A handful of the choice flour and oil of the meal offering shall be taken..with all the frankincense that is on the meal offering, and this token portion shall be turned into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to Adonai” (Lev 6:8)

We think of matza as both the bread of affliction and the bread of hospitality. They seem to contradict each other; please come to my house and let me feed you poor slave bread?  And this Leviticus matza isn’t being eaten in a home. It’s in the Holy of Holies, in the Tent of Meeting, by the most elite of the Israelites, the Priests, not at my regular old dining room table.

There’s no mention of speed in Leviticus, either. The Priests have to wait until the seasoned meal offering’s token portion has burned up for God, and then they get the rest. It’s a really different setting from Passover – no speed baking or eating, no eating with girded loins, sandals on, ready to split, everyone in the community take some on their backs and GO!

The Priestly matza course happens after the Exodus, and we’re already in the wilderness. We’ve begun distinguishing our world.  We’ve already begun separating out the classes among the Israelites, delineating the Priestly class. We’re establishing holy places and spaces, holier people, holy time, holy behavior (when to leave the camp, do your laundry, purify, etc)

This is the genius of matza, I think. When we were slaves, it was poor slave food. When we had the promise of freedom, it was hopeful food. When we were wandering, it reminded the Priests that anyone had access to them, to the holiest of places, that even the poorest offering of slave-bread would get God’s attention, and is also good enough for the Priests to eat. To us, today, matza is the hospitality food, reminding us that all who are hungry should come in and eat, that our table is laden with the best we have to offer, and the simplest.  In fact, we “lead” with the simple food, the one staple that took us from slavery to freedom, and beyond.

 

 

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Tetzaveh: Like oil and water

oil and water.jpgIf Vayachel is the “Home Depot” parasha, which comes in a couple of weeks, then Tetzaveh is the “Project Runway” parasha. It’s all about Aaron and his sons, how they begin to don the clothing of the Priesthood.  A new class of people is being created in this parasha, the high priests, who will take on the tasks and responsibilities of the ritual life of the Israelites. This is a commandment for all time, and the details of the robes, hats, layers, accoutrements take up the entire parasha. No detail is too small, right down to the bells sewn into their robes, so all will know when they approach.

The priests are holy, separate, and they must prepare for their daily tasks with great care and attention to purity. Later in the Torah, we read a great deal about the use of water and its purification qualities. But water isn’t here, the rare gift of water in the wilderness is nowhere in the purifying process.

Instead, the priests are vested with blood and oil: “Slaughter the ram and take some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear and the ridges of his sons’ right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet….take some of the anointing oil and sprinkle upon Aaron and his vestments and also upon his sons and his sons’ vestments. Thus shall he and his vestments be holy, as well as his sons and his son’s vestments.” (Exodus 29:19-21)

Water is clear. Blood and oil are viscous, sticky. Water washes things away. Blood and oil seal and protect, like barriers. These liquids are indeed priestly protection from the sins of the people. This will be their job – to take on the mistakes of the people, and be in their stead before God. It’s a dangerous job. We read later just how dangerous it is, when two of Aaron’s sons are killed in the holiest place for their misdeeds. No one but Moses gets that close to God, and the priests’ place in the small Tabernacle, acting on the people’s behalf, is pretty risky.

What do we use to protect ourselves from dangers? Pick your metaphor – layers or walls –we figure out ways to keep pain out, but the obvious flip side is that those barriers keep joy from seeping in, too.  When do we need water and when do we need oil? When do we want to wash pain away and start anew, and when do we need protection and sealants?

Shabbat shalom.

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Terumah: Don’t need no fancy Mishkan

houston strongWow, just reading Terumah, this week’s parasha, you just can’t avoid the obvious: God told the Israelites to make one fancy place to store the tablets Moses brought down from the mountaintop. I mean, really fancy. Multi-colored clothes, fine linen, acacia wood, and of course, pure gold. People really dug in to find the finest of the fine materials with which to make this holy place. And it’s not just the tabernacle cover; it’s the lampstand, the cherubim, the cups….all of it.

Clearly, the Torah is telling us that there is a lot of store put into material items. Things matter. How we decorate and keep the Tabernacle isn’t just personal taste – it comes from God, ad it’s directed to the entire community. Material things matter.

This week, I was at the JFNA Professional Institute, a gathering of senior management of Jewish Federations from all over North America. It was held in Houston, TX. I arrived on behalf of Spertus, to expand our presence among the Federation community, and look for good matches for our various graduate degrees and certificates. It started out as a typical conference…until the first evening’s program.

We all boarded buses and drove to the Houston JCC. Remember what happened to Houston in late August, 2017? Well it happened with a vengeance to the neighborhood surrounding the Houston JCC. The Jewish community of Houston is largely centered in a 2 mile area of town. Situated along one of the bayous in the city, this area felt the full force of the hurricane. The JCC took in 10 feet of water. (Look at the room you’re in, now go up 10 feet on the walls, and imagine that room filled with dirty water. For days.) We heard from Houstonians, how they were affected by the storm, how they got the J up and running to help others who needed so much, even as their own homes were flooded out. Huge questions face the Jewish community there. How do you recreate a Jewish community when people aren’t sure they can stay in the area? Where do you rebuild what’s destroyed? Where do you place a new synagogue, if you have to? Where do you move if you’re used to being able to walk to shul? Do you stay, or pick a different end of town. The questions are endless.

The help that Houston received, and continues to receive, from  Jewish communities all over the world means so much to them, and day by day, they’re rebuilding, moving through, not past,  their deep and lasting trauma.That is one remarkable community, and every one of the people who were there have the same, yet so different, story. One woman compared it to Sinai – we were all there at the same event, yet we experienced it differently, together.

Another remarkable community was forged from slavery and created in the wilderness, and they received the instructions on how to make a Tabernacle worthy of its contents. Months before, slaves grabbed what they could and left in the middle of the night. Harvey victims faced a similar moment – what do you take? How much? What’s important, what gets left behind, destined to be destroyed? I’m struck by the contrast this week between the emphasis on the fanciest, finest materials for the Tabernacle, and the realization that material things are just that…things…when the waters rush in and the storm can’t be contained. Comfortable seats, lovely carpets, gorgeous windows are all gone. After the storm, the most humble of containers was good enough for the Torahs that were saved. Tubs of clothes grabbed in haste replaced beautiful closets. Paper cups became Kiddush cups.

We are inclined to make beautiful, holy places, and I’m sure the rebuilt synagogues of Houston will be lovely. But I’m not sure I will read the linen and gold of Terumah the same way ever again.

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Mishpatim: Do not tolerate the Sorcerer

jafar sorcererSit down, folks…I’m about to go political. This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, is just yelling right at me about the kind of society we live in, the kind we want to live in, the kind we can build if we have the right vision and leadership.

Jews are listmakers and do-ers. Torah tells us what to do, not only what to believe, and last week we got the mother of all lists: the Ten Commandments. But this week, we get the detailed list , and frankly, this one is almost more important than the other one. This is a bullet-point document of how to build a non-Egypt society. It’s not enough to say we’re not going back to being slaves in Egypt. No, Torah is saying here we’re not going to live anywhere like slaves ever again. We will treat humans with respect and dignity. We will not traffic people, or break up families, and we will assign cities of refuge, places where individuals on the run can feel safe from a vigilante mob. It’s all in there.

Mishpatim also sets out ways to protect society from other ills. “You shall not tolerate a sorceress” (Ex 22:17) Rashi (11th c France) says this applies to both men and women, though he personally feels it is a more common occurrence for women than men to take this role. Ok, Rashi. But Ramban (13th c Spain) goes further. He says the society cannot tolerate a sorceress because she is (quoting Ezekial here) “besmirched of name and laden with iniquity”, and that fools are easily lured after her.

There are plenty of ways of describing the head of the current administration, but that works for me – besmirched of name, laden with iniquity and fools are easily lured to follow him. And Torah tells us not to tolerate someone like that in our midst. Granted, the text identifies this as a capital offense, for which the sorcer/ess must be put to death. I am not advocating that at all. But I do believe the Torah is telling us to pay attention to those in our society that promise magical endings to problems we face, that with the wave of a hand, all our troubles will cease, if only we put our faith in him. It’s too easy to be swayed and fooled by promises like that, lies that are told, and Torah is telling us to stay ever vigilant against those that come forward in that vein.

We would do well to study Mishpatim as deeply as we study Yitro, when the Ten Commandments are given. Those broad-brush guidelines for how to live a just and righteous life are great, but the nitty-gritty, what-if situations of Mishpatim are of greater value…indeed, they present the Jewish values that weave through our lives: Human dignity and respect, how to treat the vulnerable of our society, how we treat the land we depend upon for our sustenance, and even the animals in our keeping.

I will not tolerate this sorcerer in our midst. Ever vigilant, always resisting.

 

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