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: http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/2015/04/30/does-leviticus-18-forbid-same-sex-marriage/ or this excellent piece by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi, http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2004/05/rereading_levit.html

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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Passover Shabbat: Carving our own tablets

10-commandments-blockTake two.  Tablets, that is.

This weekend we take a moment out of the regular Shabbat cycle, which puts us in Leviticus, and instead we move back to Exodus 33/34.  In and among the verses is the connection to Passover, “  You shall observe the Feast of the Unleavened Bread….” (34:18)  But before that we read about another set of tablets – the second ones Moses brings down from the Mountain.  You remember what happened to the first set, right?  Moses came down the mountain with this brand spanking new set of tablets, written by the finger of God, with the ten “Dibrot” – “utterances” which would form the basis for all of Torah.  But when Moses came down to share these words with the Israelites, he found them dancing around a Golden Calf.  Moses smashed those tablets and went back up the mountain.

There are two interesting differences between the first and second time Moses comes down the mountain. First, the Torah is specific about saying that Moses carved this new set, not God.  They may have looked the same, and had the same words written on them, but this time, Moses had to make them himself.  “So Moses carved two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning, he went up on Mount Sinai as Adonai had commanded him.” (Ex 34:4)  The second difference is that God came down with Moses the second time, “Adonai came down in a cloud; God stood with him there…” (Ex 34:5) unlike the first time when Moses came down the mountain alone.

What to make of these differences?  In between the two, the people committed a huge mistake, convincing Aaron to build the Golden Calf.  They stopped believing in God’s constant presence and turned away.  Moses was able to talk God out of destroying the whole community, but just barely.  This is probably the lowest point of the relationship between God and the people.  There were consequences.

By having Moses write the tablets, God was putting distance between God-self and the people.  And there was a level of responsibility that Moses had to accept in leaving the people so vulnerable.  So, he had to carve the tablets himself.  But he wasn’t alone, and God wasn’t out of the picture completely.  God stood by Moses when he needed that presence, as he stood in front of the people and pled for their lives.  It was time to regroup after the catastrophe, and God was able to reassure Moses, and in turn, the people, that God wasn’t abandoning them.

When we mess up really, really badly, we not only have to accept responsibility, but we have to be the ones to fix it. We need to carve those tablets ourselves and stand in front of everyone to make it better.  Even at the lowest point in our most important relationships, Torah teaches us that there’s a way to fix it, if we want to.  it’s important to know that we won’t be alone.  That which gives us strength, whether it’s faith or community or something else, will help us rebuild.  We take into our hearts our utterances, the ones that will guide us through our lives.  We may carry the Divine broken pieces with us, but the human ones we carve ourselves are the ones that last.

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Pesach 5775 – our history and our future

seder_plate_orange

It’s hours before Seder, and I’m finally getting to this page.  Apologies, but it’s been a long week, preparation, cooking, cleaning, and oh yes, cooking.

Still I wanted to take a few minutes to put some thoughts down.  This year, we have almost all adults at the table (ok, one 2 year old), and it got me thinking about the afikomen…how do we address the afikomen as adults?

Rather than hiding and finding, presents and such, I started thinking about brokenness – and how to mend.  What keeps us broken?  What do we need to heal?  What do we need to mend and be whole, so we can continue on with our meal and our lives?

I think there is a lot of brokenness in the world  Our community is ripped apart – it was most evident throughout this last election season in Israel.  And again with the Iranian negotiations. And again as elections come here within the year.

Is it always about politics?

Well, I guess it’s because they reflect our values and how we act on them.  But at least for now, at least for tonight, let us find our redemption story one that joins us together.  Let our voices cry out against oppression and slavery as they did so long ago.  Our cries reached God’s ears – may they do so again.

Let our voices sing the words of praise and gratitude for our good fortune, and awareness for those who have less.

Let our voices rejoice at our blessings.  Let our hearts and our tables be filled with the faces of those we love.  Let us begin our journey to Sinai together, marching out into our own wilderness, hoping to find the way.

What other story lends itself to such meaning and layers?  It is both our history and our future.

Chag sameach – Happy and Sweet Passover to us all.

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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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