parashat Emor 5773, and 32nd Day of the Omer

This week’s parashat hashavua is called Emor, “speak”. As in, “G-d said to Moshe, speak to the children of Israel and say to them….” – a not-uncommon idea in the four books of the Torah in which Moshe is a primary figure. In this case, however, G-d is telling Moshe to speak to a particular subset of the children of Israel: in this case, it is the children of Aaron who are to be addressed, they who serve as kohanim, priests. What follows is a guide to priestly behavior, which might be summed up with the idea that the kohen is to hold himself to a higher standard than the average Israelite. (Remember the old Hebrew National hotdog tagline? “we answer to a higher authority.”)

It’s still true that most of us expect our priests – and ministers and rabbis, and all religious figures – to adhere to a higher standard than we might expect from other people. Yet when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., causing the end of the Jerusalem-based priesthood and its sacrificial system, our ancestors did something very interesting in response. Rather than to lose the concept of the priesthood and all it symbolizes for Jews, rather than simply to give in to the destruction, the early Rabbis invoked a verse from Torah:

You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy people. (Ex.19.6)

All of us can be as priests. The priesthood was no more; but each of us could hold ourselves to a priestly standard. The table upon which we set offerings for G-d was destroyed? then each of our own tables, in every one of our own homes, would become G-d’s table. Even as the kohanim would spiritually prepare themselves to eat the sacred food which came from the sacrifices, so we would, through specific rituals, spiritually prepare ourselves to share a sacred meal. Blessings over candles, wine and bread are Rabbinic mitzvot, which created a way for Jews to continue to focus upon the real meaning of the sacrifices once brought to G-d in Jerusalem.

That real meaning is this: outer forms of ritual and practice are important because they focus us on what is true, and real, in our lives. And what is true is that each of us stands before G-d, with no kohen to mediate from a higher spiritual position. What brings us higher is our own determination to keep the rituals relevant to us, to keep the practices so that they can keep us.

More than Israel has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel. (Ahad Ha’Am)

On this Shabbat, remember that no one stands between you and G-d; no one is higher than the place to which you might rise. And this rising depends upon things that are already before you: the table and what is upon it, and what happens between those who share it. And the most important priestly act of all, the one that each of us must do for ourselves and each other? Now that the altar in the Temple is destroyed, keep something of the fire that once burned there upon the altar of your heart.

Parashat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: Reason to Live

This week we read a doubled parasha, just as we did last week. The words that provide the title of the first parashah are Akharei Mot – “after the death”. The words refer to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s two sons who died suddenly, without warning, tragically, only a few verses of Torah ago. The second parashah is named Kedoshim – “holy ones”, taken from
You shall be holy as I HaShem your G-d am holy. (VaYikra 19.2).
Earlier this week I studied these verses with some students preparing to be called to the Torah as a bat or bar mitzvah. 
We looked closely at the verses following the command “be holy”. Just as the command of the Shema to love G-d is followed by the description of how to fulfill that mitzvah, so it is here: the command to be holy is followed by specific acts that make a Jew holy, verse by verse (these are verses 3-8):
Be in awe of your parents
Keep Shabbat
Don’t make other things into G-d
When you offer a sacrifice, make sure it is acceptable
Treat the sacrificial food with respect
If you act cynically toward it, you will be cut off from your people.
The students understood the underlying concept quickly: in Jewish terms, to be holy is to be dedicated to a certain distinct way of life – and that way of life demands self-respect, as well as respect toward the way of life and those who convey it (even one’s parents!). The most interesting part was the last verse: G-d does not cut someone off for disobedience. Rather, the lack of respect, of the capacity for awe and dedication, causes a person to be cut off by his or her own lack of ability to connect. That lack may be because of an inner barrier, or simply a lack of a good role model. 
The punishment for distancing oneself from one’s distinctive people and their practices is precisely that: distance, from a community that offers meaning, safety, and welcome to those who give themselves to it. The reward is the support one receives from linking one’s destiny to that of our people, with its fantastic history and deep sense of committed community.
These children, these students of Torah, with their clarity of vision and sincerity, give us hope. The worst nightmare of all is that of Nadav and Abihu- children dead, suddenly and tragically, in Syria, in Afghanistan, or in Boston. The juxtaposition of these two parshas bids us to take comfort in the promise that all children carry: that if we are open, they will remind us to live in holiness, which is to say in the belief that dedication to our Jewish ideal of standing in awe before G-d in the midst of a meaningful community is possible. Indeed, that belief is what will redeem us all.

parashat Tazria-Metzora: Jews At Our Best Are Women

The opening of this week’s double parashat hashavua, linking Tazria and Metzora, begins with a passage which is often understood as negative, even misogynist. A woman giving birth goes into seclusion: “she shall be impure” for a time, and then her period of “blood purification” will continue for thirty-three days upon the birth of a boy, and sixty-six upon a girl’s birth. Why twice the amount of time for a girl? What’s all this about being impure anyway?
It’s not the first time that our Western approach and its assumptions may make it difficult to consider other possibilities. But when we look carefully at the text, other interpretations offer themselves for consideration. And they are not just modern, liberal interpretations. 
First, one must look closely at the text. The parashah begins with the words: Ishah ki tazria v’yaldah zakhar, “A woman who conceives and gives birth to a male child” (VaYikra, Leviticus, 12:2). 
There is a challenge to our understanding here, since the word tazria actually means “she gives seed” (a verb you might think is applicable only to a man!). In classic Jewish commentary it is not dreamed of, that we might suggest that the Torah’s words are wrong, or that there could be a “typo” in the ancient scriptures. The most traditional of commentaries cannot avoid the plain sense of the text; it must be recognized. It says that a woman “gives seed”. What does that mean?
The Talmud, the ancient source and inspiration of all Jewish law, suggests: “If the woman gives seed first, she gives birth to a male; if the man gives seed first, she gives birth to a female.” (Talmud, Niddah 31a).
Now, never mind the questionable knowledge of biology: note the assumption of an absolute parity of roles. For our ancestors, there was no reason not to draw the conclusion that women and men are equally significant in their reproductive roles. This does not mean that the roles are similar, they are different: only a woman can give birth. And often, although women are as important as men in every aspect of our lives, humans create hierarchies through the differences we observe. Somehow, sometimes (even though you might think that a life-giving uterus would be a trump card!) women are seen as secondary in aspects of Jewish life, even handicapped.
But another commentary points out that, if you look at it another way, all Jews are women, in our relationship with G-d. The commentary Torah Or (“Torah is light”) asserts that “it is known that the community of Israel is called the ‘woman’ and G-d is called the ‘man’,”
…as it is written: “On that day, you shall call Me ‘husband'” (Hoshea 2:18). So just as in the case of a human man and woman, when “the woman gives seed first she give birth to a male,” so it is, by way of analogy, in the relationship between the community of Israel and G-d. When the “woman”–the community of Israel – “gives seed first first,” – when we produce an arousal below which only then evokes an arousal from Above, then the love that is born from this is a “male” offspring.
The “arousal from below” is when we, on our own initiative, “rouse” ourselves to do the mitzvot, without needing a “push” from G-dThis is a higher level of Jewish behavior, certainly more mature: the moment when we don’t wait to be told what to do, but ask ourselves “what is the mitzvah that needs doing here?” We cannot simply trust in G-d; we ourselves must sow the seeds of potential tikkun, healing, in the world. To be a woman in the eyes of G-d is to become our highest spiritual selves.
But what is a “male” offspring? The word for “male” in Hebrew is zakhar (back to our Torah verse here); but the word zakhar can also mean “memory”. Consider the possibility of this interpretation: that it is when we take the initiative and take the first step toward mitzvot  ourselves, that we draw near to that which we must remember. Remember that you are created in the Divine Image, remember that you stood at Sinai, and remember that each of us is equally valuable, equally necessary, in the work of all we are commanded by our masoret, the tradition of Israel. First among equals in our traditional obligations is zakhor – remember.
And it is only when the Jew acts as a woman in the sight of G-d that are we able to engender that “male offspring”. Both are necessary, and there must be an equal place for both. But we are not the same – Thank G-d, Creator of many diverse creations. 

parashat Shemini: Tragedy

In parashat Shemini, the Jewish world’s Torah reading for this week, the long process of building the first Jewish sanctuary – the mishkan – is completed, the priests – Aaron and his four sons – are ordained, the mishkan is dedicated, and the first sacrifices are finally being brought. The Israelites are thrilled to see the work of the entire community brought to a gratifyingly successful conclusion.
Then, inexplicably, in the middle of the celebration of the awesome Presence of G-d, two of Aaron’s sons are killed. 
Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense on it,
and offered strange fire before G-d, which had not been commanded.
And fire went out from G-d and devoured them, and they died there before G-d. (Lev.10.1-2)
They had just started out as consecrated kohanim, they had just started to serve – the purpose of their lives had just begun. The Israelites are horrified, and Aaron is silent, distraught. And we are left trying to make sense of it.
As usual in human situations, some of us look to blame Nadav and Avihu: they must have done something wrong, they must have deserved it. One commentary seeks meaning in the juxtaposition of a nearby prohibition against drinking wine while serving as a kohen, just a few verses later (Lev. 10.9). The two must have been drunk. Another interpreter argues that the text does not indicate that they “consulted with each other – as it is written, each with his own fire-pan – each acted on his own, individually.” (Vayikra Rabbah 20). Therefore, the transgression was in acting without coordination, perhaps, or without communication, or simply on personal initiative, without being commanded.
But there are other interpretations, such as in the ancient midrashic collection called Sifra: “In their joy, as soon as they saw the new fire, stood forth to heap love onto their love”. They came too close to the fiery Presence of G-d out of a desire to be that close. Jewish mysticism is full of a similar longing, and informed by a similar knowledge that to come too close is dangerous. That is why attempting a mystical experience, or even studying the mystical texts, is traditionally forbidden except to one who has a mature, deeply knowledgeable and thoughtful understanding of Jewish teachings and practice.
Yet, for some, there is a longing for that experience; it is so attractive, and can be so dangerous. Perhaps it is what some feel when hiking to the top of a remote and forbidding cliff; others love to sail the open ocean in a small boat, and feel most at one with the world there. 
The Sages of our tradition urged us to seek out that fire, if we must, carefully; to learn to be satisfied with a careful distance from it, and to protect ourselves with study, and with teachers, if we would come into proximity with it. I have more than once been asked by someone facing an unanswerable tragedy, “what shall I do now?” The best answer our tradition can offer is “more study – more Torah, more thoughtfulness, and more companionship in the struggle to face that which will remain an inexplicable mystery to us.
May we bring this lesson from Nadav and Avihu into our lives: keep your wits about you, don’t try this alone, and know that the highest and deepest love requires the greatest of care.