Shabbat Kedoshim: Looking Through the Fear

As this Shabbat approaches I am thinking a lot about the Jews of Ukraine, especially my friends of Kyiv Congregation HaTikvah, where I served as Rabbi in 1993-1994. The words of this week’s parashat hashavua will be read in Kyiv as in Paris as in New York as in Portland, Oregon. We all read the same Torah, but we come to it from many different places. We read it religiously every year; what that means is that we approach the text willing to grant in advance that there is some relevance that we will find in it.

Relevance is, however, relative.

This year, I am blessed to read parashat Kedoshim from a place of personal security; I am not worried about civil war breaking out around me. I am not concerned about my physical safety when I go out on the street, and I do not expect a knock at my door. From this safe place, you and I might explore the esoteric concept of kedushah what does that word really mean in ancient Israelite context? We might devote some time to the question of why ritual and moral laws follow one another without apparent segue. And we might debate the relevance of the laws that seem most out of touch with our own sense of the sacred.

What does it mean to consider Kedoshim in Kyiv on this Shabbat, as the Jewish community wonders whether and how it might be used by both sides in the disintegration of civil society around them? What do esoteric concepts or curious questions mean when, in the midst of the fear of danger threatening oneself and one’s loved ones, one chooses to gather with one’s fellow Jews in a shul on this Shabbat in Kyiv, to study, or to pray?

l’havdil….

In the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira of Pieceszna (alav hashalom, may he rest in peace) continued to study Torah and to pray with his fellow Jews in the midst of the Nazi terror. On May 4 of 1940 he taught about our parashah. He noted that we are commanded in this parashah to be holy, and we are told “you shall fear your G-d, I am יהוה” (Lev. 19.14). The key is in knowing that Elohim, “G-d” is the Name associated with Judgment, and that יהוה is the Name associated with Mercy; and remembering that holiness is a command upon us all.

How are we to be holy? According to Jewish tradition, we evoke holiness when we are together. Jews have always gathered in the synagogue when feeling frightened or sad. That is where we know we will find our people, and thus find comfort. There we know that we will not be alone with our fear. Together we search the Torah for a sense of meaning, and together we support each other in our prayers. When fear makes it impossible for your mind to shape coherent thoughts, we have two books full of thoughts and words about life – Torah and siddur – that are likely to serve at least as a good starting point. And we are there for each other, with each other, as we struggle. Thus we become a holy community, a kehillah kedoshah.

And what shall we do with the fear? That, the Pieceszna Rebbe suggested, is a doorway through which we can help each other walk forward. The task of the Jew when confronted with fear is to look for G-d’s presence within it, even as when we are surrounded by darkness, we look for light. There is more than one kind of fear.

There is a fear of punishment which can be characterized as a “fear of G-d”, i.e. fear that something one has done will bring judgment down upon one. It’s the kind of impulse that makes us look for a reason why we are suffering, assuming that it must be our own fault.

But suffering can help one rise through the lower sense of fear of G-d to a higher understanding, an “exalted fear”. This kind of fear is better called awe, and its power allows us to face concerns about safety, about crisis and about war with an inner serenity. Not because bad things will not happen to one, for they might – but because even in the midst of suffering and fear, one still remembers that there is not only judgment in the world, but also, on a higher level, mercy, compassion, and love. To be in awe of G-d in the face of crisis is to remain human, and to be able to continue to act as a human being. Lower fear makes us withdraw from others and care only for ourselves; the higher fear of awe keeps us caring for each other – a holy community, no matter what.

“You must always long for a greater holiness, and indeed make a greater and greater effort even if you are already holy. You will then find that “I am יהוה your G-d” – that Elohim, Judgement, has already become יהיה, Mercy.” (Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury, 1939-1942, trans. J. Hershy Worch, p. 86).

We Jews of the West are seeking any way we can to reach out to care for our sisters and brothers in Ukraine. If only it were in our power to turn their frightening situation into one of mercy! May they know that they are not alone this Shabbat – may they find their strength in one another’s presence and its holiness, and in knowing that we are thinking of them, and praying for their safety and well-being, as well. As the Pieceszner taught, this is how we can understand the verse “you shall fear your G-d, I am יהוה”.

Don’t be afraid of fear, however it reaches you, no matter where you are; you must look through it until you find that beyond it, there is the Mercy of other hands to support you, and always there is HaTikvah – hope.

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Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh: What Does It Take To Make A Clean Break?

I believed that the Soviet Union was dead and gone; I even thought that war between the nations of Europe was a thing of the past. I was certain that people carrying giant placards depicting the face of Stalin in Red Square during political rallies in the past twenty years were hopelessly anachronistic. I was sure that the rise of a new generation would bury the bad old ways beyond reclaiming.

The news of the last few weeks has surprised me. The ghost of the Cold War and all its related horrors – racism, persecution of minorities, and trampling of individuality – is not dead. As William Faulkner famously said, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

How long does it take to make a clean break with the past? When do you know that you will never go back to Egypt? As anyone knows who has ever made a big change in life, the one thing that crossing a barrier teaches you for sure is that once breached, most can be breached again. And maybe it’s a natural thing – it is, after all, the path one knows best, having followed it with one’s own will. Backsliding is a human norm – the most difficult of all our self-made prisons to escape.

The parashat hashavua for the middle of Pesakh is a special reading, out of our normal Torah reading cycle: Exodus 33.12-34.26, followed by Numbers 28.19-25. In the first reading we are reminded of our very first backsliding. Following the great Escape from Egypt, we crossed the Sea and committed ourselves utterly to a new and better way of living; and within three months of that great crossing, we crossed back over. We did not actually, physically return to Egypt, but we did in our hearts. We repudiated Moshe, we built a calf-god made of gold, and we killed those who tried to stop us.

It took a state of war, and a lot of suffering and death, to bring the Israelite people back to the path of commitment we had begun. Most of our own personal backsliding is less widely destructive, though it can be no less personally catastrophic. An addict once recovered goes back to the addiction; a woman freed of an abusive relationship returns; promises we’ve made to ourselves and others to live more meaningfully starting NOW recede into last week’s sunnier horizon.

On this Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh, the outer world is crying out to us as loudly as possible with this message and this question: what does it take for you to make a clean break with the past and become your best self? And what is the cost – to yourself, to your community, to the world – if you do not?

Shabbat HaGadol Akharei Mot: Death in Spring

Here on the cusp of the new agricultural year, in the full blown glory of spring, we think of new life and renewal. Our spring holy day festival, Pesakh, is first of all a time to celebrate the new wheat, the baby lambs, and of course the return of grasses and flowers with the lengthening day.

It’s all the more shocking when death occurs at such a time, when we’re so focused on new life and all the future planning that goes with it. But this week’s parashah is about death, and its aftermath. Akharei Mot, “after the death”, refers to the unexpected sudden death of Nadav and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron who were killed accidentally during their first day on the job as priests in the newly-erected Mishkan, the holy space the Israelites created for the purpose of seeking G-d’s presence.

In truth, though, death is always unexpected, in a way, and always shocking. And in our surprise, we are frozen out of our normal activities, and, often, at a loss. Is this what happened to Aaron? He and four sons were all newly invested as priests, serving the Israelites by taking care of the sacrifices they brought. It was their job to keep the place clean and functional, to offer the sacrifices correctly and to keep the fire burning upon the altar. Through no fault of their own except perhaps for ignorance, two of them are now dead. There is no way to know why they are dead.

There is a prescribed response for when we hear about a death. We are to say barukh Dayan haEmet, “blessed is the True Judgment”. This is a statement of acceptance – that even as we accept life and love, we must accept death and loss. It is a statement of resignation, and, perhaps, of assent: I was happy to have to one, even at the cost of the other. Who among us would refuse to love, simply because life will end?

The High Priest, Aaron, brother of Moshe, has two things to teach us about death in his reaction to the death of his sons, both in the parashah in which they are killed, Shemini, and the parashat hashavua for this week, Akharei Mot.

The first is that after his sons were suddenly killed, we read vayidom Aharon, “And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10.3). He did not have it within him to immediately say “I accept this”. There are times when we cannot utter the words right away, because we cannot yet feel them to be true. Aaron reacts honestly, as a father. He is not rebellious, he is just not there yet. This kind of loss will take time to absorb; in such a moment of shock the heart is numb. For him, in this moment, there is no sense of G-d’s presence to acknowledge.

The second lesson Aaron teaches in these moments is that his own personal loss of connection to G-d is his own business, and that he still has a job to do, and an important responsibility to the community. The disaster has happened while he is in the course of the ritual of blessing the Israelite community in G-d’s name. No matter his personal sadness, he must function for the sake of the people – and he does not let them down. He continues and concludes the sacred rituals, and only then does he take time for himself to grieve.

In our private extremities of experience, we may feel ourselves radically alone. Yet, just like Aaron, we are surrounded by, and part of, our community. Even when we are without words, we still belong to it, and it to us. Sometimes there are no words, and no sense of G-d, in the face of death – but there is still love, that gift of G-d that comes to us through the people whose lives we share, and which lifts us up out of darkness toward the light and renewal of spring.

Shabbat Metzora: Take a Breath Before You Commit

Ever since just before Purim we’ve been encountering a series of special Shabbatot which are meant to get our attention and focus us upon the fact that Pesakh is coming. There is much to do to greet the Festival appropriately: house cleaning, Seder planning, tzedakah giving…. there are so many details and such a rush (and sometimes, such family dynamics) that it might remind you of the preparation before a wedding day.

And that, of course, leads to a midrash offered by the Rabbi Leibele Eiger, a disciple of the Ishbitzer Rabbi (who wrote the popular Torah commentary Mei Shiloakh). He writes that this Shabbat, unlike last week and unlike next week, is not one of the Arba Parshiyot, the weeks of the special “four Parshas” that we read in the run-up to Pesakh.  This Shabbat has no special extra designation; it is Shabbat Metzora, a regular Torah reading. For that reason it is known as Shabbat Penuyah, the “open”, or “uncommitted” Shabbat.

Rabbi Eiger points out that the word penuyah can also be translated “turning”, and as “single woman”. In these grammatical nuances he weaves a vision of us as a woman turning away from a former life and toward the Covenant, even as the people of Israel turned toward G-d and at Sinai entered into the Covenant as a woman enters the huppah. G-d is our partner, goes the midrash, and we are meant to live in G-d’s presence in joy and unconditional love – and complete commitment.

But first we have to be ready, to prepare ourselves, to take the time to let the ritual mean what it can mean for us. And that is what this Shabbat, I suggest, might usefully offer us. Shabbat Penuyah, the “free” Shabbat, can be designated by us the Transition Shabbat: the pause before the Big Day, a necessary moment to breathe between the preparations and the ritual itself.

When I officiate at a wedding, I require of the couple that they write me a letter telling me why they are getting married to the person they love. They are not to write it far in advance, but during the week before the wedding, when they are the most hassled by the myriad details and family dynamics and things that go wrong. It provides a moment for a deeper thinking, and feeling, about what is about to happen to their lives.

Before this Pesakh, take time to experience the transition offered you: between winter and spring, between darkness and light, between bare trees and blossoms – what does it evoke in your own soul? what does it feed in your own spiritual experience? Check in with yourself, and figure out where you are standing. Only then can you turn, with your community, toward a deeper sense of G-d’s presence, and what it really means for you to be part of this Jewish people.