Shabbat Naso: G-d is in the Annoying Details Too

This week the parashat hashavua (“text of the week”) is called Naso, a word related to the Hebrew idiom for counting. It literally means “lift up the head”, and underscores the importance of truly seeing each person whom one is counting. This is different from the Western idea of “counting heads”, which only tells you how many bodies are in the room; to lift up the head is to look in the face, to take account of (“a count of”) each person in their personhood. It’s an interesting counter (sorry) to the prevailing communal idea: here we note each precious, unique and irreplaceable individual who makes up our community.

That is the catch: a community is, after all, made up of individuals. There’s an old joke: “I love the Jewish people, it’s just Jews I can’t stand.” More accurately, for all of us the ideal of community is ideal, but the individual human beings with whom we share it may be annoying, from time to time. It’s worth recalling the old Hasidic admonition: when your attention is directed outward at others who bother you, remember that the world is made up of reflections, and you, in your turn, are no doubt just as much a bother to others.

This week we get into the specific, annoying details of life with others. This week’s parashah includes the Sotah ritual, much critiqued by feminists who see this as a misogynistic horror. One case in point is that of “any man whose wife may stray and betray his trust” (Numbers 5.12). Any husband who suspects that his wife has been intimate with another man is commanded to bring her to the priest, who puts her through a curious ritual. Drink this, swear that – and if you are guilty, you’ll get sick. If you are not, you’ll be fine. It seems quite shocking until one realizes that, for the time, it may well have been a woman’s salvation. There are cultures where, to this day, a woman whose husband is jealous of her might very well kill her, with or without the help of his male relatives, and without fear of government intervention or punishment. In this case the man may not lay a hand on his wife, no matter what his provocation: he must bring her to the priest.

It is interesting to further note that the Rabbis of the Talmud abolished the sotah ritual because it could only be conducted in a case where the husband had never committed adultery or any other sexual violation; i.e. a woman could not be accused of something that her accuser was doing. “When the adulterers increased in number, the rite of bitter waters was stopped; Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai stopped it.” (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 9.9).

Some of us tend to accuse the Torah of not being timeless. In truth it is far more amazing to consider how progressive it was when it was codified, two millennia ago. It’s worth keeping in mind the old Rabbinic saying, “the Torah speaks in the language of human beings”. What they meant, I believe, is that while the words of Torah are written down by human beings who are doing their best to record what they believe they have heard G-d saying, they do not hear clearly. Just as G-d spoke to the prophets, we are told, by dreams and riddles, so also we who try to understand the truth of our lives and the world we live in are squinting through a lens smudged by our preconceptions, our desire to find what we want to see, and our inability to see what we cannot conceive.

The theological word for perceiving truth is “revelation”. Sinai, when we received Torah, is called a revelatory moment. We are about to remember and re-celebrate it next week with our Shavuot observance. It seems fantastically appropriate, as our Festival of the Giving of the Torah falls this year during Portland’s Rose Festival, to note that according to our tradition’s teachings, Torah’s revelation unfolds like a rose; each generation sees more and more, as the many-petalled rose blooms over the generations of Jewish study that have kept it fed, and watered, and fertilized. “Even the innovation of a future student, wise in the ways of the teachers, is already included in the revelation at Sinai.” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Peah 6).

Torah is not timeless, and individuals are not perfect. It’s the community’s dance with Torah over time that puts the curious bits, and the irritating people, into the context of kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel is responsible, one for another”, and keeps the word of G-d startlingly relevant, when you least expect it, but stay open to the chance.

Shabbat BeHukotai: What Kind of G-d Does This?

In this final week of reading from the Book VaYikra (Leviticus), we are presented with a most unpleasant text, known as the Tokhekhah, “Rebuke”. The parashah has begun with a beautiful picture of the lovely life that we will enjoy if we follow G-d’s mitzvot:

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My Commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit….and you shall dwell securely in your land.” (Lev. 26.3)

That’s in the 1st third of the Torah reading. This being the second year of our Triennial Reading Cycle, we start with the consequences not of obedience but of rebellion. The terms are so very harsh that there is a natural recoil from the reading, and a minhag (traditional habit) has developed around it: no one wants the aliyot associated with it, since the content of the aliyah with which one is honored is rather superstitiously thought to have an impact on oneself, and the reader usually tries to chant or read through the verses involved as quickly as possible, in an undertone, for that same reason.

This approach is reminiscent of the way we often treat horrible news; by distancing ourselves, by looking away. And part of the way in which we distance ourselves is to create a sense of how unlikely it is that such a thing could be.

That is how we come to the typical modern Jewish response to these verses: “this is outrageous! what kind of G-d would threaten such horrible consequences for disobeying G-d’s laws, and who would be stupid enough to believe in such a horrible G-d?”

But when we substitute another word for this unacceptable religious term, behold: morality refracts quite obviously through the lens of scientific knowledge. Consider just one such example of a way of understanding the blessings and curses of Behukotai:

The laws of the Torah command respect for the earth and its natural processes if we are to expect reliably dependable sowing time and harvests. When we do not respect the earth and its needs, we are told that “the skies will be like iron…your strength shall be spent to  no purpose. The land will not yield its produce, nor the trees of the field their fruit.” (Lev. 26.19-20)

It is becoming clearer that among the curses brought about by climate change is a new scarcity of water in certain places, which has been suggested as the main reason for the long years of bitter and murderous civil unrest in Somalia (http://www.somwe.com/scarcity.html).

Other examples of short-sighted and immoral human activity which has caused terrible disasters may include the recent landslide in Oso Washington, which killed at least 41 people. A bill which would have restricted further development in areas suspected to be prone to landslides was recently killed in the Snohomish County legislature in favor of a less-comprehensive plan. Developers hailed the move. After all, what are the chances that such a catastrophic landslide could happen again? (http://www.governing.com/news/headlines/what-could-go-wrong.html)

We recoil from the thought that our actions may actually turn our skies to iron and our fertile fields to barren desert. But when we look clearly and soberly at this week’s parashah, and then look around us, do we not see that our choices bring us blessing or curse? And that the word G-d, here, is simply and profoundly a powerful human way to refer to that which cannot be bribed out of consequences, nor avoidance of cause and effect, nor distracted away from looking at what we have wrought, just because it is too painful to contemplate.

The laws of G-d are one way of understanding what can also be expressed as the moral law of the universe. In either case, the kind of G-d that does this is the kind of G-d of which we are an inescapable part. The power we wield as G-d’s hands in the world will destroy us in myriads of curses that kidnap children, drown teenagers, and destroy us all by toxic degrees – or that same power will lift us up into an exaltation of justice and kindness that will heal much and inspire more.

Shabbat Behar: Between the Peak and the Valley

mah inyan shemitta eytzel har Sinai?  This is the classic Jewish form of the question you might recognize as “what does that have to do with all the tea in China?” or “what’s Hecuba to you, or you to Hecuba?”

“What does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?”

This week’s parashat hashavua is named Behar, for “on the mountain”, i.e. Mt. Sinai. The first topic mentioned among the many mitzvot of this parashah is shemitta, a seven-year cycle of Shabbat rest for the agricultural land, the fruitfulness of which the ancient Israelites depend for their very lives. The shemitta command teaches that everything needs a Shabbat, not only the people and animals mentioned in the Shabbat mitzvah we repeat in our prayers every week on that day, but also the land itself.

Here we are, deep in the details of the Book called VaYikra (Leviticus), learning law after law, deriving social and personal ethics, hearing stories to illustrate the cost of transgression. In our minds, we’ve left the Sinai moment – that moment of thunder and awe and revelation – far behind. This is precisely what leads to the question: “what does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?” Asking the question is a way of saying that there is no apparent connection between two issues or concepts raised by one’s interlocutor.

But shemitta has a lot to do with Sinai, in the way that real life does maintain a link to the rare special moments that we experience as different – as different from everyday life, one might say, as the valley is from the peak. We live our lives in the valley of every day life, not on the mountaintop. Yet we would not know one from the other without the balance of both in our lives.

The same is true of Torah: elevating, beautiful commandments like love your neighbor as yourself, and difficult aspects such as the seeming acceptance of human conditions that we find barbaric. One of them, slavery, is legislated in this parashah. Why, we ask from our liberated place in the world, does Torah not simply abolish slavery?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an explanation based upon the difference between chronological (Torah) and logical (philosophy) understandings of life:

There are profound differences between philosophy and Judaism, and one of these lies in their respective understandings of time. For Plato and his heirs, philosophy is about the truth that is timeless (or, for Hegel and Marx, about “historical inevitability”). Judaism is about truths (like human freedom) that are realized in and through time. That is the difference between what I call the logical and chronological imaginations. The logical imagination yields truth as system. The chronological imagination yields truth as story (a story is a sequence of events extended through time). Revolutions based on philosophical systems fail—because change in human affairs takes time, and philosophy is incapable of understanding the human dimension of time. The inevitable result is that (in Rousseau’s famous phrase) they “force men to be free”—a contradiction in terms, and the reality of life under Soviet Communism. Revolutions based on Tanach succeed, because they go with the grain of human nature, recognizing that it takes time for people to change. The Torah did not abolish slavery, but it set in motion a process that would lead people to come of their own accord to the conclusion that it was wrong. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; to see the full article, click here.)

The Torah’s truth unfolds like a flower, which means that our own interpretations and understandings are as significant for our age as those in the ages that came before us. We often live in the breach, rather than in the fulfillment, of a mitzvah; truth takes time and experience in balancing the peaks and valleys of real, flawed human existence. The Jewish understanding of truth grows, embracing more and more seeming paradoxes until we reach a point where we can see that there are no paradoxes; there is only multi-layered, ever shifting, always limited human perspective.

What is not clear today beckons us onward, as long as we remember that we do not see things as they are, but as we are. And so we must continue to learn, and grow, so that we can see. Everything teaches of chronological truth, and everything connects to everything else – even shemitta at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

Shabbat Emor: Acting Our Age

In parashat Emor, the first words describe G-d speaking to Moshe – not unusual. But then G-d goes on to tell Moshe to speak to Aharon, who in turn is to instruct the priests, his sons and their descendants.  The parashah later will turn to the rest of us, the b’nei Yisrael, often translated “children of Israel”. It is interesting to consider in what way we are children from the perspective of Leviticus. We might see in this wording a hint of the appropriate roles of priests, and also of children (and the adults who care for them).

This week’s parashah is full of rules – some only for priests, and most of them regarding priestly things such as proper ritual. In this week’s parashah as well as some others we’ve seen in this book of Leviticus (which means “of the priests”, after all), it’s clear that the priests must hold themselves to a different standard of conduct if they are to be effective priests.

The same is true for all of us when we occupy a role. When you call me Rabbi, I offer you all that comes with that identity; when you address your Doctor by her or his title, you are implicitly asking for all the knowledge, support and ability of the profession to be brought to bear for you. There is an expectation by both sides that we will act to that standard of conduct. One reason why we are so disappointed in clergy who are caught in immorality is that they have broken an implicit contract with us. They are supposed to behave as the priests in Leviticus are told to behave.

This is not class-ism; it is delegation of responsibility. The ancient Israelite farmer did not know, and probably was not interested in studying up on, the intricacies of proper sacrificial ritual, and expected the local village Levites to be there to consult, remind, and guide. Similarly, I don’t have the knowledge my Doctor has, nor do I wish to try to glean on the Internet what a professional health care provider has spent years or decades learning. That is knowledge I want to be able to access as I need it, and I want to be able to trust the implicit partnership.

It’s true of being a parent as well. Parents are, in a way, their children’s priests, as well as life coaches and health care guides. Parents are mature humans, who know many things about life that they must guide children toward learning. Children – who won’t even have fully functioning brains until they are 20! – are not adults; they have no interest in, nor are they physically capable of, making the right decisions for themselves about how to eat right, become moral agents, or stand before G-d. Expecting them to make the best choices for themselves when they are children in any of these areas is abdication of adult responsibility.

There’s a traditional blessing that parents may recite on the day when a child is called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah: Barukh sheh-p’tarani m’ansho shel zeh, “Thank G-d that I am relieved of this one’s punishment”. It reminds us that until children reach the ages of ethical awareness, they are not held responsible for their behavior – it reflects on the their parent, as does the punishment for any sin they commit. Children can’t be held responsible for sin or mitzvah. They are still in Eden. We know the rocky path that leads beyond, and we have to step in, and offer guidance.

The priestly standard we must strive to maintain, all of us who are parents and teachers and role models for children, is a responsibility delegated to us simply by the place in which we find ourselves. To be part of a community of people who care for each other is to keep in mind that we are always being watched by those younger than us, as well as by adults who see us as knowledgeable (you’d be surprised by who thinks you know more than they do). It doesn’t mean we have to actually know more than a child does; by definition, maturity offers guidance to immaturity. Just like the ancient Israelite farmer, all we need to know is how to seek out knowledge. And just like the ancient Israelite priest, we are called upon to remember that we are not children ourselves, nor does it help them when we withhold our adult experience and guidance from them.