Shabbat Tzav: The Boss Of Me

You know what Reform Jews call it? The Ten Suggestions.

That joke lies at the heart of a quandary that all Liberal, Progressive, Modern and Post-Modern Jews share, including those of us who call ourselves Independent: Heteronomy vs. Autonomy. Or, in other words, obedience to something outside myself, vs. “you ain’t the boss of me”.

Heteronomy, “the state of being influenced or ruled by another,” means that I am obedient to something outside myself. 

Autonomy, “the state of freedom from external control or influence”, means that I am self-governing. 

This week’s parashah is called Tzav, “command”. It is the heart of the word mitvah, “commandment” or “obligation”, the very opposite of “suggestion”. Yet somewhere, we moderns decided that they are all, really, just that – optional suggestions. That is because our Western, modern world is founded philosophically against the Church of Europe, and holds up the ideal of a freedom that comes with autonomy. We Jews who live in the West have taken on that culture as our own. It sets up a rather fundamental conflict with Judaism, which is founded upon a heteronomous reality, in which we are committed to a Covenant relationship with a G*d who is m’tzaveh, giver of mitzvot, “commands”.

Autonomy is defined as a capacity for independent decision making, or, more often perhaps, “an inchoate desire for freedom in some area of one’s life”. As such, our culture is understood as being against heteronomy, which makes it, among other things, anti-religious. However, it is probably more accurate to define it as anti-religious institution, and anti-coercion. 

The funny thing about that is that the Who are still right: Meet the new Boss. Same as the old Boss.

The song is taken as cynical, perhaps, but it’s a cultural truth: none of us are really autonomous, and none of us is without a Boss – and yes, we will be fooled again, and again, into believing that we make our own decisions and have control over our lives. and we may indeed free ourselves from some identifiable influence or commander, but we will immediately seek out some other influence. Mass marketers know this and depend upon it, but so do leaders of mass movements. The question is not whether we are commanded, but are we aware of the commanding influences upon us?

Addiction? Anxiety? Fear? Ego? …. or Justice? Love? Compassion?

We are herd animals right down to our DNA. We cannot really live alone and independent of all others. That is the insights behind the midrash in which the G*d of the Israelites tells us I took you out of the slavery of Egypt; now you are free to serve Me. Out of this conundrum Isaiah Berlin created the concept of “freedom from” vs “freedom to”. We must first free ourselves of that which enslaves us. Only then can we choose that to which we will commit ourselves, with all the power of which we are capable in our empowered obedience to the highest possible ideal, rather than the lowest levels of temptation that entice us, scare us, and pull us down.

Tzav is a parashah that comes to ask you a very simple and profound question. What commands you? Are you proud of it? Can you do better?

Shabbat Zakhor: Remember? then Do Something

This Shabbat, on which we read the first words of the book VaYikra, called Leviticus, is also called Zakhor, “remember”. 

For Jews, to remember is to do. This assumption – that the mental act prompts a physical one – is encoded in the ancient Hebrew: 

וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ; וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה.

It came to pass in the course of this long time that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel were groaning under their bondage, and they cried out, and their cry came up unto G-d.

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב.

G-d heard their cries, and G-d remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Exodus 2.23-24)

Jewish tradition teaches that we are to regard stories which depict G-d in human terms for their role model value. G-d clothed Adam and Eve, so should we clothe those in need; G-d buried Moshe, so we see to it that people are properly buried; G-d provides food for all through the processes of nature, so we make sure that the natural abundance of our world reaches all who are hungry.

So too here: G-d remembers that human beings are suffering, and moves to alleviate it, and the wheel of history turns. And as a result of this ancient linguistic idiom, Judaism develops an ethic: to remember, to take note, is to act. A good person can never note a problem and simply turn away, assuming that someone else will respond.

And so it is that we do what we can to move that wheel when it is our turn, even if only by a few inches. We are not called upon to fix the problem we face, necessarily, but we are expected to do our part, as the rabbinic saying goes:

 לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל  It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 2.19)

So we do what we can, knowing that the only unacceptable response is the refusal to engage, and do what we can.

The Jewish ethic of remembering and doing offers us a curious question: What does it mean to say that G-d remembers? is it possible to say that G-d forgets? and for those of us who don’t think of G-d as a being who either remembers or forgets, but as a non-anthropomorphic reality or presence, what do either of those words mean?

Yizkor, “may G-d remember”, is the first word of the ritual we observe four times a year in memory of our loved ones who have died. If G-d is just a king on a throne, so to speak, then maybe that sort of divinity needs reminding. But consider it differently: perhaps we are expressing a desire for the memory of a loved one to continue to be remembered, in a way that causes an act, a change, in the world as it is, even though they are no longer with us. Perhaps what we are really saying is “may the world remember – and be affected by that memory”.

That is what brings us to the desire to see a photograph, or hear a voice recording, and know that it is extant in the world because it keeps a loved one more fully in that world. More profoundly appropriate, that is why in Jewish tradition one gives tzedakah as a memorial. Not because of the name alone, but because through the tzedakah that name is not only remembered, but good is enacted as well. And that is the moment in which we truly are sharing in a remembrance that is of G-d.

Every time you move that wheel just a bit, in memory of someone you loved, you bring that loved one into the Memory of the World.

This Shabbat is one of the special Shabbatot that reminds us of the approach of Pesakh – a time for Yizkor and a time for tzedakah. May you find a meaningful way to remember and to do, in honor of a memory you cherish.

Shabbat Pekudey: Get Over Yourself and Go Learn

Our parashat hashavua this week, Pekudey, could be known as “the Accountants’ Parashah”. Pekudey means “records”, and our text begins with 

אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת, אֲשֶׁר פֻּקַּד עַל-פִּי מֹשֶׁה:  עֲבֹדַת, הַלְוִיִּם, בְּיַד אִיתָמָר, בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן

These are the accounts of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony, as they were rendered under Moses’s supervision: the work done by the Levites, under Itamar, son of Aaron the priest. (Ex.38.21)

Why is this report of expenses and materials used included in the Torah? According to midrashic interpretation, it was to prove to suspicious Israelites that neither Moshe nor anyone else involved in the work had stolen anything.

Moshe heard people speaking about him: “Look at all the things he has. He eats from the Jews’ property, drinks from the Jews’ property, and all that he has is from the Jews.” Another one said: “Would you think that the one who is in charge of all the work of the Mishkan would not be rich?” 

The midrash concludes that Moshe decided that when he finished the Mishkan, he would do an exact accounting of everything that was collected and used. (TanhumaPekudei 4)

This is a sad, but highly believable, explanation, and it is certainly not limited to the Generation of the Wilderness, as they are called. Although Moshe has done nothing to merit suspicion, the jealousy of those who feel inadequate is turned upon him. The jealousy, and the anger it creates, is not expressed openly and truthfully, but rather comes cloaked in perfectly “normal” comments. But underneath it everyone can tell that the real problem is with the accuser.

Moshe is called trustworthy by G-d, no less. In our own terms, he has done nothing to provoke the attack, and actually is demonstrably innocent. We are left with the question of why he was accused.

The Israelites were on the cusp of a great new thing: the Mishkan was nearly completed, and the path to which they had committed was to become a reality. Were they having second thoughts, these suspicious fault-finders? Was this their way to express a personal sense of fear or vulnerability? Perhaps – and their inability to see themselves and their true feelings led them toward an even worse place: vulnerable turns to suspicious, and then to anger – and then to evil.

“Blessing is only possible in things hidden from sight.” (Talmud, Taanit 8b). The Sochotchover Rebbe (Poland, 1838-1910) noted that a blessing has an inner, quiet strength of holiness; that which is done in awareness of observers is more often vulnerable to evil. Yet we live in community! And so from time to time, those who do good quietly are going to be unjustly accused in public of wrong doing by those who are jealous, or frightened. 

In community we of course have the right and the responsibility to keep honest records. But we do not have the right to pretend to ask for an accounting when it is only a cloak for a truth that is more difficult.

The mystics bid us pay attention to the fact that when our I is foremost in our vision, we can’t see anything but ourselves. Move your “I think, I feel, I need” out of the center of your vision, and see what vistas are revealed.

The next time you are moved to suspicion, remember the Jewish ethic of judging l’khaf zekhut, “giving the benefit of the doubt”. It does not matter who it is or what you suspect: you must work on yourself here. Before you formulate an accusation even in your heart, do the ethical exercise of considering the many ways in which the person you suspect may actually be innocent. Then look at yourself and ask – why you are angry, really?

And then remind yourself of the Jewish way out of anger and toward peace and wholeness – go and study Torah.

Shabbat Shekalim: the power of a half-shekel

As of our hearing the haftarah chanted on Shabbat tomorrow, we begin the formal countdown to Pesakh. Yes, we have not celebrated Purim yet; but Purim, as much fun as it can be, is a minor holiday, and we are beginning to prepare for the most important Festival of the year. Pesakh, the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, is the most significant moment in Judaism; the Seder and the special observances of this celebration have, over the generations, become a central identity ritual for Jews.

We are regularly urged to be conscious of the Exodus from Egypt, in our Shabbat kiddush, in the ge’ulah section (think mi kamokha) of our daily Tefilah, and in numerous Psalms and other moments scattered around the Jewish week. But now, on Shabbat Shekalim, we have our first overt reminder that the Festival itself is celebrated soon. The Arba Parshiyot, the “Four Texts”, include additional Torah readings as well as a special Haftarah (which pre-empts the regular haftarah that would be read on this week). 

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shekalim, “money”, and it is related to the national yearly tax levied in ancient Israel. Because the tax was due before the first of Nisan (the beginning of the Jewish calendar’s New Year), the word went out a month early, on or before the first day of Adar. Because the best place in the pre-modern world to make an announcement and catch as many Jews as possible was in the shul on Shabbat, the date settled on was the last Shabbat before Adar (in a year such as this one, which has two months of Adar, the announcement is made on the last Shabbat before Adar II). That gave you a month to pay the tax.

But Jews avoid money on Shabbat, and even talk of money is generally considered best avoided. So how to make the announcement if one cannot just stand up and call out “tax day is coming, get your half-shekel ready”? 

The answer is in the fact that the half-shekel tax is instituted as a mitzvah in the Torah. So the special reading is of the mitzvah itself:

“This they shall give, every one that is numbered, half a shekel according to the sanctuary weight (twenty gerah to the shekel) half a shekel for an offering to HaShem.” (Ex.30.13)

Thus everyone hearing the special Torah reading for this Shabbat Shekalim is reminded of their own nearly due half-shekel.

It is said that Torah can be approached in 70 different ways, and each different reading or insight takes us deeper in the multiple layers of our relationship with her. On this Shabbat, we rely upon Torah to remind us that, despite so many generations and so much change, at essence we are still engaged in exactly the same mitzvah as our ancestors: taking of what we have to strengthen the community we share. And as the half-shekel tax itself reminds us, no one is worth more in that effort, and no one is worth less.

As Pesakh approaches, now is the time to consider your symbolic “half-shekel” contribution to the sacred space we share; what gift will you bring, and how will it express your place in the Peoplehood of Israel?

And while you’re working on that, don’t forget to plan your Purim costume and mishloakh manot – Be Happy, it’s Adar!