Shabbat Akharey Mot-Kedoshim: In All This Death, Where Is Holiness? Right Here at the Door

How often does Torah arouse human beings, how often does she raise her voice in every direction to awaken them! Yet they all sleep, with slumber in their sockets, neither observing nor caring….Woe to them, woe to their souls! For Torah admonishes them, saying, “Whoever is a fool let him turn aside here, the one who lacks heart.”…What is “he who lacks heart?” Rabbi Eleazar said, “Lacking faith, for one who has no faith surely lacks heart.” (from the opening commentary of the Zohar to parashat Kedoshim.)
This week we have a double parashah again. Akharey Mot, “after the death” and Kedoshim, “holy.” Both refer to plural situations: the first reminds us of the death of the two innocents, Nadav and Abihu, who died when they came too close to power they did not understand. The second is the famous command spoken to all Israel “You shall be holy as I ‘ה am holy.”
The not-uncommon juxtaposition of these two titles has long invited the teachers of our tradition to offer commentary, but not the kind you might expect. Judaism does not promise that there is some holiness that one can only acquire after death, in some post-Earth existence. Rather, we are to seek holiness in our daily lives.
But first: to define holiness in ancient Jewish terms. The term kadosh (the singular) does not mean “pious” nor does it mean that we are to withdraw from life and its challenges in order to pursue some notion of purity. Kadosh means “set apart” or “special,” in the way that we regard another person with whom we share a committed relationship to be special in a way no one else is (which is why the Jewish wedding ritual is called kiddushin, a variation on that same term).
So we might understand this command as one which urges us to hold ourselves separate. This leads to the question from what?
 
In traditional Jewish Torah learning fashion, we consider the answers offered us from within the text itself, first, the juxtaposition offered because this year we are reading Kedoshim together with Akharei Mot. The word death is all too close to us in these days, on so many levels of perception and experience:
Deaths of human beings we witness through media – from natural disasters, by way of human evil, or because of human mistakes.cDeaths of human beings who live within our own communities – African Americans, Trans people, all those at risk because someone values their lives less.  Deaths of those near to us, or even the looming prospect of our own. Everywhere we look: from honor killings to occupations to flash floods to police killings to drug wars to serial killers
And there are other kinds of death – we experience the death of trust, of hope, of the belief in tomorrow that helps the living to summon another sunrise.
In all this death, where is holiness? It is right here: in the act of one who, in the face of death, finds a way to give, to smile, to lend a hand.
In the fall of 2016, after the unthinkable rise of white supremacy to the White House, one of our next door neighbors came over just to introduce himself, to say hello and to offer his support as our neighbor.
In the days after the inauguration, we received phone calls from strangers who simply wanted to call a Jewish organization and let us know that not everyone agrees with the hate speech and hate crimes directed against us, which increased 86% in 2017.
Last Wednesday evening, a member of the Council for American Islamic Relations knocked on our door with a beautiful orchid as a gesture of support in the aftermath of an attack on two Jews this past Monday in Brooklyn.
This is holiness in the best sense: the act that says we hold ourselves apart from this evil. This is the only holiness that Jewish tradition knows. May we all carry these examples in our own hearts, be comforted by them, and from them be inspired to believe in that which compelled our neighbors to act to reach out to us – and may we never cease to believe in the holiness of reaching back.
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Shabbat Tazria-Metzora: Lift Every Voice

Why does the mind so often choose to fly away at the moment the word waited for all one’s life is about to be spoken?  (Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar)
This week we have a Torah double-header. Our parashat hashavua (Torah text for this week) is two: both Tazria and Metzora. Both refer to conditions that can affect the surface of skin or clothes, or even the walls of your house. Some of the conditions turn out not to be serious, and some clearly are; what all have in common is that in the beginning they are mysterious. We’re not sure where the condition comes from or how it will turn out.
it’s curious, and certainly objectionable, that these conditions are considered to signify some moral lesson or failing. We reject the idea that someone who recovers from a skin ailment must bring an atonement gift to G*d, as we can see clearly indicated in Lev 14.19 “the priest shall make expiation for the one being cleansed of affliction.”
Our ancestors the Rabbis also objected to the idea that someone suffering from affliction needed to make atonement. The Talmud does something rather ingenious with this situation in their interpretation of the word for the one suffering from a skin affliction, metzora. The scholar Resh Lakish taught that we should understand this word as a variation on the phrase motzi shem ra’, “one who speaks evil [of another].” (BT Arakhin 15b)
In other words, the real affliction we have to watch out for, and the real contagion we should fear, is that of gossip and other forms of speaking ill of others. Indeed, in any Jewish community that acts upon its ethics, that is an act that requires atonement.
Our tradition holds that we must take great care with the words we speak, as they are powerful and can cause others great distress. From this we also can learn that we should take care to listen carefully to the sincere words offered by anyone and everyone with whom we interact. This idea is at the heart of the I-Thou teaching of the philosopher Martin Buber: to be truly present, in sincerity, in the presence of another person is to listen to their words, and to ensure that they know they are heard. Behind this teaching is a more ancient one – each one of us may be, at any moment, speaking an Eternal Word that needs to be heard by the one listening. Each one of us, we are taught, is a messenger of Eternal Truth to each other, and so we must find a way to pay attention, to quiet down the mind and its endless lists, and listen carefully, lest we miss it.
Think of the people in your life trying to get your attention, trying to share something important and not always knowing the best time or way to get the word to you. Sometimes, no matter how many emails or phone calls or tugs on the sleeve you get, you just can’t be present for the word that is trying to get your attention. Other times, the letter goes to the wrong address, or the writing is hard to understand, or the message is too alien to accept, and we recoil from it, and the messenger.
All around us, human beings lift up their voices: trying to explain, asking for help, expressing loneliness or happiness or pain. May we remember to give the gift we need to receive. May we not turn away from the word that another offers us, that we might be heard as well.

Shabbat Shemini: Not Why. How.

Our parashat hashavua this week brings us back to our regularly scheduled Torah text after two weeks devoted to special Pesakh Torah. We are back to the Book VaYikra, or Leviticus, and expect nothing more or less than the initiation of the mishkan (the sacred space the Israelites created in the wilderness) with the first sacrifices brought by the first priests. They have just spent seven days in preparation for their sacred work to begin, and on the eighth day they are to bring the first sacrifice to kick off the regular davening which will take place in this particular shul, if you will.
 
So it is; on the eighth – shemini – day they begin. 
 
Moshe said to Aaron: “Draw near the altar, and offer your sin-offering and your burnt-offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people; present the offering of the people, and make atonement for them as HaShem commands.” (Lev. 9.7)
 
This all goes well enough, with the Torah recording the details carefully and specifically. In her book Leviticus As Literature the anthropologist Mary Douglas offers a fascinating interpretation of the animal sacrifices using ideas of symbolic anthropology (read an interesting explanation of that topic here: The Leviticus Monster and the Secret Decoder Ring).
 
But our story in the second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading begins in a more problematic place: the moment when something goes wrong, and someone gets hurt.
 
Aaron, brother of Moshe, is the first High Priest. Older, mature and soberly approaching these new duties, he carefully carries out each technicality and succeeds in offering the first sacrifices, which are accepted. Then his sons, Nadav and Avihu, eagerly take their turn. Having watched their father, they already have ideas regarding how to improve on what Dad did.
 
And so the two men, younger, less mature and perhaps exhilarated with their new status and power, draw near to the altar in their turn:
 
Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and laid fire and incense on it, and offered this strange fire before HaShem, which  had not been commanded. And there came forth fire from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before HaShem. (Lev. 10.1-2)
 
Rookie mistake, and a fatal one. 
 
Generations of Jews have tried to make sense of this. The question are all of two kinds, but they both are fundamentally asking why: (1) what kind of G*d punishes the new person on the job for the first mistake? and (2) what did Nadav and Avihu do that was so terribly wrong? Why did this happen? whose fault is it?
 
Yet it is also quite possible that this tragedy occurred for no reason other than that two young people were caught up in a danger they did not understand and could not foresee.
 
We always want to look for reasons, for people and circumstances to blame, for some logical understanding of tragedy and suffering. If we knew why, perhaps it would be less painful. But would it? If we knew where the cancer came from and how it started, would it be less scary? If we knew how the human being had become sociopathic enough to kill another human being, would it be less terrifying? 
 
Years ago a very popular book was published with a title that everyone misread. It was called When Bad Things Happen to Good People, but everyone referred to it as Why, not When. The truth is that there is no answer to the question why that will ever truly satisfy the grieving heart. We will never know why misfortune occurs, why accidents happen, why illnesses strike down our loved ones. In the Book of Job the author actually puts words to that effect in the mouth of G*d, who explains to Job that even if he knew why he suffered, it wouldn’t help, because he still wouldn’t understand.
 
We cannot know why life comes at us as it does. The only question we can usefully ask, and hope to answer, with the help of a lot of study, prayer and support from and of each other, is this: how will I respond?

Shabbat and Pesakh and more, oh my!

Hag sameakh! Today and tomorrow are hagim, holy days that end our Pesakh Festival. Jewish offices are closed today and tomorrow, and Passover ends tomorrow evening at sundown with the end of Shabbat. On this Shabbat, the Shemini or 8th day of the holiday, we depart from our usual Torah parashat hashavua (reading of the week) and read from the Book Devarim. The text includes reminders of the mitzvot associated with the holiday, including travel, offerings, and inclusion. In every Jewish community, not only do we devote time and energy to its observance for ourselves, but also those who have the wherewithall must take care to ensure that those who do not have are also able to celebrate the holiday.
It’s interesting in this context to note that the Yizkor prayer for our beloved dead is recited on this eighth day of Pesakh as well. In Jewish tradition, the dead are considered impoverished – for they have no ability to do mitzvot. When we include them in our prayers we bring them back into the living circle of us mitzvah-doers, and when we give tzedakah in their memory (another Pesakh tradition) we cause good to happen in the world in their name. This is why the yizkor prayer includes this phrase: “may their souls be bound up in eternal memory.”
Today, Friday, we are in the 6th day of the Sefirat haOmer. The mystical pattern offered us for this day invites us to meditate upon the intersection of Yesod and Hesed.
Yesod is the foundation of the individual and of the world. It is associated with loyalty and reliability, as well as with generativity and with the genitalia, the seat and source of physical life.
Hesed is the emotional expression of overflowing love and the mercy it brings; the feeling of one’s arms opened wide in love and trust to the world and in generosity without stint.
It’s a lot to take in, but it comes down to one simple lesson: in the face of death, only love matters. On this Shabbat, the last day of Pesakh 5778, consider what tzedakah you can do to keep a loved memory alive; what mercy you can offer the living to increase love in the world; and who is in need of the generosity and richness you have in such abundance.
Shabbat shalom and hag Pesakh sameah,