Shabbat Ki Tisa: At One Ment

Atonement is really At-One-Ment. This lovely play on the English word conveys the truth that the Jewish concept of “sin” is simply that which separates us from each other, and from the wholeness to which we are meant to belong. It is a “missing the mark” which leaves us feeling alone and vulnerable. The only effective repentance is that which is restorative of the individual’s relationship with our own wholeness, and with that which connects us to the whole world, in the great wide path of the human spiritual journey in which we live, move, and have our being.
In this week’s parashah, we relive our ancestors’ most egregious act of separation from themselves, each other and G*d (another word for the world beyond us of which we are an essential part). So soon after the act of courage and faith in each other that allowed us to leave Egypt, so close upon the heels of entering into the Covenant of promise between us and the vision we shared at that moment, we panicked and lost that faith. Our ancestors created a pitiful substitute for the Sinai moment: a small model of a bull, molded of the gold and other metal they could collect. Then they stood around it and proclaimed “this is your god O Israel!”
To be fair, they were pitiful: afraid of the present, unsure of the future. We can relate in these dark days when our highest leadership is similarly absent, in that it displays its incompetence to lead, and to gather us together around a meaningful vision. No great leader such as Moshe Rabbenu (familiarly and lovingly called “Moshe our Rabbi” in our rabbinic tradition) is going to appear to save us from ourselves. It doesn’t really work to look for one person to lead us forth from our common challenge, anyway, since no leader will be able to stand up under all our needs and projections.
The Torah, as a record of our people’s uncertain struggle for meaning and for goodness, relates that restorative justice requires all of us; the first step as the Israelites took it was to stop tolerating the evil speech and deeds of those within the community. The second step was to include everyone whose heart so moved them to participate in building the holy space that would now stand for a sadder, wiser relationship with the Wholeness we seek. With the right intention, this work shows us that we need each person’s honest, individual, unique contribution. Only in this way does our atonement become at-one-ment.
In the documentary film Lies and Miracles, the Oregon premiere of which Shir Tikvah was privileged to host this week at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, the survivor Irenka Traunik ז״ל relates the trauma she experienced as a small child exiled with her family to a Siberian labor camp. “I really do believe that people are created good,” she said, “and then something happens that ruins them.”
Not everyone repented of the Golden Calf incident, as it is known. And so we learn that It’s important to keep both halves of Irenka’s statement in mind, as our Jewish theology does. While we pray that all of us be included in a happy healthy life, in our prayers every morning we also ask for help to separate ourselves from אדם רע וחבר רע – from “an evil person and an evil companion.” We must insist that those in a healthy community be willing to be at one with its values, and if that is not possible, there must be a separation, for the sake of clarity of values, and for the sake of the health of the whole. Every community must do its best to be at one with its highest vision; we can’t expect perfection, any more than our ancestors could, but we must keep trying for the best we can do.
Recognizing that we are all doing the best we can is necessary. Kal v’homer, as Talmudic reasoning offer us, “all the more so,” we must recognize and lift up true atonement and its capacity to heal us.
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Shabbat Tetzaveh: Values Are Not Expendable

Our parashat hashauva for this week is Tetzaveh, which can literally be translated “tell them what to do.” One reason for the Torah’s powerful presence in our people’s lives over several millennia is the sure sense, explicitly offered, that someone is telling us the right thing to do.
If only we had such a plumb line to grasp to carry us through the chaos of our days. The President of the U.S. uses his power to sow disorder and suffering; our Jewish community finds ourselves targeted and afraid for our safety; and this week here in Portland our own police force has been found to be cooperating with violent white supremacist thugs who have targeted our city for their hate and violence.
Add to this the sufferings of normal daily life – some in our own congregational community are housing insecure, others of us are ill. Some face death. Some are struggling with other kinds of personal challenges to their happiness.
This week the Portland City Council voted to end our Portland police’s cooperation with the FBI (you can learn more from OPB’s report here). After the vote, Mayor Wheeler was reported by OPB as saying: “while values are extremely important, values alone cannot protect the safety of the community.”
With respect to the difficulty of his job and what he may have meant (since it is a Jewish value to give the benefit of the doubt), I appeared at that City Council meeting to speak of those values that I believe must define our city as a community: mutual respect, personal safety, and insistence on transparency in the service of truth.
In so many places in our lives, we are all tempted to compromise on our values in the service of being safe. The value of due process even for the evil man in the White House; the value of living our lives in the dignity of freedom despite our fear; and the value of upholding a community ethic of social justice as an end, not a luxury. The Mayor has it backward, it seems to me: unless there is a value we uphold as essential to the nature of our safety, our safety itself will be compromised. We can see this in the decision some join to militarize the security of our own Jewish institutions in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre – זכרונם לברכה may their memory be a blessing. And we can see it in the support some gave to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, to the extent of excusing abuses suffered by minority communities – since once we are afraid, we have a hard time finding the room in our hearts to care about others who are also afraid, and who are the first target.
Unless we defend our values first and last, what kind of society are we creating? Not a just one, probably; not one in which, in the end, when they come for you, there will be anyone left to speak up. A society that operates without absolute values is an absolute abhorrence to our prophets, and they rightly see its destruction as brought about by internal rot (children are still in cages today) more than the outside forces that were so feared.
The first line of our parashah, the one that gives us its name, is this:
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.

From this we can derive what is perhaps the most important value supporting us this week, and all weeks: shed a light on it. Bring the fuel that keeps the light burning bright. Truth and goodness flourish in light; only evil cannot stand it. For this we owe a great debt of gratitude to all the journalists investigating and digging and reporting in this time of rising hostility to that targeted community.
Only values that transcend moments of fear, of chaos, and of violence can protect our community, at the end of the day. May we continue to support each other in learning them, sharing them, and upholding them: hazak hazak vnithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Shabbat Mishpatim: Law and Order

The Talmud records that other peoples used to make fun of the Jews, as it was well known in the ancient world already that we had entered into a covenant with HaShem, with all its opportunities and responsibilities, without asking to see the fine print.

That was last week; this week, we read many of the details that turn the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words, into a guide to live by. In parashat Mishpatim, in this third year of the Triennial Cycle for Torah study, we begin with four deeply relevant verses (Exodus 23.6-9).

לֹ֥א תַטֶּ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט אֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּרִיבֽוֹ׃
You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.
The most striking aspect of this verse is the Hebrew word which translates “your needy.” Those who are vulnerable, impoverished and without resources are not someone else’s problem. They are ours. It is our Jewish obligation to see that their rights are respected equally with those who have protection and resources. This applies to the right to privacy, to due process, to safety…in short: to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is up to us to ensure all these rights for others in their disputes, not in serenity but in times of confrontation. They are ours.
מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק וְנָקִ֤י וְצַדִּיק֙ אַֽל־תַּהֲרֹ֔ג כִּ֥י לֹא־אַצְדִּ֖יק רָשָֽׁע׃
Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer.
There is such a thing as a lie, and there are lies that kill innocents. Lies about immigrants who are lawfully seeking asylum have caused deaths. The evil that is pouring through the systems of our nation increases at our collective peril. Those children in cages, those bereft mothers and fathers, they are ours.
וְשֹׁ֖חַד לֹ֣א תִקָּ֑ח כִּ֤י הַשֹּׁ֙חַד֙ יְעַוֵּ֣ר פִּקְחִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽים׃
Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right.
Bribery is a slippery thing, not usually so clear as a payoff envelope in hand. A bribe, for the Rabbis of the Talmud, is anything that “blinds the clear-sighted” and causes a bias in judgement. The victim, once again, is the innocent person telling the truth. Those innocents are ours even though they may seem alien.
וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

Judaism is sometimes characterized disparagingly as a religion of laws. This is a misunderstanding of a much more sophisticated system, that understands a difference between mishpat, the “law” of our parashah’s title, and tzedek, “innocence” or “righteousness.” In this way, Jewish law and American law are similar.

Yet the laws of the Torah are not the same as the law we are familiar with in the U.S. because Torah law is best understood as “the presence of G*d,” which brought about the creation of our world through shaping order out of chaos. For Jewish tradition, the presence of G*d is manifest only in mishpat tzedek, as Isaiah put it: “righteous judgement.” That is to say, “I was just following orders” is never an acceptable defense for wrongdoing; when the law is unethical, one must not follow it.
May we never be faced with more extreme examples of this idea than we currently experience! and may we come to know our power and our strength, together, to recognized oppression in its many guises, and to resist them all, since we know the feelings of the stranger, since we were strangers, and that is enough to know.
Shabbat shalom!