Shabbat Parah: Being Seen (Trans Visibility Shabbat)

This Shabbat we mark another of the special Shabbatot that count down (up, rather) to Pesakh: this Shabbat which is Shemini in our regular cycle of readings is also Shabbat Parah, named for a red heifer. Each of the special readings added during this time brings our attention to an important aspect of the Festival of Matzot which we will soon celebrate together.
There are so many eventualities to consider when a major event such as Pesakh is planned, and our own preparation for a Seder is no different from our ancestors’ journey to Jerusalem for the ancient version of the community observance. What if someone is delayed and can’t make it? There’s a backup plan for that: Pesakh Sheni. What if someone has fallen on hard times and can’t afford to hold a Seder? There’s a mitzvah for that too: Ma’ot Hittin. And what if one is tamey, and incapable for some reason of joining a Seder? That’s where this week’s parashah comes in. For our ancestors, there was a ritual of sprinkling a special substance, made of the ashes of a red cow, which changed one’s status and made it possible for the person who is tamey (pronounced “tah-MAY”) to join in the communal Pesakh observance.
If we are addressing an emotional obstruction of a spiritual state, such as the death of a loved one (being in the presence of death makes one tamey), the relevance is similar to the anti-anxiety practice or pill we might take in order to calm the heart enough to be able to participate in the Seder experience. But there is a different side to understanding what it means to be tamey. Consider the life experiences that result in tum’ah, that make one tamey, they include (1) the death of a loved one, (2) giving birth, (3) exposure to the physicality of either experience (contact with the dead, or with menstrual blood, or semen, or amniotic fluid). It has been suggested that in these moments we are in a different place psychologically and/or spiritually, isolated from our regular social circles and alienated from the normal give and take of daily life in community. We have had a powerful, singular experience, not given to sharing. Our experience has taken us outside the community; a veil hangs between us and our companions, and we are not fully seen.
It’s a temporary experience, and when enough time has passed, we will find our “new normal,” sometimes with the help of a ritual moment that allows us to cross over the divide between the solo truth of lived personal experience and the compromises inherent in communal existence. The red heifer helped our ancestors to do this, but we don’t grind cow ashes into a potion anymore. We still, however, need a way to mark our transition.
That’s where the other significance of this Shabbat comes in, as this is also the Shabbat of Trans Visibility. In our own day, in our own way, we all need to be seen, and welcomed as part of our communities of meaning – even – especially – when we’ve had an experience that makes us feel at least temporarily alienated. For a trans person, that might include being “birthed” into one’s true gender. Even as the ancient Israelite community deliberately and officially acknowledged a passage in a tamey person’s experience (from woman to mother, from child to orphan, from partner to parent) so also on this Shabbat our community says to those among us who are trans that we see you, and we embrace you as part of our community. As we do so we offer our support to the trans person as they seek to complete their journey from isolated tamey to part-of-us tahor, and find their belonging with the rest of us.
The first Seder of Pesakh 5779 will be celebrated on erev Shabbat, Friday evening April 19. What transition do you need to complete to be ready? What belonging do you need? What welcome can you offer? Now is the time to plan and consider, invite and prepare. May all who are hungry for community find their place; may all who seek to take a deep breath of belonging find their welcome.

Shabbat Tzav: how to Keep that Fire Burning

This evening as Shabbat begins, the holiday of Purim finally ends, with the extra day called Shushan Purim, the Purim celebrated one day later by those who live in cities that were walled at the time of the Purim story, which takes place in ancient Persia (during the First Exile, 586-520 BCE, when the Jewish refugees from the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem lived in the Persian Empire, which had succeeded the Babylonian in regional dominance; it has sometimes been placed during the reign of Xerxes).
Purim is the Jewish version of Mardi Gras, or May Day, or any ritual which marks the advent of spring and the ancient joy of our slow but steady return to longer, warmer days. It’s a much needed opportunity to let go, to upend the normal conventions that frame our lives for one day of rebellion against them. There’s a profound depth to this concept and more to learn – which we’ll return to next year, G*d willing.
And now it’s onward, past Purim into spring and the much more important Festival of Pesakh. This holy day period is so significant that we begin to anticipate it on Tu B’Shevat, when we celebrate the sap rising in the trees; then, even before Purim, there are special Shabbatot, marked by special Torah and Haftarah readings. Nearly every Shabbat brings us a different important detail of preparing for the hag HaMatzot, which we’ll explore as each one is upon us, Shabbat by Shabbat.
If Sukkot was the most significant festival of our ancestors in the land of Israel, Pesakh became primary for us in Exile: where once we farmers celebrated our harvest, we became wanderers seeking the meaning of our religious identity in the story of how “all those who wander are not lost.” Wandering, we need to learn, is a necessary, lifelong process of true personal growth.
Yes – but it is so very tiring and uncertain. Is it never possible to simply come home, and know ourselves there, and end this wandering? Well, no. Life continues, and G*d willing we continue with it, confronted by more questions, more challenges, and more opportunities, not despite all the horrors but within and through them, to find holiness and meaning within the uncertainty.
Spring is coming, and no doubt the social and political stress of our lives will warm with the temperatures. And then there’s Pesakh, only a month away, and much to prepare. This Shabbat is a welcome quiet moment between special maftir Torah readings, special Haftarot, and holidays. This is a regular Shabbat, the kind where you are invited to take a deep breath and become still, so that you might consider, after the long winter, where spring has found you.
In a quiet moment you may realize how exhausted you truly are; Shabbat reminds you that you must rest one day a week (to deny this is arrogance, or at least a misunderstanding of human endurance capacity).
In a peaceful moment you may wonder how you will regain your sense of energy and purpose. As we have learned, each of us is needed to hold up our piece of the universe. No life is superfluous, and therefore no matter how overwhelmed we are, none of us can simply “check out” and leave the rest of us to do the necessary work. May Shabbat remind you that you are not alone, and in our shared community of support each one of us can take turns spelling the other.
In a Shabbat moment, may you consider this eternal message from our parashat hashavua on this normal, ordinary, wonderful Shabbat:
אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶֽה
“Fire shall be kept burning continually on the altar; don’t let it go out.” – VaYikra (Leviticus) 6.6
Each of us has a passion for something significant; each of us is called out of bed and into life by something important. Our tradition teaches that the fire of this Torah verse really refers to that passion in you, and the altar is your heart. On this Shabbat, consider what you need to keep the fire of your heart going; what regular feeding does it need? As our days warm, may the fire of your passion grow, and may you know your own power to embrace your life, and find within it the blessing you seek, which will bless all around you as well.
hazak hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other!

Shabbat VaYikra: Salaam, Shalom, Peace

This week our parashat hashavua is VaYikra, which translates as a calling upon, or calling out – out loud. G*d calls upon Moshe to act to evoke holiness in the world, and G*d similarly calls upon us. Though we do not hear a voice, we can sometimes feel that there is something that we are called upon to do. Today we are called upon to speak out for love, for community, and to declare that Od Yavo Shalom, Salaam, Aleynu – peace will yet come to us.

We mourn with our Muslim sisters and brothers after the tragedy of the massacre in two New Zealand mosques. This horrific violence is an indicator of a threat that faces us all: the rise of a racist, hateful white supremacist ideology which targets all of us who are deemed inimical to that world. African Americans, LGBTQIA+ people, immigrants, Muslims, feminists, and also us Jews – we are all endangered and we are all called to stand together and strengthen each other. We are witnessing a global resurgence of fascism and white nationalism, and the power of that hate is real, as is the power of the fear behind it, and which it causes. We must not give in to it. We must insist that our elected representatives hold accountable those in our midst who encourage and support hate, and we must ourselves do what we can to give that hate no support, no attention, no opening in our communities.

And even while our hearts are breaking, we are called to hold each other up, and so lift up the power of our mutual respect and support, in defiance of the chaos created by fear. Let us come together to affirm through our acts the belief that a better world is possible. Transformative love is possible. Wholeness is possible: salaam, shalom, peace.

Mir veln zey iberlebn, Avinu shebashamayim – We will outlive them, G*d in heaven! (Yiddish, sang in the face of Nazis at gunpoint)
inna lilahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un – We belong to G*d and to G*d we shall return (Qur’an)

And in the most appropriate form of defiance we know, may we all insist upon a Shabbat shalom.

hazak hazak v’nithazek,
Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat Pekudey, Adar II Begins: Don’t Burn the Day

These days, being happy is not easy. Reasons to be sad, to be worried, or to be outraged are easy to find – and late winter’s gloomy chill doesn’t do much to lighten the mood. Even as I have heard some say that Tisha B’Av is impossible in Portland Oregon because the weather is so beautiful, Purim’s declaration that we must be happy seems similarly out of step with our real lives. This year, with an extra leap month of Adar (added 7 times in the 19 year cycle of the Jewish calendar) we are fortunate to have twice the days to find our happy place; and find it we must, our tradition insists.
Consider that the Jewish people has been practicing the mitzvah of mi sheh-nikhnas Adar marbim simkha, “when Adar enters, happiness increases” for many generations. It’s fascinating and curious that in the Talmud, the rabbis declare that, when all other holy days have faded into the past, Purim will still be celebrated. On the simple human level, each of us yearns to be happy, each of us needs opportunities for a smile, a laugh, a moment of delight.
Our parashat hashavua, (Torah reading for the week) is called Pekudey, meaning “records,” from the word for taking account of people, or things. It might be translated along the same lines as “noticing.” In it we are offered a way to learn what it might mean to fulfill the mitzvah of being happy while at the same time not turning away from the reality of one’s life.
This parashah describes in great detail an amazing and joyful event. The mishkan, built with love and freewill offerings by the Israelite community, is completed, and it glows with the Presence of the holy. Every Israelite “whose heart so moved” brought their heart’s offering. All were needed; all were welcomed. They were still escaped and homeless slaves, but they found happiness in together building their sacred space.
It’s important to notice that each offering was different, and all were necessary, just as we are all different, and to the extent that we seek to bring our heart’s gifts to our common space, we are building a space of joy and uplift. If you are not happy in the work, it’s a pretty good sign that you are in the wrong place.
The command to “Be Happy, It’s Adar” is really a way to remind each one of us every year to notice how we are doing. Are you capable of moments of delight? How’s your happiness quotient? You are given the gift of life; there is no rehearsal and no do-over as far as we know. The Jewish tradition of optimism and belief in the perfectibility of this world, the insistence that we are not allowed to despair, requires us to do the best we can in this life to be happy – or at least to do the best we can not to be unhappy for one moment longer than necessary.
Most days, we don’t do this by conquering the world or overthrowing the system. Most days, we do this by noticing a flower, a bird, a kindness. In 1998 the Dave Matthews band released a song in which he sang
We need the light of love in here
Don’t beat your head
Dry your eyes
Let the love in there
There’s bad times
But that’s OK
Just look for love in it
And don’t burn the day away ((full lyrics here)
Don’t burn the day. It could be your happiest one. Notice it, notice every gift and every opportunity for gratitude, and for the love you are able to give and receive. This, it seems to me, is a way to understand the urgency of Purim, and its eternal significance. May it touch you despite all that challenges us when we simply try to feel the wholeness that is our original and our natural state.

Shabbat VaYakhel: Holiness and Desecration

Last week our parashat hashavua related a low moment for our people, in which our lack of trust in each other and lack of commitment to our values led to what is called in Jewish tradition hillul haShem, the desecration of the Name of G*d. This is a much-misunderstood term which has not lost its resonance today, unfortunately, in light of current events both nationally and closer to home.
Opposite the concept of hillul, desecration, is that of kiddush HaShem, sanctifying the Name. It may be simply understood as the defiance of hillul HaShem,  as we learn in the Megillat Ester which we will soon read in observance of Purim. In the Persian palace, the struggle of our people to hold on to their Jewish identity and culture, writ small, is reflected in Mordecai advice to Ester to hide her Jewishness, at first. Yet when a threat arose to all Jews, to hide would have been a betrayal of her people, an act tantamount to hillul HaShem, desecrating the Name, because (1) it would be a public repudiation of her loyalty to the Jewish covenant and the G*d it celebrates, and (2) in this way it would be an undermining psychological blow to all those who were struggling to hold out against similar oppressive pressure, whether it was to give up Shabbat or Kashrut, or to let the majority culture erase our Jewish identity in smaller, less obvious ways that nevertheless take their toll over time. When it is desecration to hide, is is sanctification to come out for the sake of what we owe each other in a meaningful covenant community.
Hillul haShem, then, is not about insulting G*d directly; the damage is in the way it weakens the connections between us, which is, we are taught, the way we come to know the G*d who brought us out of Egypt. The Golden Calf (or bull, really) is only the symptom. The problem is that you and I aren’t supporting each other, and that as a result, we’ve lost our way.
The Tzanzer Rebbe used to tell this tale: a person lost in a deep dark forest searched desperately for a way out. Coming upon another person, the first sighed in relief, “ah, I’m saved! please show me the way out of this forest.” But the other replied, “Friend, I too am lost. Like you, I can only show you the ways I have tried that have failed. Let us join hands and search for the way together.”
The word hillul, desecration, recalls the word hallal, “emptiness.” It speaks of that which, rather than hallowing (kiddush) actually hollows out the meaning from what we do. Kiddush HaShem is the refusal to let our principles be devalued, whether because of convenience, peer pressure, or even fear. The sanctification of the Name can be a quiet act such as entering a prayer space quietly, or stopping until the Shema has been recited in full; or it can (G*d forbid) be an overt act of defiance. Such acts include the women who refused to give their gold earrings for the making of the calf in last week’s parashah, or refusing to go along because it’s uncomfortable to be outed as the only Jew in a room, or even the act of standing firm against persecution, refusing to deny oneself or one’s identity (only permissible when hiding is either impossible or publicly demoralizing, as in the example of Esther).
This week our parashah brings the promise that hillul can be repaired, although not erased.  Some days don’t feel like it, but even as we are taught that every day brings opportunities to recognize and recite so many blessings in our lives, so also a closer and more thoughtful look might reveal small but significant daily opportunities for us to choose between adding to the holy in the world or detracting from it by small acts and words. May we all become more aware of the empty spaces in our lives, and how acts of connection have the power to sanctify the life we share.