Parashat Shelakh L’kha: Not So Close

This struggle is harder, and taking longer, than we thought

This week’s parashah tells the story of how, in the old Yiddish expression, mahn trakht und Gott lakht, “people plan and G*d laughs.”

Our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, expected that the journey to the Land they were promised would be their new home would be just a few days of hard hiking and lack of water. For a Rohingya family fleeing persecution in Burma, Venezuelans migrating to Ecuador, and a family standing on the other side of a river separating Mexico from the United States, it can seem so heartbreakingly close: that freedom and safety are just over the hill, around the bend, across the river.

Human migration for the sake of survival is as old as the species homo sapiens and the walk out of Africa that took place 100,000 years ago and more. We do not stay in one place for long – another reason why the idea of owning land and refusing to share it for the sake of another human being is inherently unethical. Seen from this perspective, anyone without a haven might confidently assume that they can pitch a tent or erect a lean-to on any available and promising piece of ground, and it would be hard to gainsay them.

As our Torah tells it, our ancestors’ arrival, finally, to a safe haven they can call home is delayed because of their own lack of ability to trust each other. The brutalization they experienced as slaves in Egypt impeded them just as surely as lack of documentation or hostile border patrols. It took our ancestors a full generation to overcome their trauma, and informs our urgent sense that what was done to us should not be done to anyone.

We as Jews know that treating the migrant as the home-born is a primary ethical imperative of our tradition: “the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you” (Num.15.16) appears in this week’s parashah, one of thirty-six times we are commanded not to oppress a stranger, but to respect them as we wish to be respected.

We also know that to speak out is not enough; we must also act. This week I offer you opportunities to act on behalf of the wandering refugee who traces the steps we once trod:

  1. support Refugees International with a donation
  2. contact your elected representative (even if you know that they agree with you) to express your opposition to the camps in which the Trump administration is incarcerating innocent children

It is human to long for a better, more secure life. It is Jewish to help make that possible. In our supportive community we can take turns acting, then resting, then despairing, then acting, in hope, once again.

 

Advertisements

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: We Need More Light

The days are as long as they get right now, yet we need light desperately: the light of hope, the light of healing, the light of happiness, all obscured in the horror of realizing that our own Federal government is operating concentration camps full of children and adults who are innocent of any crime.

 

For us Jews with our community history, this particular transgression of the current administration is the most traumatic of all the long list of the sins it commits. Our help will come from the same place: our history, our culture, and our community. We know more than anyone that when the world becomes a chaotic and frightening place, individuals who hold on to their integrity and continue to do the right thing are the shining lights that save our sanity and inspire us to hold on.

 

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha begins with light, that of the menorah in the Mishkan, the sacred space at the center of the Israelite wilderness encampment.

 

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר֖ ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

HaShem spoke to Moses, saying

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃

Tell Aaron: “When you set up the light, let the seven lamps shed their light at the front of the menorah.”

BaMidbar 8.1-2

 

This simple instruction seems obvious – set up the light so it best illuminates the room – yet it must be stated. Our ancestors read such mitzvot carefully, looking for the deeper symbolic meaning that would justify an otherwise simplistic and easy to overlook command. What they found is a metaphor for our Jewish community.

 

The menorah symbolizes the Jewish people. It has seven branches, symbolizing different paths to G*d, but is made of a single gold piece. The various differences and qualities do not detract from the unity. This means that diversity need not lead to division Each individual talent should lead to a synthesis of different views and behavior. – Rabbi Menakhem Mendel Schneerson

 

Throughout our history, community is central to Jewish survival. Yet Jewish community does not move in lockstep, but in as many directions as there are menorah branches, if not more:

 

  1. different spiritual practices: some love Torah study, some love prayer, some love service to others.
  2. different expressions of belonging: some give money, some in-kind, some make a visit or volunteer to fill a community need.
  3. different personal needs
  4. different perspectives and ways of knowing
  5. different expressions of self
  6. different Jewish backgrounds
  7. different feelings about Israel

 

It is obvious that there are many differences among us, and that these differences are part of what make us so special as a religious community.

 

What is not so obvious is how to fulfill the mitzvah of making sure that each of our lights is carefully centered toward the front of the space we share.

 

Are we patient enough to hear out someone who thinks differently? are we respectful of other’s sense of self and need? Most of all, do we remember to give each other the benefit of our doubt before judging?

 

During the summer our Talmud class studies Pirke Avot, a selection of ancient rabbinical ethical “sound bites.” Among them we find this:

 

Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it.

 

I am proud that our congregation is not only a member of the Community of Welcoming Congregations, we are 25% LGBTQIA+ identified. During this month when we are offered the opportunity to consider more deeply what it is like to be queer (Pride month), or what it is like to be a person of color (June 19th was Juneteenth), the real significance of the mitzvah of the menorah seems to be this:

 

Be like Aaron, noting how each member of our beloved community shines their light. Do what you can to make sure each light shines clear and bright.

 

If you are extroverted and passionate, this means being quiet and assuming that the quiet person will say something that you need to hear.

If you are a cis person, it means graciously offering your personal pronouns so that a trans person won’t feel awkward in their need to do so.

If you are a man, it means thinking carefully about whether you let women be people.

If you are smart, it means remembering that according to Jewish tradition, the truly wise are those who learn from others.

If you are white, it means remembering that not every Jew is.

If you are a born Jew, it means never asking anyone whether they converted.

 

We cannot heal the world, but while we do what we can, our history, our culture and our religious tradition demonstrate the power of acting according to our ethics anyway. Especially under stress, it matters so very much that we still are able to hold hands and face the world together, compassionate and gentle with each other.

 

Let your light shine! and look carefully to help others shine as happily as possible. In all this darkness, we need more light.

Shabbat Naso: Queering Your Torah Study

Shir Tikvah’s greatest contribution to the Portland Jewish community is our vibrant, provocative weekly Torah study. As scholar Judith Plaskow put it:

 

Given the centrality of Torah study and interpretation to Jewish self-understanding, it is not surprising that many contemporary Jews continue to grapple with Torah as a way of defining their Jewish identities. Whether they turn to Torah out of a simple desire to learn, deep commitment, puzzlement, or passionate anger and dissent, they continue to understand the acts of reading and interpretation as crucial to who they are.[1]

 

This is the way we see Torah study at Shir Tikvah. Women and LGBTQIA+ Jews are examples of  the marginalized communities within Judaism which have felt distanced by Torah in one way or another. Walking away is one answer, but it is a spiritual dead end. It was only when we took the altar by the horns and insisted on our ability to read more deeply, using the traditional tools themselves, that we began to see the traditional interpretation of any given verse as only one possible aspect of a Torah that can truly belong to all of us.

 

Feminists began to insist on our right to center existing teachings that had been, like us, marginalized. Queer perspectives on Torah uncover new meanings by “insisting on the fluidity of all seemingly fixed boundaries.”[2] When we engage and struggle to find meaning within this central text of our people, the gift we give to the entire Jewish community is that of renewal, a refreshing of well-known stories with new depths of meaning, of relevance, and of exciting inspiration.

 

This Shabbat’s parashah is called Naso, from the Hebrew idiom naso et rosh, which means “lift up the head.” The meaning in this context is to count the people, but look at the richness of perspective in the actual wording: to lift up the head is to look each individual person in the face, to see them and to account for them. It is the essential act of loving kindness we can offer each other, and in so doing, to welcome each other at our Torah study table. Welcome to you, and to your questions and thoughts, and to the unique, holy and absolutely necessary sense of meaning that you bring when you are known, and named, and seen in your face for who and what you are. In this way we lift up the Torah’s face as well, and look for the place where we can hold on to it, that the words of Proverbs may be true for us:

עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר

Torah is a tree of life to those who hold on to her,

whoever holds on to her is enriched

– Proverbs 3.18

We give thanks on this Pride Shabbat for all those over many years of Shir Tikvah Torah study who have helped us queer our learning, and in so doing bring marvels of meaning and relevance to all of us, at the table we share and beyond.

 

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

 

On being an orthodox Jew who believes queer people deserve complete equality:  https://hevria.com/elad/not-waiting-halacha-queer-rights/

 

 

[1] Judith Plaskow, “Foreward” Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (2009) xi

[2] ibid, xii

Shabbat Naso: In Honor of Pride, Queer Morning Blessings

begin with this blessing for all

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שאשני בצלמו

barukh atah Ad-nai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam sheh’asani b’tzalmo

I give thanks that I am created in in Image of G*d

choose the appropriate continuation/s

for a non-binary person

  ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני כרצונו

barukh atah Ad-nai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam sheh’asani kirtzono

I give thanks to G*d for making me according to the divine will

for a trans man

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שהפכני לאיש

barukh atah Ad-nai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam sheh’haf’khani l’ish*

I give thanks to G*d for transforming me into a man

for a trans woman

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שהפכני לאישה

barukh atah Ad-nai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam sheh’haf’khani l’isha

I give thanks to G*d for transforming me into a woman

for one who questions

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני לבקש

barukh atah Ad-nai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam sheh’asani l’vakesh

I give thanks to G*d for making me a seeker

for a (gender)queer person

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני כרצונו

barukh atah Ad-nai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam sheh’asani kirtzono

I give thanks to G*d for making me according to the divine will

for a cis woman

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני אישה

barukh atah Ad-nai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam sheh’asani ishah

I give thanks to G*d for being a woman

for a cis man

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני איש

barukh atah Ad-nai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam sheh’asani ish

I thank G*d for being a man

all conclude:

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר יצר את הנפש בצלמו

בצלם דמות תבניתו והתקין אותנו בנין עדי עד ברוך אתה היוצר חיים

barukh atah Ad-nai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam asher yatzar et hanefesh b’tzalmo, b’tzelem d’mut tavnito, v’hitkin otanu binyan adey ad. Barukh atah Ad-nai Yotzer Hayim.

Blessed is the Holy Source of life for the human soul which is created in the image of all that is holy, and which shines forever in beauty. Blessed is the Creator of my life.

 

*Rabbi Yosef Pallache, Izmir 1896

Shabbat BeHukotai: How to Choose Blessing Over Curse

Our parashat hashavua, our Torah reading for the week, is BeHukotai, which can be translated as “in all these laws.” The parashah itself is famous for a horrifying list of curses that we are told will befall us if we turn away from the good path of life. Longstanding Jewish tradition bids us chant this section of Torah quickly, in an undertone, as if to speak the terrible words aloud would make them more real.

 

This may be true of something which is only possible, but not evident; we, on the other hand, live in a time when our Jewish tradition declares that evil is upon us, and we must speak out and name the curses of our time, and demand attention, action, response.

 

The curses listed in this parashah of the Torah ring terribly true to us in these times: personal suffering, social breakdown, climate catastrophe. Perhaps most awful is the warning that our own efforts to stay personally safe, and shield those we love, will be fruitless. The communal nature of our existence is inescapable: we will all go together when we go, as Tom Lehrer put it.

 

To look at the text and be distracted by the grammar: “If you do not follow my laws I your G*d will punish you” is to let surface distraction deter you from the most important message our tradition can impart: our acts matter.

 

To follow the laws of B’Hukotai means:

  • to declare that at all times and in all places, there is something more important than accumulation of power, money, or even attention, and that is the ethic behind the action.
  • to assert that the spirit of love your neighbor as yourself must be asserted over the letter of unjust laws or norms.
  • to recognize and act upon the message of Shabbat: everything and everyone must rest from productivity.

 

It is a choice: blessing or curse. Climate change can be addressed if there is sufficient political will. Social breakdown can be healed if there is sufficient community involvement. And the personal suffering of inequitable political, financial and social systems cannot be avoided.

 

The ancient text is not comforting. It calls us to recognize a frightening reality. We might choose if we could not to live in such historic times. But your religious community is not here to help you turn away from terror when it hits home. It is here to help each of us find solidarity, support and company so that we can hold hands and insist on looking for and upholding the blessings even now, especially now.