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.

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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.

Shabbat HaGadol: It Matters Now, Too

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol, the “great Shabbat,” possibly echoing the content of the special Haftarah chanted on this day, which speaks of a “great and terrible day” which is coming.
הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם ה’ הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

Here, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and terrifying day of HaShem. (Malakhi 3.23)

The Prophet Malakhi – his name means merely “my messenger” – brings words to a people demoralized, despairing of truth and no longer so sure that virtue is a reward. They have seen those who cheat and lie prosper, and those who abuse workers and the vulnerable poor grow rich. They have begun to wonder if anything matters at all, and why be good, why try your best, if evil is flourishing?
It’s a perennial question for us Jews, and for those who love us and travel with us. We are preparing once again to celebrate the Pesakh Seder with all those who are part of our community, and for some of us there may be a painful undertone of wondering if it really matters. How can we pay attention to requirements for ridding our houses of hametz when the world seems so overwhelmingly full of something much worse, which we don’t seem to be able to eradicate?
Let me offer you a few brief thoughts if this is where you find yourself on this Shabbat before Pesakh 5779.
1. For those who are moved by comparison: the song is V’hi Sheh-amdah, which reminds us that this is not the first time. Our ancestors have seen worse, and who are we not to keep up the traditions they managed to preserve?
2  For those who prefer relevant symbolism: consider the circumstances of the first Pesakh. Plagues have destroyed much of Egypt’s infrastructure and the people are rightly terribly frightened – as are the Jews who witness the terror. It is at the moment of greatest fear, when one experiences the strongest inclination toward despair and immobilization, that the door to freedom is opened. Not before. The Prophet Malakhi’s message warns exactly of this: the day that comes will be great, but not in the colloquial sense. It will be terrifying. In other words, don’t wait for the situation to calm before responding – it may not calm.
3. And for those who want to consider integrity of practice: in a few days it will be time for you to collect all that is hametz in your house, and to either finish it, give it away, or lock it up and send me a list so that I can symbolically sell it for you, so that you will be living in accordance with the Torah’s dictate that “no hametz shall be found in your possession during the Festival of Matzot.” (Exodus 12.19). As the great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz taught, A ritual that is only followed when you feel like it is no true ritual; a prayer you only recite when you want to indicates that you have no G*d but yourself. And good luck with that.
My friends, this was a difficult week – and this was not the first like it, and it will not be the last. It’s rather like standing in the ocean in rough water just deep enough that each wave crashing to the beach nearly knocks one down. We cannot stop the flow and we cannot get used to it – but in a real community of mutual support and caring, we can hold each other’s hands and together meet the next wave without being swept away.
We are no different from those who came before us, really: we make our meaning as a small island of calm in the midst of a great rough sea of uncertainty. The more we give to it, the stronger it is when we come to need it. Don’t skimp on your Shabbat; don’t short change yourself on your Pesakh; don’t worry if you cannot see the ultimate meaning of all of this ritual, or of the world that surrounds us so overwhelmingly. There is, in the end, a comfort in joining the rest of us in dipping karpas in salt water, in hiding matzah for children to find, and in singing dayenu. May it be enough.

Shabbat HaHodesh: Homelessness and Hope

On this Shabbat HaHodesh (The Month) we mark the first day of the month of Nisan, which, since it is the first of months in our calendar, is also the first day of the Jewish year. Happy New Year! Our people took their timing from the world around them, which renewed itself in buds of green and baby lambs at this time.
The return of spring and the longer, warmer days bring with them the opportunity to stretch, and relax, and hope again. This sense of renewal is so precious when we are able to feel it, and so necessary to our ability to live and thrive, that our ancestors wisely incorporate an opportunity for us to be mindful, and to be grateful, in our daily morning prayers: ברוך המחדש כל יום מעשה בראשית Blessed is the Renewal every Day of Creation. 
 
Everyone can touch this sense of beauty and meaning, whether one lives in an insulated house or in a tent under a bridge. Our sense of the history of our people and the culture of our experience is that of wandering and homelessness, and so we know that even in uncertainty there can be beauty, and even in misery there can be uplift. Flowers bloom freely; it is we who need the regular reminder to look at them.
This Shabbat we read parashat Tazria, which speaks of the seeding of new life, and the special role of the female whose womb is a conduit between the Source of All Life and the small lives of human beings. The most ancient level of our tradition seems to recognize the female infant as a double blessing for that reason. The Torah records our ancestors’ sense that the act of giving birth makes one tame’ – and here we are confused if we translate tame’ as “impure.” Yet it is a condition from which one must take time to recover, and so it may well be that a mother giving birth was standing in a place, as it were, which we normal mortals cannot access.
There is a parallel between the homeless human being under the bridge and the mother giving birth. Both are in a place of human intensity which is not easy for the rest of us to understand or with which to empathize. Like our patriarchal ancestors, who were quick to recoil in fear of what they did not understand and in which they could not participate, it is easy to see a negative difference here, and to fear an impurity of some sort, and to avoid contact with someone in such a state.

Yet the mother giving birth seeds the world with renewal; unless we can find it in ourselves to look more closely at the homeless refugee at our border, under our bridge, and on our street, we will miss the opportunity to discover what renewal of our own lives, and our world, is dependent upon what only the houseless person can seed for us.

If we look at the growing desperation of those living on the streets from a distance; if we take refuge in some explanation for their plight from which we ourselves are separate; if we refuse to look at them at all, we will not avoid the supposed contagion of impurity, but only make it worse with a rising tide of callousness. This is the impurity that recedes only when it is seized with compassion, with awe, and with the determination to find through that human touch a renewal of life for us all.