Shabbat BaMidbar and Shavuot 5778: Into The Wilderness

Our parashat hashavua is called after the name of the book it opens, BaMidbar, “in the wilderness.” The first verse is both simple and completely mysterious:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai (1:1)
This is the Shabbat before Shavuot, the Festival on which we commemorate the day when the people of Israel stood in G*d’s presence and received from that moment the heart of the Torah, the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words. I invite you to join me in considering that simple, and profound, idea.
First: “G*d spoke to Moshe.” what does it mean to say that G*d spoke?
 
Second: a human being, Moshe, experiences a sense of connection with G*d. We are so used to it in the Torah that we read blithely over it, looking for the action, forgetting as we humans do to be awed by the thought of what it means to be in the Presence of G*d. 
 
Third: what is the content of the davar, the word that G*d speaks? In Jewish tradition, that content is Torah, writ large: our tradition considers all learning that leads to spiritual wholeness to be Torah, not just the five books we keep in a sacred scroll.
Ancient wisdom tells us plainly that such Torah is not heard, or received, easily. We don’t get it on the couch watching television, nor even simply hiking through the woods. It comes when we know that we are standing in the Presence.
 

By three things was the Torah given: by fire, water and wilderness. By fire, as it is written (Exodus 19:18): “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G‑d descended upon it in fire.” By water, as it is written (Judges 4:4): “The heavens also dripped, yes, the clouds dripped water.” And by wilderness, as it is written (Numbers 1:1): “G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai.”  (Midrash Rabbah)

Fire – This morning I as you awoke to the news of another school shooting. As I write, the news is that ten human lives have been violently ended by gunfire in Santa Fe High School outside of Galveston Texas. This is the twenty-second school shooting since the beginning of 2018, an average of more than one per week. And our hearts are heavy for the violent deaths of all those caught up in violence everywhere: Palestinians in Gaza, Arabs in Syria, Rohingya in Myanmar, African Americans in the United States.
What Torah must we learn by this fire?
Water – The arrogance of modernity caused us to dismiss ancient warnings that link our social ethics to our ability to thrive on the earth; one prominent example is that second paragraph of the Shema: “Take care, lest you become confused and turn away and serve other gods, and HaShem become angry and shut up the the heavens so that there will be no rain, and the ground shall not yield to you, and you will perish.” (Deut.11.16-17) But today we see a divine anger – the earth’s righteous anger, which is just another way of knowing HaShem – expressed in the climate change that we have brought upon ourselves through turning away to worship the gods of convenience, of wealth and power.
What Torah must we learn by this water?
Our Torah was given in the wilderness, we are told; wilderness, chaotic and unsettled, unknown and undefined. We do not receive it in the comfort of our convictions and in the safety of our agreements, but only in the chaos and uncertainty of learning and spiritual growth.
What Torah must we learn in this wilderness?
On this Shabbat in the wilderness, on this Shavuot that commemorates awareness of the Presence found only within that wilderness, may our fear and sadness and anger lead not to despair but to an active desire to brave the uncertainty and plunge in to the unknown, that we might be in the Presence, that we might know the Awe, that we might seek the davar, the Word that heals and helps us to learn, and helps us to do.
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Shabbat BeHar-BeHukotai: Love Your Mother

This week we finish reading the Book VaYikra, Leviticus, with another double parashat hashavua. The name of the first of the two, BeHar, offers already a nice little learning. The word behar, actually three words in English, means “at the mountain” and refers to Mount Sinai. The first verse goes on to specify:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם–וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לה’. HaShem spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the People of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a Shabbat unto HaShem.
From this our teacher Rashi asks a famous question: Mah inyan shemitta atzel Har Sinai? “What does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?” This is the Jewish version of a phrase you may know – “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” In both cases the question concerns the apparent lack of relationship between two subjects – in our case, letting the land rest, called shemitta, and Mt. Sinai. Why is Mt. Sinai mentioned here, at this moment? It might be more than just a subtle reminder that in just another week we will reach Shavuot, the day on which we commemorate standing at Sinai to receive the Torah.
Many answers have been offered by different commentators, wise teachers and curious students:
1. you might think that letting the land rest is merely an economic matter and not spiritual, and therefore we recall the moment we stood at Mt Sinai in proximity to it to remind you.
2. the shemitta year is only one out of seven, yet its impact blesses the other six (by letting the land restore itself naturally for a complete year). You might think that Shabbat, only one out of seven, is a small thing, yet it was commanded at Mt Sinai and, if we rest, it will bless our entire week.
3. The Sefat Emet teaches that this mitzvah is so central that all of Torah depends upon it, and that is why Mt Sinai, which we associate with the giving of the Torah, is mentioned here:
Letting the land lay fallow – letting go of our need to work it, to work, to be productive, to control our future – leaving that in G*d’s hands, that is the foundation of the entire Torah, which necessitates a measure of submission to God’s will and a relinquishing control in this world. To embrace a life of Torah, one needs a measure of letting go. (from Steven Exler, The Bayit)
And, finally, a contemporary teacher asks: What does it mean that the whole Torah is dependent upon the laws of Shemittah?
It means, very simply, that the entirety of our religious lives, our spiritual lives, are built upon the very physical reality of a functioning earth. None of the world of Torah gets off the ground – literally – unless the ground is healthy. We cannot do anything without an earth which is nourished, sustained, sustainable, and healthy. If we have no clean air to breathe, no clean water to drink, no clean soil to plant in, then we have no foundation in which to root – literally – our religious lives. It is a simple, basic truth: we need to take care of our earth to have a future upon it. (Steven Exler, The Bayit)
As the following parashah, parashat BeHukotai, makes very clear, if we fall from Mt Sinai, we and the earth will suffer together. Our ancestors understood the existential linkage between our ethical behavior and our world’s physical existence. On this Shabbat before the secular holiday of Mothers’ Day, may we consider that other Mother of ours, the planet upon which we live, breath and find our meaning.

Shabbat Emor: Against the Cruelty

In this second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading, our congregation, like many others throughout the Jewish world, begins to read not at the beginning of parashat Emor but with chapter 22, verse 17. This is about one-third of the way in, since the Triennial Cycle makes its way through one third of each parashah each year. And in chapter 22 and following, we find a collection of mitzvot that do not seem to us to cohere in any logical way – according to our modern, Greek-based logic, that is. The ancient Hebrew mindset, it has been suggested, was more analogical than ours. In its own way it is just as systematic, even though our eyes aren’t used to the way this system works.
Strange juxtapositions occur. Consider this mitzvah that appears in the middle of a series addressing the sacrificial system:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. HaShem spoke to Moses, saying:
שׁוֹר אוֹ כֶשֶׂב אוֹ-עֵז כִּי יִוָּלֵד, וְהָיָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תַּחַת אִמּוֹ; וּמִיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי, וָהָלְאָה, יֵרָצֶה, לְקָרְבַּן אִשֶּׁה לה’. When a calf, lamb, or kid is born, it shall be seven days with its mother; only from the eighth day on is it acceptable as an offering to HaShem.
וְשׁוֹר, אוֹ שֶׂה אתוֹ וְאֶת-בְּנוֹ, לֹא תִשְׁחֲטוּ בְּיוֹם אֶחָד. Whether it be cow or ewe, you shall not kill it and its young both in one day. (VaYikra 22.26-28)
The most interesting thing about this text is the way in which different commentators in different times, living in different cultures with different assumptions and expectations, understand the meaning of this mitzvah. For Maimonides, a physician and Rabbi living during the 12th century flourishing of philosophy and science in Al-Andalus, the meaning is clearly about the feelings of animals:
The Torah wished to choose the most humane method of killing and forbade cruel practices such as strangulation, cutting a limb, or slaughtering the mother and young on the same day, in order to preclude the slaying of the young in the presence of its mother, since this involves great cruelty. (Guide for the Perplexed)
This interpretation was not accepted by Nakhmanides, who lived at about the same time, but in Christian-controlled Aragon:
The reason for the prohibition of slaying the mother and young on the same day…is to eradicate cruelty and pitilessness from the human heart, not that HaShem has mercy on the animal. Were that the case, HaShem would have forbidden eating animals completely. The real reason is to cultivate in us the quality of mercy…since cruelty is contagious. (cited in Leibowitz Studies in VaYikra)
The common denominator is the ubiquity of human cruelty. This mitzvah is meant to protect domesticated animals which are mother and child from the cruelty inherent in being killed on the same day. This was a well-known prohibition in ancient Israel, and from that day to this the halakhic category of tzaar baaley hayim – “the pain of living things” has developed as all Jewish sacred obligations do, to include such modern mitzvot as feeding the family pet before you yourself eat.
Would that we treated each other as thoughtfully! In the ancient text Eikha Rabbati some ancient anonymous author looks around at the world and makes the painful point.
“G*d of the Universe! You wrote in Your Torah: whether cow or ewe, do not kill mother and young in the same day.” But behold, they have murdered children and their mothers in countless number, yet you are silent!” – Ekha Rabbati
The cruelty inherent in killing is everywhere. It is in the slaughterhouse where cows are butchered for human consumption and in the bombings where whole families die. The wisdom of our tradition urges us to consider the connections, and to realize that even as one small kindness adds to the good in the world, each small cruelty inures us to greater and greater horrors.
When we immerse ourselves in our ancient and modern sources of traditional wisdom, and we experience the multiplicity of thoughtful teachings in which our perspectives too find a home, we come to realize that our ancestors knew no less cruelty than did we, even as we know the same silence that pained them.
Nothing, no G*d on high nor any other source of power beyond us, is going to save us from ourselves, as Carl Sagan famously said. Jews know that waiting around for G*d to save us is not the Jewish way; the work of making the Presence of G*d real and loud in the world is what we must do, and it begins with each mother and child – each being among us, after all, is born of a mother. Disagree as we will on the why, or the best way to understand the what, if we each determine to stand against it in our every small act, perhaps our kindness will be contagious, and the cruelty of our time will be just a little less virulent.

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.

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?