parashat Ki Tisa/Parah 5773

The coincidence of reading parashat Ki Tisa and the special text for Shabbat Parah on the same Shabbat brings us, among other things, an embarrassment of cows.
The weekly parashah has brought us to the narrative of Moshe on the mountain with G-d, receiving the teaching that will serve as the document of the Covenant between G-d and the Israelites. Down below at the foot of the mountain, the Israelites are getting restless. Moshe has been gone so long, they complain to Aharon: “make us another god instead”. And Aharon, perhaps afraid of the crowd, perhaps to stall for time, commands the Israelites to bring him all their gold. (The women demur, and that is why Rosh Hodesh honors them, but that’s another story.) The men bring enough gold to shape a bull – small, but an ancient Canaanite image of power and fearsome strength. 
G-d is annoyed. Moshe is distraught. Aharon is apologetic. The Israelites are punished, and repent of their deed. All goes on, but no quite like before. This is scar tissue in the relationship that the Israelites are developing with G-d; as in a marriage, hurtful words and betrayals cannot be completely healed, even when a couple manages to go on together. Scars do remain. And for many long years of Jewish tradition, the people of Israel has always been a bit embarrassed to be reminded of this sin, committed so soon after we promised our faithful commitment to G-d.
So reading the Shabbat Parah reading feels like having our noses rubbed in it. The entire reading is about how to turn a young heifer into a potion for ritual cleansing (ashes of heifer, a bit of herbs, cedar wood, some tola’at shani, the usual stuff). Why is this the special reading for the third special Shabbat before Pesakh?
The special reading and the haftarah both speak of the need for spiritual cleansing after a tough time. According to Pesakh halakhah, one who is ritually unclean cannot participate in the Seder. So these readings come as we begin to prepare, to remind us of the need for spiritual preparation as well as menus, guests, and deciding on this year’s haggadah.
It’s no mistake that we read of both embarrassing sins and the way toward cleansing in the same Shabbat, then. Our tradition is always reminding us that the first step toward healing is recognizing that one needs it. The first step toward overcoming a mistake, or a sin, or some other terrible thing that you’ve done (or that has been done to you) is to recognize that you could use some spiritual refocusing, some refreshment – a way of turning over a new leaf, so to speak.
The month of Pesakh, which begins very soon, is the first month of the year on the Jewish calendar. A good time to throw out the old and bring in the new: in the pantry, as we clean out hametz, and in our lives, as we greet spring with the hope that the world, and we ourselves, will find a sense of renewal, of newness, of spiritual cleansing from the old baggage and pain.
It is a custom to go to the mikveh before Pesakh or any holy day. I recommend it to you sometime during the month of Nisan, as you prepare for the 14th of the month, at twilight, and the Seder.
The mikveh is, after all, as Rabbi Akiba said, the hope of Israel (the word in Hebrew, mikveh, is very similar to the word for hope, tikvah). Immerse yourself in hope; allow yourself to believe in spring; realize that mistakes and embarrassments can be overcome through gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness.

Shabbat Zakhor, parashat Tetzaveh, and Purim 5773

This Shabbat we read parashat Tetzaveh, and also mark one of the special Shabbatot of the months leading to Pesakh. The observance of Shabbat Zakhor, “Remember”, includes a special Torah reading describing the attack by the Amalekites on the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt, very early on in the journey. The Amalekites swooped down on the rear of the Israelite group, assaulting the vulnerable weaker and slower of the people Israel. The Torah records G-d’s command to Moshe to remember the event, and declares that the memory of Amalek will be wiped out.
One way in which this is understood is as a command to erase the behavior of Amalek from our own human interactions, to the extent that no one will remember any more that anyone ever took advantage of any one else’s weakness. If it is not remembered, it is as if it did not exist.
In Jewish tradition, memory is the key to existence; one’s life finds its meaning and its significance through the very fact that one is remembered. Children, therefore, are seen in Jewish tradition as carriers of the memory of their parents (one reason why many children are named after beloved departed family members). And it is often true that people are driven to make a “name” for themselves in some enduring way that will outlast them. It seems that one of our most urgent fears is that we might be forgotten – and that will mean that it was as if we never existed.
It is interesting, then, t consider what is not named in our parashah, and also in the Megillat Ester which we will read tomorrow evening at the end of Shabbat when Purim begins. Precisely on Shabbat Zakhor, “remember”, we read the only parashah in which Moshe is not mentioned in the entire Torah (outside, of course, of the Book Bereshit.) Moshe is not remembered in this parashah. Neither is God remembered, by Name, in the Megillah. 
It is easy to insist that Moshe’s fingerprints are all over the parashah anyway; we know he is there because he’s obviously implicit. And what about G-d in the Megillah? It is often pointed out that the word melekh, “king”, occurs so often that it is meant to indicate the King of Kings, not the Persian Emperor satirized throughout.  It is also noted that every time when Esther comes before the King to make her requests, Ahashverosh is not mentioned; it is the King before whom she pleads.
Often the most important word is the one that is not spoken, but is heard nevertheless; the word that we refrain from speaking, or that doesn’t even come to mind. On this Shabbat Zakhor take a moment to consider memory. Zeh Zikhri, “this is my remembering”, says G-d to Moshe at the burning bush, and gives Moshe a Name that we do not speak, but is heard nevertheless, especially in the silent place where Amalek used to be.

Parashat hashavuah: Terumah – Lift It Up

The parashat hashavua this week begins with a command: “Tell the Israelite people that when they take up an offering for Me; every person whose heart is moved to generosity can make that offering.” (Exodus 25.2) This begins the narrative of the building of the Mishkan, the sacred space in which the Israelite people would focus upon being in God’s Presence (Hebrew: Shekhinah).
True, many generations later we are used to the teaching that God’s presence may be found anywhere; but that does not keep us for needing special, sacred places ourselves – places that serve as agreed-upon meeting places for us to come together for no less than the purpose of experiencing theShekhinah, the close and intimate Presence of God. 
You who belong to a shul, or are considering joining one, might not have thought of your shul that way: as a place where you come to focus upon the experience of being immersed in God’s Presence. But if the place is devoid of that possibility, it may be beautiful, but it’s not a mishkan, a dwelling place for the Shekhinah;  conversely, the shabby rooms of our European shtetl dwelling ancestors were sometimes so full of that awareness that those who prayed there were able to rise above their everyday miseries because of the bliss of that awareness.
The parashah goes on to describe exactly how the Mishkan is to be built, in great detail. Facsimiles of this structure have been constructed on the web, in miniature, and – I’ve been told but have not seen – in full size, somewhere in the Negev. Gold, silver, copper, tapestries of rich fabric, woods of various kinds – but the most important detail is given us at the start: all must be built out of material which is terumah, translated in two ways: “separated”, and “lifted up”.
Separated (Rashi): Halakhah guides us to understand that out of all our regular possessions and resources we should separate the first and best out for God. This is also the idea behind the ma’aser, “tithe”, which our farmer ancestors were to bring of their crops. Until the appropriate tithes had been separated out and given appropriately, the rest of the crop was not kasher (literally, “fit”)and could not be eaten. That which is kosher, in other words, is that which reflects our own spiritual awareness of the blessing of a successful crop, or job, or project. It is not ours, not all ours – as the President put it in a sound bite that could not be savaged quite to death, “you didn’t build that”. None of us builds alone: we are part of a fantastic network of support, resources and factors beyond our control, and our response to our own successes should be humble gratitude, not the self-celebrating arrogance of believing that we have power.
Lifted up (Zohar, II): As the Jewish mystics intuited, everything in our existence is made of the same stuff. Everything has within it a spark of G-d; not only human beings but all of the material world – even gold, silver, copper, tapestries of rich fabric, and woods of various kinds. One should not overlook the holy potential of any object, much less any person. What makes the difference is, as the Torah indicates, the “heart moved to generosity”. The spark of holiness in any object is lifted up through the mindfulness of the one who makes the offering. That is true of the offering we make of our words and acts as well.
An offering made by rote, or with resentment, can never be part of a mishkan. 
No volunteer work undertaken for a shul done with anger, annoyance or the hope of being noticed will ever evoke the Shekhinah. 
But every offering made by one whose heart is moved to generosity, large or small, obvious or unmarked, lifts up the offering and its holy potential all the way to God’s Presence. 
This is the only way we make a mishkan, a shul, into a sacred space, and it is more beautiful by far than a gilded, ornate building created without true terumah.
May you see the beauty of your offering of volunteer activity, tzedakah, and committee work as a true terumah and the very sacred essence of the Mishkan, both inside and outside of organized Judaism.

parashat hashavua commentary: Bo

This week’s parashah begins with God’s command to Moshe to once again confront Pharaoh, the great ruler of Egypt who has repeatedly refused to agree to Moshe’s plea to let our people go. One of the strange aspects of the parashah begins with the phrase that gives the parashah its name: Bo, “come”. Why “come to Pharaoh” instead of the more logical “Go to Pharaoh”? And then, of course, we have what is considered by many commentators to be the most difficult part of the whole story: God says to Moshe “I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. 
The Eternal said to Moshe, Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart…(Ex.10.1)
How many plagues does it take to change a Pharaoh’s mind? There have been seven so far, and the language has changed along the way. At the beginning, it was Pharaoh who hardened his heart, refusing to agree; now it is God who hardens the king’s stubborn heart. Have the plagues had the opposite effect of that which was intended?
Only if you believe God is, or has ever been, a puppetmaster. Try a different theological possibility. “The Eternal” is not a personality; it is the infinite time and space in which our lives occur. We choose – sometimes feeling pushed and sometimes pushing back – we choose how we will use our small allotment of time and space, moving toward good or toward evil on mighty winds of time and sweeping currents of spatial movement. 
If you choose to do good, all the forces of the world will help you. 
If you choose to do evil, all the forces of the world will help you.
– a Talmudic teaching
The effects of Pharoah’s own choices over time took his choice out of his hands, given enough time. Consider the addict who is sure s/he can stop anytime – until the day when s/he discovers that s/he no longer has freedom of choice in the matter.
Now we can understand the true meaning of bo, “come” to Pharaoh. If we are to truly confront that which has shifted within us away from free choice, and overcome our own hardnesses of heart, we have to realize that there is no outer place to “go”. Rather we have to look inward, to “come” home to ourselves. No hardness of the heart can withstand the perspective of our true place in Eternity. Think of how all things seem different when confronted through the lens of mortality…..
On this Shabbat, take a moment to widen your perspective. What plagues have you become used to, with the passage of time? What choices could you take back, if your heart were to un-harden?

Va’Era: parashat hashavua commentary

This week’s parashat hashavua, Va’Era, derives its name from a curious assertion on the part of none other than God about the names by which we know God: I am יהוה  – I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by the name El Shaddai, but my name יהוה they did not come to know. (Ex.6.2-3). What’s a bit strange about this is that if you go back and check the Book of Genesis, that Four Letter Name of God does indeed appear in the text. What does God mean by saying they did not know God by that name?
Our companion in insightful interpretation, the medieval commentator Rashi, writes: “It is not written here I did not make the name known to them but they did not come to know the name.” It’s one thing to hear a name spoken. It is apparently quite another to know the name that one hears spoken. This Name of God, ancient though it is, is not necessarily known, says God.
Knowing is not an easy thing. “One may love a river as soon as one sets eyes upon it; it may have certain features that fit instantly with one’s conception of beauty, or it may recall the qualities of some other river, well known and deeply loved. One may feel in the same way an instant affinity for a man or a woman and know that here is pleasure and warmth and the foundation of deep friendship. In either case the full riches of the discovery are not immediately released – they cannot be; only knowledge and close experience can release them. Rivers, I suppose, are not at all like human beings, but it is still possible to make apt comparisons, and this is one: understanding, whether instinctive and immediate or developing naturally through time or grown by conscious effort, is a necessary preliminary to love. Understanding of another human being can never be complete, but as it grows toward completeness, it becomes love almost inevitably.” (Roderick L. Haig-Brown, “To Know a River”, Home Waters: A Fly-Fishing Anthology. Fireside/Simon & Schuster)
In the process which Moshe undergoes of coming to know God, it will take a lifetime to reach completeness. In just the first few chapters of Exodus, three significant names for God are recorded in the text. Upon consideration of the nuanced echoes of the Torah’s usage and context, you will see that each one of them is less known than you thought:
Most intriguingly, the name El Shaddai, that Name which God says was known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is possibly linked to a cognate form from the Akkadian language which refers to breasts. Perhaps El Shaddai, which could refer to a sense of a nurturing Mother God, was precisely the appropriate name for our early ancestors to know God by during those first years in which they took their “baby steps” toward the rich fullness of what we now practice as Judaism.
This name which God presents to Moshe, the Four Letter Name of יהוה , seems not to be a proper name at all. It is not pronounceable in this form. Perhaps, rather, it is a pictograph: a simple invoking of the letters by which one expresses the Hebrew verb “to be” in all its tenses: was, is, will be. In other words, not a proper name, but an evocation of Eternity. All.
And most mysterious of all, the Name God gives Moshe at the bush which burned but was not consumed: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. This is often but not necessarily translated “I will be what I will be.” What will yet be is not yet apparent. This is what Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all struggled with.
And now, we, in our turn, struggle with the same uncertainty. There is an immediate, urgent need for clarity – and there will be no clarity just yet. For the Israelites, it will occur only after much suffering, many plagues, and terrible fear, in the midst of a journey from which there is no turning back. And in the midst of all that chaos, they first were able to truly know God ,and then they sang, in the words of the mi kamokha, zeh Eli!  “This is my God!”
One need not know God with certainty, and certainly not with clarity, to make that journey – we are all making it every day. What will be, will be, in time. One day you look up and you are suddenly able to see Eternity, and your place in it.  Then, on that day, you will be able to see that which you will come to know, and name it.

discrimination is so last century

The news that Rev Louie Giglio has withdrawn from the Inauguration because of an inauspicious sermon is both too bad and an encouraging sign. It’s too bad because the Jewish tradition I follow suggests that he should have been given room to atone for words spoken many years ago, and not judged on a position that he may or may not still hold, at least not until he has been given the opportunity to update it. We are all growing spiritual beings, after all, and one learns many things over time. We evolve, as our President has said about his own perspective on marriage equality.

And it’s also an encouraging sign that being gay is becoming a protected status, in our society if not yet under the law. There is a new willingness on the part of our government to express a certain sensitivity to the concerns of gay constituents, and that is a welcome development. One day we might yet become a people equal before the law as well as before God.

The Book of Genesis, which so many “religious” leaders like to quote to their own fancy, is not so easy to rally to the side of those who want to condemn homosexuality. Genesis 1.27 states

“God created the man in his image in the image of God he created him male and female he created them.”

This sentence, which is already a translation of the original Hebrew (and not the only possible translation), is somewhat difficult to understand unless you insert commas. But where to put them? Try this:

“God created the man in his image – in the image of God he created him, male and female – he created them.”

Modern biology has taught us that we are each made up of male and female aspects – we all have both estrogen and testosterone in our hormonal makeup. What if Genesis is expressing this idea, that all of us are both male and female, made up physiologically of both genders, and that gender itself is a spectrum in each one of us? some more male, some more female….a whole shading of gender identities suddenly appears along this speculative spectrum.

At the very least, it doesn’t say “in the image of God, they were created male, white, and heterosexual”. There are many things that the holy texts do not say, but we find what we want to read into them when we need something to divert the public conversation away from thoughtfulness and toward judgments which may or may not be supported by the facts in evidence.

For a long time American society has been laboring under some false impressions about Biblical truth that are more narrowly cultural than transcendently spiritual. In the 21st century we will only make spiritual progress if we are able to open our hearts and ears past assumptions about the text made by others who want to influence us, and toward true hearing with our own ears. The world is upheld through justice, and compassion, and kindness – not through discrimination.

What’s in a (Jewish) name?

Last week in the Jewish world of Torah study we began reading the Book Shemot, called in English (or Greek, actually) “Exodus”We know very well what is going to happen here: the Israelites, who moved to Egypt to escape a famine, have now found themselves enslaved in the service of constructing massive Pharaonic building projects. Everything started going south when a new King arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph. (Ex. 1.8)
How could Joseph, and all he did for Egypt’s survival, have been forgotten? And what does it mean to say that his name was no longer known?
Names are significant here; the Hebrew term for the book of Exodus is Shemot, “Names”; very simply, the book is identified by the topic addressed in the opening verses: These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt….(Ex.1.1).
Yet names are not incidental to the destiny of the Israelites, nor to their redemption, in this saga. A midrash asserts that The people of Israel were redeemed from Egypt for four reasons. 
The first two reasons are that they did not change their Hebrew names while in Egypt and they did not change their language, but continued to speak in Hebrew (Lev. Rabbah 32:5).
To have a Hebrew name is to be part of the Jewish people in a formal way. When someone converts to Judaism, they are given a Hebrew name. All Jews are called to the Torah, and remembered in the grave-side prayer El Maleh Rahamim, by their Hebrew names.
Hebrew names carry much more than a few words of Hebrew (or Yiddish, or Ladino). For Jews, our Hebrew names are a way of communicating much more than the name; it hints at all that communicates, carries and guards Jewish identity.
The Israelites were redeemed from slavery, we are told, because they held on to their Hebrew names, and the memory of history, culture and identity evoked by names.
The real message of the Book we have just begun again for this year’s Torah cycle is that one can never be enslaved by the majority culture unless one lets go of the memory of one’s own name, and where it comes from, and how it was passed along. Jewish memory is the key to Jewish freedom – and freedom, in the Torah, means the freedom to struggle, to wander, and to confront what it takes to become a people.
What is your Hebrew name? what does it mean? what does it carry? how does it anchor your Jewish identity?

Looking for Light in the Connecticut Darkness

ramon_shuttle_sunriseThe Shabbat of Hanukkah comes on the heels of terrible news of tragedy in Newtown Connecticut. As one reporter said, it is truly overwhelming to consider a young man who would shoot, and keep shooting, innocent small children – and his mother, their teacher – at an elementary school, in a kindergarten classroom. That young man is now dead, as are many others, and especially here in Portland, we are still reeling from the shooting at the Clackamas Mall earlier in the week, and we are left stunned.

My heart is like wax, melting within my chest.
My mouth is dry as a shard, my tongue stuck to my jaw
dry as the dust of death.
– Psalm 22
The Jewish response to news of death is barukh Dayan haEmet, which can be interpreted as “I submit to this truth”. This is not a response of resignation or of acceptance. It is a recognition that there is a truth here that may not be avoided. Grief cannot become an excuse for turning our eyes away from what we must learn.
What is the truth here?
Is there a truth that we need to explore that will illuminate the alienation too many suffer, so that some among us lose capacity for human empathy and pain?
Is there some truth in the lack of willingness many of us feel to confront the harshness of the culture which causes Americans to turn to the use of guns?
Is there some truth that must be confronted in the lack of willingness on both sides of the gun debate to be thoughtful, rather than defiant?
Jewish tradition does not say that there is no evil in the world, nor do we shrink from the truth that much evil is done by us human beings to each other. But Jewish teachings do assert that the entire world is supported by learning, by prayer, and by acts of loving kindness. We are to react by learning what we can, praying on it so as to understand, and acting for kindness, for love, and for truth.
The days are still growing shorter as we observe the final nights of Hanukkah; and we must assert the necessity of the lights we kindle. We Jews know as well as anyone what it means to carry on despite terrible tragedy; we will celebrate with our children and know an even greater sense of gratitude for their lives, and determination to face any truth to make all children safe.