Shabbat Pinhas: The Three Weeks

This year, Shabbat Pinhas is the first Shabbat of the Three Weeks.

 

These three weeks are the least auspicious period in the entire Jewish year, leading up as they do to Tisha B’Av, the day on which, two thousand years ago, the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. Our people began a two thousand year Exile of homeless wandering, stateless immigrants, without rights, escaping one persecution only to find another, over and over again.

 

Since the establishment of the modern State of Israel, there are those who have suggested that Tisha B’Av should be superseded by celebrating the homecoming of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel Independence Day.  Yet old traditions die hard, and it is much more like us to mine them for the continuing relevance they offer – thus, it has been suggested by religious Zionists that Tisha B’Av now becomes an opportunity for a collective Yom Kippur of the State and People of Israel.

 

Simply put, Yom Kippur is a time of mourning the destruction we contribute to by our individual human behavior, as well as resolving to  atone; Tisha B’Av is a time to mourn our behavior as a people, and to seek atonement on a national level.

 

We are a people; when one Jew acts, all Jews are implicated, for good and for ill. To understand this is to see the need to look closely at events as they transpire, and consider what action we might take on behalf of our people’s well-being and ethical conscience.

 

The first day of the Three Weeks is Tzom Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, marking the day the Romans breached the outer walls of Jerusalem and began their relentless destructive march toward the Temple Mount. All that was left when the smoke cleared and the bodies were buried was the retaining wall; a section of that became the famous “Wailing Wall” at which Jews would weep for the home that was lost.

 

We are taught that Jerusalem was destroyed by sin’at hinam, “baseless hatred” toward each other and others beyond our people. Not just violent hatred, but also the quieter but no less destructive postures of cynical indifference, callousness, and turning away.

 

In our own day, the outer walls are breached by our own kind of sin’at hinam: by our community infighting, by the fear that makes us pull away from trusting each other, and by our cynicism and despair.

 

For two thousand years since the destruction, the bad energy of these Three Weeks has caused Jewish communities to avoid scheduling happy events during this time; no weddings, no young person called to the Torah for the first time.

 

In our own day, Tisha B’Av has become a stark reminder that nothing lasts, and that small acts of evil undermine the institutions we once believed in. According to the Rabbis’ teaching, it was a small act of public humiliation which triggered the destruction of Jerusalem and all Judaea. In this way they remind us that every act can, in a small but real way, bring about a better world – or lead us toward misery and death.

 

This year consider some way in which you will spend these weeks in awareness of the sadness of all that is destroyed, all the lives that are lost. Cease to do, or change in some way, a practice that normally brings you joy and comfort between now and Tisha B’Av. Let that small reminder, cumulatively over this time, show you the true power of the way we spend our days, and re-inspire you to acts of compassion, of kindness and of justice.

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Shabbat Tazria 5774: Watch For Rot

Our parashat hashavua (“reading of the week”) is one of the more misunderstood of the entire Torah. It seems to be entirely too consumed with concern regarding the appearance of discolorations on a person’s skin or hair. The first verse of our reading this year, the third of the Triennial Cycle, begins:

When a man or a woman has a נגע upon the head or the beard….(Lev. 13.29) This is actually part of a much larger section on what is usually translated “leprosy” (no relation to Hansen’s disease) and is called in Hebrew tzara’at. The verses between Lev. 13.1 and Lev. 14.53 can be seen as a unit which follows a simple a-b-a-b pattern:

Tzara’at of a person, diagnosis

Tzara’at of a garment, diagnosis

Tzara’at of a person, declaring clean and atonement

Tzara’at of a house, diagnosis, cleansing, and atonement

In her book Leviticus as Literature, the anthropologist Mary Douglas proposes that this unit of Torah describes a “body-Temple microcosm”. The body and the Temple are seen as exact reflections of each other. Your body is a Temple, and the Temple is a body. Anything and everything which upsets the healthy stasis of one or the other is a very serious matter, because your individual body cannot be separated from the community’s body, nor from the Temple. We are all one – animate and inanimate.

Leviticus is not easy to read, but it contains hints way back to the most ancient Israelite religious beliefs and practices. Among them is this idea, no less true for us: no part of us can be allowed to decay or become infectious without damage to the rest of us. Mold, rot, fungus – whether physical or moral – must be watched for constantly, because when it spreads it damages all of us. It is interesting to note the physical-moral connection. Is it true that if we act immorally, our houses will also be affected? Is that not exactly the case when, for example, insufficient oversight of building contracts allows substandard buildings to be built that may then collapse?

The medieval Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides believed that moral rot would sooner or later show on the body. The underlying truth of that assertion shows up in myth and fairy tale (just think about how many bad guys physically corrode in death). This indicates some deeper truth that our rational intellects don’t want to, or can’t, handle; instead we take refuge in insisting that there are those who suffer who are innocent. That is true, but it is only a simple truth. There is a complex truth here. Our intellects can see the connection between moral and physical rot in the fabric of our communities, when we allow part of town to deteriorate, or when we underfund our schools and public services, or when innocent individuals suffer physical ailments such as tzara’at, whatever it was – and is. People downstream from chemicals may suffer physical ailments; that is not so difficult a moral connection to make. Someone dumped those chemicals.

We do not know every moral and physical connection in our world; we cannot understand every suffering. But the ancient truth cannot be so easily swept aside, especially when atonement is prescribed – that is to say, possible. The innocent suffer; what is our complicity? Where is the rot in our surroundings? How might we  atone for the civic, environmental, and political sins we have committed as a community, and clean up our act? We are, after all, all in this together.

Shabbat Shekalim: Tax Time in Ancient Israel

half-shekel

half-shekel

This Shabbat, on which we are reading Pekudei as the parashat hashavua, is also known as Shabbat Shekalim. Yes, the Shabbat of the Shekels. This special Shabbat is not necessarily tied to the parashah called Pekudei, but it’s not entirely inappropriate, since this last reading in Exodus consists of an audit of the records (in Hebrew, “records” is pekudim) as well as the account of, finally, the erection of the Mishkan, the space the Israelites are constructing in order to have a designated place for their kavanah (spiritual intention). Thus the place is called the place to meet G-d, although everyone agrees that no one space contains the holy.

This Shabbat is called Shekalim because it is the first of four special Shabbatot that focus on the upcoming Festival of Pesakh. Shabbat Shekalim always occurs on the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the month of) Adar (or Adar II in leap years such as this year). On this Shabbat, a special extra reading is added to the regular Torah readings for Pekudei. The extra (maftir) reading comes from a text earlier in Exodus which describes a half-shekel tax collected from all the Israelites. It is read on this Shabbat because the tax, which became a yearly tax in later Israelite history, was due on the first of the New Year, which begins with Rosh Hodesh Nisan.

This raises some interesting questions which shed light on our ancestors’ culture and social organization.

1. What was the original purpose of the tax? It was a way of conducting a census. Since it was believed that counting the people was bad luck and had been demonstrated in the Torah to bring on a plague, there was – and still is – a reluctance (call it a superstition) to count people. Even in a traditional shul today, one does not count people when checking to see if we’ve reached the minyan number of ten; rather, a gabbai might use a verse such as Psalms 5.8.

 וַאֲנִי–בְּרֹב חַסְדְּךָ, אָבוֹא בֵיתֶךָ;    אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶה אֶל-הֵיכַל-קָדְשְׁךָ, בְּיִרְאָתֶךָ.

As for me, I come into Your house filled with the joy of Your Presence; I bow in awe of the holiness of your Plac e.

2. Why use a Shabbat as a reminder that tax time is coming? It is striking, after all, in a religious tradition that shuns money on Shabbat and holy days, to consider the prominent place of  money in this Shabbat’s theme. In the ancient past, and continuing right up until the last generation or so, Shabbat was the weekly gathering time of the Jewish community, and the shul was the equivalent of the public square. If you wanted to reach the most Jews with the important announcements of community news, the way to do it was to incorporate it into the Shabbat prayer ritual. The Rabbis of the Talmudic period, who devised the intricate plan of what to read when all year long, mandated certain Torah and Haftarah readings which emphasized aspects of the community. Sometimes the special Shabbat reading brought depth of meaning to the day itself, and sometimes it served, as well, as a reminder of something important coming up. In the same way that we read three haftarot of gathering doom before Tisha B’Av (when the Temple and Jerusalem itself were destroyed, and we went into exile), we – on a happier note – have special readings that recall and add to the excitement of the upcoming Festival of the Spring Harvest, the Festival of Matzah.It’s quite convenient that this verse is part of the first song we sing upon beginning our prayers, so that while you are singing, you can simply let your eyes rest on each person as you chant each word of the verse. You are not precisely counting the people, yet you know if you’ve got your minyan. (Another way to count people is to point to each one and say “not one”, “not two”…..)

3. Why a half-shekel apiece? isn’t that a regressive sort of flat tax?  There are other taxes that are tied to one’s income; this small contribution has a more symbolic value, that of reminding us that this Temple tax asserts that we are all equal before G-d. Further, the application of this tax to all of us demonstrates our belief that each of us has an equally valuable contribution to make to our congregation.

“The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less; it is an atonement for your souls.” (Exodus 30.15)

The last phrase of the mitzvah (the obligation commanded here) is the most provocative, describing the tax as an “atonement”. It is easy to see, and assert, that no one is too poor to give, and to understand why the rich are not allowed to give more, but why is the giving an atonement? Perhaps because each of us needs to atone for either feeling sorry for ourselves that we don’t have more, or looking down on others who don’t have as much as we do. In the act of giving the very same thing, each one of us and all together, we are invited to atone, which is to say, to return to a place of at-one-ment with each other.

Our Mishkan, our sacred space, exists because of the support of each one of us, and that support is equally valuable, equally necessary. The offerings of our hearts, minds and wherewithall are all needed if we are to fulfill the mitzvah “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might”, from the Shema.