Shabbat Emor: Why Bother?

“You shall not cause My holy Name to be hollowed out and meaningless.”  (Lev.22.32) This mitzvah from the parashat hashavua may seem obscure, especially when it is translated in the traditional way: “profaned.” But it’s actually a very relevant concept. A Jew causes the Name to be “profaned,” i.e. meaningless, when that Jew who is known to self identify as a Jew – calls oneself a Jew, explains one’s actions as Jewish – acts in a way clearly contrary to Jewish teaching. This is really no different from any other kind of hypocrisy, except that in this case it reflects upon that which one professes to respect, and clearly does not.
Profanation of the Name, then, is religious hypocrisy. It is to act in such a way that one brings contempt not only upon oneself but upon that which one professes to believe in. It turns respect into derision, and, worse, reflects upon everyone else involved. Worst of all, it leads to disillusionment and cynicism.
For many who still want to believe in the holiness of the mitzvot, the Jewish people and its path, and its G*d, there’s a sense that one must withdraw in order to guard that sense, that this life-path is special and meaningful despite those who hollow its meaning out by their chosen actions.
Similarly, for those of us who want to continue to believe in democracy, in the social contract, and in basic human decency, some days, and some people, are harder than others.
This week in Portland we have seen another tragic death at the hands of police. Terrell Johnson was killed while fleeing police after an encounter at a MAX station. For those who have worked so hard in so many ways to raise awareness, protest police shootings, and get things to change around here, this is terribly discouraging news.
Jews, as a minority in so many places, have long known that the events of the day, piled up far enough, can destroy your certainty that there is something worth fighting for. Why bother, after all? Why care, why try to change the world for the better? why not just go shopping? In short, why not join those who have decided that it’s all hollow, and there’s nothing that is holy?
We can ask the question more broadly: what if there is no holiness, what if there is no G*d? Our ancestors knew this question as well:
“You are my witnesses, says G*d” … Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai said, If you are My witnesses, then I am G*d. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, G*d. (Pesikta deRav Kahana)
There may be no G*d that we can fully comprehend on a bad day; indeed, for all intents and purposes there may be no G*d at all, and no meaning, and no purpose. But if that is so, we still need to construct meaning for our lives by which to grow and act coherently. Even as every living being depends upon certainties of context and structure in order to exist at all, we need order and coherence by which to think and act.
On a day when all you are working for seems to be worthless, you begin to understand faith. Faith is not that we will be rescued from ourselves, not to Jews: faith is knowing in your heart that there is something worth getting out of bed for. On that day when you aren’t sure you can generate that certainty by yourself, give thanks that you belong to a community, an ancient community that asserts meaning far beyond any individual’s ability to carry such a load. It is full of suggestions for you, of support and ideas and relevance, as long as you engage with it not in cynical despair but with respect and hope – that is, in holiness.
On erev Shabbat we are bidden to give tzedakah in honor of Shabbat. In our day, at this time, I invite you to demonstrate your certainty that there is still something holy in your life, in our Portland community, and in our nation by doing #JewishResistance tzedakah, and giving a few minutes of your time to an act that will honor Shabbat in the same way as tzedakah, by giving of your heart and mind as you do your resources. Thus you will fulfill the most important mitzvah of the Shema: with all your heart, with all your mind, with all you have” (Deut. 6.5)

Shabbat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: The Goal of Torah Study

This week’s parashah is once again a double: Akharei Mot, “after death” and Kedoshim, “set apart”, which is what “holy” means in Jewish religious culture. 

Because every couple of years these two parashot occur as a double (meaning that we read at least a third of them both), it was only natural that our inquisitive and creative Sages who comment upon and interpret every aspect of Torah should comment upon this too: what do we learn from the juxtaposition of these two parshas, and their names? Are we to understand that after death we are holy? what exactly would that mean?

It’s not a stretch for us to accept the idea that the memory of our beloved dead is holy to us, that is, it is set apart in our hearts in a special place, so to speak. We might even set that memory apart to recall only at special times, such as yizkor, the memorial prayers we recite four times a year (at the Festivals and on Yom Kippur). 

When we pause to consider the place of death in Jewish tradition, we discover that other aspects of holiness may come into play. For example, we read in the Talmud that after the Roman massacre of Jews at Betar, we were not allowed to bury the bodies – in this final battle of the third failed Jewish revolt against Rome, they were to be a terrible lesson to the rest of us. The Talmud asserts that years later when we were able to bury the bodies, they had – miraculously – not decayed. This idea of a miraculous preservation is later expressed in connection with a belief in what happened (or didn’t) to the dead bodies of tzaddikim, “righteous ones”, such as great Rabbis. These bodies have become different, set apart in our religious tradition, and therefore, in a way, holy.

But does death itself connote holiness? A dead body carries the quality of making all that come into contact with it tamei, “spiritually unready” to stand in G-d’s presence. It causes one to be “set apart” in that way, and such a one must undergo a ritual process in order to become once again tahor,  “spiritually ready”, or what we might call normal, as afterward one does return to normal life.

The place of death in our lives is alternately problematic, fearful, tragic, and inevitable – and sometimes even a blessing. All of us will face it. The Jewish question is how does Jewish learning help me face it? Torah study is able to follow us everywhere. The question is whether we let it in.

Aryeh Ben David, writing for eJewishphilanthropy on February 11, 2015, notes that Jewish learning has been conceptualized as having two primary foci.  Now, he suggests, it’s time for a third.  The first stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “What do I know?” The second stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “Am I connected to what I know?” 

He writes:

The third stage of Jewish learning asks “How can I bring my learning into my life? How does what I know and my personal connection to this knowledge change me? How is Jewish learning making me a better person?”

2,000 years ago, Judaism instituted the reciting of blessings before eating. The goal of saying a blessing is not only to know the words and meaning of the blessing. The goal of saying the blessing is not only to feel connected to the words of the blessing. The goal of the blessing is ultimately to affect me and transform how I eat.

The test of saying a blessing is whether it changes how I actually eat.

Similarly, the goal of learning Torah is not only to know content, and not only to be connected to what I know.

The test of learning Torah is whether it changes how I actually live.

May your learning change your life and all that touches it for good.