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 Parah: This Calf Makes Sense, This Cow Does Not

This Shabbat is called Shemini, “eighth”, because the parashah begins with an account of the eighth and final day of the ritual of ordination into the priesthood for the very first High Priest, Aaron, and his sons, who were now his assistants. For seven days they have carried out a precise order of sacrifices and purity practices, and now they are ready, body and soul, to take on the role of intermediary between G*d and the People of Israel.

What is the first thing you do when you are finished with the process of getting ready for a new role? Maybe you are pregnant and preparing for the role of mother, or maybe you are graduating college and preparing for the role of participatory citizen in your community. Perhaps you are finishing orientation for a new job, or completing training for a volunteer responsibility, or getting ready for a mikveh that will turn a significant page in your life.

It seems a very positive, promising moment. But then the High Priest receives his instructions for his first official act: “Take a calf [עגל] of the herd for a sin offering” (Lev. 9.2) A sin offering? How depressing on the first day of the new reality! 

The Zohar explains:

“Aaron was commanded to offer a calf as a sacrifice – because it is the offspring of a cow – to atone for that other calf that Aaron made, thereby sinning against the cow, who is unblemished, consummation of the faithful of Israel.” (Zohar, Shemini 3.37a) 

This calf of the herd is offered in atonement for the golden calf. That much is clear. But what is the other, unblemished cow?

The other cow that the mystical tradition mentions here is the cow for which this parashah is also named: Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Cow, or, more specifically, the Red Heifer. 

This third of the special Shabbatot occurring in the weeks before Pesakh is named for the special additional Torah that we read. It describes a recipe for creating a substance that purifies a person who has been in contact with a dead body. The recipe requires a sacrifice of “a red cow without blemish” which is completely burned. Its ashes are mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and “crimson stuff”, and the resulting ashes are kept in a safe place, to b used for “waters of purification” when necessary.

The curious part of this, and the reason why this is the cow that does not make sense, is the following: the priest who oversees the concoction becomes impure and must undergo a purification ritual of some hours. The same is true of the person who moves the ashes. How is it that handling something pure makes one impure?

No one, not the great sages of yore and certainly no one since, understands this. It is said that Shlomo the King, who was by legend said to be the wisest of all human beings who ever lived (tradition relates that he even knew the languages of all the animals), was unable to fathom the secret of the this red cow, and after contemplating it, he was said to have declared “I said, ‘I will become wise, but it is far from me’ .”(Kohelet 7:23) 

This leads us to the Two Kinds of Halakhah; the mishpat and the hok. Mishpat is the Jewish law that makes sense, such as the prohibitions against killing or stealing. Hok, on the other hand, is the category of kashrut, of the do’s and don’t’s around holy days, of this strange cow purification ritual.

For us who swim in the nearly endless sea of Jewish tradition, there will always be mystery, and we should learn to welcome it. It keeps us humble: we don’t understand everything, and we can’t. It keeps us mindful: I am doing this because I am a Jew, and there’s no other reason. And it helps the under-used imaginative side of our brains keep up with the over-emphasized rational side.

And it is a good reminder that when we stand on the edge of a new experience, there will be that which we cannot understand, and cannot possibly prepare for. And more: one does not enter a new experience “clean” of all that one has ever been. Standing on the edge of what will be, we must recognize that we bring all we ever were with us. Both cows, the one that symbolizes all you understand and the one that reminds you of all that you don’t, come with you.

Thus we go forward: humbly, realistically, humanly.

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,

We have begun reading from the third book of the Torah in our ritual cycle; the book VaYikra, translated as “Leviticus”. The word refers to all things priestly, literally, of the Levites. It gives precise instructions for how the ancient sacrificial cult was to be enacted, and probably was originally meant only for the priests, as a sort of manual.

Sacrifice – killing animals in a ritual way, offering them up along with grain, wine and water (with incense and salt added) – here is a whole swath of Torah that seems so far beyond relevance for us today. 

Yet the Jewish dance with Torah is a committed one; we continue to hold on even when the steps aren’t so certain. As Martin Buber taught, we who are covenanted with G-d see the Torah as our ketubah. We are always to accord it the same respect that we would a human interlocutor. That is to say, we do not decide in advance if the person speaking to us will offer words worth considering. Rather, we grant that courtesy in advance, for the sake of authentic communication. In the same way, with every verse, we give Torah credit for having something to say to us that is worth hearing, and keep our minds and hearts open for what it might be.

We begin to bring the conversation out of obsolescence and into provocative territory simply by noting the Hebrew name of the book. VaYikra, “And he called out.” This is the first word of the narrative, yet unlike in good English grammar, there is no named subject, no definition of “he”. One must go back to the preceding words, at the end of the book Shemot (Exodus), to find the referent. It is G-d, calling from the newly-built sacred space that the Israelites just spent the last few parshas constructing. 

The lack of clarity here invites us in; it is not so clear what is summoning or to whom, and so we can ask ourselves; in what way does this apply to me? what, for example, summons me, even if I am not entirely clear yet about it? What is it that pulls at us so softly that we cannot quite name it?

Jewish tradition offers us a way to listen more closely to that which summons us. It comes from an interesting aspect of this very first word. As written in the Torah, the last letter is too small: 

That first letter, the alef, sits there and says to us darsheni, “interpret me!” And so we consider: the first letter is first, which connotes importance, even centrality; it is not a surprise, then, that the alef is the first letter of the word you need to express yourself, your “I”: ani.  This letter’s place in the initial word of the book VaYikra can be seen to offer us a lesson all by its small self. It is the insight taught by the mystics: if you want to experience G-d, get your “I” out of the way.

When you feel that uncertain something, that invitation to consider not what is but what might be if you are ready to contemplate a new learning, don’t let your “I” stop you. It will say “I don’t believe” or “I don’t want to change” or “I already understand” or even “I have a right to….” 

This first word of the book that calls out is calling out to you not to let surface strangeness put you off. It is not dangerous to corral your “I” (a mystical practice called tzimtzum, voluntary contraction of the self) when you do it from a place of choice. And when you do it, leaving defenses behind and making room for that summons, the word VaYikra hints at what you might find – something very yakar, “precious”. And if not a certain finding, certainly a sense of something pulling you toward what might be, yet, to learn.

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.

The Meaning of Sacrifice

On this Shabbat we begin the Book VaYikra (in English, “Leviticus”, because the book is really an instruction manual for the Levites and Kohanim, priests). This book records for us the ancient ritual of sacrifices as they were offered to our G-d (other sacrifices offered in specifically different ways were offered to other gods). What are we, two thousand years after the last sacrifice was brought to the Jerusalem Temple, to do with these texts?

This too is Torah, and within it there will be something that we need to learn, if we are willing to look closely and in a spirit of thoughtfulness. If we come to the text feeling dismissive, prejudging it as clearly meaningless, it will be. Follow the lead of generations of Jews who determined to keep it relevant because it is a memory of our ancestors, our grandparents and great-grandparents. Look closely at the words, see if something does not intrigue you. And if you can’t find it for yourself, read the commentaries. 

One example: VaYikra Chapter 1, verse 1: If you look closely at the first word, VaYikra, which means “[G-d] called” you will see that the last letter of the word, an alef, is written much smaller than the rest of the letters. What can be learned from this small alef? The alef is the first letter of the Hebrew alef-bet, and it is also the first letter of the word ani, “I”. Insight: sometimes one must make oneself small, i.e. humble, in order to hear G-d’s call.
The most intriguing question brought forth by this material for me is to consider:

What is the importance of sacrifice? The sacrifices our ancestors made seem far from us, and they are difficult to understand or to justify in our own day. But the details are preserved so completely and so carefully, at such length, that we should be curious as to why. Human nature has not changed so very much in only a couple of thousand years. What made the sacrificial system so necessary, in their eyes, to their relationship with the universe, and with G-d? What essential human need is served by giving up something of great value? Remember that for them, bringing an offering from their flocks of sheep or goats was a real financial sacrifice. One theory is that they felt that this was the only way to bring the universe back into balance after the kind of cosmic skewing caused by sin.
How does your Jewishness inform your understanding of sacrifice? Is there anything in your religious observances that moves you to sacrifice something for a greater good? Are you able to see the idea of sacrifice as answering an essential human need? To ask it another way, what, in your experience, is an effective way of atoning, bringing the universe back into alignment, after you sin?
I know, it’s a long time from Yom Kippur, Rabbi, why are you talking about sin? It’s one of those words from which we can learn a great deal if we are willing to bring it out of the box of toxic words damaged by powerful individuals who have used profound religious teachings for venal, manipulative purposes. Sin is simply that which separates you from G-d. Atonement through sacrifice may be a very powerful way of bringing you back home.