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.
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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 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?

Shabbat VaYakhel-Pekudey/Shabbat Parah: Holy Tents and Sacred Cows

This week I am privileged to share an erev Shabbat thought with you from Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Soon a group of Shir Tikvah congregational family and friends will arrive and I look forward to greeting them soon at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I’ve come a few days early to see family and friends.
Here in Israel, one enters any communal building and sees that one is in the Jewish state. There are Pesakh haggadot for sale in the bookstore at the airport, Pesakh coloring books for children at the grocery store, and my cousins are already planning their family Seder – for 100 participants! There’s nothing quite like being in the midst of a nation of people who are all looking forward to the ancient Festival of Pesakh as one of the most important family – and national – holidays of the year.
One of the most fascinating aspects of visiting Israel today is that, for all the differences caused by two millennia of normal historical developments as well as abnormal events of Exile, to be in Israel now is to be as close as one can come to the feeling of what it is like to feel one’s life to be part and parcel of the mainstream of Jewish life, whether 3000 years ago or now.
This week’s parashah presents us with an opportunity to consider how we might relate to that thought, that each one of us is an integral part of our story. We witness in this double parashah, parashat VaYakhel-Pekudey, the poignant story of our entire people helping each other to pick each other up and go on, together to discover the way to make our way forward once again. What was the direction we were heading before last week’s explosion of frustration, confusion, anger and upheaval?
This week we return to the narrative of two weeks ago, to immerse ourselves in the details of creating the Mishkan, from gold and silver to finely wrought wool and linen to wooden planks and hooks, clasps and sockets. Everyone was involved in some aspect of the work, and it was that immersion in the work itself that healed the rifts. Work that could only be done together – you holding the cloth while I fasten the clasp – reassured us that we could work together. We could, and we can, live together.
It’s true, commentators have pointed it out since there were commentaries on the Torah: where there are Jews, there will be divergent opinions, passionately held. To be immersed in work that one considers holy causes passions to rise, because one cares so much. It has been pointed out that there is only one place in the Torah where the entire Jewish people, gathered together, is referred to using a singular verb, indicating that all the people were of one mind. That moment is no coincidence but full of meaning: vayikhan sham Yisrael neged haHar, “[t]he[y] camped at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 19.2) We derive from this verse that we were all one when we knew ourselves to be standing in a holy place, that is, in the place of the mountain where we experienced the Presence of G*d. No matter where we find ourselves within community, the “tent” we raise together is holy when you and I delight in the work we are doing together, as well as the goal, as well as each other.
This happy state, of being of one mind, does not necessarily entail agreeing, or knowing certainty. We are reminded of this by the fact that this Shabbat is also Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Red Heifer. This passage is so inexplicable that even King Shlomo, the wisest of them all, admitted he could not understand it. Committing to the mitzvot does not mean we can understand and explain them all logically, and, similarly, committing to each other need not be understood as some kind of unnatural conformity of heart or mind – or that we understand each other. Only that we understand that we cannot live without each other.
I look forward to bringing you Torah insights related to the learning we will do in the next two weeks here in Eretz haKodesh, the Holy Land – not because of some intrinsic quality, but only when, and because, we are standing here together in the Presence of G*d.

Shabbat Ki Tisa, and Shushan Purim: Sowing Hate is a Form of Murder

Well, we’ve heard the Megillat Ester, and Shabbat Ki Tisa is upon us, and we haven’t learned much yet, apparently.
I find myself much dismayed. Incidents come to my attention. Haman is still among us, and inside of us.
You, who believe you need not check your hypocrisy, because that there’s no way that the sin you accuse in another can possibly touch you.
You, who betray your words of caring for our community with careless acts that show you consider its true worth to you to be beneath concern.
You who think so little of the love another has for our community, giving endless volunteer time and heart, that you treat them without courtesy.
Causing harm to another’s reputation or name, causing embarrassment to them in any way within a community, refusing in our righteous anger to give the benefit of the doubt, is judged by our Jewish legal tradition to be a sin akin to murder.
This week in the parashah we see that when our commitment to each other is not strong, when we start to undermine the gentle, vulnerable bonds of trust that holds our community together, there is great harm, perhaps irreparable, that we do to each other. The sin of that small gold bull caused not only the actual deaths of many involved, but the death of that community’s hope for true unity on their way forward into the wilderness.
The wilderness is still there to be crossed; we can’t avoid that. But we can work a little harder to treat each other with decency, if not to “love your neighbor as yourself” if that’s too difficult for you right now, at least to consider “that which is hateful to you, do not do to another.” Both are foundational ethical teachings demanded of you as a Jew.
Purim is still with us; that holy day that the Rabbis suggest is actually much more significant than we realize. An ancient teaching points out that on the other end of the year, as fall begins, we observe a day the name of which can literally be understood as “the day which is like Purim” – Yom ha-Kippurim. Purim, our teachers suggest, is a day of considering the value of life, how we live it, at what cost, and the masks we need to finally stop wearing if we are to face each other honestly. A covenant relationship thrives on no less than this. Those with exit strategies in place if things don’t go their way are not speaking the language of Jewish covenant.
Today is Shushan Purim, on which Jews celebrate the holiday who lived in cities which were walled at the time of the Purim story. Perhaps that’s the best day for us to observe it, those of us who are still insisting on walls between us and those with whom we share what is supposed to be a covenant community where we learn to work on the essential human values of trust and love.
Haman is not some caricature; it is the part of you that does not stop to think of the hurt you cause another when you feel justified in your act. Who are you to choose not to risk trust? What will it take for each of us to figure out how to blot out the selfishness of the yetzer hara’ within us, that focuses only upon our own well-being?
This Shabbat, the Torah calls out to us to learn from what are too many examples of selfishness and blindness in our people’s past, and consider the real damage each of us can do unless we are ready to really learn this truth we have been taught to repeat from an early age.
Forgive as we would be forgiven,
extend the courtesy that we expect to receive,
and be kind; be kind; be kind to each other.