Shabbat Parah: Being Seen (Trans Visibility Shabbat)

This Shabbat we mark another of the special Shabbatot that count down (up, rather) to Pesakh: this Shabbat which is Shemini in our regular cycle of readings is also Shabbat Parah, named for a red heifer. Each of the special readings added during this time brings our attention to an important aspect of the Festival of Matzot which we will soon celebrate together.
There are so many eventualities to consider when a major event such as Pesakh is planned, and our own preparation for a Seder is no different from our ancestors’ journey to Jerusalem for the ancient version of the community observance. What if someone is delayed and can’t make it? There’s a backup plan for that: Pesakh Sheni. What if someone has fallen on hard times and can’t afford to hold a Seder? There’s a mitzvah for that too: Ma’ot Hittin. And what if one is tamey, and incapable for some reason of joining a Seder? That’s where this week’s parashah comes in. For our ancestors, there was a ritual of sprinkling a special substance, made of the ashes of a red cow, which changed one’s status and made it possible for the person who is tamey (pronounced “tah-MAY”) to join in the communal Pesakh observance.
If we are addressing an emotional obstruction of a spiritual state, such as the death of a loved one (being in the presence of death makes one tamey), the relevance is similar to the anti-anxiety practice or pill we might take in order to calm the heart enough to be able to participate in the Seder experience. But there is a different side to understanding what it means to be tamey. Consider the life experiences that result in tum’ah, that make one tamey, they include (1) the death of a loved one, (2) giving birth, (3) exposure to the physicality of either experience (contact with the dead, or with menstrual blood, or semen, or amniotic fluid). It has been suggested that in these moments we are in a different place psychologically and/or spiritually, isolated from our regular social circles and alienated from the normal give and take of daily life in community. We have had a powerful, singular experience, not given to sharing. Our experience has taken us outside the community; a veil hangs between us and our companions, and we are not fully seen.
It’s a temporary experience, and when enough time has passed, we will find our “new normal,” sometimes with the help of a ritual moment that allows us to cross over the divide between the solo truth of lived personal experience and the compromises inherent in communal existence. The red heifer helped our ancestors to do this, but we don’t grind cow ashes into a potion anymore. We still, however, need a way to mark our transition.
That’s where the other significance of this Shabbat comes in, as this is also the Shabbat of Trans Visibility. In our own day, in our own way, we all need to be seen, and welcomed as part of our communities of meaning – even – especially – when we’ve had an experience that makes us feel at least temporarily alienated. For a trans person, that might include being “birthed” into one’s true gender. Even as the ancient Israelite community deliberately and officially acknowledged a passage in a tamey person’s experience (from woman to mother, from child to orphan, from partner to parent) so also on this Shabbat our community says to those among us who are trans that we see you, and we embrace you as part of our community. As we do so we offer our support to the trans person as they seek to complete their journey from isolated tamey to part-of-us tahor, and find their belonging with the rest of us.
The first Seder of Pesakh 5779 will be celebrated on erev Shabbat, Friday evening April 19. What transition do you need to complete to be ready? What belonging do you need? What welcome can you offer? Now is the time to plan and consider, invite and prepare. May all who are hungry for community find their place; may all who seek to take a deep breath of belonging find their welcome.
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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 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.