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Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

This Shabbat HaGadol, the great Shabbat announcing the festival of Pesach next week, requires us to think of the main themes of Pesach and act upon them. We will begin our Seder night, reciting these words from the Haggadah, “This is the bread of affliction — all who are hungry let them enter and eat; all who are in need let them come and celebrate Pesach.” Will we truly be responding at that moment to the hungry, homeless and desperate in our community? We do not have to walk far to the world of Mechanisburg, we support through our social justice programs. This is the time to offer them further support, which can also be done by making a donation to Mazon, a Jewish response to hunger.

The entire theme of the Pesach Seder, as our rabbis tell us in the Mishna on Pesach, is to take a journey from degradation to exaltation: we begin with two versions of degradation, one physical (we were slaves in the land of Egypt) and one spiritual (our earliest ancestors, before Avraham, were idolators). We conclude in songs of gratitude and praise — Dayenu, followed by Hallel. We are required to consider that each of us went out of Egypt, and the best way to do that is to encourage discussion of contemporary forms of degradation, as well as sharing around our tables expressions of gratitude which should be easily forthcoming as we live in this bounteous land.

However, while we have much to be grateful for as American Jews, we must recognise that not all in our care are so lucky. There may be different solutions to those coming to our shores for asylum, none of which takes into consideration the poem on the statue of Liberty, written my Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”:

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

However, once people have come into our care we have to take responsibility for their physical and spiritual wellbeing. We must not become oppressors ourselves, which is a risk in a democracy such as ours whether the government acts in our name and on our behalf. Many Americans are deeply worried about the direction of our immigration policies and the impact this is having on people in desperate need of refugee protection, for instance. People are also increasingly frustrated that the Government remains committed to its policies, despite the incredible damage it is inflicting on innocent men, women and children, separating families and mixing illegal immigrants with criminals in our prisons. 

May we live to make real for all in our country the words we say at our Seder tables: “Now we are here…next year we will be free”.  

In a few days we will celebrate Passover. On that night we will reenact the Exodus from Egypt, but this celebration makes no sense if we do not translate the ancient narrative of our liberation into our own contemporary terms. What does it mean for us today? We must take an active role in the liberation of our fellow human beings, but this also includes ourselves, because we too must be able to look inside and free ourselves from the very same dependencies that we have created. The performance of mitzvot is the way in which we can sanctify ourselves and sanctify our lives, bringing a bit of the divine into our world.

 The Torah portion for this week, Metsorah (Leviticus 14-15) may seem far removed from that goal. Metsorah is the continuation of Tazria; last week’s parashah that lists the different types of “impurities” that we may incur, and how to get rid of them.

 The Commentators have always struggled to explain the meaning of these «impurities.» We have gotten used to translating « tsara’ah, צרעה» by «leprosy», but it is actually a range of dermatological conditions like eczema or psoriasis. If these conditions are much less serious than leprosy, they are no less impressive, as Moses found in the episode of the burning bush (Exodus 4:6-7). The fact remains that the link between certain diseases and the condition of purity is difficult to understand. Many commentators have noted that Miriam was punished by such tsara’ah for having slandered the wife of Moses (Numbers 12) and they try to establish a link between the « impurity » and our state of moral impurity.  However, this is a far cry from being able to explain the many other impurities mentioned in Metsorah.

 In some cases of « impurity » we can find natural acts and even acts linked to the fulfillment of mitzvot, to which it is not possible to associate the negative charge of the word ‘impurity’ or even ‘dirty’, that we find in some translations. If over time, tradition has made menstruation a particular type of impurity, the Torah tells us that it is the “impurity” associated with birth or married relationships. In the Torah, this “impurity” applies equally to both men and women, only the intensity varies from case to case.

 In the Torah, « impure » does not mean « bad » or «filthy », « impurity » only speaks about the inability to approach the shrine. The Torah does not judge the state of impurity morally, it only requires us to be aware of our own state, when we are « pure » or « impure » and, therefore, when we can approach the shrine.

 The parashiot Metsora and Tazria try to codify the effect of the natural functions around procreation, the boundaries between life and death, and what is translated by «purity.» Our ancestors sought to understand what brought us close to God and what separated us from the Divinity. Their understanding and logic appear to us to be difficult, even foreign, but their quest is the same as ours is today when we go to the synagogue or when we do a mitzvah. As our ancestors did yesterday, we seek within our own means to get closer to the ideal towards which the Torah guides us.

 

This week we begin the section of the Torah which deals with skin afflictions. It covers a litany of sores with pus, swelling, rashes, discolouration, scaly, itchy, flaking skin and it prescribes the process by which one deals with such illnesses. First you go to the priest for diagnosis and he would either prescribe some time away from the community or declare you clean and not infectious. The ancient commentators, just like us, were perplexed by the fact that for these afflictions a person went to the priest for a cure rather than the more logical place: the doctor. As a result, they determined that something different must be happening with these particular diseases, something beyond the medical which moved it into the spiritual realm and for that reason, the priest was the source of the cure as opposed to the doctor.

Now I do not for one moment believe that people who are suffering from skin diseases have a spiritual issue which is being manifest in their skin but I do believe that the Torah was very wise about suggesting a connection between the physical and the spiritual parts of our being. It may not be exactly in the way it was envisaged by the commentators but more and more we are finding evidence that our physical health is linked with our emotional and spiritual well-being. But so many of us neglect that part of us and focus soley on our physical health.

Much of our time and energy is devoted to our physical well being, eating the right balance of foods, exercising and sleeping. All of that effort could be aided and supplemented by some spiritual exercise. Work on our emotional well-being as well. Take time to feel good about ourselves and our bodies, learn to love who we are inside, struggle against the demons of self deprecation and lack of confidence. We all have our fears, the places where we feel that we are not all that we could be, times when we are not happy, not doing what is best for us. And the sadness, bitterness, anger, troubles in our lives can affect our health and our bodies.

That is what the Torah teaches us this week. We are a part of an intricate system which is in a delicate balance. We need to work to keep it all in harmony so that it will sing a beautiful and joyous song of praise to God. We all need moments of indulgence where we care not just for our bodies but our souls as well.

This week we begin the section of the Torah which deals with skin afflictions. It covers a litany of sores with pus, swelling, rashes, discolouration, scaly, itchy, flaking skin and it prescribes the process by which one deals with such illnesses. First you go to the priest for diagnosis and he would either prescribe some time away from the community or declare you clean and not infectious. The ancient commentators, just like us, were perplexed by the fact that for these afflictions a person went to the priest for a cure rather than the more logical place: the doctor. As a result, they determined that something different must be happening with these particular diseases, something beyond the medical which moved it into the spiritual realm and for that reason, the priest was the source of the cure as opposed to the doctor.

Now I do not for one moment believe that people who are suffering from skin diseases have a spiritual issue which is being manifest in their skin but I do believe that the Torah was very wise about suggesting a connection between the physical and the spiritual parts of our being. It may not be exactly in the way it was envisaged by the commentators but more and more we are finding evidence that our physical health is linked with our emotional and spiritual well-being. But so many of us neglect that part of us and focus soley on our physical health.

Much of our time and energy is devoted to our physical well being, eating the right balance of foods, exercising and sleeping. All of that effort could be aided and supplemented by some spiritual exercise. Work on our emotional well-being as well. Take time to feel good about ourselves and our bodies, learn to love who we are inside, struggle against the demons of self deprecation and lack of confidence. We all have our fears, the places where we feel that we are not all that we could be, times when we are not happy, not doing what is best for us. And the sadness, bitterness, anger, troubles in our lives can affect our health and our bodies.

That is what the Torah teaches us this week. We are a part of an intricate system which is in a delicate balance. We need to work to keep it all in harmony so that it will sing a beautiful and joyous song of praise to God. We all need moments of indulgence where we care not just for our bodies but our souls as well.

 

 

Remember: Do Not Forget!

 This week, in addition to Parashat Tzav, we commemorate Shabbat Zachor, in which we tell the story of Amalek, the ancestor of Agag (whose story we read for our haftarah), the ancestor of Haman (whose story we hear on Purim). These readings are always part of the Shabbat before Purim. Purim seems like a frivolous minor festival for children, yet there is something deadly serious within it as well. In a world torn by inequality, pain, intolerance and religious violence, the story of Purim reminds us that the more things change the more they stay the same. Three major themes run through Purim to remind the Jewish people that the story of Esther is ever relevant.

 Megillat Esther, read the evening and morning of Purim, teaches the importance of treating men and women equally. The whole farce begins with the deposition of the queen, who is treated like a plaything by her husband. The new queen, Esther, has the opportunity to teach the king that women have a crucial role to play at every level of life We need to remind ourselves that the woman’s role extends and contributes in leadership as well as at home (as much of the Jewish world still questions the role of women on synagogue boards, let alone the rabbinate.)

 Megillat Esther also reminds us of the need to take action when we see wrongs perpetrated. King Ahasuerus is the classic bystander, reminding us that for evil to triumph, the only thing good people have to do is nothing. He is easily manipulated by Haman. Mordechai, on the other hand, is an activist and not just for Jewish causes. The champion of our right of self expression, he also demonstrates loyalty to the nation in which he lives, working through the system in order to change it.

 “Zachor” means remember. We must remember that the kinds of problems told about at Purim, commemorated with merriment and farce, are deadly serious. We must remember to fight for gender equality and religious tolerance. To be passive in the struggle is to support the status quo of discrimination and potential oppression. From the time of Moses, who led the original battle against the original Amalek, we have been called to be “Jews for justice”, wherever wrongs must be righted.

Parashat Vayikra

A Kingdom of Priests

 

Vayikra, the third book of the Torah, is known in the tradition as “Torat Cohanim”, dealing as it does with many laws concerning the priests and their role in leading the people in service to God. Overall, the book confronts us with details of animal sacrifice, ritual purity, prohibited sexual relationships and punishments for disobedience; as the Tosafot say, “it is the most difficult of the Five Books of Moshe”. The Lubavich Rabbi commented that, “Being the most difficult to understand, the Book of Vayikra demands more effort from its reader, which in turn lifts the reader to new heights of understanding and spiritual achievement.” Of all the books in the Torah, Vayikra challenges us to think about what it means to live by the Torah’s precepts and what it means to be in service to God.

 

Just as the Cohanim of Torah and Temple times were called to lead the people in service to God, so too the Jews, known as a “mamlechet cohanim” – a kingdom of priests – are called to lead humanity in service to God as a “holy nation”. With the destruction of the Second Temple, the role of the Cohanim in their service is more circumscribed; our service as a holy nation has never been more demanding. For Jews outside the world of Orthodoxy, the Torat Cohanim presents challenges on another level. Our questions about God and Torah have become more complex as the world has become more secular and materialistic. Given the growing disbelief in God itself, what does it mean to “serve God”? Further, when we find passages of Torah we morally reprehensible, such as the denigration of gays and lesbians derived from this book, how can Torah guide that service? In the Psalms, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace”; we need to ensure that is so. What means of interpretation and application of Torah allow us to engage with mitzvot concerning kashrut and living a holy life found within this book while restricting those that actually bring harm to others? To be a “kingdom of priests”, a people willing to take a leadership role among humanity in the service of God, requires diligent study and discerning application of Torah. This week’s parashah, in its opening word “vayikra”, whose last letter “aleph” is written small, provides an important insight into how we can connect with God and how we can read Torah.

 

There is much rabbinic commentary about this little letter – all suggesting that it should hint about human modesty (aleph being the first letter of the word for “I”), especially in the light of the profundity of what God might be (aleph also being the first letter in the word for “I” referring to God, the sound of aleph being silent.) It approaches hubris to think that given the enormity of the universe and our tiny place within it, that we know God’s will or word. While some believe that this infinite mystery is the author of books, we should humbly acknowledge that no book, no matter how sacred for its followers, is the literal word from God, but rather a literary approach toward God. Our words and our will should be striving toward that which we understand as the source of Conscious Being. A “kingdom of priests” must study and apply Torah with humility to understand our sacred responsibility of living with conscious being.

Parashat Pekude

God’s Dwelling in Community

 

This week we conclude the reading of the book of Exodus and as the final lines are read, we all shout “chazak chazak ve nitchazek!” “May we all go from strength to strength!” It has been a long journey through the book of Exodus as we have read of our ancestors journey from being a slave nation to a free people, a true community. One of the final acts in the book is the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness. If we look closely at the language used for the construction of the tabernacle, we find that it shares great parallels with the process by which God created the world in the opening of the book of Genesis.

 

There it says that “On the seventh day God finished the work of creation.” In our parashah Moses finished the work of creating the tabernacle. The Hebrew words used for “finished” and for “work” in each instance is the same. Just as God blessed creation, Moses blesses the people. Further, the phrase “just as God commanded Moses” is repeated seven times as part of the description. Seven, echoing the number of days of creation, seven, reflecting the number of wholeness, holiness and completeness. Finally, the order of theconstruction of the tabernacle and of the creation are in parallel. When God created the world, God first created the environment and then filled it: the heavens, the earth, the seas first, followed by the creatures in that environment – three days on the environment and three on the creatures. Similarly, the tabernacle has three areas, the outer chamber, the holy chamber and the holy of holies, each filled by different representatives of the people, until the holy of holies is filled with the spirit of God.

 

In a beautiful explanation Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that when God created the world, God created a place for humanity to dwell and when we created the tabernacle, we created a place for God among us. But our creation was different from that undertaken by God. God worked alone to make the world and all that is within it. But when we came to create for God, the community worked together, each one contributing what they could, each one offering gifts from their hearts. That is the essence of community, working together to bring God and godliness into the world. This act of cooperation shows how far the Israelite community has traveled through their wanderings in the Book of Exodus. They are no longer a disparate group of individuals; instead they are a community, and only as a community commanded to build a tabernacle.

 

We cannot bring God’s presence into the world alone, we must work together, each one giving what we can, each one contributing from our hearts. We no longer have a tabernacle but the presence of God is with us each time we reach out to one another, when we embrace and welcome, when we join together for a higher purpose. That is the lesson of the tabernacle and the lesson the Israelites came to learn from their years in the desert.

 

May we all feel the warmth and beauty of community and celebrate a Shabbat filled with goodness and peace and then God will truly dwell amongst us.

 

Shabbat Shalom

Parashat Vayakhel

Paradise Island: It is not a place, but a time…

 

Parasha Vayakhel presents Judaism’s teaching that the spiritual path is enhanced more by the sacredness of time than the sacredness of space. One might not immediately think such a conclusion is accurate, for after the soaring narrative of the opening of the Torah from the book of Genesis through the giving of the mitzvot at Sinai, the Torah presents five parshiyot in a row which primarily deal with the construction of the tabernacle, our first holy space. Its repetitive details about the building of this holy space at first make one think that having a holy space is the most important aspect of Judaism. Indeed, one rabbinic commentator suggests that “God so loved the idea of having a permanent home amid the Israelites that the details were repeated”. Another suggests that the earlier version of the instructions represents God’s commands, reflecting the enthusiasm descending from on high for this link with God; and that the later version represents Israel’s carrying out those commands, “showing the corresponding enthusiasms welling up from below.”

(See commentary, Etz Hayim, p 552).

 

However, other commentators notice a few salient points that indicate that “holiness in time” supersedes “holiness in space.” First, throughout the book of Exodus there are many references to Shabbat interspersed among those concerning the construction of the Tabernacle, as in the opening of this week’s parasha. Second, the commandment of Shabbat forms part of the revelation at Sinai; the commandment to construct the holy space of the Tabernacle only comes after the making of the Golden Calf and the apparent need of the ancient Israelites to have some more concrete form of worship. Third, as Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century rabbi who coined the term “holiness in time” and called Shabbat “an island in time” noted:

One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word kadosh – holy; a word which is more than any other representative of the mystery and majesty of the Divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? It is indeed a unique occasion at which the distinguished word kadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: ‘And god blessed the seventh day and made it holy’.” Indeed, the rabbinic tradition understands that malakha (the work prohibited on Shabbat) relates to 39 categories of labour involved in the construction of the Tabernacle.

 

Sadly, many Jews miss out on the joy of Shabbat. Some look at the experience in an all or nothing” way: given the 39 categories of malakha and the many halakhot (Jewish laws) derived from them, keeping Shabbat is “far too onerous”. Yet, we can look at things differently and create our own “island in time”. In our increasingly frenetic and materialistic world, Shabbat offers a day in which we refrain from consuming and producing and focus on enjoying the experience of being. Eating, drinking, singing, sleeping, reading, learning, praising, thanking, relaxing, conversing and loving are the central activities of Shabbat. Perceived this way, we realize that Shabbat is an extraordinary gift, an opportunity indeed to “rest and re-soul”. We then can understand that Paradise island is a not a place, but a time ….

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