Archive for Mai de 2012

This Shabbat we open the fourth book of the Torah, BeMidbar, “in the wilderness.” (Its English name “Numbers” is taken from the census of the people with which it opens.) BeMidbar presents two contradictory positions about our people and our relationship with God. After reading the detailed laws of the book of Leviticus, we return to the narrative that we left off in Exodus – it is the second year since we have left Egypt, and are in the Sinai, preparing for our journey to the Land of Israel. The opening of the book presents the ideal picture: the people have built the Tabernacle according to the instructions that Moses has received from God, the priests have been ordained for its service, and the people encamp around the Tabernacle in harmonious order. Within a few chapters, dissension has broken out as Moses contends with a series of rebellions that climax in the scouts returning from the land with a report that stirs fear among the people and the ultimate punishment of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Harmony and dissent, relationships whole and broken, are the themes of this book.

The prophecy from Hosea that always accompanies this parashah reinforces this tension. For the Torah, the greatest bond is that between God and the people of Israel – this is the eternal covenant or Brit. The people’s apostasy is met with God’s rejection; however, there is always the possibility of healing. “Assuredly I will speak coaxingly to her and lead her through the wilderness and speak to her tenderly…. there she will respond as in the days of her youth.” The ideal of the people united with God as at Mt. Sinai, the event we celebrate as Shabbat comes out with the festival of Shavuot, is evoked as something that can be reclaimed. Imagining the relationship as a marriage, Hosea’s prophecy concludes with the words recited as we put on tefillin, proclaiming the steadfastness of the relationship and its core values: “And I will espouse you forever; and I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness and you shall know God.”

These images can guide us through all our relationships – whether of two individuals, or two groups of people. Communications can break down, tensions arise, but healing is always possible. However, it is more difficult to achieve reconciliation when the two groups or individuals have begun their relationship with antagonism. More difficult, but not impossible.  


Read Full Post »

We close the reading of the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, with a combined parashah, Behar/Bechukotai, that expresses the range of what it meant for our ancestors to be part of a religious community and compels us to question just what it means for us in the 21st century. In Behar, we hear many laws concerning the redistribution of wealth that is at the heart of the Torah’s idealized vision of community. The commentary in our Chumash, Etz Chayim states, “This prevents the polarization of society into two classes: wealthy, powerful landowners on the one hand and permanently impoverished people on the other. …The great 20th century rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook taught that the purpose of the jubilee was primarily spiritual, not economic. It came to restore that sense of unity [to the people.]”

In a sense, the two interpretations complement each other. That is, we find that too much polarization of power and wealth in any society tends to lead to divisiveness and the break down of community. Each society, each community, must make sure that there is a sense of mutual responsibility among its members for there to be cohesion – not just in an economic sense, but particularly in terms of shared values or “spiritual unity”.

Bechukotai presents a promise of blessing for those who follow the way of God, and an extensive series of horrific curses for those who reject the word of God (as presented by Moses at Mt. Sinai.) The worst of the curses is exile from the land, the loss of community and a sense of belonging. I am not among those who believe that blessings and curses, reward and punishment, come from some external judge as one might infer from these passages. However, when the social fabric – which is comprised of the relationships people form through economic connection, daily discourse, common values and purpose – breaks down, then a sense of dislocation follows. The ultimate dislocation results in the fracturing of the society.

The Torah reminds us, at the beginning of Behar and at the end of Bechukotai, that these teachings came from God to Moses at Mount Sinai, the Torah’s way of emphasizing their centrality to the life of the nation. We can read “the nation” as not just the nation of Israel, but any nation, and indeed, any community. It is incumbent upon us, now and always, while always remaining aware of our needs, not to consider them to the exclusion or detriment of others – whether members of our community now or those for the future.

Ultimately self-centered behavior will lead to the demise not just of the society or community, but the individuals who have been part of that community. Conversely, the sacrifice that seems to be at the heart of the teaching of Behar is actually that which leads to the blessings adumbrated in Bechukotai, “You shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” When we give to the other, we receive.

Read Full Post »

When I was a child I remember my friends at school having advent calendars, large charts that they hung on the wall as they counted down the days to Christmas. Each day had a little window which would be opened and inside was a picture, a message or even a small treat. I was so envious of those calendars, I too wanted to open little windows and count down the days to a special celebration, I didn’t want to be the Jewish child who missed out again, I wanted a sparkly, special counting calendar too. This childhood longing remained with me well beyond my childhood so imagine my joy when I walked into a Judaica shop in America and saw a calendar, with glitter and little windows for counting the days to a celebration. At first I was a little shocked, it was a Judaica shop, what were they doing with Christmas calendars? But looking closer I realized it was not an advent calendar it was an omer calendar, a sparkly calendar to count the days of the omer from Pesach all the way to Shavuot. I bought the calendar and that year religiously counted the 49 days of the omer and much as I loved opening the little windows and finding the surprise which lay behind them, the counting was more meaningful than it had ever been before because for the first time, I paid proper attention to each day, building in excitement until I finally reached the festival of Shavuot.

I sometimes feel a little sorry for Shavuot. Of the three pilgrimage festivals, it often seems to be the less noticed, not as pretty sister to the others. Pesach is always an enormous celebration, Sukkot has the joy and festivity after the heaviness and introspection of the Yamim Nora’im but poor Shavuot, in the cold, dark of winter, often gets overlooked like the fruit platter next to the bon vivante. But Shavuot and Pesach are integral, one to the other and they are connected and linked by the counting of the Omer. As we reminded ourselves at Pesach, we were not freed from Egypt in order to merely be free. God took us out of Egypt to give us the commandments, to teach us how to be holy, how to do God’s work and heal the world, and we do that by following the commandments. God freed us from Egypt in order for us to receive the Torah and to begin to live its values and teachings in every aspect of our lives. And the calendar reminds us of this crucial and important link by commanding us to count the days between the two festivals, to take the journey our ancestors did, from freedom to responsibility so that we too can stand at Sinai during Shavuot and receive the Torah for ourselves.

But the counting of the Omer is more than a bridge linking the two festivals together, it is also a reminder to each of us to stop and recognize the importance and significance of every single day. When I counted with the calendar it caused me to pause once a day to mark the passage of time, to think about my journey towards Shavuot, to consider what had happened between the previous day and this one. And that small pause to count and consider, to think and reflect is something so many of us miss in our lives. We are so rushed and harried that we don’t take the time to pause and consider where we are going, to count our blessings and the gifts in our lives. This period of counting the Omer is an opportunity to reflect upon each day, to think about our journey through life and to make each day the best it can be, to make it count.

Read Full Post »

The combined portions of Achare Mot and Kedoshim teach us as much about the development of Judaism as they do about any specific ritual or tradition, of which there are many covered from Leviticus 16 -20. The portion of Achare Mot opens with a detailed description of the Yom Kippur ritual in Tabernacle and Temple times. For the most part, the ritual focused on the High Priest and his purification of the sanctuary through the sacrifice of animals and the dispatch of the scapegoat. These rituals are elaborated upon in the Mishna and recalled in the Avodah service on the day of Yom Kippur. However, they are no longer practiced. Instead, with the destruction of the Temple and the virtual end of the role of the priest, the focus of Yom Kippur shifted to the individual and the requirement to practice self-denial. While we continue to celebrate Yom Kippur, because of historical circumstances, how we do so has little to do with the ritual that is the focus of the Torah and far more to do with those few verses that relate to each individual (Leviticus 16:29-32).

Other aspects of this combined teaching demonstrate even more than historical factors, human moral development affects how we read and apply Torah. On one hand, parashah Kedoshim opens with the Holiness Code, a standard of ethical and ritual teachings at the core of Judaism to this day. (It includes a restatement of what is known as the 10 commandments in addition to many teachings on justice, equity, compassion and human responsibility.) On the other hand, both Achare Mot and Kedoshim have in their concluding chapters (18 and 20, respectively, of Leviticus) the teachings against gay and lesbian relations that have become the anathema nearly all congregations affiliated not just with Reconstructionism , but also the Reform and Conservative, movements. In fact, it is one of the teachings of the Holiness Code – you shall love your neighbour like yourself –among other principles of Torah teachings that moves us to read the prohibitions against gay and lesbian relationships in a new way.

The question in front of us is how can we mere mortals decide, beyond changes in historical circumstance, which verses of Torah to expand and elevate, and which verses of Torah to contextualize and virtually eliminate? The answer is we have no option to interpret and apply, but an obligation to do so. The very mind and heart implanted in us by God – the creative, compassionate, intelligence – that motivated our earliest sages to adapt the Torah to their times compels us to do the same. The rabbis, in their clever way, turned the passage in Deuteronomy that required the stoning of the rebellious child into one that was never applied but only written in the Torah to test our ability to reason and teach. Similarly, the early rabbis virtually eliminated the death penalty and read the passage “an eye for an eye” as “the value of an eye for an eye”. The rabbis began a process of reading Torah in order for it to be living Torah, developing new meaning not just because of changed historical circumstances but human values in social context.

In our embrace of Torah and living Judaism, we must courageously continue the work of our ancestral teachers. The combined reading of Achare Mot and Kedoshim shows us that over thousands of years there are those parts of Torah that we must continue to highlight, and others whose dark shadows are revealed in that light and must be re-read. Each parashah has a core principle to guide us. In Achare Mot it states: Chai Bahem (and you shall live – or enhance life – by the teachings of Torah). In Kedoshim it states: Kedoshim tiheyu – you shall strive to be holy. We create kedushah, holiness, in the way that we expand or restrict the teachings of Torah to enhance life and the good of Creation.

Read Full Post »