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Archive for Març de 2015

This week is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat immediately preceding Pesach. In ancient times it was one of two occasions in the year when the rabbi would give a sermon. The aim of the sermon was to remind the community about the forthcoming festival of Pesach and to expound a little about the laws and customs of this time of year, as the community prepared to celebrate Pesach.

This year, Shabbat Hagadol coincides with parashat Tzav, the portion where we read about the fire burning on the altar, a fire which must never go out. Rabbi Amiel gave an alternate interpretation of this command, suggesting that instead of the fire burning “on it” (referring to the altar), it can also be read as the fire burning “in him” (referring to the priest). Based on this reading, the passage then talks about the fire we should all keep burning in our souls and our spirits; a fiery passion for Judaism and the Jewish people.

Pesach is the most celebrated festival in the Jewish calendar. More than Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, Pesach is the time when the largest number of Jews make a connection with our people and traditions. It is the time that the fire is stoked and the flames burn brightest within. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the universal message of the seder and its celebration of freedom, equality and justice for all. We are taught that each one of us should move through the seder from degradation to uplift, from slavery to freedom, to each feel that we have been redeemed from Egypt. The seder teaches that the more we tell about the Exodus, the more we are praiseworthy. This passage is not about the number of times we tell the story but rather the depth with which we do so. In recounting the story as if we were there, we are provided with the opportunity to really meditate on what it meant to be a slave and what it now means to be free. It is an opportunity not just for sympathy but for empathy. Know that there are others who suffer like we suffered and commit yourselves to helping bring about their exodus.

We need to do more than read the words; we must internalize the teachings and then go out into the world and take action. It is not enough to be sympathetic to the plight of others; we are enjoined to take steps to make the changes we want to see in the world to feel empathy and be motivated to action. God did not redeem us from Egypt to do nothing; God redeemed us and then gave us a challenge: to follow the commandments, to change the world, to create the future we want to see. Ralph Barton Perry wrote: “There is no boredom like that which can afflict a people who are free and nothing else”. We cannot be free and nothing else. We are free in order to bring freedom, to end oppression and to create the future of which we dream and for which we pray.

Pesach is the time that the Jewish fire within us is kindled; our passions are aroused, moving us to use our freedom to shape the world we want to see.

Let us use the Pesach seder as inspiration to live each day as people who are committed to bringing freedom, hope and peace to others. Our challenge is to keep tending the fire burning within us throughout the year; to feed our souls and our spirits with the learning, beauty, delight and joy of Judaism and changing the world.

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This week we begin reading from a new book in the Torah. The Book of Leviticus, Sefer Vayikra, is referred to by the rabbis of the Talmudic period as “Torat Kohanim” because of its overwhelming concern about matters related to the priesthood and their facilitation of sacrificial worship in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). Perhaps the most arcane book of the Torah in terms of how we practice our Judaism today, Sefer Vayikra none-the-less presents some deeply profound teachings about the nature of Jewish worship and how we relate to our God. The challenge, of course, is to make these most ancient of teachings relevant to our contemporary religious experience.

For over 2000 years the main mode of Jewish worship has been through prayer. It is well entrenched. So how can we relate to the commanded concept of animal sacrifice today?

This question has been asked for a very long time. Maimonides, the great 12th century rabbinic scholar, addressed this concern in his monumental work, The Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides begins by asserting that God always considers human nature when interacting with humanity. A significant element of human nature is that human behaviors and attitudes cannot be suddenly and radically altered. Changes must be made gradually, without haste. Applying this notion to animal sacrifice, Maimonides suggests that God’s objective for Israel was to develop the people into a nation devoted to divine service – worship – and acts of loving-kindness. Emerging out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were used to animal sacrifice as the common and established form of worship. The immediate command to abandon sacrifice would have represented a radical change of behavior for the people at a very vulnerable time. Our later Prophets make it very clear that God does not require our burnt offerings. However, at the time of the exodus, a concession was made to human nature. The familiar and accepted form of worship was preserved, but with very specific parameters in order to differentiate Israel’s form of sacrificial offerings from those of the other pagan nations. Where, when, what and how to sacrifice were all clearly controlled and the priesthood became the standard-bearers of this newly commanded form of worship and of what was acceptable to God.

While traditional Judaism still maintains a messianic ideal of a return to sacrificial worship in a rebuilt third temple, there are others who suggest, like Maimonides, that, as a concession to human weakness, the original Levitical mandate of animal sacrifice was never intended as an eternal command. Many have proposed that the evolution from animal sacrifice to prayer based worship was an intended transition, moving the locus of offering from external to internal. When we approach the altar with our korban (“offering” – based on the root meaning of “to draw near”) we bring to God something that is outside of ourselves. In truth it is the animal that is making the greatest commitment. At the deepest level, sincere authentic prayer makes a much great demand on the worshipper. With prayer we bring an offering of the soul. We look deep within ourselves, sacrificing our egos and all the self-rationalizations and baggage we manifest in order to protect ourselves. We render ourselves vulnerable, opening ourselves up to truth and connection with the Divine. With prayer, the korban is you.

So what, then, do we do with the Book of Leviticus? Like the idea of the korban, we take the detailed commandments of the priestly handbook and we move its instructions inside. Animal sacrifice becomes a Midrash, a metaphor about how we are to engage in our efforts to commune with our God today. We embrace its call to spiritual purity and the kavanah (intention) of ritual. We move the altar into our homes and we become an entire nation of priests, drawing nearer to our God through our deeds without blemish and the mindfulness of our actions.

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As finite creatures bounded by time, how we consecrate space and time are major ways that we create meaning in our lives. As far as we know, we humans are the only ones of the animal kingdom who live with a long term understanding of our physical limitations, our impending death, the memory of our early days and the passage of time between. As we come to the dramatic conclusion of the book of Exodus, with parashiyot Vayakhel and Pekudei, we hear of the people faithfully building the Tabernacle where God’s presence will be encountered. Additionally, we are again commanded to keep the Shabbat, the central marker of time for the Jewish people, the focal point for the opening of the Torah and the story of creation.

Our sages have noted the parallel between the opening of the book of the Torah, with the story of Shabbat at the heart of creation, and the conclusion of the book of Exodus, with the construction of the Holy Tabernacle. Just as in our first story of Genesis there are seven passages describing the creation of the universe (culminating with the Shabbat), so too in the final story of Exodus there are seven passages concerning the construction of the Tabernacle. Counting six days and then resting one, to make a week, is an extraordinary way to mark time — not based on any astronomical event like all other aspects of time, but requiring the ability of the human mind to count and so to make a difference. As far as we know, the seven-day week with the day of rest is a gift of the Jewish people to humanity. God is Eternal, ever present, yet for us to encounter God in time we need to stop from daily activity — Shabbat is the Hebrew for “stopping”.

Similarly, the Tabernacle that centers our understanding of space is a metaphoric parallel to the universe of God’s creation: it represents the meeting place for people and God. (The Hebrew word Mishkan, translated as tabernacle, means dwelling.) While God is present in and beyond all space, we as humans need to create sacred space to enhance our encounter with God. This parashah reminds us that to create this space each Israelite “whose hearts so moved them brought freewill offerings to the Lord” (i.e., to create the Mishkan, the holy space.)

We brought those gifts a few years ago to create a sacred and unique space for our religious practice — one in which ultimately we have a small chapel and large sanctuary used for our egalitarian services, our learning and our communal gathering. Our vision remains and continues to be achieved thanks to our heartfelt, freewill offerings. The stories we read this week inspire us to hold fast to our dream of creating sacred space.

The conclusion of the book of Exodus is a perfect parallel for the opening of the book of Genesis: beyond the specific regulations of Tabernacle and Shabbat comes the larger lesson: by creating sacred space to commemorate sacred moments, we add significance to our lives, so limited by time and space. Our contemporary synagogue becomes a place where finite ones can glimpse the Infinite One.

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Our tradition teaches us that contained in the Aron – the Ark of the Covenant that the Israelites carried through the wilderness – were the two sets of tablets that God gave to Israel at Sinai. There was the one complete set, on which was inscribed the words of the Ten Commandments, and then there were the shards of the first set, which Moses had smashed out of anger when saw the people dancing around the golden calf. Both the whole and the shattered were considered equally holy, equally important. The undamaged and the broken equally received the same honor. From this teaching we can learn much. The smashing of the tablets is described in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, gives an alternative explanation about how the original tablets were destroyed. When God saw that the People of Israel had constructed the golden calf in the camp, God tried to grab the tablets away from Moses on the top of Sinai. But Moses, the Midrash explains, was strong. A tug of war ensued between God and Moses and, as a result, the tablets were shattered.

The rabbinic commentator then asks: why did God never rebuke Moses for breaking the tablets? Obviously, under the circumstances, God would have preferred to keep the tablets rather than hand them to an idolatrous people. But it was better for Israel that the tablets be smashed on the earth rather than remain complete in God’s hands. If Moses had not brought the first tablets down and smashed them to the shock of the people, there never would have been an opportunity for Moses’ return to the mountaintop to fetch the replacement tablets for a redeemed Israel. The breaking of the tablets provided the opportunity for the “stiff-necked” People of Israel to renew their relationship with God and reaffirm their covenant through Torah. This is the concept of “Lo ba-shamayim hi — It is not in Heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12), which suggests that God’s commands are not overwhelming but rather close to human hearts and capabilities. The whole point of Torah is to direct the human spirit and meet human needs. There is no need for Torah in the heavenly realm.

The breaking of the tablets also provides another insight into the ongoing struggles of life. The shards of the broken tablets remind us of the continuous opportunity for growth and renewal. There is always another chance to redeem ourselves; always the possibility of repentance.

This is the message of our Jewish tradition: life is never perfect. But that realization need not lead to despair. Rather than focus on some ideal afterlife or messianic perfection, Judaism has always been more concerned with our imperfect human state and providing guidance for healing and repair — Tikkun. This is our strength: we have learned to value and embrace the pieces and from them construct something even stronger.

We see this reflected in some of our best-known Jewish rituals. At the end of a wedding ceremony we break a glass to remind us that a shattered marriage can never be put back together in the same way. Marriage is never easy but from the shattered glass we learn to value the pieces, the moments of greatest intimacy, partnership and support, and on that foundation we can build a relationship of holiness.

When we become mourners, we perform Keriah — literally “tearing”. As we suffer a tear in the fabric of our lives we identify ourselves as mourners through a tear in the garment we wear. Symbolically, the message is that the time will come when we can sew the garment back together again. The tear is never permanent. We can repair the damage. We can become whole again. It won’t be perfect and it will never be the same, but it can be fixed. The scars on our bodies and souls will begin to fade, but the scar tissue that remains is often stronger than the unblemished tissue it replaced.

We desperately want to believe that everything is going to be all right. Perhaps there is a place somewhere in the divine realm where that is true. But we live in this world and here the truth is that there are times when things come apart. But, as we grow and mature, we come to learn from these experiences; we learn to appreciate the pieces. The most beautiful mosaics are made from broken pieces, as are the most beautiful lives. The most important lesson in life is not how to avoid becoming broken. It is to learn how to recycle the pieces and rebuild.

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