Sunday, June 10, 2018

Proud and Holy (Korach)

Sometimes Jewish wisdom and observances come from unexpected places.  In last week’s Torah reading, we learned that a minyan of ten comes from the naysaying scouts whose negative report concerning the land of Israel and its inhabitants doomed their entire generation to death in the wilderness.   Now Korach—the namesake of this week’s portion and Jewish archetype of misguided rebels—speaks words of prophetic truth even in the midst of his evil uprising.  Proving that even arch-villains can be mouthpieces for the Divine, Korach declares: “All the community are holy, all of them, and the Holy One is in their midst.”  In response to these words, Rashi comments: “They are all holy because they all heard the utterances on Sinai from the mouth of the Eternal.”
Korach’s declaration is aspirational—it was not entirely true in his time, and even now, it is not fully realized.  Yet his words have indeed proven to be prophetic, for over the intervening centuries, the Jewish people have made progress toward this end of all-inclusive holiness.  Slowly but surely, we have expanded our recognition of the diversity of the community that stood together at Sinai. We have become far more open to Jews by Choice, who now make up a large proportion of our progressive communities. Sexism still persists, yet in today’s liberal Jewish world, women are powerful leaders in public life, serving as rabbis, cantors, educators, presidents and CEOs of synagogue boards and other Jewish non-profit organizations.  Racism, too, persists, yet our once completely Ashkenormative community has made significant strides in recognizing the contributions of Jewish people of color.
And on this week of Pride Shabbat, we celebrate the opening of Jewish life to lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender and non-binary Jews.  What could be more fitting than the rainbow sign, a reminder of God’s promise to care for the world, and now a symbol of the varieties of sexual orientation and gender identity that strengthen our community?
Here, too, our work is far from done.  In Idaho, LGBTQ people still lack the most basic legal protections from discrimination because our legislature has refused to add the words that would extend them the same rights that the rest of us enjoy.  As liberal Jews, it is our duty to keep insisting on justice for all, starting with our own Jewish LGBTQ individuals and families and extending our efforts to include the entire community. 
 Yet even as we remind ourselves of the tasks still before us, we should take this season to celebrate how far we’ve come.  When I arrived in Boise twenty-four years ago, CABI’s participation in Pride was a source of intense controversy.  Very few religious organizations participated and counter-demonstrators came out in droves.  Today, our state capital is illuminated in rainbow colors, Pride banners line the streets of the city, and same-sex marriages conducted beneath our chuppah are legally binding throughout the nation.  Our youth may take this for granted but for those of us who remember the bad old times, it is remarkable.
All the community are holy, all of them, and the Holy One is in their midst. 
Amen—and Happy Pride.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

No Direction Home: Torah and Wilderness (portion Bemidbar)

How does it feel—to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?
            -Bob Dylan

This week, we begin the book of Numbers, known in Hebrew as B’midbar, meaning “in the wilderness.”  That is also the name of this week’s portion, and, in a sense, it captures the theme of the book as a whole, which focuses on the narrative of our wanderings, between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land.  How does it feel to live in such a space, so aptly described by Bob Dylan as both thrilling and bewildering?

It is no accident that we encounter these chapters each year shortly before Shavuot, the festival that celebrates the giving of Torah (which begins on Saturday night), for there is a strong connection between the gift of Torah and the wilderness experience.

Midrash Rabbah asks: “Why was Torah given in a wilderness?” and then answers, “Because just as a wilderness is ownerless and available to everyone, so the Torah is not the domain of an elite few but rather is available for anyone who wishes to come and partake of it.”  This is truer now than ever, with excellent Torah study resources available on the Internet.  Just google the weekly portion and you will come up with a vast array of interpretations, from secular humanist to ultra-Orthodox and everything in between.

The Talmud takes this a step farther, deriving a psychological lesson from the wilderness experience.  In Nedarim 55a, we learn that if we want to learn Torah, we have to emulate the terrain where it was given, by making ourselves open and ownerless.  The commentary in Etz Hayim notes: It is intimidating to open oneself to the demands of God, to a new and morally demanding way of life.  Torah portrays the people as periodically wishing they were back in the predictable, morally undemanding servitude of Egypt.  Yet Israel’s willingness to accept the Torah, to be open as a wilderness, was the essential first step in God’s remaking the world.  Perhaps this kind of openness is the prerequisite for all real learning and personal growth.  If we wish to move forward, it is important to be able to let go of our hardened assumptions and be willing to let the world act upon us in new ways.  Or as Reb Dylan put it, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner offers this insight about the connection between Torah and wilderness: The reason Sinai is so special and the reason why we are unable to hear Torah all the time, suggests Eliyahu KiTov, is because the noise, static, and muzak of this world drown out the sound of God’s voice.  At Sinai, not a bird chirped or a sound [other than God’s voice] was heard.  At Sinai we could hear what had been there (and continues to be here) all along.

Two centuries ago, William Wordsworth lamented, “The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”  Today, this is ever more the case.  We are bombarded with information, and while much of it is enormously helpful, it is easy to lose God’s voice amidst this great din.  Many of us go to the wilderness, quite literally, to get off the grid.  But even if we cannot make it out to the Sawtooths, we can create our own wilderness times, disconnecting from the world of technology and reconnecting with God, with family, and with our own still, small voices of conscience and vision.

As we enter the wilderness this week with portion B’midbar, and prepare to receive the Torah on Shavuot, consider ways that you might make yourself more open, more ownerless, and more still, like that sacred space.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Demands of Gratitude (Portion Tzav)

What does an attitude of gratitude ask of us?

This week’s Torah reading, Tzav, raises this question in an indirect but important manner.  The portion continues last week’s lengthy and detailed description of the sacrifices offered up by our Israelite ancestors.  Our focus this Shabbat is on a class of offerings known as shlamim—offerings of well-being.  In this list, the todah—the sacrifice of gratitude—stands out in one significant way.  Whereas other sacrifices of well-being may be eaten until the third day, "the flesh of [the] thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until the morning" (Leviticus 7:15). Whatever is left over until the following morning must be destroyed.

Given our propensity to associate American Thanksgiving with leftovers, why does Torah uniquely forbid the consumption of leftover gratitude offerings?

Drawing on the medieval commentator Isaac Abravanel, Rabbi Shai Held suggests that by banning leftovers, Torah strongly encourages the celebrant to share the meal with friends and family.  He writes: “The nature of gratitude is such that it is inherently outward-looking. Think of a moment in your life when you have had an overwhelming sense of gratitude to God or to another person. Imagine especially a moment when you received something - whether a much-needed meal, a kind word, or a gesture of deep love - that you were not at all sure would be forthcoming. You may well notice that when you fully inhabit the sense of gratitude, you feel an urge to share the gifts you have received with others. When we are moved to the depths of our being by having been given something, we seek to become givers ourselves. A grateful heart overflows. . . . The simple requirement that there not be any leftovers from the thanksgiving offering thus teaches us a fundamental theological and spiritual lesson. We are not meant to rest content with being recipients of God's gifts but are asked to becoming givers ourselves. God's gifts are meant to flow through us and not merely to us.”
In other words, gratitude and hoarding are completely incompatible.  As one of my favorite prayers in our Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefilah, teaches: Teach us, O God, to give thanks for what we have by sharing it with others.
This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Ha-Gadol, the Shabbat before Pesach.  It’s fitting that we read about the gratitude offering, as Pesach asks that we open our homes and our hearts to others. “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”  Indeed.  To be grateful is to share.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Ritual, Ethics, and Our Gun Problem (portion Vayikra)


The Eternal One called unto Moses, saying: “Speak to the Israelites and tell them: ‘When any of you bring a sacrifice to the Holy One, you shall bring your offering of cattle. . .’”
                                                -Leviticus 1

The sacrifices that you bring are futile; your incense is an abomination to me.
My soul loathes your celebration of the new moons and appointed festivals;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

Even though you offer up many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
                                                -Isaiah 1

This coming Wednesday, March 14—exactly one month after the horrific Parkland shootings—students across America will walk out of their schools at 10:00 am
to protest the callous failure of our state and federal governments to take real action to halt the epidemic of gun violence plaguing America’s schools and neighborhoods.
Last week, my son, Jonah, asked Janet and me if we would support his participation in this protest.

I weighed his question in light of this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra.  From beginning to end, this parshah—which opens the book of Leviticus—is taken up with all the gory details of how our ancestors were to offer up their animal sacrifices.  It is, at first glance, a difficult portion to mine for meaning in our modern world, a lengthy description of rituals that are archaic for the vast majority of contemporary Jews.

Yet the portion takes on significant resonance when viewed through the words of prophets like Isaiah.  The prophets railed against the hypocrisy of those who are punctilious in their ritual observance yet lax in their social ethics.  They did not mince words in denouncing those who brought the sacrifices exactly as prescribed in our portion while oppressing the poor, widows, orphans, strangers and other vulnerable people living in their midst. 

The prophets thus remind us that ritual observance must be coupled with ethical behavior, or else it becomes an abomination in God’s eyes.  This concern remains all too relevant.

Many of our political leaders have responded to gun violence by offering their hopes and prayers.  This is the epitome of what the prophets—and God—deplore: pious words paired with immoral behavior.  To fail to address the sources of gun violence while praying for its victims is to profane the name of the Holy One.

So. . . How did I respond to Jonah’s question about participating in next Wednesday’s walkout?

I told him that I would have been deeply disappointed if he didn’t participate.