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)


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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.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Liberations, Physical and Spiritual (Portion Vayakhel-Pekude)




Begin with degradation and end with praise.                    
-Mishnah, Pesachim 10:4

In this week’s double portion, Vayakhel-Pekude, we complete the book of Exodus.  The content of this parshah reminds us that two-thirds of that book is not about the exodus at all. Once we leave Egypt and cross the Red Sea, the emphasis shifts, first to our receiving Torah at Mount Sinai, and then to the central topic of the last five portions of Exodus: the building of the portable sanctuary that we will carry through the desert and the instructions and vestments for the priestly class (cohanim) who tend to its service.

Is there a thematic link between these seemingly disparate sections of Exodus?  The medieval commentator, Nachmanides believed so.  He writes: “The unifying theme of the book of Exodus is redemption from exile, both physical and spiritual.”  For Nachmanides, our release from physical servitude comes with the exodus from Egypt, but our spiritual liberation does not arrive until we receive the Torah and then welcome God’s presence made manifest in the mishkan.

This interpretation has a timely parallel in the Passover haggadah.  The Mishnah instructs that in telling the story of our liberation at the seder, we should begin with degradation and conclude with praise.  Being Jewish, from the start, two of our greatest sages differed on which dishonorable event marks the start of this journey toward freedom.  Rav proposes we open the tale with Our ancestors were idolaters, thereby recalling our roots in the pagan practices of two infamous Arameans: Abraham’s father, Terach, and Laban, the father of Rachel and Leah.   With this approach, Rav suggests that our servitude actually commences with the intellectual and spiritual slavery of worshipping false gods, long before Pharaoh physically enslaved us.  Shmuel, by contrast, argues that we should begin with We were slaves in Egypt and move from physical enslavement to political liberation.
In good—and somewhat confusing—Talmudic fashion, the haggadah includes both Rav and Shmuel’s versions of the story.  Shmuel’s comes first (Avadim hayyenu) followed shortly thereafter by Rav’s (Arami oved avi).  Thus our Rabbis remind us that servitude comes in numerous guises, and there are many paths to liberation.
This week—as we finish the multi-faceted book of Exodus and begin our preparations for Pesach, we might well consider all kinds of exile, physical and spiritual.  Let us ask ourselves: What holds us back from reaching our goals, individual and communal?  What are the external challenges?  And which obstacles lie within ourselves?  May this sacred season move us toward liberation from all that binds us.