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.

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.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Purim Torah

This week, Jews around the world will once again read the Purim story from the Megillah.  As always, we will cheer Esther's bravery and blot out the name of the evil villain Haman with boos and noisemakers.  But an extraordinary archaeological discovery of just six months ago should change the way we understand the character of the Persian king, Ahasuerus.

This breakthrough in Middle Eastern studies comes from the distinguished biblical scholar and archaeologist Ronan Mueller.  While perusing previously unrevealed documents he unearthed from the Cairo Genizah, Mueller discovered numerous Aramaic and Farsi inscriptions that point to a covert connection between King Ahasuerus of Shushan and King Boris Badanov, Emperor of the ancient Scythian-Russian Confederation.  Consider this excerpt from the a key surviving section of the Kurgan Tolstoya Scroll, Fragment #613:

I, Ahasuerus, King of Persia and Very Stable Genius, have profited bigly from my collusion with King Badanov, paving my way to a landslide victory in the Persian election of 247 BCE.  But hey, no one can prove this, so it will always be Fake News and for anyone who suggests otherwise--well, know that they are laughing their asses off in the Carpathian Mountains over how the Farsi Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has handled this investigation.

This amazing textual discovery should not stop any of us from laughing, singing, and  stomping our feet as we read the Megillah here at CABI on Wednesday night.  But to honor Ronen Mueller's revelatory work, I suggest that this year, upon reaching the Megillah's end, we all drink a White Russian or two and toast "L'Chaim!"--or "Nostrovia!"--to King Ahasuerus and the bots who put him in power despite his losing the Persian popular vote.

Happy Purim--

Rabbi Dan

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers--In Vain

Jewish tradition warns against invoking a vain blessing, which it calls a b’racha l’vatala. The Talmud insists that prayerful words should matter deeply, and we diminish their power when we utter them falsely.
Let me offer a few examples. Expectant parents should not pray for a boy or a girl, since we know that this is genetically determined at conception and one’s prayers and petitions cannot change that reality.  Similarly, upon hearing a siren or seeing a fire truck passing by, one should not pray: “Please, not my house.”  It’s already a done deal—and besides, such a prayer implicitly wishes the ill to be upon others.  One should instead pray for the health and welfare of all concerned, wherever the crisis is unfolding.  Finally, one should not offer a blessing over bread and then decline to eat.  To utter the words with proper intention, one must follow through on the action.
I’ve thought a lot about this principle in the days following the horrific school shooting in Florida.  Once again, we’re hearing the usual litany of Republican politicians—starting with our president—offering up their “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families. 
This is the epitome of a vain blessing, which only cheapens genuine prayer.  This expression, coupled with these politicians’ adamant refusal to take any significant action to stop the bloodshed, makes an utter mockery of faith and decency.
Yes, we can and must grieve.  And pray.  But our grief and prayer should compel us to act.  We must not acquiesce and accept America’s gun violence as normal—because it isn’t.   Nearly two dozen children die of it each day.  This is unprecedented in the developed world—appalling and unacceptable, because it could be significantly curtailed with legislative action.
It is a sham and a sin for us to offer our thoughts and prayers while supporting the obstructionist efforts of the National Rifle Association, continuing to allow the purchase of assault rifles, and making guns easier to attain and use than a license to drive a car.  Such hypocrisy is the vainest of blessings—a slap in the face of the God of Life.
If you want to pray after the Parkland shootings, consider offering this plea to the Holy One, written by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson:
God of Proms and Finals,
Source of first jobs and kisses,
You who grant homecomings and great dorm buddies,
How we have betrayed you yet again!
You trust us with our children
yet our twisted obsession with power
and our paranoid evasion of fixing what is broken
drives us,
in the face of yet another mass murder,
to do nothing.
Forgive us, God, for the sin
of daring to offer consolation when for months
we’ve done nothing.
Forgive us, Holy One, for the sin
of praying for the victims
when our passivity is already breeding doom for others.
Forgive us, Source of Life, for the sin
of merely wringing our hands,
for retreating into indifference and helplessness,
when we know that Your service
and serving those countless victims of gun violence
mandates that we
“hate evil,”
“do justice,”
“pursue peace.”
Don’t pray for the victims, act!
And if we must pray,
let us pray for the stain on our own souls
for our callousness,
our indifference,
our surrender
to the peddlers of guns
and the fanatical phalanx of their apologists.