Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Plague on our Houses

Has your house ever come down with a case of leprosy (or, to be more precise, the leprosy-like disease that Torah calls tzara’at)? This is most unlikely—yet this affliction of houses is a subject of central concern in this week’s portion, Metzorah, from the book of Leviticus.

The text teaches: “If, when the priest examines the plagued house, the plague in the walls is found to consist of greenish or reddish streaks that appear to go deep into the wall, the priest shall. . . close up the house for seven days. . . The house shall be scraped inside all around and the coating that is scraped off shall be dumped outside the city in an impure place. Then they shall take other stones and replace the afflicted stones with them, and take other coating and replaster the house.
But if the plague breaks out again, after the house has been scraped and replastered. . . the house shall be torn down entirely.”

While I will concede that the plague described here sounds uncannily like a description of the kitchen in my old fraternity house (“greenish and reddish streaks” growing over the surface of the walls), our Sages suggest that this is a most mysterious phenomenon. Torah explicitly limits it to the land of Israel, and most of the Rabbis confine its occurrence to the distant past. Indeed, many of the Talmudic teachers claim that there was never an actual case of a house afflicted with tzara’at.

Of course this raises an obvious question: if the plague on houses is a purely hypothetical narrative, why does the Torah bother to describe it in such detail? The Sages offer this classic answer: “D’rash v’kabel s’char—So that we may explore and interpret the text, and in doing so, receive reward.”

Along these lines, for me, this episode is a metaphor for two types of change that we must sometimes make in our lives: evolutionary and revolutionary transformations.
Sometimes our problems are cleared up with minor adjustments and slight shifts in course. The situations call for change, but do not fundamentally disrupt the social order. This is the way we address most of our issues, tweeking them (and ourselves) to get back on the proper course.

At other times, however, we need to make fundamental, essential changes, going back to square one and starting over from scratch. On these occasions, it is not enough to replaster the house; we have to tear down the entire flawed structure and build anew. This kind of revolutionary, systemic transformation is profoundly difficult and therefore should be taken on only rarely and with deep consideration. Still, at times it is the only approach that will suffice.

The challenge, of course, is to know which course to pursue at any given time. Sometimes we are too quick to tear essentially sound realities; at other times, we apply superficial solutions to institutions and ways of being that are, in fact, beyond repair. As Ecclesiastes teaches, there is a time for each of these approaches. But knowing which one is right at any given time takes real wisdom.

This week, as Pesach—the season of our liberation—draws near, consider the changes you need to make in your own life. What can be accomplished through relatively minor adjustments? And where do you need to “tear down the house” and begin again from a new foundation?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Miracles and Thanksgiving (Portion Tzav)

Amongst the many sacrificial offerings described in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, we find a detailed description of the todah—the offering of thanksgiving. This offering is brought by individuals as an expression of gratitude. Rashi suggests that appropriate occasions for the todah include safe passage through a difficult sea or desert journey, release from imprisonment or captivity, and recovery from a severe illness. Today, when we no longer bring sacrifices, we mark such passages with our modern equivalent, the gomel blessing, which is a public, verbal expression of thanksgiving, made during the synagogue service on Shabbat.

One of the great nineteenth century Hasidic teachers, Rebbe Yitzchak Meir Alter of Ger, comments on an interesting detail in Torah’s description of this thanksgiving offering, namely that it must be consumed on the same day that it is sacrificed (see Leviticus 7:15). In his interpretation, the Gerer Rebbe suggests: We must have confidence that teach new day will produce its own miracle. Therefore, the feast celebrating a miraculous event should be confined to one day and not extended into the next. Tomorrow will bring its own miracle.

I am struck by the challenge of reconciling this suggestion with an important teaching from the Talmud, which instructs us, simply: “Do not rely on miracles.”
In this passage, the Rabbis show their wariness of relaxing our human efforts in the hope that God will miraculously provide. We must, for instance, do tzedakah and feed the hungry, rather than praying for a miracle from God that will shower down food for all who need.

So how do we live with confidence that each new day will provide its own miracle while concurrently avoiding the temptation to rely on miracles?

For me, the answer lies in how we define the word “miracle.” If we use the term to refer to giant, showy events that contradict the usual laws of nature (think: parting of the Red Sea) , then it is wrong to depend on—or even expect—miracles. But if we see the miraculous in more ordinary things, and recognize that we are partners with God in the making of many of these smaller miracles, then we can both expect and create such events. To return to my earlier example, while we cannot expect God to feed the hungry, we can give thanks for the miracle of growing things—and then share our bounty with those in need.

In a passage from the siddur, we give thanks for God’s miracles which are with us “morning, noon, and night.” Each one should be fully enjoyed as it happens, with faith and confidence that more will follow—if we are willing to do our part in working for justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Service and Sacrifice (Vayikra)

The book of Leviticus (Va-yikra), which we begin this week, can be difficult for contemporary Jews. While we generally find it easy to relate to the stories, ethics, and teachings of the rest of the Torah, the sacrifices and laws of ritual impurity that take up much of Leviticus strike our modern sensibilities as profoundly strange, alien, and archaic.

Yet Leviticus sits both literally and metaphorically at the center of the Torah scroll. For most of our history—and still today in more traditional settings—young children begin their Jewish studies with this, the third of the Five Books of Moses. For centuries, then, our people have found wisdom and inspiration in Leviticus. What, then, does it offer us?

My Israeli colleague, Rabbi Micky Boyden, draws a lesson from the opening of this week’s parashah. Leviticus 1:2 commands: “When a person brings from you (mikkem) an offering to the Eternal One, he shall choose the offering from the herd or from the flock. “ The word order here is unusual; one would have expected, “When one of you brings an offering. . . .” Rabbi Boyden suggests that the odd phrasing comes to teach a lesson: the real sacrifice is not the animal on the altar but our ability to give of ourselves.

Conservative rabbi and commentator Baruch Levine draws on this same rationale in his explanation of why Torah learning classically starts with Leviticus. He proposes that by beginning with this challenging book, with its long and detailed prescriptions for animal sacrifices, we teach our children, from the outset, that life inevitably demands sacrifices of them.

This lesson is timely, indeed. So many of our current crises spring from a collective reluctance to make sacrifices for the common good. The future of our nation, our species, and all of life on earth really depends on our willingness to overcome our resistance to such sacrifice. If we wish to preserve our planet’s magnificent but fragile ecosphere, we must learn—quickly—to live with less. If we seek economic recovery, we must once again recognize that those blessed with great abundance have a moral obligation to share it with those less fortunate. And if we are to create peace, both within and between nations, all sides will have to acknowledge the essential need to compromise, to give ground on important principles and resources in exchange for tranquility and security.

Like most liberal Jews, I neither pray for nor desire the rebuilding of the Temple and restoration of the sacrifices. But I struggle daily to learn to give more of myself, to sacrifice my individual desires for the benefit of the community. This is very difficult and I often fail. Still, I am grateful that a contemporary reading of Leviticus continues to offer both a reminder and path toward this end.

The Gods We Worship: The Idaho State Budget

If you wish to know the true nature of any organization or institution, study its budget. Impressive mission statements and public relations rhetoric generally espouse noble ideals, but they are often skin-deep and deceptive. Budgets, by contrast, do not lie.

The ways we choose to apportion our hard-earned resources always reveal our real priorities.

By this measure, consider the budget and education reform plans put forth by our governor, legislative leaders and state superintendent of education. These politicians pay lip service to compassion, fairness and the value of learning, but their fiscal and pedagogical policies belie their carefully chosen words.

While we could raise the revenues we need by an equitable tax increase or even temporarily reducing tax exemptions for well-heeled corporate interests, our misguided state leadership chooses to brutally slash services for people with disabilities, and short-change our children by replacing their teachers with computers.

This ugly choice lays the burden of the current recession on the shoulders of our most vulnerable citizens. Our leaders are filling the coffers of the rich and powerful (like out-of-state online education companies) at the expense of struggling, ordinary Idahoans.

Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon.

The prophet Isaiah railed against such unjust, greed-based policies nearly 3,000 years ago. He directed his harshest criticism toward those who presented themselves as paragons of pious virtue even as they oppressed their workers and ignored the plight of the poor in their midst. Indeed, the social ethic of the Hebrew Bible is unsparing in its condemnation of such abuses of power. Torah repeatedly teaches that a society is ultimately judged on the basis of how it treats its most defenseless members. If this is the case, our current leaders are moving Idaho into a state of moral bankruptcy.

The great American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “The gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that. And a man will worship something — have no doubt about that, either. ... That which dominates will determine his life and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.”
God forbid what we might become should we follow our governor, state superintendent of education and legislative leaders in worshiping greed and ignorance over community, compassion and wisdom.