Monday, March 31, 2014

The Perils of Certainty (portion Metzora)

This week’s portion, Metzora, describes one of Torah’s most mysterious phenomena: the appearance of a leprous plague called tzara’at in the stones of a house.  The notion of an inorganic object being afflicted by such a malady struck some of our sages as so bizarre that they questioned whether this ever actually happened.  Some concluded: “Leprosy of houses never really existed and never will exist.”  Given the logical question that follows from this—“Then why is it in the Torah?”—the sages famously added: “Drash v’kabel s’char—Interpret it and receive reward for the act of interpretation.”

In that spirit, consider one small but significant detail in the relevant passage.  Torah teaches that the owner of the afflicted home should contact the priest who is in charge and tell him, “It seems there is a plague in the house.”  Commenting on the language here, Rashi notes: “Even if he is an expert and knows for certain that it is a plague, he should not dogmatically state that there is definitely a plague but should, rather, state: ‘It seems to me to be a plague.’”  To which another commentator, Mizrachi, adds: “A person should not be dogmatic even on something he is sure of, but rather should express certainty as a probability.  As our Rabbis instructed: Teach your tongue to say, ‘I do not know.’

Certainty is dangerous, because it can so easily dull our curiosity, stifle our empathy and, ultimately, blind us to truth.  As filmmaker Errol Morris wrote in a recent piece in the New York Times, “If you have an unshakeable belief in something, then no amount of evidence (or lack of evidence) can convince you otherwise.”  Indeed.  It is worth remembering that not so very long ago, people were absolutely certain that the earth was flat, or that the universe was just a few thousand years old.

Torah reminds us that we are not God, and therefore our knowledge is always, at best, imperfect and uncertain.  Rather than lamenting this reality, we might embrace it and see it as an opportunity for change and growth.  Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson expresses this beautifully in a piece he wrote called “Religious Humility on Life’s Journey”:

As we continue in life, we learn new facts, new ways of thinking, new experiences, all of which allow us to revisit our own convictions and beliefs, to challenge our own insights and dogmas.  While we continue to assert our own understandings, the Torah is suggesting that we do so with the humility borne of knowing that we might be wrong, that our most passionate conviction may be erroneous, or based on something we will come to reject later on.  This religious humility, and the consequent courage to fashion a life of meaning based on a provisional fix on timeless truth, is the highest form of saintliness—blending as it does the courage of one’s convictions with the recognition that good people may not share those convictions and they may not be wrong.  Out of our Torah-mandated religious humility can emerge the recognition that we need each other’s insights, even where we disagree strongly, to come to know God and God’s will in the fullest way possible.

As we approach Pesach, the season of our liberation, may we remember that a healthy dose of religious humility can free us from the narrow-mindedness of Egyptian bondage, the state of spiritual bondage that certainty imposes.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Hope and Love and Leprosy (portion Tazria)

A remarkable Talmudic tale recounts a mythical encounter between Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and the prophet Elijah.  Since Elijah is supposed to herald the arrival of the Messiah, Rabbi Joshua asked: “When will he come?”

Elijah replied: “Go and ask him yourself.”

“Where is he?”

“Just outside the city gates.”

“How will I recognize him?”

“He sits among the lepers.  The rest of them unbind all their bandages at the same time and then rebind them all together.  But the Messiah unbinds one at a time and then binds it again before treating the next, thinking, ‘Perhaps my time will come, and if so, I must not delay.’”

Rabbi Joshua went there, found the Messiah, and said, “Peace be to you, master and teacher.”

The Messiah answered: “Peace be to you, son of Levi.”

“When will you come, master?”

The Messiah replied, “Today.”

Later, Rabbi Joshua returned to Elijah, who asked, “What did he tell you?”

“He spoke falsely to me,” said Rabbi Joshua, “for he said he would come today, but he has not arrived.”

Elijah answered him: “This is what he told you—Today. . . if you will but hearken to God’s voice.”   (Tractate Sanhedrin 98a)

It is notable that in this story, the Messiah is portrayed as the ultimate outsider, poor and despised, sitting beyond the safety of the city gates.  Why does Talmud present our long-awaited Redeemer as a lowly leper?

Perhaps the Rabbis wanted a counter-balance to this week’s parshah and their own predominant line of commentary upon it.  Portion Tazria describes the skin affliction of tzara’at, commonly (mis)translated as leprosy; it prescribes that those who suffer from it be quarantined outside the camp.  Commentators saw tzara’at as the physical sign of a deeper spiritual malady.  They linked the disease to malicious speech, suggesting that the affliction was a kind of divine punishment for lashon ha-ra, the “evil tongue”.

But our Talmudic tale serves as a warning against the kind of judgment and simplistic moral calculus that points to suffering as retribution for sin.  It teaches that our calling is not to castigate lepers and other outcasts as unworthy of God’s favor; just the opposite, we are charged to hear their voices, heal their pain, and see their faces as the face of God.

This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, the Sabbath just before the beginning of the new month of Nisan—the month of Pesach, time of our liberation.  As we approach this sacred season, may we open our homes and our hearts to the promise of freedom and love for all, including, especially, our contemporary outcasts.  None of us can be truly free until we learn to share our blessings with those most in need of them.  Who knows—perhaps the Messiah may even be seated at your forthcoming seder table, if we but hearken to Her voice.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Sounds of Silence (portion Shemini)

A fire came forth from God and consumed [Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu]; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God meant in saying, ‘Through those near to Me, I show myself holy and gain glory before all the people.’”

And Aaron was silent.
                                                            Portion Shemini, Leviticus 10:2-3

What do we make of Aaron’s silence?

What do we make of any silence?
 Not all silences are the same.

Silence is our ultimate speechlessness in the presence of awe and beauty and love—and silence is our inability to speak to one another on account of anger, jealousy and spite.

Our silence can be used to hurt or to heal.
To create or to destroy.

Silence can be the very definition of true dignity—or the tragic product of shame and disgrace.

Silence is at the heart of all great art and music—and silence is the censorship that destroys such art.

Silence is God’s highest praise—and silence is the most brutal instrument of tyrants.
Silence is our truest form of worship—and silence is idolatry.

Silence can be our most powerful tool for protesting injustice—and silence, imposed, is the epitome of the injustice that we protest against.

Silence is life. 
Silence is death.
Silence is life and death and life and death and life and death.
Silence is life.

Silence is grief.
Silence is healing.

Silence is the sound of the aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the first letter of Anochi, of  I am. . .”

In our silence, we are most alone.
And in our silence, we are most together.

The psalmist taught: “For you, God, silence is praise.”  (Psalm 65:1)

So may it be with our silences, this week, as we move from the raucous joy of Purim toward Pesach’s liberation.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

How Sweet the Heat (Shabbat before Purim)

After careful consideration, CABI’s staff, board of directors, and expert legal team have concluded that the Idaho legislature’s new law allowing guns on our state’s colleges and universities is, in fact, applicable and even mandatory here at our CABI campus as well.  This clarification led to an emotionally-charged discussion over how we might best respond to this political sea change.  While a few of our community’s cowardly bleeding hearts suggested that we proceed with caution or even (God forbid!) commit an act of civil disobedience and break this law, the majority opinion here (including my own) is to enthusiastically embrace the abiding wisdom of our governor and legislators and incorporate it fully into our synagogue culture.  I sincerely believe that this law will help us revitalize our own programming as we align our future with the brilliant path set by our lawmakers.

With that in mind, I am pleased to announce that next month we will be launching some exciting and radically revamped versions of classic CABI programs.

At 6pm on Friday, April 4, we will introduce “Tot Shot Shabbat”.  All children under the age of eight will be issued handguns and live ammo at the door.  Then, when Rabbi Dan presents his puppet show recalling Pesach and the Exodus, the kids will be encouraged to blow off Pharaoh’s head, effectively re-enacting and teaching the lesson of the eleventh plague.  Bulletproof vests will be available for fainthearted parents and grandparents.

Three weeks later, the Moody Jews will get in on the fun for our first ever “Shabbat Plugged”.  The band will be taking requests for all of your liturgical favorites.  If we like your choices, we will honor them, encouraging everyone to sing along.  If your requests do not suit us, then one lucky band member (either chosen by an impromptu lottery or the one with the highest caliber weapon) will immediately shoot you.  This will encourage everyone to think more carefully about the role of liturgical music and which “Adon Olam” you really want to hear.  For all of you non-musicians, don’t worry—reprisal time will come at the oneg, which promises to be an exuberant free-for-all.

Finally, on Sunday morning, April 27, the Adult Learning committee will sponsor our first-ever “Bagel, Lox and Load” brunch for whoever is still standing.  Our special guest speakers will be our heroes, NRA lobbyist Dakota Moore and Nampa Republican (and the bill’s sponsor) Curt McKenzie.  Should you survive the first two events, you won’t want to miss this opportunity to thank them for their extraordinary wisdom and sagacity that has so inspired us here at CABI.

Happy Purim, all—

Rabbi Dan