Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Old Must be Made New, and the New Must be Made Holy (Portion Emor)

While most of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, deals with the cycle of holy days, a section at the end deals with the subject that dominates the book of Leviticus: priestly offerings.  Thus the text teaches: “You shall take choice flour and bake it into twelve loaves . . . Place them on a pure table before the Eternal One in two rows, six to a row.”  These loaves—one for each of the twelve tribes—were known as lechem panim, often translated as “shewbread” since they were baked for display rather than eating. 

Unlike many of the offerings, which were repeated daily, these loaves were replaced just once a week.  With this in mind, the Talmud notes: “A great miracle was performed with the shewbread, for when it was removed it was as fresh as it had been when it was set out" (Menachot 29a).  To which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds: “These Talmudic words are not to be taken literally.  They convey the idea that the sanctuary was immune from the boredom and habit that afflict many religious institutions.  Rituals did not grow stale or obsolete there.”

How do we keep things fresh, in our religious community and in our personal lives?  Much of Judaism is about following standardized practices; the challenge is to do so while still maintaining vitality.  So, too, in our daily dealings with work and school and relationships: we need the order and stability that come with set routines, but must also be careful to avoid falling into ruts in which we go through the motions with no real passion or intensity.  We need both: the fixed and the fresh, keva and kavvanah. Or, as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook eloquently put it, "The old must be made new, and the new must be made holy."

 And both are embodied in this season of spring.  It is a time of renewal, of spontaneity and joy.  Yet part of that joy comes from understanding that spring’s rebirth is itself part of an on-going fixed cycle.  We take comfort in the knowledge that spring follows winter, and that summer will follow spring.  And we ritualize the passage by counting the omer, marking the journey that begins with our liberation from the narrow-mindedness and bondage (Pesach) and moves toward the revelation of Torah, which we receive anew each Shavuot.  

A challenge: as you go through the week, consider which aspects of your daily schedule are routine and which are new and varied.  See if you can bring a little more intention to that which is routine.  How can you act more consciously in your relationships and in your Jewish life?  In other words, how can you be more like the shewbread—constant and reliable, yet ever fresh and new?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Listening for Elijah: Safe Places, Dangerous Possibilities (Haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol)

This coming Shabbat, the last before the arrival of Pesach, is known as Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath.  It takes its name from a passage in the special haftarah for the occasion, from the book of Malachi: “Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal One. . . and he shall turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents.”

This beautiful vision of Elijah bringing generational reconciliation provides the foundation for the traditional seder practice of pouring a cup for Elijah and opening the door to invite him to our seder tables.  I see this ritual as an extraordinary opportunity for learning and listening.

How might we make our Passover seders into transformative experiences that bridge the generations?  We could begin by creating environments in which all questions are welcome, where deep and integral conversation is the ultimate goal.  It is not enough to merely read and sing the haggadah’s ancient words; we must, instead, use them as a launching point for our own journeys from narrowness and constriction (known in Hebrew as Mitzrayim, the word for “Egypt”) toward liberation, each in accordance with our own life circumstances, young and old alike.  As the haggadah itself teaches: “In every generation, it is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves as if we, ourselves, went out of Egypt.”

Professor Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes:
“Rituals like the seder are designed to say difficult things indirectly.  They get us thinking, in safe places, about dangerous possibilities.  Surrounded with good food and people who love us, we can retell the sacred story, with all its curses and blessings, in a way that takes the story forward.  We need new questions at Passover, and new answers. . . For redemption to take place, there must be a great deal “new under the sun” and we must help to create it.  New questions from a new generation are a beginning.”

This year, may we all invite Elijah’s powerful presence—his promise of reconciliation, renewal and hope—by sharing our fears and hopes and dreams across the generations, and weaving them into new stories of liberation, together.