Thursday, February 15, 2018

Parashat Terumah

Shabbat Shalom! A hearty yasher koach to our visiting performers tonight (that means, awesome job). As we see from their performance, literally ANY dwelling place can be a place to find God and God hears our prayers from anywhere we call out for Divine Presence.
Despite knowing that any place can be a dwelling place for the Divine Presence among us, in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, God starts telling the Israelites the very specific blueprints for how they should build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the Divine dwelling place on Earth. I had a teacher once who pointed out that throughout the ancient world, other than the Israelites, most other cultures were pantheistic, they had many gods. And different locales would have different patron gods. So even if a visitor primarily served another god, and even if they were to bring their personal idols with them on their visit, they would still make an offering to the patron god of the locality they were visiting. So when the Israelites were figuring out this whole monotheistic thing, they needed a patron God that was not only at every locality, but moved about with them, someplace they could make their offerings wherever they stopped to rest, as others would have made their offerings at the local altars.
In today’s world, as we no longer make physical offerings to God, and most people around us don’t make physical offerings to the Divine power they worship either, this model isn’t necessary anymore. These blueprints were used in constructing the Mishkan and First and Second Temple, but are likely to never be used again for any practical purpose. So for me, the instruction that really lingers is one that God gives about a quarter of the way into the parasha: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”.
Now, whether that sanctuary is a movable Tabernacle, a grand and Holy Temple, a modern day synagogue or church, or the belly of a giant fish, God is asking that we make space in our lives for the Divine Presence to dwell among us. That might mean making to pray, in a house of worship or in nature, together with others or alone. That might mean building more houses of worship or planting more forests to create the physical places that we can commune with God. It could mean reaching out to each other and finding the Holiness of community and friendship. Early 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber says that when two people connect to one another authentically, God is the electrical charge that surges between them. In that moment, that conversation is the Mishkan.
We can each create or even be the Divine dwelling place on Earth. All that means is to make some space for something other than ourselves. To connect with God or with other people or with nature or with some combination of the three, to appreciate this world and the abundance we have been graced with. In doing so, we create greater peace within ourselves and our communities, and enhance our care for the environment, and that peace is the Divine presence settling down among our earthly lives.
May we make ourselves a sanctuary, that we may find holiness dwelling among us. Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Parashat Mishpatim

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Mishpatim, in which we receive the directive, “You shall do no harm to the stranger in your midst, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, and you shall not harm the widow or the orphan.” Countless times throughout Torah (well, I’m sure someone has counted them at some point, but it’s a lot and I’m not good with keeping track of numbers), God reminds us to care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. Sometimes it’s a reminder, as with this first occurrence, to simply not harm them. Sometimes God tells us to actively look out for them or to even love them. Sometimes the Torah reminds us to treat them equally, to have one law for all Israelites and our resident non-Jews among us. Many very smart rabbis before me have commented on this repetition to say that the Torah wouldn’t bother giving and re-giving this instruction if A) it wasn’t super important and B) if it wasn’t also a little bit hard.
If this weren’t important, God wouldn’t mention it. Or maybe it would be given once, among many other warnings about things that help give us structure to our Jewish lives and remind us to do the other more important things. Like the commandment to leave the sides of our heads or the corners of our clothing unshorn, which maybe by itself isn’t important, but it’s a ritual reminder to leave the corners of our fields unharvested so that the hungry may come and eat with dignity. Today, so many of us don’t grow payos or wear tzitzit on a regular basis, but as long we as remember to give to the hungry and honor the humanity in those less fortunate than ourselves, we are upholding the spirit of these laws. But commandment to care for the stranger, the orphan and the widow, is repeated so many times because it is in itself so very important to shaping our own humanity as righteous Jews as well. These categories are named specifically because of their vulnerability to exploitation. These are people who are considered outsiders to the mainstream culture, and/or who have lost their access to financial stability and their voice in the community. These are people who have lost their normal structures of support, whether familial or communal, through accident or through political strife and refugee status. In order to regain safety and health, they need a new community who will step up and help resettle them or their household affairs. They need support that is emotional, social, and physical. They need the same care that all of us need, but have fewer options from which to receive that care, and so the Torah reminds us again and again that it is incumbent on each of us to share their burdens, to build a welcoming community that has some resources to share, to look out for those who are vulnerable, to treat everyone who seeks to join our community equally, regardless of our perceived differences.
However, if this were an easy instruction to follow, we’d already be doing it, and doing it well at that. The Israelites would have been already demonstrating to God that they knew how to do it with the mixed multitudes that left Egypt for them. Neither the ancient Israelites nor we would need the constant reminders and different phrasing if God thought we could be trusted to follow the rule the first time it was given. Humans clearly have an entrenched problem with xenophobia that all communities have their own troubles overcoming, and modern Jews have serious security concerns of their own that sometimes lead to community gatekeeping. We can recognize these safety concerns and acknowledge the real roots of our fears and exclusivity, but we have to be willing to navigate them in a way that doesn’t hurt others.
Because if we do cause harm to others, especially to strangers in our communities, to widows, or to orphans God reminds us, God will hear their cries. The language in this threat is a reminder again to the reasoning: “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt and you know the feelings of the oppressed.” In Parashat Shemot, it tells us that God heard the cries of the Israelites and moves to help them. So too, now, if the stranger, the widow, or orphan, cry out to God, God will move to help them as well, and the result may not be as good for those who have done the oppressing. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is quoted as saying “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.” Although the Rev. Dr.’s movement was one of non-violence, some who feel they must demand their freedom with all their might have turned to violence. Imagine what a world we might live in, if they didn’t have to make those demands at all. If there was no oppression to begin with, or if those with privilege moved to cease such harm as soon as they realized they were contributing to it.
Later, in Deuteronomy, when this demand is repeating yet again, the Torah will tell us that caring for these vulnerable and exploited classes is “walking in God’s way.” The Prophet Micah tells us to act justly, love goodness, and walk with God.  May we find this path of justice, goodness, and holiness. May we act with compassion to those in need and open our doors and our arms to all who seek to be a part of our community. And May we walk with God all the days of our lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Parashat Beshallach - the Song of the Sea

            Shabbat Shira Shalom! As you should know by now, this week’s Torah portion is Parashat Beshallach, an exciting time of joy, liberation, and song and dance. The parasha tells of the Israelites fleeing Egypt, and immediately freaking out. They are scared, they are tired, they are hungry, they are thirsty, Pharaoh’s army is pursuing them. They are certain they will die before they even reach the border, marked by the Sea of Reeds. When they do finally reached the Sea safely, Moses stretches his staff over the sea and it splits in two, leaving a dry path for the Israelites to cross to the other side on. Moses spontaneously bursts into song, and all the Israelites miraculously know the tune and the lyrics and they are able to join in immediately. Then, “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances,” (Exodus 15:20).
            It’s a beautiful and empowering moment! But, in this moment of extemporaneous singing and dancing, our favorite 11th century commentator Rashi wants to know: “How did the Israelites have tambourines in the desert?” He answers himself: “But the righteous women of that generation were certain that G‑d would perform miracles for them, and they prepared tambourines and dances while still in Egypt.”
            A common understanding of last week’s parasha, of the reason for matzah, is that the Israelites were too busy to prepare for their exit. They were in a rush when they left. They weren’t quite sure freedom was coming. They were consumed with the back-breaking labor and soul-crushing reality of being a slave, that they did not have the time or the presence of mind to really get ready for the long journey ahead. It’s interesting to think about the priorities at play here that they could not prepare to leave, but that they could prepare tambourines for the dance party that would follow. Not only the priorities of the women who chose musical instruments over practical logistics, but those of Rashi who identifies Miriam and her friends as the “righteous of that generation,” precisely for making that choice. I wrote once before that Emma Goldman is among the great ranks of iconoclast Jews descended from Korach, all the more Jewish for their iconoclasm, but perhaps here we see where she is also descended directly from the righteous women of the Exodus, straight from Miriam the dancing prophetess, as she is quoted as saying, “If there won't be dancing at the revolution, I'm not coming.”
            This parasha reminds us to take pleasure in the miracles of our lives, and to rejoice appropriately when they arise. To sing and dance and express our elation with our community. Every day, every success can be a revolution worthy of merriment. May you find yourself preparing for celebration, bursting into song and dance, and reveling in the music and miracles of your life. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Parashat Bo and Panicked Haste

A few years ago I committed to reading all of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s available commentary for each week. I paced myself as best I could to get through a chapter a week from The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, and Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers. She has two other books which I have perused but I don’t think I have read them in their entirety. One is a “biography of Moses” that was published within the last couple of years, after the year I had undertaken to reading her commentaries for each week’s parasha. The other is a book on Biblical Unconscious and draws out different stories from throughout the Tanakh and doesn’t follow a particular chronology, so I simply haven’t gotten around to reading some of those chapters yet. I’m still waiting anxiously for her to write books on Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Her writing is dense, full of references that range from psychoanalytic to ancient Midrash to classic works of arts and literature. It’s hard to read and brain-breaking and completely amazing.
There have been two chapters of hers that have sat with me and thoroughly changed the way I read Torah. One is a chapter on Genesis 2. Ironically, this is not from her book on Genesis but a stand-alone chapter about the Expulsion from Eden that appears in her book on Biblical Unconscious. The other is her chapter from The Particulars of Rapture written for this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo. I was struck by her observation of the “ungainly haste” of the Exodus, and this term has been completely stuck in my head since. For some reason, this year in particular, I cannot seem to think of anything else as I look through the Torah portion. In this chapter, Zornberg argues, with the help of traditional midrash, of course, that the Israelite slaves of Egypt were free at night. After the 10th plage, the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh commands them to get out of his country. But their first act of freedom is to ignore the plea of Pharaoh to hurry up and leave. They leave in the morning.
This parasha tells of the last three plagues and the tension is thick in the text as the Israelites prepare for the moment of their escape. As the tenth plague draws near, God tells the people Israel to sacrifice the paschal lamb, to put the blood on their doorposts so that God knows to pass over those homes as the Angel of Death goes through the land slaughtering the first born. Then, God tells the people to eat the roasted meat, along with the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, and to do so in haste. Before night has even fallen, let alone before day has broken and the moment for hasty leave has arrived, God is commanding that these actions be done in haste. Matzah is not an accidental symbol of haste, a mistaken food created because the people left so quickly they did not have time to make leavened snacks for the road. Matzah is intentional, the haste is intentional. Rashi adds connotations of panic to his translation of the word “בחפזון” (haste).
In explaning to her readers the drawn out night of waiting and testing that precedes the Exodus, Zornberg establishes for us the “tableau of leaving, exodus,” a “tableau of release,” and a “tableau of readiness-to-leave.” In short, she paints a picture of the Israelite people biding their panicked time through the night, poised to leave at first light, quivering in darkness and their own silence as they hear the cries of anguish from the Egyptian households. They are ready to go all along, but wait in anticipation of this pre-planned panicked haste.
According to Zornberg, there are three moments in the narrative “when panic haste was central: one was at night – referred to as chipazon deMitzrayim [the haste of Egypt] – and was informed by the terrified pressure of the Egyptians on the Israelites to leave the country; while [another] was the following day – referred to as chipazon deYisrael [the haste of Israel] – the urgent flight of the Israelites by day.” The third is the “chipazon of God’s Presence.” In the narrative itself, it is visualized in the “leaping” (“bechipazon/ufasachti”- “in panic haste/I shall leap”) of the Passover story. Zornberg translates the verb pesicha (notice the connection to the noun pesach) to leap, adding a frenetic energy, a panic haste already to the movement of God, as distinct from our usual interpretation of “to pass over”. Combined with God’s own admission of “bechipazon”, we have a very strong illustration of God’s own wait and hurry narrative.
            Zornberg says the effect of all these strands of the intentional panic haste narrative is to “postpone, till after the Splitting of the Sea, any sense of complete freedom.” I would argue a slightly more nuanced rephrasing. Although it does delay the sense of complete freedom until after the deaths of the Egyptians, I don’t see it as the holding back of freedom, as I read her commentary as suggesting. I read more of a sense of stages of freedom. A people oppressed for generations, they find themselves freed from one master, paradoxically, as Zornberg points out, only at the commandment of a new master. This new master has told them to remain until morning, so that even as the old master urges them out of his land, they timidly test the waters of their new affiliation to God rather than Pharaoh by staying put. One act of liberation against their old, cruel enslaver. As morning breaks, they burst forth, gather the spoils of Egypt and march out of the land of their oppression. A second act of liberation from their wretched lives as slaves. After the Israelites have safely made it across the sea, the waters rush in on the Egyptians, washing away any concern that the Israelites might face repercussions for their acts of defiance to Pharaoh or for their “borrowing” of the jewels and precious metals of Egypt. A final act of liberation. At which point, of course, the people are fully free to start whining about wanting to go back to Egypt and fear that God will be an even more hateful master than Pharaoh was.
“And when your children ask, What do you mean by this rite? You shall say, It is the Passover sacrifice to God, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:26). The commemoration of the Passover is to remember the paschal lamb that offered protection from the Angel of Death. But the Passover as a whole is also a reminder about the stages of freedom and our responsibility to uphold them. When the African slaves were freed in the United States, it took another hundred years to desegregate. Fifty years after that, we are still fighting for equality for all everyone. It is an unacceptably slow process that comes in stages. When the time comes that the nation, government, society as a whole is ready for change, those who are interested in fighting for it charge forward, with a panic haste, despite having been ready for this change all along. When the strong hand of forces unseen come down, they are forced to pause, hold back, tip toe slowly toward the next step, until another flash point flares up so that they can charge forward again. It’s really a bad system, but apparently one that humanity has been working with for thousands of years. The purpose of retelling our own people’s liberation stories year after year is to remind ourselves of the importance of our freedom. What the cost is for liberation. And how we must help others achieve theirs.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Parashat Va'Era & MLK Weekend

In just a few months, we will read from our Passover Haggadah four promises to go with each of the four cups of wine throughout the seder: “God spoke to Moses and said to him …‘Say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and (1) I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, (2) I will rid you from the from their slavery, and (3) I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and (4) I will take you to me for a people and I will be to you a God’” (Exodus 6:5-7).
This passage comes from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va’Eira, in which there is one more promise: “And I will bring you into the land, concerning which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 6:8). The Haggadah doesn’t include this line, and the Seder doesn’t talk much about the destination of this Exodus. The passage in the parasha is being related to Moses to tell to the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, but God will not bring Moses nor the generation of bondage into the land. The Torah ends with a new generation on the precipice and Moses dying overlooking a land he may never enter. Why does the Torah and the Haggadah leave us hanging like this?
Perhaps that is because, spiritually speaking, we are still in the wilderness. There is still bondage in this world. God still hears the groaning of the oppressed, and waits for a generation that is truly ready to be free. But, as the poem in our prayer book says, there is no way to get from slavery to liberation except by joining hands and marching together.
On this today’s episode of Judaism Unbound, Yitz Greenberg, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and a leader in pluralistic Judaism points out that there are three inherent truths in understanding that “all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God,” which is a bedrock of Jewish worldview. Another important foundation is that God is infinite. If God is infinite and humans are each made in the image of God, than every image of God is unique, and every unique human is an equal representation of the Divine, not in spite of their individuality but precisely because of it. The full diversity of humanity is what makes us all a reflection of the Divine. Each of us alone reflects only one aspect, but it takes all of us together on equal footing to paint the full picture of God’s image. And lastly, that because it takes each of us in our individuality to make up the full array of God’s representations here on Earth, each human has infinite worth. From Moses the fearless leader to every lowly Hebrew slave, every life is sacred to God and worth saving from the bondage of slavery. Every life made hard by years of oppression is worth taking on innumerable further risks to liberate in the hopes that one day, all people might be free, might truly be treated equally, might truly be honored as an image of Divinity.
This weekend, as we mark the birthdate of Martin Luther King, Jr., let us remember his legacy and honor it by continuing to fight for the equality and inherent worth of every human life. The Reverend Doctor was a man who knew how to stand up against Pharaohs, face down plagues, and march toward freedom. He knew how to speak to a people with an anguished spirit due to their cruel treatment. 

And just as Moses had Aaron and Miriam and Nachshon, Martin had Malcolm X and Rosa Parks and countless other leaders who helped drive the movement forward in different ways. With many efforts and voices, civil rights movement brought long overdue change and brought this country much closer to equality than it had ever been before, just as the Israelites transformed from an enslaved collection of tribes to a free people. But, just as the people who will leave Egypt in next week’s parasha will be unable to complete their journey into the Promised Land, the civil rights movement of the 1960’s could not fix all of the racial and economic injustices in this country. These are changes too great, too difficult for one generation to endeavor entirely alone. It will take a new generation to carry on the work and continue to strive for liberation and equality for every person created b’tzelem Elohim.
That is why our prayer book says we are eternally in Egypt, that there is always more work to be done to bring us into a Holy Land. That is why our Torah ends with Deuteronomy and not with Joshua. That is why our Haggadah leaves out the fifth promise of this week’s parasha. We must not get complacent or too reliant on God alone to fix the affairs of humans. We must not turn away from injustices or threats just because they seem to not impact us. We must be ready to work together, to defend each other, to hold hands and march forward toward justice and liberation for everyone. And may we find freedom and dignity for all.