Friday, May 5, 2017

Acharei Mot: The Most Important Room in the World

Try to imagine you have a room in your house that you leave locked all the time except for one hour each year. 

In that space, you must keep an item, something that represents who you are, who you aspire to be, something that if it became lost – you could not imagine living without it.

Take a moment to picture that space.  And more importantly, take a moment to picture what is inside it.  Is it one thing?  Many things?   Is it something that is tangible or something that is intangible?

In the opening verses of our Torah portion this week, God instructs Moses to instruct his brother Aaron how to enter the Holy of Holies, the space in the Mishkan and Later Temples where we find the Ark of the Covenant.  The High Priest only enters this space once a year on Yom Kippur.

God says, “Be’zot yavo Aharon el Ha’kodesh…”  Be’Zot is a strange word here, meaning ‘with this’, or ‘in this way’ or ‘thus’.  ‘In this way’ Aaron shall enter the Holy Place.

Our ancestors noticed this word and suggested that since it is an unexpected word here, then the explanation for this word is also beyond its literal reading.

The Gematria, the numerical value of Be’zot, is 410, equivalent to the number of years the first Temple stood.

The most Holy site for the Jewish people contained within it the most Holy object.  For the Jewish people at that time, the Temple and the Ark were like the Holy Places in our homes and the Holy Items in our homes that we envisioned a few moments ago.

However, by the end of the 410 years, the Ark was gone.  And we have no idea where it is. 

(“Then it shall come to pass, when you are multiplied and increased in the land in those days,” says the Lord, “that they will say no more, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they visit it, nor shall it be made anymore.(Jeremiah 3:16))

When the exiles returned and built a smaller 2nd Temple, there was no Ark inside it.  When Herod raised a hill in Jerusalem and one of the most glorious Temples in the ancient world on that hill, there were priests and sacrifices, Levites singing song to the pilgrims, but not Ark.

The Holy of Holies was empty and still the priest went in once a year to seek atonement and forgiveness for the entire people.

And so, I share that when I tried this exercise, I saw nothing in the once a year space.  I saw the people I love, and, I saw myself. 

I believe this is what the priest saw as well, or at least what he projected.  He saw the faces of every Jewish soul and asked God for mercy and forgiveness on their behalf. 

It was a chesed shel emet he did, an act of complete loving kindness, because without the Ark it was an even greater act of faith.  Nothing tangible.  No spot above the holy winged beings carved on the cover where the sins were collected.

And when we think of Aaron this way – it makes it easier for us to understand why Aaron is called a ‘rodef shalom’ one who seeks peace – He puts his life on the line in an act of complete giving on behalf of millions of people he doesn’t know and may never meet.

Aaron’s example reminds us how important chesed is, loving-kindness, how fundamental are gentleness, empathy, listening, self-reflection and humility.  Without these things, we risk falling into the same trap Aaron himself did at Mount Sinai when he helped create the golden calf.  In that moment they placed things first instead of people.  They danced around an idol – an idol made up of ‘stuff’ of ‘things’.  They needed reassurance from something they could see and touch, except, in the end what glittered was not gold, and it was melted down, and it disappeared.

Let’s make that room we envisioned.  And let’s visit it more than once a year.  Actually, let’s live in that room, but why?  The ‘why’ is that when the rest of the house falls down or disappears, when we don’t recognize who we are or why we are, when it’s too painful to pray or when we do celebrate and the celebration gives way to ‘real life again’ – this room, this space, will still be there and strong, a source of hope because it contains only what’s most important to us and nothing else.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Shabbat Parshat Tzav - April Fool's Day and Getting Ready for Passover

In 9 days we will begin to celebrate Pesach, Passover, a holiday that is not always what it seems.  Allow me to explain…

We often mistake preparing our homes for Passover with spring-cleaning.  These are very different.

The four questions part is really 1 question divided into four parts.

The hard, crunchy matzah we eat today is not like the matzah our ancestors ate, which was soft.

The Seder is an order, a ritual in a traditional order, but the Haggadah says very little about how we should do each part.

Passover, then, is similar to April Fool’s Day, when something someone says or does is not fact.

     Still, the April Fool’s spirit, ironically, helps us to confront truths in a sharper way perhaps even than reading or studying them.  Humor and April Fool’s type stories force us to stop and think, to really listen. 

     The first day of my freshman year of college was not April Fool’s Day, but I’ll never forget how my macro-economics professor told all of us that he felt he needed to write something on the board that was not correct from time to time.  He said it was important to make sure we were paying attention, analyzing, and not just scribbling notes as fast as we could.

     And so while we generally think of Passover as a holiday that celebrates national freedom and redemption, there is also an individual element.  It’s as though we’re all sitting in that macro-economics class, but instead of the usual professor, God is up at the front of the room, and God is checking in to see whether we’re paying attention, thinking thoroughly and critically about what our ancient story means today.

     Here’s another way Passover defies its usual connotations.  Matzah, the simple, unleavened bread we eat during the holiday teaches us about being humble, thoughtful, recognizing our blessings, and making sure that we help others to share in these blessings. 

     We heard in our Torah reading this morning, “Aaron and his descendants will eat the rest of the [meal] offering.  It must be eaten as matzot, unleavened bread in a holy place…it shall not be baked as leavened bread.”(Lev. 6:9)  Why not have leavened bread in the holiest place?  Aren’t holiness, blessings, and the power of sacrificing for a transcendent good, the greatest things since sliced bread?

     Rabbi Kerry Olitzky explains what is ‘spiritual chametz’, spiritual leavening…quote

“The rabbis suggest that the leaven transcends the physical world. This leaven, this hametz also symbolizes a puffiness of self, an inflated personality, an egocentricity that threatens to eclipse the essential personality of the individual. Ironically, it is what prevents the individual from rising spiritually and moving closer to holiness. Thus, what hametz effectively does in the material world is exactly what it precludes in the realm of the spirit. That’s why it has to be removed.”
(My Jewish Learning – “Spiritual Hametz”)

     These things that we want to clear out from inside ourselves, from our hearts, are not things we necessarily do with intention.  In order to get through the daily grind, to journey through challenging times and living in a world that defies logic, we do things and invent identities for ourselves that build up in us over time like all those pesky files that build up unnoticed on our computers until our system begins to run slower and we are frustrated as we try to do our work.

     While it’s easy to download a system cleaning program for our computers, it’s not so easy to cut through the hametz that builds up inside us.  However mindful we try to be, it is difficult to see ourselves from the outside in, and that’s where April Fool’s Day can be helpful, or at least the spirit of this day, which, by the way, is mentioned in the Torah as an important festival of spiritual cleansing prior to Passover…ok, that’s an April Fool’s.

The spirit of April 1st is a spirit of giving us a gentle push out of our comfort zone.  If we consider what makes us laugh, and what convinces us and does not convince us of the truth, if we can laugh at ourselves and begin to gently shake the stress that grips us, and confront our fears that often come out in April 1st gags, then we have a chance to clean out our spiritual hametz before we start in on cleaning out the actual hametz on the shelf.

Which of the 4 Seder Children Am I?

The fifth question for this year’s Seder is…
Which of the four children am I?

Am I the wise child – ready to learn more about how we observe the holiday?

Am I the wicked child – asking everyone else about why they observe Passover & leaving myself out?

Am I the simple child – really asking a simple question, a straightforward question?

Am I the child who does not know how to ask – ready to listen?

There is, as it happens, a fifth child, the one who is not even at the Seder table – the question there is for us, how do we bring her back to the table?

We are all a mixture of the 4, but if we were forced, compelled tonight to choose one, which would we be?

As we get ready for Passover, this exercise can help us make a spiritual preparation for the holiday, a way of taking stock of who we are, where we are, as we look forward to the renewal and hope that comes with Passover and spring.

Am I the chacham, the wise child?  Am I in a place of asking thorough and critical questions, of unpacking issues and ideas to find out how they work, do not work, where they come from, how they were inspired and to where do they lead?

Am I the rasha, wicked child – And I believe here the translation is flawed.  There is no wickedness in what this child says.  There is only a perception that this child appears to say that Passover has no relevance to her.  But, in fact, this child may be the one who is asking the key question – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues this point in his wonderful Haggadah, the rasha, he argues, comes from a place in Jewish history, after the destruction of the 2nd Temple by Rome, when our ancestors were concerned that our people would drift away to the Roman side.  While the Rabbis did adopt elements of Roman law and culture into our tradition, there was a fear that our people would be tempted by all that Rome had to offer, some of which was not in keeping with our cherished values. 

The real question then the rasha is asking, the so-called wicked child, is a question to all us grown ups who are modeling and teaching our children and students – the question is what does Judaism mean to us?  Do our actions show that our Judaism matters to us? 

The wicked child should rather be called the child who is confused, interested, inquisitive – and this is the kind we really want and need at the Seder table, at every table.

Or, are we the simple?  Maybe at this point we want clarity and simplicity.  We don’t need right now to delve deeper, just to know a reassuring message.  Perhaps we don’t have the energy right now for more, due to our circumstances.

Or, finally, are we the ones who do not know the question to ask?  I’ve always believed that in studying our Judaism, the questions are better than the answers.  Our goal is to sharpen the questions we ask because solid answers are often elusive.  Good questions, though, sustain our focus and interest and spark discussion so that we can learn from each other.

As we edge closer to Passover, which begins Monday evening April 10th, let’s each of us see which child of the 4 (or 5) that we are, and think about how we can bring the fullness of that persona to the Seder, to the holiday, and to celebrate who we are and where we are in life.  Our tradition, after all, instructs us to teach each child, each person, ba’asher hu sham, where he is, where she is, right now, in this moment, not to teach the idealized person we hope to be, but who we are right now.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Parshat Terumah 5777/2017: Make For me (For us) A Sanctuary

Make me a Sanctuary
Terumah 2017/5777

     My Hebrew high students and I this week were studying the history of Jews in the United States.  The first of us came here in 1654.  We found out that 7,000 Jews served in the union army during the Civil War and 3,000 Jews served in the confederate army during the Civil War.  We heard historians describe how old world myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes about Jews migrated to the US.  And while George Washington himself extended prayers and blessings to the Jewish community anti-Semitism lingered and bubbled up from time to time, often at moments of crisis.  Confederate politician Judah P. Benjamin reached the highest echelon of southern leadership, but when the Confederates started to lose ground, other Southern leaders lashed out at him, blamed him, and targeted him with ant-Jewish screed.
     We’ve seen tragically how the same has happened in a troubling wave – JCCs and Jewish schools threatened in 33 states including right here in Plainview, a bullet through the window of a synagogue in Indiana, Jewish cemeteries desecrated in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and now Rochester.
     Like the uplifting message from George Washington, the response of fellow Jews, other faith groups, and leaders, has been support, solidarity, and mutual aid.  When I went to Philadelphia this past Tuesday to help out at Mt. Carmel cemetery, there were people of all faith and ethnicities there.  America came to Philadelphia, the city of ‘Brotherly Love’. 
     But like our ancestors in the wilderness, somewhere in between Egypt and the Holy Land, we find ourselves now perhaps feeling a bit less secure and more concerned.  Is this where the hatred will end, or will it escalate?  The German Jewish writer Heinrich Heine wrote a compelling teaching, one that is now inscribed in the ground in plaza in Berlin, “Wherever they burn books, in the end human beings will come to the same fate.”  But we should not be alarmed so much as aware.  We should not cower in fear, but stand in confidence, solidarity, strength, and resolve.  The strength of gathering here to pray, to be with friends and fellow community members, celebrating a bat mitzvah, singing, and opening our hearts to God and God’s teachings – all these things are an intentional response to hate, a response that can give us the strength to endure.
     We need the community around us.  We need to make sure each and every person, young, in the middle, and older, feels like he or she is welcome here and included. No one here should feel left out because we are all one family.  All of us are valuable in God's eyes and all of us deserving a place at the same table of fellowship.
     In today’s Torah reading we heard God say, “Ve’asu li mikdash ve’sha’chanti be’to’cham.”  ‘Make for me a holy place that I may dwell amongst them.’  That I may dwell amongst them – God is not interested in having an elaborate place to live.  God is interested in a place that symbolizes God’s Presence for the entire people, a place where God’s She’chinah, God’s earthly manifestation, can energize all the people from the center of the encampment as all the tribes surround the holy place over 40 years of wandering. 
     The Midrash explains (Pesikta Zutarta Lekach Tov) that through the Mikdash, the holy place, God shows love for the people by placing part of Godself there, literally squeezing Godself into that space – that space that everyone shares but only a select few priests and Levites may enter.  It’s similar to the statue of liberty, a beautiful monument to freedom that a small group of people can enter but that stands as a bright light of hope and unity to everyone else.
     The more connected we can be, the stronger we can be as we confront the most recent surge of hate.  Before we leave here today, introduce yourself to someone here you do not know, find out their story, share your own; join us to pray on Shabbat and during the week, join us next Saturday night when we read the Megillah and celebrate our striving to overcome the intolerance and suspicion and violence that enemies seek to do with joyful singing and the sense of humor that has helped us get through painful times past.  Today is a day to seek and celebrate everything that draws us together and to push aside all the minor and trivial things that too often divide us.  May our hearts be open, our minds be flexible, and our spirits willing to animate us in this holy and necessary work.


Friday, February 17, 2017

Who is Jethro? -- Parshat Yitro 2017/5777

     Believe it or not, it’s less than two months to Passover.  We’ve just finished reading about the Exodus, and then less than 8 weeks later we will celebrate the Exodus in all its glory.  When we think of the Exodus we may tend to envision a sea of people setting out from Egypt into the wilderness.  Cecil B Demille used 14,000 extras and 15,000 live animals to make the sweeping and epic Exodus scene in his movie.  But we know precious little about the individuals who start walking into the desert that day except for a few notable names like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
     The rest are a group of people who are connected by common ancestry to our patriarchs and matriarchs, but although we have a rough idea of their numbers, we do not know much about them. 
     But in the days after we leave, we re-encounter Yitro – Jethro – Moses’ father-in-law whom we met earlier when Moses left Egypt the first time.  Of all the possible individuals to emphasize at this momentous time, the Torah recognizes Jethro – not an Israelite, a believer in God, but not a member of the tribe.
     What makes Jethro’s re-appearance even more confusing is that he appears in the Bible with three different names.  Jethro, Re’u’El, and Chovav.  The vast throngs of Israelites march as one nameless mass, but the one non-Israelite who plays an important role here has, not one, but 3 names of his own. 
     The Rabbis describe Jethro as a very self-aware and humble man, much like Moses, a man who knows he is an outsider but also who has a significant message and teaching for Moses himself.  Jethro praises God for the wonders done in Egypt before the 600,000 + Israelites do so.  He does not rush into the Israelite camp but rather shoots an arrow into the camp with a letter attached to inform Moses he would like to meet.
Jethro perhaps receives his name because he acts the way God wishes each individual Israelite would behave.  He is a doogmah, an example for the Israelites to see as a role model, possibly the first friendly non-Israelite anyone has ever met outside Egypt, a non-Israelite who in one stroke helps to reorganize the entire people and make everyone’s life easier.  In this way, Jethro is the antithesis to Pharaoh, a leader who only wants to make everyone’s life easier.
     As we get re-acquainted with Jethro this Shabbat, let’s give thanks for the way he sets an example for our people at a critical moment.  He approaches the nameless mass in blessing and thanksgiving and with help and hope in his heart.  The way he sets up the judiciary structure for the Israelites, with judges at all levels, all the way down to the judges who will preside even over the tens – that is over the smallest groups – will help to ensure that the now nameless mass can begin to regain their individual dignity.
     The man with 3 names is now helping to make sure that each and every Israelite can preserve his or her one name. 
     May we seek to raise each other up, to recognize that like Jethro, each of us goes by many names & the best way to get to know each other is by finding out what all those names mean to each of us so that we can all feel we are recognized and valued here in our community.