Friday, April 29, 2016

Parashat Acharet-Mot/Passover/Yom HaShoa

 Shabbat Shalom. Tonight marks the conclusion of Passover for those of us in the Reform world and for many in the State of Israel. For the last week we have celebrated our liberation from Egypt, and hopefully we have enjoyed time with family, in song, with festive meals and wine. But in so many ways, liberation is not just a noun or something that happened to our ancestors in Egypt. It is also an act in motion, a constant state of being, something to be actively worked on in every generation. We say at our Passover tables, “B'-chol dor va-dor, cha-yav a-dam lir-ot, lir-ot et atz-mo k'-i-lu hu, ya-tza mi-mitz-ra-yim; In every generation, each person must regard himself or herself as if he or she had come out of Egypt,” but for many this is figurative. And when it is, we must remind ourselves that it is our duty as Jews to be a part of the liberation of others who still struggle to escape Mitzrayim. The narrow places of narrow minds, the oppression of laws that restrict movements and identities and loves and societies that discriminate against those that are different. We work for freedom and equality and justice for the sake of our Jewish brothers and sisters who are also queer or trans or black or homeless and who also fear racism and homophobia and transphobia and classism in addition to antisemitism and who still feel the weight of Pharaoh's slavery today. And we do this for the sake of our non-Jewish neighbors who also deserve liberation because we were slaves and now we are free, because we know the bitterness of oppression and we know that we would not wish it on anybody.
This coming week is Yom HaShoa, the Jewish day of memorial for the 6 million lost in the Holocaust. As you may know, I studied genocide and terrorism in college. The Holocaust was a watershed moment in history. Before it, we had no international laws to safeguard against such actions. The word “genocide” and the legal concept of “crimes against humanity” stem from this atrocity our people faced. But in sociological terms, the Holocaust is not unique. We know as Jews, that it was certainly not the first time our people were nearly wiped out. Our tradition is full of stories that may or may not be true: the Pharaoh in Egypt, Haman in Shushan, Antiochus in the Hellenistic-controlled land of Israel. Nearly every holiday we joke, “This story is the same as all the others: they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat.” But our history, documented and very real, also tells these stories. Pogroms and expulsions, forced conversions, the Inquisition, and ethnic cleansings that remained smaller than the Holocaust only because the governments carrying them out didn't bother to occupy other countries first to ensure their ethnic cleansings would be coordinated.
And of course, it hasn't just been the Jews either. Before the Holocaust, the Turks carried out genocide against the Armenians, who still have not received official acknowledgment or reparations. Every inch of our country is soaked in the blood of the Native Americans. In my lifetime, I've witnessed from afar the genocides of Bosnians, Albanian Kosovars, and Rwandans, and learned about the dirty wars of Central and South America, where people were simply disappeared by their governments. And there are countless more such stories from nearly every culture around the world. Next week is Yom HaShoa, a day of commemoration for Jews, but back in January we also had International Holocaust Remembrance Day, where the world mourned with us. Do you know the day that the Bosnians commemorate the seige of Sarajevo? That the Rwandans celebrate the end to their quick and bloody conflict? Any of the dates that the Kosovars have tried to declare independence from Serbia? I don't even know those dates off the top of my head, and I have actively studied those dates. We don't have an International End Genocide Day, and we as a Jewish community often don't do enough to stand in solidarity with those whose pain we know so well or work alongside them for their liberation.
This week's Torah portion, Acherei Mot, contains the description of the ritual for atonement, which becomes the Yom Kippur ritual in the time of the Temple. In the ritual, the High Priest “effects atonement onto it,” which Rashi explains means the priest confesses upon the goat, and then the goat is sent off into the wilderness to carry away the sins of the people, and die away from the camp. This is the origin of the “scapegoat,” a term well known by those who have studied political violence, and understood by any who have experienced it. It manifests in different ways, but the outcome is the same. In the story of the Passover, the Pharaoh was worried about losing control of his Kingdom, so rather than confront his insecurities as a ruler or contemplate different modes of governance that might incorporate the growing Hebrew population, he scapegoated them and attempted to halve their population through infanticide and attempted to break their spirits with slavery (which, by the way, is not unlike the tactics of the cultural genocide the Chinese impose on Tibet, for example). Hitler want to rise in power and saw the scapegoat of the Jews an easy way to direct the fear and angry the poor German population was feeling in the aftermath of World War I in order to gain their trust and support. Milosevic felt his people were entitled to more land after the break up of Yugoslavia, so he scapegoated the Bosnians for being the first to secede. And the Hebrews, and the Jews of Europe, and the Bosnians, and so many others, were trapped like goats, forced out of their camps, forced to carry burdens that were not rightly theirs, forced to their deaths. Like goats shoved off carrying the sins of others, but not like sheep to the slaughter, a metaphor that was once often repeated about Holocaust victims, erasing the memories of the Resistance movement, and the Partisan fighters, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I don't know of all the similar stories of resistance from the other scapegoated cultures, but I am certain they exist.

Over the course of the next year, we will all find ourselves faced with opportunities to help others achieve their liberation. We will hear about injustices around the world or in our backyards. We will learn about the scapegoating of a new population and the unfair rules meant to police their identities, a policing that is almost always tied to a body count, even if those death tolls are in suicides and hate crimes rather than purposeful government sponsored terrorism. I implore you, and Jews all over, to be a part of the solution. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a world where terrible crimes are committed, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” If the Egyptians had refused to act as slave-masters, how might our story have turned out? If more righteous gentiles had stepped forward and spoken out against the early signs of the Nazi regime, what might our population be today? If the UN had allowed their Peacekeeping troops to actually interfere in Rwanda, how different might April 1994 have been for the million Tutsis whose stories we will never know now? Let us refuse to buy into scapegoating, let us stand in solidarity with those whose pain we understand too well, let us work toward a liberated world for all people. And may we find next year a world a little closer to the messianic age. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Parashat Shemini

This week I have the unusual task of delivering a d'var Torah on both Friday night and Saturday. The crowds at each service are pretty different, Friday night being mostly an older group, and Saturday morning being mostly the Religious School students and their parents. The blessing and core Torah of both drashes are the same, but there are significant differences in their deliveries, so I'm sharing them both. 

            Shabbat Shalom! Last week, we celebrated Purim. Now, soon enough, it will be Pesah. Wine is a central symbol in Jewish tradition: the only beverage that gets its own blessing, it is used as a representation of creation, abundance, God’s blessing, and more. We use it for bringing in the Shabbat, saying a Kiddush over at least a symbolic sip of wine even if a full glass doesn’t accompany our Sabbath dinner (although, often it does that as well!), we use it in our Havdallah service to say goodbye to Shabbat, not only to take another symbolic sip but also to extinguish the Havdallah candle. And of course, for the two nearest holidays to this time of year, it plays a particularly central role. At Passover, our seder marks four distinctive times to refill our wine glasses, which depending on the size of your pour, could amount to close to a bottle per person over the course of the evening. At Purim, according to the Talmud, one should drink until one can no longer tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordecai.” However, the Talmud also tells the following story: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira were celebrating Purim together, and they got so drunk that Rabbah rose up and butchered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, sober and vexed, Rabbah prayed for a miracle, and Rabbi Zeira was brought back to life. The next year, Rabbah asked Rabbi Zeira if he would like to celebrate Purim together again. Rabbi Zeira said, “One cannot count on a miracle every time.” Party on with caution.
            In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, God speaks directly to Aaron, something that doesn’t happen all that often, as most of the communication between God and the rest of the Jewish people, including Aaron and Miriam, goes through Moses. But in this parasha, God speaks to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is the law for all time throughout the ages, for you must be able to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” Rashi explains that these verses refer specifically to one who has become drunk through wine, though he permits the priests to drink watered down wine before performing their duties, assuming their thinking does not become impaired. He, along with several other commentators, also agree that no one should teach while intoxicated, for the laws of ritual and the mitzvot of the Torah are very holy and to make a mistake in teaching these matters could have terrible consequences for the whole community. The line in this section of Parashat Shemini which specifies, “that you may not die,” indicates that while teaching under the influence is generally discouraged for anyone, a priest who does so may face capital charges since his duties are of utmost importance and should be undertaken and taught with a sober and clear mind.
            Jewish tradition’s relationship to wine could be confusing to one who is not very careful with their own limits. We are told to use it in all our rituals, and that it is one of the central ingredients to making holidays festive, but then we are told not to imbibe too much before performing those rituals or teaching others about the holiday. We are told to drink to excess on Purim, but then told this awful story about two rabbis who did and one ended up killing the other. There is sometimes a silence around the problem of alcohol abuse in Jewish communities, and the tradition offers much ambivalence when it comes to tackling the question of substance use in Jewish society. This is why my colleague from the Academy for Jewish Religion has founded Beit Yosef. Still in its beginning stages, Beit Yosef is modeled after Beit Teshuvah on the West Coast, and seeks to be the first East Coast addiction recovery program that comes from a specifically Jewish focus. Eventually, I think Beit Yosef plans on offering in-patient rehabilitation as Beit Teshuvah does, but as of right now there is no facility on the East Coast to offer that. Founder Rabbi Ellie Shemtov has her own personal reasons for establishing Beit Yosef and naming it as such, and you can find her story at, but what rings out to me is that it comes from a teaching from a 14th century rabbi, Yosef Caro, who responded to the Talmudic decree to drink to excess on Purim with a resounding no. In his first book of Jewish law, called Beit Yosef, he said, “It’s written in Orhat Hayim [a volume of an earlier book of Jewish law] ‘one is obligated to mellow himself with wine,’ but not to become inebriated. This is totally prohibited. There is no greater sin than this. It causes sexual immorality and the spilling of blood and other sins besides these.”

            May we have merriment, abundance, and show appreciation for all of creation. May we also keep clear minds, behave honestly, and act in ways that show proper respect to our tasks. And may we always have balance in our lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

            Shabbat Shalom! Think about a time when you were daydreaming in class and then a teacher noticed and called on you. You suddenly snap to attention, but you actually have no idea what’s going on, so you just answer with whatever comes into your head first. Maybe it is complete nonsense and is entirely related to what you were daydreaming about instead of what the teacher was talking about. Maybe you really tried to remember what the last thing you heard was before you started daydreaming so that you could offer a real answer anyway, but what you say is so far off from where the class has gotten while you were daydreaming that it still completely gives you away. Maybe you don’t even try, and you just answer some smart aleck thing because you know you’re busted anyway and why not go for broke.
            In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, God speaks directly to Aaron, something that doesn’t happen all that often, as most of the communication between God and the rest of the Jewish people, including Aaron and Miriam, goes through Moses. But in this parasha, God speaks to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is the law for all time throughout the ages, for you must be able to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” The great medieval rabbi and Torah commentator, Rashi, offers some explanations about the wine and the drinking, and the other sages agree with him about how clear headed people should be when taking on their holy tasks. I hope I can assume none of you are drinking wine in school, but I think the lesson still carries over to other ways of clouding our minds. When you are in school, you are carrying out holy tasks of learning, of preparing yourself for life, and of teaching others your own special knowledge. We all have something to learn and something to teach, and if we are not fully present in mind as well as body, then we miss important opportunities to learn and to teach. Maybe this is why God spoke these words directly to Aaron about his special task as High Priest, even though God usually spoke to Moses: so that Aaron would know that he has to take his role seriously and to understand that he is every bit as important as Moses.
            Of course, we can’t constantly be in teaching and learning mode. Sometimes, it is ok to let our minds go blank, or to do things that are just for us, our own ways of enjoying life without regard to what they teach us or how others are viewing us in that moment. The key to all of this is to know when to do which. May our lives be full of fun and appreciation for all of creation. May we keep open minds, behave honestly, and act in ways that show proper respect to our tasks. And may we always have balance in our lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Parashat Tzav

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Tzav, an explanation for the priests on proper sacrifice rituals. There are five basic types of sacrifices: a burnt offering, a meal offering, an offering for well-being, a sin offering, and a guilt offering. Last week’s parasha really explains what they are and when each is merited, while this week focuses on how the priests are to carry out the sacrifices. But the language remains ambiguous enough that some of our great rabbis of old still needed to explain what some of these sacrifices meant in their commentaries on this portion as well. For example, for the offerings of well-being, this portion seems to make distinctions of three types of sacrifices of “well-being”. The first, which has its own ritual for the priests, is an offering of thanksgiving and the rabbis explain that it is required to be brought to the priests by someone who has recovered from illness, returned from a long or dangerous journey, or otherwise experienced something particularly good following a period of uncertainty. The other two have the same ritual for the priests but are still somewhat distinct. There’s a votive offering, which the rabbis explain is made in fulfillment of a vow, the vow being made of freewill but the offering to fulfill it being obligatory. And there’s a freewill offering that is an entirely spontaneous act of pure devotion.
            We no longer deal in animal sacrifices or priestly rituals, but these distinctions in the sacrifices of well-being really spoke to me as I was preparing this parasha for this Shabbat. Imagine you make a complete recovery from a terrible illness, and you didn’t call your friends and family who had been worried about you. They’d of course be relieved when they heard you were well, but they might also be a little frustrated and/or confused that you didn’t tell them sooner. Imagine if it were OBLIGATORY that you notify people at your earliest possible convenience, that you celebrate your health, that you shout from the rooftops how grateful you are to be healthy again! It might be pretty annoying, actually, if we were forced to always express expected emotions all the time, but think of it as cultivating an attitude of gratitude, of creating a practice for yourself to actively show your thanks for small miracles every day. Imagine you are in a great mood one day, for no particular reason. You haven’t just gotten over an illness, or been on a journey, or even have a vacation coming up anytime soon. It’s just a nice day, the weather is good, and you woke up on the right side of the bed. And you say to yourself, “I should spread some cheer today.” You think you will be extra polite to strangers on the commute to work today, you’ll compliment a colleague, give your kid an extra couple dollars on their allowance this week, maybe even donate some tzedakah midweek just because you feel so fortunate on this lovely day. But then the traffic is bad, or your colleagues weren’t particularly impressive that day, or you simply forget about the extra dollars by the time you hand over the allowance. Again, it might be impractical to DEMAND you follow through on all those things, but think about how much better life would be for everyone if we set our minds to really complete our promises to ourselves to be more sharing, caring, and courteous. Now imagine, you’re just walking down the street, and you come upon a homeless person. You are suddenly filled with a great sense of gratitude for all you have and spontaneously give the homeless person a couple dollars or buy them lunch.

            In some ways, these are all still sacrifices. They require time, energy, intention, and possibly even money, depending on which manifestation you choose to show your gratitude for your own well-being. Like all sacrifices, though, they are for a greater good. They enrich your life, help you to appreciate what you have, spread your joy and wealth at least a little to those around you, and I believe that they do express love and thanksgiving for God, even if they are not offered directly to God the way the Temple sacrifices were. May we all endeavor to show our gratitude a little more openly, and share what we have with others. In this way, may we find ways to give modern day sacrifices that spread a little extra Divine joy over the world. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

d'var Esther

            Chag Purim Sameach! One of the most significant and yet least noticeable details about the book of Esther is the absence of God and prayer. When Haman demands that Mordecai bow down to him, Mordecai refuses and when asked why, he responds simply, “Because I am a Jew.” He does not expand, as one might expect, “And as a Jew, I bow only to the Almighty God of Israel.” When Mordecai learns of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews for his disrespect, he puts on sackcloth and stands outside Esther’s gate in conspicuous mourning, but he does not pray to God for help or for forgiveness for having brought this onto his people. When Esther contemplates the terrifying decision to approach the king unbidden, she fasts and asks all the people to fast with her. She does not pray to God for guidance or ask the people to pray for her protection. When the Jews are given permission to arm themselves and save themselves (killing thousands of people who may or may not have had anything to do with Haman and the plot for Jewish annihilation), they rejoice and Mordecai declares that there should be an annual holiday marking this victory, and yet again, no one gives thanks to God.
            There is a lot to learn from the Purim story: there are many layers of political satire, feminist themes, warnings against our own violent natures when given the opportunities to be in the role of aggressor, and more. But the lack of God has always been interesting to me and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s chapter on Esther: “Mere Anarchy is Loosed Upon the World,” from her book, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, offered new insight for me. Rambam says that in the messianic era, when all the tales from the books of the prophets, the stories of sin and Divine punishment, will be forgotten, the story of Esther alone will remain with the five books of Moses. To explain this claim by Rambam, Zornberg offers a parable by Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner:
“Two people are charged with the task of recognizing a face in the darkness. One lights a candle and examines the face to identify it. The other, without a candle, trains himself to identify people by the sound of their voices alone. The person achieves a clearer recognition, by sight, than the other can, merely by sound. However, the second person has taught himself a new talent, of listening to the voice of the other. And when dawn breaks, the first person will extinguish his candle but will be none the wiser as a result of his nocturnal experience; while the other will emerge from it with a newly developed capacity for listening as a channel of recognition.”
Though most Bible stories show a people Israel with a candle, able to clearly see and identify God, Esther shows a Jewish leader and population who have had to learn a new capacity entirely. Zornberg calls Esther a “prophetess without revelation, [who] finds a dark light within herself.”
I feel that I’ve had the experience of being one with a candle and one whose candle has been extinguished before the dawn has broken. Throughout my late adolescence, after a spiritual experience at Jewish leadership camp, I felt called to the rabbinate and felt I had a personal relationship with God. It wasn’t that I believed in God as a person, or that I had direct conversations with God or any of the sorts of clear depictions that the Bible gives us of God. It was just that I felt there was a clear line of communications between myself and God, messages that I could clearly decipher, a path that was lit toward my future of faith and a commitment to the Jewish people. Then, around the time I was graduating college, that line of communication was cut. It took time to crawl out of the hole of depression that surrounded that severance, and it took a lot of soul searching before I found that I was still committed to Judaism and the Jewish people, and I was able to form a new relationship with God. But that relationship was irrevocably altered. I developed new ways to experience faith, to find the path toward the rabbinate in darkness, to use my other senses in the darkness to identify my surroundings.

I know that many people can relate to this. In my circles of relatively unobservant Jewish friends, probably more can relate to finding God or identifying our brethren in darkness than can relate to the experience of the one with the candle. We can all draw inspiration from Esther in this. Even when we are not sure that God is with us or if God is answering our prayers, we can draw strength from the faiths and traditions of our people and make difficult choices. We can still find the courage to stand up for what is right and be ourselves and we can still rejoice with our communities when we are successful. Then we can find Divinity in the darkness. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Parashat Pekudei

            Shabbat Shalom! A few years ago, I compared the building of the Mishkan to the process of creating a perfect home in the computer game, the Sims. I still to this day enjoy playing the Sims in my downtime, and I still feel this is an apt comparison. As I said for this week’s Torah portion of Parashat Pekudei when it came around two years, the process of creating is an integral part of the gameplay. More than getting to control tiny avatars, it is the ability to create them in our image and build them homes in which we will watch them dwell, that allows our imaginations to run and is really the fun of the game for many people.
The ability to create, to truly make something with intention, is a uniquely human trait. The ancient mystic rabbis, the precursors to Kabbalah, felt that this was what it meant to be “in the image of God”: that, like God, we can create things in our own image, too, something other animals really can’t do. What distinguishes our creations from God’s, is that God has the power to create with words. God spoke and the world came into being. We have to make things with our hands. We have to think a little harder, plan a little better, be a little more careful, because as humans, we are prone to mistakes in a way that God is not. I think this is why The Torah spends 40 verses describing the construction of the universe, and something like 4,000 verses describing the construction of the Tabernacle. God’s creation is on a plane of existence we can only speculate, but we create in this world. We have human words to describe our creation, but that doesn’t make our creations any less beautiful or astounding. Our God-given abilities to build and form and shape and invent and draw and paint and sculpt are almost as miraculous as God’s ability to speak the world into being, and since we have the words to explain it, we will. We’ll talk about our creations with pride, and we’ll complement each other’s and we’ll learn from each other’s creative geniuses.
 The second verse of the portion says, “And Betzalel, the son of Ur…made all that God had commanded Moses,” which Rashi expands upon by pointing out that the text doesn’t say, “And as Moses commanded him.” Betzalel was such a wise-hearted man, a skilled craftsman, and a creative builder, that even the details which Moses did not pass on to him, he was able to build in accordance with the blueprints that Moses had been shown on Mount Sinai. Rashi uses a play on Betzalel’s name to say that he must have been “B’” (in) “tzel” (shadow) “El” (God), for it was as though Betzalel had been in the shadow of God, knowing exactly how to create the Tabernacle even with only basic instructions. The Chasidic master R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev recalls that the instruction earlier in Exodus, in Parashat Terumah, from God to Moses was to make the Mishkan “exactly as I show you,” but since Betzalel was able to make it according to his own prophetic vision and built it beautifully even without all the exact instructions, we learn that each of us is able make a dwelling place for God according to the visions of our own time and place.

Whether that time and place is a moment of quiet meditation for you, or in this sanctuary, or at your Shabbat dinner table at home, or while you paint or write or read, or when you create idealized versions of yourself and your dream-house in life simulation games, every act of creation is a connection with God, and every created moment of peace a prophetic vision. May we find our prophetic visions. May we take more time to create and to appreciate the creations of others. May we feel a little closer to our community in which Divine presence dwells. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Parashat Ki Tisa and Partial Truths

Shabbat Shalom! Do you remember when you were a kid and you asked an adult something, and they said, "Just a minute"? So you waited patiently and counted, "One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi..." to 60, a full minute, but they still were too busy to answer your simple question! How frustrating was that?! The WORST. Now imagine, you were waiting for 40 days. That is FOREVER. Then the fortieth day comes, and you're like, "Finally! Imma get that answer!" But the day wears on and your adult is nowhere to be found and you get impatient and you decide to just figure it out for yourself, and just as you're feeling pretty proud of yourself for being so independent and smart and mature and figuring it out without that adult (where they heck are they anyway?!), they come home. And they are NOT PLEASED with your independent decision. "I said I'd be GONE for 40 days," your adult admonishes loudly, "not that I'd be back IN 40 days!" To you, they were already gone for so long you couldn't believe they'd be a minute later than you were expecting, but to them, they are back right on time, and gosh darn it they've been busy this whole time! Couldn't you just have been patient?!
This is essentially what happens in this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, the story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites are a freshly free people. Their pain was ignored by God for generations, and in matters of autonomy and theology, they are basically children. Also, some of them literally are children. We're talking about an entire community here. So when Moses goes for 40 days, and he's not back exactly when expected on the 40th day, they (pretty understandably) freak out. They think they've been abandoned again.
All this would be reasonable enough as it is to help understand the motives behind this obviously terrible decision in seemingly idol worship, but a Midrash from Exodus Rabbah helps paint the Israelites in an even more sympathetic light. It says, "God said to Moses: You see [the Israelites] now, but I see how they are going to see me. I will be going forth in my carriage to give them the Torah... and they will detach one of my team and anger me with it, as it is written [in Ezekiel]: 'An ox's face on the left.'" There are many midrashim about what the Israelites saw while crossing the Sea of Reeds, that it was a revelatory moment in miniature, a preparation for the big revelation to come at Sinai. The people saw God in a direct way that humans generally don't, and can't. In this Midrash, they saw God driving the Divine chariot, herding them through the Sea. According to Ezekiel, the chariot has four faces: a lion, an eagle, a human, and a bull. The people, apparently walking to God's left, only see the bull. To them, this is what the God who led them to freedom looks like. So when they build a Golden Calf, it's not an arbitrary idol to worship, it's a testament to the God they think they know.
Each of us can only hold to the truths we've seen and personally understood. None of us are able to see whole truths or understand the Divine in a complete and holistic way. The universe is too complex for that, humanity too nuanced. Rather than always trying to assert our own truths, sometimes it is better to try to see the angles from with others look at the same chariot and figure out where our differences and similarities really lie. Perhaps the Egyptians saw the lion and the fish in the parted sea saw the human and the birds flying overhead saw the eagle, but were they not all looking at the same God and Divine chariot? We have only one earth to share. We can't get along with everyone, but whenever we do have an opportunity to appreciate nuance, to look upon a different face of God, to truly connect with someone new and different, it would be healthy to try to do so. And I hope and pray others do the same. And anyway, in the grand scheme of things, what’s 40 days? So, in the meantime, may we all be a little more patient. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Parashat Terumah and the Midrash for TatJews

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19). This is when the people are told to bring all their gifts to Moses for the building of the Tabernacle, and Moses seemingly gets the blueprints for how it is to be constructed, although those instructions are not explicitly shown in the Torah. At the end of the last parasha, Moses ascended into the cloud of God and was consumed by the mist and the fire on the mountain top and disappeared for forty days and forty nights. Immediately following this beautiful and intense description of Moses encounter with God, the Torah proceeds with a seemingly profane list of material things that will be needed to build the Sanctuary in which God can dwell on Earth.
The idea that God needs such banal objects in order to be among the people of Israel, that God needs a physical dwelling place on Earth, would likely be a difficult concept for Moses. According to a midrash from the Tanhuma Yashan Shemini explains that Moses had particular difficulty with the fashioning of the menorah to go inside the Tabernacle. God, being a patient and understanding teacher, engraves the patterns upon Moses’s hands, and this is the meaning of verse 40 in Chapter 25 of Exodus, “Look and fashion them according to their patterns.” The patterns, according to the Midrash, are on Moses’s hands, etched in so that he not only can refer to them visually but can retain the memory of the tactile experience of how they should be shaped. As with the mark of the bris, this is an incision into the flesh with can never leave and will be forever a marker of God’s relationship with Moses and the people of Israel.
About a month ago, at a recent potluck, the topic of tattoos came up at a table, and I admit I was a little surprised by how generally open and positive the conversation was. Tattoos are a taboo subject for many Jewish people, even progressive communities in which individual members may be tattooed and in which the general population is not traditionally observant. The most recent Reform Responsa on this topic still rules that tattooing for the sake of body art (as opposed a tattoo as part of a medical procedure) should be considered “pointless destruction of the human form,” and an insult to the Maker. A footnote on the responsa is clear that the mark of the tattoo should in no way be compared to the mark of circumcision, and yet that is precisely what Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg does with the story from Midrash Tanhuma: “The transcendent fires are, essentially, tattooed onto his hand …. As with circumcision, Moses’s hand-inscription ivolves an incision into the skin which ‘never leaves,’ but is not innate, which is interior and exterior at the same time,” (Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus).
Having the menorah engraved on his skin, Moses is now able to grasp at the plans and patterns for the building of the Tabernacle and all that will adorn it. The symbol left forever represents something that is beyond the simple visual of the tattoo or the sense memory left from their marking. Zornberg also notes that the word for “lawgiver,” which the Talmud calls Moses, rightly so, also means “engraver.” Engravings on the skin can be reminders and symbols of rules to follow, mantras to live by, markers of community and belonging. Some of you, particularly those who recall the conversation at the potluck to which I referred earlier, may know that I have two small tattoos on my forearms. They were not put there by God and they do not hold blueprints for God’s physical dwelling place on Earth, but they do hold Torah for me. They are reminders and symbols of rules to follow, mantras to live by, and a memory of one no longer on Earth: to love myself and my neighbor equally, to appreciate the world in spite of its difficulties, to honor my family, and, a little like Moses’s menorahs, to create space in my life for Divine presence.
I recognize that tattoos are pretty unambiguously against Jewish law. I understand why many people who otherwise don’t follow Halakha feel uncomfortable with tattoos and why some take solace in the fact their discomfort is supported by Judaism. I don’t mean to suggest that tattoos should become more accepted in Jewish communities or that this is an issue on par with other inclusion topics I might talk about. But I couldn’t ignore this Midrash when I came upon it in Zornberg’s book. The framing of Moses’s engraved hands as an essential tool in his ability to move onward in his quest to lead the Jewish people and create space among them for God deeply resonated with me. If you are someone who is generally uncomfortable with body art, I would like to suggest that when you come across tattooed Jews, or tatjews, as I like to call them, you consider what Torah may have inspired those tattoos, and what Divine quest that person is fortified for now that they have the blueprints on their body. If you are a tatjew, I would like to suggest you open up about your Torah that inspires your tattoos and how often you look at them years later to still garner strength from their symbolism. I never even really noticed people’s tattoos before I got one myself, and now I love to hear about the histories and inspirations behind them, and especially from fellow Jews.

This Shabbat, as we read and learn about the beginning process of building the Mishkan, may we consider what blueprints we may need to bring holiness into our own dwelling places. May we consider what patterns and symbols we would want etched in the forefront of our minds, if not bodies. May we find strength from those patterns and symbols, and success in our own mishkan-building. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.