Friday, March 23, 2012

Sacrifice: Vayikra

I was looking for a story or example to help me explain to all of you about self-sacrifice and how we still keep the spirit of sacrifice and atonement alive in our modern age without the slaughter of animals dictated in the Torah. So I’m going to read to you my adaptations to a Chasidic story I found on the interwebz to help illustrate this point.

The school bell had just rung; school was over. Dana and Danny, two 13 year olds, jumped up from their seats, grabbing their coats and bags as they dashed for the classroom door. They were in a rush, because tonight they were going to their friend Pat’s house to play on his new Nintendo Wii. The boys were enthralled by the brilliance of the games and they spent the whole Wednesday evening playing on the Wii, until Pat’s mother's "Time to go!" shook them out of the reverie.

"Don't worry," said Pat with a bleary eyed broad smile. "We can play some more tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after too!" And they did. A week later, Dana and Danny were on their way to Pat’s house to play Wii for the seventh evening in a row, talking about how awesome they were at video games. But then Dana paused, stopped short, and said, "Hold on. I've just realized something."

"What is it?" asked Danny, panicking.

"Nothing really," said Dana, "I've just remembered the sacrifices," just as I’m sure all of you often stop in your tracks and think about the parsha of the week, especially the ones detailing the most archaic of our laws.

"Sacrifices?!" exclaimed Danny. My thoughts exactly.

But Dana continued, "The sacrifices in the Temple, Rabbi was explaining today that nowadays we can't offer up physical sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem since it was destroyed two thousand years ago. But instead each of us is like our own Temple and we need to offer up spiritual sacrifices from our soul."

"Man, Dana, that sounds deep!" exclaimed Danny. "I mean, how exactly do you offer up the animal inclination? Should we go let some blood?" He laughed at his own sense of humor.

"Very funny," Dana said, shrugging. "But really, no blood is needed! We don't need to hurt ourselves to offer a sacrifice. Rabbi said it's much simpler and that it is good for us. Like right now our soul’s desires say that we should just spend another evening playing Wii. The sacrifice we could make is being more responsible instead, for example studying our prayers and Jewish texts, so we can be prepared for our Bar Mitzvahs!”

“Okay, are you officially a rabbi?" asked Danny sarcastically. Dana’s righteousness was a bit boring, but ultimately, Dana was right…a full week playing Wii maybe was a little much, even for Danny. "Okay, philosophy aside," said Danny, "according to you it's not so difficult to offer sacrifices nowadays, so let's go to your place and study!"

The least explicit part of this story, is that in the Torah, sacrifices were used to atone for guilt. There are different sacrifices dictated in this week’s parsha for communal guilt, guilt of a leader, guilt of individuals, cases of accidental guilt versus intentional sinning, cases where the offender is not totally sure whether what s/he did was right or wrong. What was the guilt in this story? (Hear responses.) Neglect? Irresponsibility? The point is, that everyone does things sometimes that they shouldn’t, everyone has things to atone for from G-d and from each other (maybe in this case, a teacher whose homework they didn’t do while they were too busy playing Wii).

In this week’s haftarah reading, G-d, through the voice of Isaiah, says, “You have not worshiped Me, O Jacob [that is to say, O Israel, or O Jews], That you should be weary of Me, O Israel. You have not brought Me your sheeps for burnt offerings, Nor honored Me with your sacrifices… It is I, who for My own sake – wipe your transgressions away And remember your sins no more. Help me remember! Let us join in argument, tell your version, that you may be vindicated!” It seems that sacrifice alone was not sufficient to make amends for wrongdoings. In the Torah portion, when a person sins against another person, the "bad guy" must make reparations to the person they have wronged before they take their animal to the Temple for sacrifice. Then the priest says okay thanks for the sacrifice you are forgiven by G-d. But there is no mention of the person who has been wronged forgiving the person who has wronged them. Was financial compensation enough to repair the lost trust? The haftarah seems to be addressing this, that there needs to be a discourse, an apology, excuses, understanding reached. Now, the practice of prayer have by now replaced animal sacrifice and meal offerings for our need to make peace with ourselves and G-d, and evolved to meet society’s changing needs. But the spirit of sacrifice is timeless, and it’s still important for us utilize our guilt toward self-sacrifice that makes amends with people we’ve wronged and help guide us toward better decisions in the future. This is not to say that you should feel guilty for every little transgression, or that you should dwell too much on fear of sin or G-d. But, you will do something you shouldn’t at some point. We all do. So, when you do, let that feeling propel you toward a more noble future. Sacrifice today should be productive, not destructive.

I sincerely hope that all of you take away from this that good can come from bad, we can learn from our mistakes if we allow ourselves to confront them, and that we will all make such mistakes at some point or another. May you all find the paths away from sin easily, find the atonement and reconciliation after inevitable sin even easier, and above all, may you find in prayer peace and forgiveness from yourself and from G-d. Amen.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ostentation: Parasha Vayakhel-Pekudei

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses assembles the people of Israel and tells them of G‑d’s instructions regarding the making of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The people donate the required materials in abundance, bringing gold, silver and copper, animal skins, wood, olive oil, herbs and precious stones. Moses has to tell them to stop giving. A team of wise-hearted artisans make the Mishkan and its furnishings: three layers of roof coverings (we barely have one!); 48 gold-plated wall panels, and 100 silver foundation sockets; a veil that separates between the Sanctuary’s two chambers, and a screen that fronts it; the Ark and its cover with the Cherubim; the seven-branched menorah with its specially prepared oil; the golden altar and the incense burned on it; the anointing oil; the outdoor altar for burnt offerings and all its implements; the hangings, posts and foundation sockets for the courtyard; and the basin and its pedestal, made out of copper mirrors. An accounting is made of the gold, silver and copper donated by the people for the making of the Mishkan (so they can get their tax refunds at the end of the year). The building is completed and all its components are brought to Moses, who assembles it like an Ikea desk and blesses it. A cloud appears over the Mishkan, signifying the divine presence that has come to dwell within it.

Aside from the parts of the mobile sanctuary that pertain to animal sacrifices, which many believe to be barbaric and may not be practiced even if we still had a Mishkan to perform them in, there are other questionable parts to this building story. The ornaments of the tabernacle are rather extravagant. Forty-eight gold panels?! One hundred silver foundation sockets? And the cherubim, essentially angels, on the ark covering? Why such ostentation for a transitory building in the wilderness? This is not the permanent Temple that would later be used in Jerusalem; this is a sanctuary that has to be taken along with them for the next forty years across the desert. So, why bother? Furthermore, how did all the children of Israel have so much stuff? Some gave jewelry, while others just gave non-descript pieces of gold and silver and precious stones. These are refugees from slavery. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that they just happened to have more than enough for the Mishkan’s needs.

Look around at our synagogue for a moment. You’ll notice, it was built with intention, it has some ornate artistry on the ark, but not to the extent that is described for the tabernacle. It would be considered fiscally irresponsible and embarrassingly showy and unnecessary by modern standards to have so much attention to detail and expensive materials. And the cherubim? I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ark with angels on it. In this parsha, there is no description given to the cherubim, and in other areas when heavenly beings are described, they are vague and confusing, sometimes they have 6 wings, they’re described differently in different prophet’s visions of them. So we don’t really know what the ark cover would have looked like. But I think it’s safe to assume it didn’t look a whole lot like the designs common on arks now.

What does it say about our biblical ancestors and what does it say about us that they were so much more ostentatious? In a time when they didn’t even know where their food or water would be coming from, when their very survival was in question, they spent time and energy making a structure beautiful enough for G-d to dwell in. Now, we enjoy making a structure beautiful enough for us to feel G-d’s majesty, but the beauty is more for us than for G-d, who is with us everywhere and not confined to or contingent upon a building, however beautiful. Perhaps it was merely a change in tastes and understanding of needs and of G-d. Perhaps it’s due to economic forces. In the wilderness, they were completely dependent on G-d’s mercy and help. That gold and precious stones were not going to be used for currency, because there were no stores to shop at, no goods to trade for. Now, there is a constant competition for our stretched dollar. Do I pay my rent and buy my family food, or do I give all my resources to the synagogue? It’s a much harder choice to make. As such, I don’t know of any congregation in the history of Judaism that has had to turn down more donations. I think Moses was the first, last, and only spiritual leader to have that problem. It would be nice if we all had a little of the Israelite’s zeal for the structural integrity of our houses of worship, and even nicer if our funds had as little else to be spent on as those of the Israelites, but while maintaining a level of sensibility in our d├ęcor so as not to go overboard.

So as we go forward, let us be mindful of the upkeep of our building, without ever being too concerned with the superficial. And may G-d dwell in this Mishkan no matter what it looks like. Amen.

Friday, March 2, 2012


This week is Shabbat Across America. Last night’s services were led by members of the Youth Group. Shabbat isn’t going anywhere, and soon you will all have your turns at leading the Torah services at your Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and hopefully the Friday night services for Shabbat Across America in the future. So I want to ask you all now:

· What does Shabbat mean to you?

· What does it mean to be Jewish in America?

· This week’s Torah portion describes a lot of rules for Priesthood and guidelines for holiness that don’t mean anything anymore. There are a lot of other rules that could or might still be meaningful or relevant to some Jews, but we as Reform Jews don’t follow them. Maybe because they get in the way of your American identities, maybe because you haven’t been able to find the meaning or relevance in them, maybe just because the people around you don’t observe them and you wouldn’t even really know how if you wanted to (keeping kosher, observing Sabbath, etc). So then, what makes you Jewish?

· Why are you here? And please don’t say because your parents made you.

How about community? Maybe you’re here for that? In this week’s parsha, the Israelites are still newly freed from Egypt, still sort of figuring out what kind of community they are, and G-d commands them to take two onyx tablets and inscribe onto them the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. This LITERALLY sets into stone the Jewish community.

In today’s world, it probably feels like it doesn’t make much sense to set your name into stone for anything. We have a lot of choices in this country, in this century, and beliefs change. People join a congregation, people leave a congregation. Some people switch from Reform Judaism to Orthodox, Conservative to Reconstructionist, Lutheran to Jewish. Some people lose their faith in G-d completely, some people find or regain it.

But everyone needs a community. And this is yours. Your names are inscribed here. Shabbat Across American celebrates the idea that there are Jews of all sorts across this multicultural country. Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish, and that gives you an instant connection. Ideally, that should extend your community across America, too. In this week’s parsha, G-d already feels the need to remind the people, “They shall know that I am the LORD their G-d, that led them out of Egypt that I might dwell among them.” All of them. Together. In our fickle world, with all the choices and distractions and hardships and secular joys and scary adventures, it’s important to have a home to come back to. As you go on your scary adventures, make your choices, get distracted, fall on hardship, find your secular joys, Judaism can always be your home. Across America and across the world, there will always be a community to embrace you as a Jew. And may G-d always dwell among you, wherever you dwell. Amen.