Thursday, March 14, 2013

Parashat Vayikra - Modern Sacrifice

*I wrote this, and then as I was writing the concluding paragraph, remembered that this Saturday is the Passover Model Seder for the Hebrew school kids instead of regular services, so I don't actually have to deliver a d'var Torah. Oh well!*

This week’s parasha is one long speech from G-d. As we open the book of Leviticus, having just finished preparing the tabernacle in Exodus, we find no new narrative, no speeches from Moses, no new mischievousness from the people. Just G-d. G-d telling Moses to tell the Israelites about proper sacrifices. The Hebrew word for sacrifices, korban, literally means to draw near. G-d is telling Moses all the different ways for the Israelites to be nearer to G-d. And there are a lot of different ways in this parasha. There’s a sacrifice to do purely out of love and exultation of G-d, there’s a sacrifice to be done alongside a request of G-d, there’s a sacrifice to do in case of a sin, there’s even a sacrifice to be done if you discover you have mistakenly done something wrong!
This week’s haftarah scolds the people for turning away from sacrifice. Although we also no longer offer sacrifices in the way the Torah lays out, we do have modern ways to similarly get near to G-d, unlike the people in the haftarah, who had turned completely from the message and meaning of the sacrifices. Today, we have songs of prayer that are joyous and help us express love for G-d and our community. There are prayers to ask for things from G-d. There is one way we might apologize to someone we’ve knowingly hurt, and another way we would apologize to them if they explained to us that something we did by accident also hurt them, and different ways we might ask G-d for forgiveness for those things, too, even after the person has forgiven us. The apologies with our fellow person help us get closer to humanity, and the follow up prayer with G-d helps set our minds at ease that our friends mean it when they say they’ve forgiven us.
Besides prayer, we do offer sacrifices as well, just a different sort of sacrifice, and that also helps us get closer to each other and to G-d. Two weeks, we were short one snack in the class, but two classmates offered to share with each other. Rather than fight over the last snack, they were both willing to sacrifice half, to make sure everyone got some. When I suggested that everyone in the class contribute one fruit snack to the pair sharing, so that they would have more to share, everyone did. It wasn’t a big sacrifice, but it made a difference to the two that had been sharing. Whenever you are charitable, it is a sacrifice, because you are giving up something of your own, even if it is a small something. In doing so, you are helping out another person. That makes the community grow closer, which can help everyone get closer to G-d.
As we begin to study the book of Leviticus, with its weird archaic laws, and it’s lack of narrative, let us keep in mind, that there is still much to learn from it. May we all learn to offer our small sacrifices with an open heart, and draw near to G-d and to each other. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Vayakhel-Pekudei - TEAM work

Lizz Goldstein
            The Torah spends 40 verses describing the construction of the universe, and something like 4,000 verses describing the construction of the Tabernacle. The last few weeks’ parshiyot told of Moses receiving the instructions from G-d, and the first of this week’s double portion –Vayahkel – begins with Moses reiterating those instructions to the people of Israel. They all immediately set to work. Betzalel and Ohaliab seem to be doing the bulk of the building, as head architect and interior designer, but the whole community chips in to the best of their abilities, donating all they can find to contribute to the demands of gold, copper, silver, skins, yarns, and the acacia wood. In the second parsha of this week, Pekudei, soon all of this preparation work of building and making garments is finished, and the Mishkan and the priests are ready. As promised, the cloud of G-d appears over the Tabernacle and settles, so that the people will always know that G-d is with them. When the cloud rises and starts to move, the people follow. If the cloud stays put, the people know that it is not a good day to travel. At night, the cloud becomes a fire, so that the people will still see G-d’s presence clearly.
            The Israelites, as they wander through the desert, are not always grateful for all that G-d has done for them. Despite all the miracles they had seen, in last week’s parasha they still demanded that Aaron build them an idol to pray to instead of G-d. Throughout the next 40 years, they constantly complain about the hardships of wandering in the desert, and whatever G-d provides and whatever guidance Moses gives, the Manna, the water that springs from rocks, the leadership of Moses, it is often not enough for these people. But when they are given these very specific instructions to give up their money, jewelry, precious stones and fabric, they do so immediately and wholeheartedly. Together, they throw themselves into the work of building the Mishkan. They work together, accept the direction of Moses, and don’t complain about the special roles given Betzalel and Ohaliab. When G-d tried to talk to the people directly, they were freaked and sent Moses to talk to G-d for them. When Moses had been gone too long, and they heard nothing from this G-d, they lost faith. But when G-d, via Moses, gave them a specific task, they set to it. The people need to keep busy, and they need to be able to work together, for this mass of wanderers to survive.
            The construction of the universe is told in only 40 verses, because that is G-d’s domain. G-d created the world in 6 days through Divine powers that we could never hope to comprehend, so why bother trying to explain it in simple human words? The construction of the Tabernacle is allowed half of the book of Exodus, because it is a human domain. Through teamwork, generosity, and sheer human strength and wisdom, the Israelites were able to bring G-d’s blueprints for a dwelling place to fruition. The Israelites learn how to be a TEAM – where Together Everyone Accomplishes More. Although the teamwork itself is a small paragraph in comparison to the pages and pages of descriptions of the materials and how they are to be used, it puts into perspective how massive the task was, and how easily they were still able to complete it when they put their minds and hearts to it. In Genesis, G-d created humans and a place for them to live. In this week’s double parasha, humans create a place for G-d to live, and a community that serves G-d, basically validating G-d. This is not a small thing!
            As we go through our tasks in life, which may sometimes be unappealing, and sometimes do not inspire gratitude, let us remember that through hard work, our lives are made fulfilling and by using teamwork to complete our hard tasks, our loads are made light. May we always try our best to work well together and be generous, giving G-d a home and a strong community. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Parashat Ki Tisa - G-d's Butt

            This week’s Torah portion has so much going on. There are lots of instructions regarding the building of the Tent of Meeting, the sort of portable Temple to be used in the desert. The architects are appointed, how it is to be built is explained, the rules of what Aaron and the other priests will do once the Tent of Meeting is ready are laid out. Then G-d reminds us, that though the Israelites will work for 6 days at a time on this huge project, on Shabbat, everyone must stop and rest. This is particularly important to remember this week, as we celebrate Shabbat Across America and remember that this is an important commandment that has kept the Jewish people throughout the ages. We may celebrate the Shabbat differently now, as Reform Jews, but we still stop and remember Shabbat. It also has the iconic incident with the golden calf, which itself could have innumerable things to say about it, as well as the smashing and reconstruction of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments.
This parasha also has one of my favorite moments in the Bible, an experience a friend of mine once referred to as “G-d showing Moses his butt.” Moses demands of G-d, “Show me your glory!” and G-d responds, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see it and live.” But G-d agrees to let that “glory” pass by Moses and Moses can see it from behind. G-d says, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen.”
            What does all that mean?! Well, here are some visual aids for what that might have looked like literally, I have the mountain face with the cleft in it here, and a Moses stick figure, and Moses fits inside the cleft, so he can’t see what’s happening on either side. G-d (please don’t read any megalomania into my playing G-d in this scenario, but, you know, I’m bigger than the cutout mountain and stick figure, and I have hands, so it works for this representation) puts a hand out [I demonstrate as I explain], and walks in front of the cleft, and then takes G-d’s hand away after the face has passed, and Moses can see G-d’s backside, until that, too, passes behind the rock. But do we really believe that G-d has a hand in that literal sense that can cover eyes like a game of peek-a-boo? Or that G-d has a butt? Do we believe in such a personified G-d?
Onkelos, the famous convert and commentator in ancient times, shared that he believed “hand” meant guidance. G-d put some guidance before Moses, but soon G-d will remove that and pass by. Moses will be able to see “the backside” of his interactions with G-d, that is, as we see the past in hindsight. He will be able to maintain all that he learned in his time on the mountain, when G-d gave him so much guidance, but since G-d removes the hand or the guidance from before Moses’s eyes, Onkelos says we can learn from this that even Moses was not able to really grasp the whole Greatness of G-d. So if you don’t understand G-d, if you don’t know what to believe about the Divine, or how G-d directly guides you in your life, don’t worry. Even our great teacher Moses didn’t fully know, and he talked to G-d in a very direct way!
Life can be confusing and painful. But it can also be glorious and liberating. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to put G-d into all that. Is there a man with a long white beard in the sky watching us, who can come down to Earth and put hands before our eyes? I don’t believe that, but I do believe that sometimes G-d, unknowable as Divinity can be sometimes, still gives us guidance, and sometimes we let the opportunity to follow it pass without really seeing it, and sometimes it’s hard to look tough situations right in the face, and we only really see them from behind, in hindsight. The important thing is to learn from that hindsight. To remember the guidance that was once in front of us, to learn from every experience and take that with us as we go on in life, especially in the moments that feel like there is no guidance or hand of G-d to help us. May we all recognize the glory of G-d as it passes by us at various points in our lives, and take strength from those moments into our futures which may be as unknowable as G-d. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.