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.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Parashat Mishpatim

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah Portion is Parashat Mishpatim. Traditionally, commandments in the Torah are seen as being in one of two categories: chukim or mishpatim. The word mishpatim is understood to mean “laws”, the rules that we are given, but we probably could have figured out on our own. This usually means ethical laws, like “Don’t kill or steal”. The word chukim, on the other hand, is understood to mean “ordinances,” the rules that we are given to help us serve God, which might not always make sense. This usually means ritual commandments, like the laws concerning how a priest should properly perform sacrifices. So the fact that this parasha is called mishpatim already tells us something about the sort of commandments we’re going to see in this portion.
            The portion comes in the Torah right after the receiving of the Ten Commandments, which contains both chukim (keep the Sabbat) and mishpatim (don’t steal or kill). However, the great medieval commentator, Rashi, claims that the written chronology of the Torah doesn’t necessarily reflect the order in which these things actually happened. So, he says, this reading of the mishpatim actually precedes the giving of the Ten Commandments. This is a flashback, basically. At the end of this parasha the people say, “We will do and we will hear,” (Exodus 24:7), which had caused a lot of confusion over the years. Don’t we usually hear the instructions first, and then commit to do them? It’s important to note that, according to Rashi’s reading that this portion is actually taking place before the Ten Commandments, the people have not yet personally heard from God yet. This means that when the people say, “We will do and we will hear,” they really haven’t actually yet heard God at all. They’ve only heard Moses report on what God has said, and they’re expressing an interest in having a more personal connection with God.  Rashi says that what the people mean is, “We will do the rules you have given us, and we will hear the additional ones that you will give us now.” Some laws were given before Sinai, and we call these Noahide laws, rules that are good for everyone to follow, even if they are not Jewish. Although the word mishpatim usually refers to the laws of Sinai, from this portion, it could be an example of the people accepting the mishpatim, the rational laws of how to behave like a good person, and saying, “Now we’re ready to hear the rules that maybe won’t make sense to us, because we trust in God.”
            In the same section of the portion it says that Moses “wrote these words,” and it is upon this verse that the tradition that Moses wrote the Torah is based. Rashi says, he wrote everything from Creation to this moment, including the laws given at Marah, which aren’t actually explicitly stated in our Torah. We just know that before Sinai, people had received some commandments at Marah (a place where the Israelites camped at one point in the journey from the Exodus). Therefore, the people are not only saying, “We will do” to the commandments given so far, and “We will hear” to rest they know are coming, but are responding to the narrative of all of history thus far. They are being reminded of all that God has done for the world and humanity since the beginning of time, and they are saying, “We will follow all of God’s commandments, we are ready for the Revelation.”
            As modern Reform Jews, we don’t always follow all the chukim. We do care more about the mishpatim, the rules that govern our regular behavior and help guide us to be good people. No one observes the laws of sacrifice anymore, but as Reform Jews we may also not observe the laws of Shabbat or Kashrut, either. What would it mean for us, “to do and to hear?” Maor Va-Shemesh, a nineteenth century Chasidic commentator who more or less agrees with Rashi’s reading of this parasha, adds a helpful insight: when the Torah says “On this day, they came to the wilderness of Sinai,” the significance of saying “this” and not “on that day” is to teach that we should feel as if the words of Torah and God are new to us each day. Every day is a new revelation, a new Sinai. This is the part we can relate to. When we say, “we will do and we will hear,” we may not mean “we will follow ALL of God’s commandments,” as the ancient Israelites did, but we mean, “We will do all the mishpatim that make us better people, and we will listen for God’s guidance in our day to day lives.” We mean, “We will inspect the tradition and find the things that are meaningful for us and help us observe the rational laws.” We mean, “I want to be part of this chain of tradition that teaches us to continuously study and interpret Torah in order to find its relevance to the modern day.”
            In the beginning of the Torah portion, God tells the laws regarding a Hebrew slave. The Israelites have just been freed from Egyptian slavery, and should now be serving no master but God. But, financial hardship might make it such that a person must sell their self into slavery. The Israelites are not to keep their slaves forever, and are to deal fairly with their slaves, especially when it is time to let their slave go. However, if a slave wants to stay with their master forever, they may commit themself by allowing their master to more or less staple their ear to the door post. Tradition teaches this is because to choose to be a slave to another human is to revoke the statement, “We will do and we will hear.” Part of being Jewish is listening for God, hearing the ways in which we must each grapple with the commandments and keep rituals because they enrich our lives. Giving up one’s autonomy is an affront to the God who freed us and it is a way of saying one no longer wants to be alert to the further and finer intimations of God’s will, but would rather become robots who fulfill lives of only doing what others ask. As a result of this offense against the slave’s ability to “hear,” the ear, the source of hearing, is mutilated.
            Of course, this is also a practice that is now completely dead, as there are no more slaves in Jewish cultures. However, the warning remains: a life without trying to understand God on your own terms is a life of slavery to other humans’ understandings. Approach each day as one with the possibility of revelation, and say to the world, to yourself, to God, “I will do and I will hear!” And thus may each day bring you a deeper understanding of the world, yourself, and God. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.