Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Parashat Emor

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Emor, and it is mostly a list of rules for the priests to follow, though it also includes an explanation of holidays for all the Israelites to observe, and ends with story about a blasphemer that sets a strong tone for justice in the Israelite camp. In the last parasha, the Torah tells us multiple times, “You shall be holy,” but in this week’s parasha, as the Torah tells us of the extra responsibilities of the priests, that “They shall be holy” (Leviticus 21:6). Rashi comments on this use of the third person that it means they should be holy, even if against their will. A Midrash called the Torat Kohanim explains that this is to teach us that though the kohanim have extra responsibilities and carry a heavier burden of holiness, this extra load is not theirs alone. It is up to the community to continue to do their own work toward holiness and support the priests in their work. It is up to the community to hold the priests accountable for their actions and to see to it that the priests are indeed being holy.
            Later in the parasha, God commands that there should be one law for all in the camp, whether native Israelite or proselyte. This follows the story of the blasphemer, who was the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man, and whose status was questionable. Nonetheless, God declares that the man’s cursing is on par with the cursing of an Israelite, and thus he should be shut out of the camp and stoned. When the Torah says that we should have one law for all, it is explicitly talking about those who are considered in-group and those who are considered resident aliens. However, I think it could also be interpreted that when the Torah teaches that we should have one law for everyone, in the same parasha that teaches that the community is responsible for the holiness of the priests, it is telling us that we must also apply law equally across tiers of structural hierarchies. Those in higher positions of power must still be beholden to those whom they serve, and the civilians below must take up their civic duties to ensure holiness is enacted at every level of the community.

            I’m sure this didn’t always happen in practicality in the Israelite camp. It certainly doesn’t always happen now. People in power often get away with corruption and the civilians below often allow it because they feel too disconnected from their civic duties to properly enforce them. Different treatments for in-groups, strangers, and leadership, are all unfortunately common practice. However, with the Torah reminding us of our responsibilities to each other, our duties to ensure each other’s holiness as well as our own, and the importance of equality and fair law enforcement for all people, we can hopefully continue to work toward bettering these systems and ousting the corruption in leadership. May we remember to see the holiness in others, may we encourage the holiness in others, and may we strive toward doing our own best in sharing the responsibilities of our communities. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Parashat Acharei-Mot II

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Acharei-Mot. In Leviticus 18, God command us not to do that which the Egyptians or Canaanites do, and rather to follow that which God tells us to do. These days, it is hard to hear the commands of God. Not all of the laws in the Torah make sense to us anymore, and some are not even possible for us to follow. So how do we know what it is God wants of us and what are the rules of other people that we aren't supposed to follow?

One of our earliest rabbis, Hillel, would say, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary, go and learn.” The Divine Spark in each of us drives us. We have our conscience and our innate passions and quirks. I believe these inner voices are the commands of God now. And so, being true to ourselves, being honest about our needs and giving freely of ourselves, is how we can live out that which God wants of us.

We don't live among oppressive Egyptians and Canaanites anymore. Instead, we live in a beautifully diverse nation where sharing cultural differences is a positive. In the Torah, it's likely God is talking about separating from the people around the Israelites and condemning those who don't follow the same God. But today, the lesson from this Parasha instead, may be for us to be sure to follow our conscience and do that which we know in our hearts is right, even if it's not what those around us are doing.

Often in our lives we face peer pressure to do something we know we shouldn't or to ignore something that we know we really should do. Contrary to most public service announcements, this peer pressure is rarely explicit. It's more often a subtle process of socialization. It's seeing everyone around you doing something and assuming you should do it too. It's people slowly and subtly ostracizing those that are different, all the while with a polite smile on their faces. I think this quiet form of peer pressure is actually worse than the harsh demands the PSAs depict. When someone puts an ultimatum to you: “Do drugs or you can't be my friend”, you know they aren't really your friend. It's not actually that hard to walk away from that. When they're nice and encouraging about something and make it seem normal and innocuous, it can be harder to even realize when you're making the wrong choices or that you're choosing certain styles for the wrong reasons.

That is why it is so important to take the time to listen to your heart. To follow your conscience. To do that which God drives you to do and ignore that which those around you are doing. May we all find ourselves, our Divine Spark. May we find the courage to be true to ourselves and follow through on that which the Holy One expects of us. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.