Friday, March 31, 2017

Vayikra and Trans Day of Visibility

            Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayikra, the first reading in the Book of Leviticus (also called Sefer Vayikra in Hebrew). Leviticus is mostly about the laws concerning the priests and Levites (go figure), and this parasha opens us up to the Sefer with the rules regarding the sacrifices that will occur in the Mishkan, and later, the Temple. God tells Moses to tell all the people of Israel when they need to bring which kind of sacrifice, which the priest will slaughter and generally facilitate the ritual for those coming to make obeisance God. There are mandatory sacrifices for personal atonement and sacrifices for communal atonement. There are optional sacrifices of good-will offerings, in case someone just wants to get in good with God. There are different sacrifices for different times of the day. Each sacrifice has a different suggested animal (though there is a sliding scale so that those who cannot afford to sacrifice a bull can still atone for their sins and get in good with God by burning up some grain meal or a dove), and a different blessing to be said with the sacrifice. These sacrifices are called “korbanot,” which comes from the word “karov,” to draw near, as it was believed that sacrifices helped people draw near to God.
            Throughout this list of different types of sacrifice, the Torah uses the word, “If”. If a person sins, if the community sins, if someone wants to make a good-will offering. Toward the end of the parasha, the Torah reads, “When a prince sins … he shall take a kid of his goats. And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the goat, and kill it in the place where they kill the burnt offerings before the Lord; it is a sin offering” (4:22). First, I want to point out that there is no sliding scale option for this one. After all, we’re talking about the prince or otherwise leader of the land, here. He can afford the goat, and he should pay according to his privilege. More importantly, where all the other people get an “if”, the leader gets a “when.” It is inevitable that every person sins at some point in their lives, but the pressure and temptations put onto and in front of a person in power opens up more opportunities to sin, as well as higher visibility for getting caught. The fact that the Torah recognizes this and offers an absolute for this case, shows a wariness toward power, and a responsibility that goes along with leadership. Rashi comments positively one this: “Fortunate is the generation whose leader applies themself to atone for their own sin.” He’s playing with the Hebrew because the word for “when” in this context is “Asher” which sounds like “Ashrei”, meaning happy or fortune. But Rashi is right, and the Torah is right. Leaders are just as prone to mistakes as the rest of us, if not more so, and often their mistakes have larger ramifications. How great it is when leaders see where they have erred in the past and want to atone for it and do better in the future.
            Today is Transgender Day of Visibility. Too often our leaders (political, community, and spiritual) fall short on doing right by the trans community, and the LGBT community as a whole. Just last week, a Queer Jewish student group at Ohio State University was kicked out of the Hillel family for co-sponsoring an event that advocated for LGBT refugees because there were pro-Palestinian organizations involved with the event as well. Now, these LGBT Jews are facing a sudden loss of a major chunk of their funding and a physical space over a pretty minute political detail. Many Jews and leaders of other Jewish institutions have rallied to B’nai Keshet’s side to pressure Hillel to take them back. Some of you know I was dealing with some issues with this at the school where I teach. It was coming from certain families, but I was initially told that I have to “respect everyone’s political opinions.” To me, anti-LGBT sentiment is not a legitimate political opinion, and if it is to be accepted as such by a particular institution, that institution needs to understand that it is no longer a safe space for members of the LGBT community. It is simply not possible for the same space to claim to respect and accept both queer and trans people and the people who think they deserve fewer rights under American law or less access to Jewish ritual. They are completely incompatible. Luckily, this situation has cleared up a bit at the school, and the administration is making efforts to move forward with me next year so that we can make the school safer for students or families that fall under the LGBTPQIA umbrella. Our state of Virginia, despite efforts by some to introduce legislature that stigmatizes queer and trans folks and strips away hopes for equality, has managed to keep some of those laws at bay. Business owners are not allowed to refuse service to people simply for being gay or trans, and the so-called bathroom bill has thankfully not yet come to fruition.
            All this is to say, our communities and our leaders have some atoning to do for the ways queer and trans people have been discriminated against, cut off from resources, silenced, and erased. The good news is, I do believe the majority of the Jewish community is ready to do that atoning, and I hope as part of that atonement many know to look directly to queer and trans leaders to help lead the way forward, so that others do not keep making the same mistakes out of ignorance. It is time for more than just visibility. It is time for us to be sure we are being fully inclusive of LGBT Jews, that we are meeting the needs of our whole communities, that we are drawing nearer to holiness as a welcoming Jewish community.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei

            Shabbat Shalom. I have a confession that’s mildly embarrassing to talk about from the bima, but since I spoke directly about this with one of you, I feel this is a safe space to admit it. I still love playing the Sims. I have multiple expansion packs for my Sims3 to play on my PC when I get some down time, and I also bought Sims4 when it was on super sale around New Years, though I haven’t gotten into it yet. I really dislike some of the changes to the game play, so I’ve only played around a little bit with it in the last few months. In the computer game, you can create your own people, design their look, and create relationships. This aspect of the game is something that has supposedly been vastly improved in Sims4. You can add a lot more nuanced options to your characters and their relationships now. You can create your own home, design the blueprints and decorate it to look however you want, especially if you know the money cheat code and money is no object. Sims4 surprisingly did not improve this aspect, and actually made some options that are freely available in the Sims3 cost more money in Sims4. Once your family and home are completely made you can “start” playing (as though this act of creation doesn’t count as playing). I love the actual “playing” of Sims3, and often go through three generations of the same family before I get bored and want to start over. Many people, however, have expressed supreme boredom with this part, saying they’ll play with a family for a few hours, maybe spread over a couple of days, but then they’ll go back and create a new family and house. The creative act is the fun part of the game for a lot of people, which may be why the Sims4 continues to be successful in spite of its aspects that I find deficient.
            I remember a few years ago, my cousin was telling me about the family she had been babysitting, and the game that the kids were playing (first version the Sims), and she described the game as “playing G-d.” At the time, that seemed like a fair way to explain the Sims and a close enough approximation to my understanding of G-d. Let’s look at this week’s Torah portion, though, and we see a view of G-d that doesn’t fit the “Sims mold” so well. The past few weeks have been about the building of the Tabernacle, culminating in this week, when G-d finally settles in into this new Divine Home. G-d commands Moses to tell the people to bring forth anything they have that will be useful in building the Tabernacle. G-d appoints Bezalel and Ohaliab to be the head architects. G-d puts the creative act onto the people to build. G-d does not construct the perfect home for G-dself like a game of Sims. G-d appoints us, humans with free will and minds of our own, to create something for G-d. In the wilderness, in the Torah, it is the Tabernacle. Today, it is our community.
            We are not Sims. G-d may be watching, and G-d may be sending us messages, and there may be some grand Divine plan to the universe, but we are not being directly controlled by an unseen force like a person sitting and clicking away at the various templates on a computer game. We know this because if we were being so controlled, would the Israelite people have built and worshipped the golden calf and angered G-d, only a short time before building G-d this beautiful home? I believe that as humans, we each have our own set unique skills, talents, needs, and interests, an ability for each of us to be “wise-hearted men and women,” as the this parasha identifies the Israelites who contribute to the Mishkan. We each bring something important and specific to build the Tabernacle, to build our community. It is up to each of us to be ourselves, to work together to the best of our abilities, to bring our community to life, to have a beautiful space to dwell in, because there is no computer program making these decisions for us, building our houses and clicking “Go to School” or “Express Fondness” for us to make sure we do what we’re supposed to do.
            So I play the Sims a lot, maybe specifically because real life is so not the Sims. In the Sims, you can have complete control over the universe you create, and that is comforting. But the real universe would be boring if we could do that. Although it is sometimes hard to deal with the unknowable and the uncontrollability of life and community building, we know from this week’s Torah portion that that is what G-d wants of us. For us to deal with the unknown and uncontrollable, to create, to work together, to figure it out for ourselves as we go along. It is hard, but it is far more rewarding than a happy Sims family. May you all find the patience and self-confidence required to go out in life and deal with the unknown and uncontrollable, to create art, community, and holy spaces. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Parashat Ki Tisa and Esther''s Moral Courage

    Shabbat Shalom! This week we continue to carry with us the joy of Purim into one more Shabbat, and reflect on what we can learn by connecting this week’s Torah portion with our Purim story. This week’s portion is Parashat Ki Tisa, the story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites have witnessed great miracles and wonders at the hands of God, and yet they want an idol. They witnessed the plagues, the Sea of Reeds parting, their own miraculous liberation, and yet they aren’t sure God is with them. They experience revelation at Mount Sinai, an experience so intense that the entire people of Israel go into sensory overload and ask Moses to go talk privately with God and report back to them. When this one-on-one chat that they asked for takes longer than expected, they give up quite quickly. Now, I know that spiritually speaking, the whole people are basically small children. They are truly new to this whole “God” thing, having been abandoned as slaves in Egypt for generations, but still, reading about the miracles they witnessed and their defiant whining and idolatry in spite of those miracles, can feel exasperating. Even Moses has his tensions with needing more evidence of God. In this week’s portion, despite their deeply personal conversations and God’s immense trust in Moses through the whole Exodus process, Moses demands to see the face of God. God responds, “You cannot see My face, for no man shall see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). A midrash from the Talmud draws a quote from Parashat Shemot, from our Torah portion a few weeks ago, that when Moses approached the Burning Bush, he hid his face. God tried to show Moses God’s face already, and Moses would not look. Not that Moses wants to see it, God is unwilling to show it (Talmud, Berachot 7a).
On the other hand, Mordecai has no miracles to trust on, Esther has no personal chats with God. And yet, they have faith. God is not mentioned at all in the entire Megillat Esther, and yet Esther fasts along with the entire wailing Jewish community of Persia. Neither of them, nor seemingly the whole distraught people, directly entreat God, demand to see God, demand to be hidden from God’s overwhelming presence, or otherwise seem to expect anything other than a general vibe of Divine Goodness as Esther takes matters into her own hands to rescue the Jews.
    In the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) the rabbis argue about what really happened during the period of time the Israelites spent at Mount Sinai: “Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said: This teaches that the Holy One covered them with the mountain like an [overturned] vat.  And God said to them, "If you accept the Torah, good. And if not, there will be your burial." Rav Acha bar Yaakov said, from here is a strong signal [of coercion] regarding [acceptance of] the Torah. Rava said: Nevertheless, they accepted it again in the days of Achashveirosh, as it is written (Esther 9:27), "The Jews established and accepted"--they established [in the days of Achashveirosh] what they had already accepted [in the days of Moshe].” Although Rav Avdimi’s midrash is deeply uncomfortable to Rav Acha (and myself), Rava smooths the conversation by asserting that no matter what occurred at Mount Sinai to convince this fearful, uncertain new nation to accept the Torah, our people’s embracing of our traditions was reaffirmed in the era of the Purim story. Former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, expands on this: “The real test of faith came when G-d was hidden. Rava's quotation from the Book of Esther is pointed and precise. The book is one of only two in Tenakh which does not contain the name of G-d. The rabbis suggested that the name Esther is an allusion to the phrase haster astir et panai, "I will surely hide My face." The book relates the first warrant for genocide against the Jewish people. That Jews remained Jews under such conditions was proof positive that they did indeed re-affirm the covenant. Obstinate in their disbelief during much of the biblical era, they became obstinate in their belief ever afterward. Faced with G-d's presence, they disobeyed Him. Confronted with His absence, they stayed faithful to Him. That is the paradox of the stiff-necked people.”
    In the modern era, we can reasonably expect to be more like Esther, Mordecai, or the Jews of Shushan than we can to relate to Moses, Aaron, or the Israelite people at Mount Sinai. Revelation rarely comes in thundersnow and synesthesia anymore, with God’s voice directly in our ears, accompanied by great supernatural miracles. But we do still face moral crises, dangers to our people and our friends and neighbors, and we can still summon the inner strength from a sense of Divine Goodness to stand up for ourselves and others. Though God may seem hidden from us, and indeed sometimes we may feel the need to hide ourselves from God or other humans, at our cores we know that we have the power to tap into Mordecai’s wisdom, Esther’s courage, and the moral strength of our Jewish traditions. We accept and affirm in every transition of life and at every holiday and season the power of Judaism and the guidance of Torah. May each of us be blessed to see Divinity in the hidden shadows of the world, that we may gather the fortitude to carry on as American Jews in the modern world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Tetzaveh and Esther

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Tetzaveh. It is always read within a week of Purim, and this year is no different, with Purim starting with the conclusion of this Shabbat.
Tetzaveh tells of the priests’ vestments. God tells Moses to tell his brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons of how they will create their holy uniforms for the work of serving in the Mishkan. Many of the colors and materials named are the same as those named in the instructions given last week to build the Mishkan, demonstrating the importance of these garments.  One important distinction is that the priests’ clothing is explicitly meant to include both wool and linen, despite the fact that the Israelites are later told not to mix wool and linen in their clothing. This signifies the separation the priests may feel from the rest of their kinsfolk. They not only had to dress in finery and with a specific uniform to show their respect for God when entering the holy dwelling place of the divine, that uniform followed completely different rules than those of the common clothing.
The story of Purim is set in Persia, presumably in the First Exile, when there is no Temple or Mishkan or Priests standing. A Midrash from Esther Rabbah claims that King Ahasuerus of Persia and his first wife Vashti wore the stolen garments of the high priest, which had made their way to these Eastern lands after the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. These fine tunics and breastplates, created so lovingly for holy work, being worn by heretics at their feasts and lecherous parties.
On the other hand, when Esther approaches the King to make him aware of Haman’s evil plot and her own Jewishness, she is wearing “Malkhut,” royalty. In the most direct translation of the text, this is presumably royal clothing, that she is dressed in her finery to remind Ahasuerus of how desirable she is so that he will be inclined to do whatever it takes to keep her around. However, the Zohar, a Kabbalistic work, brings this back to the idea of the holy vestments of the priests. Wearing “malkhut” could mean royalty, but Malkhut is also one of the Kabbalistic expressions of God. Esther is acting as High Priest, clothed in the royal holiness, entering the inner chamber, and coming before the Most High. She is speaking to King Ahasuerus, but she is also entreating God to save the Jews. The Megillah tells us “She found favor in King Ahasuerus’s eyes,” and the Zohar says, “The secret of these words is that God saw her and remembered the eternal covenant. God heard her, and responded.”
There are much more important things in life than fashion. Though it can be a powerful tool for self-expression and various forms of wordless communication, it is ultimately superficial, and no amount of fine clothing or accessories or cute shoes or make up will make you a better or happier person. Those who know me know that I particularly do not like to go clothes shopping and I am pretty low maintenance in my look. Still, there are certain stylistic choices I make to communicate who I am. I have many kippot and like to match them to my outfits. I always wear a tallit when I lead Shabbat services or approach a Torah. I like to wear make up on Shabbat, though I rarely wear it during the week. Dressing for the role you serve and the headspace you want to be in can be immensely helpful in getting you into that headspace and communicating that role to others. And of course, no matter what else you wear when you go out into the world, which is hopefully more than only your tiara, remember: you’re never fully dressed without a smile. May you dress comfortably and well, may you feel clothed in holiness and communicate your purpose clearly, and may you always find yourself accessorized with a smile. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.