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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Commentary on Parshat Tzav


This week's torah portion is Tzav (Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36). In it the detailed descriptions of the various sacrifices to be offered continues. I would like to focus on one particular sacrifice and what we might learn from it today.

The final sacrifice mentioned in the parashah is the zevakh shelamim. This is usually translated as the "peace offering" or "good-will offering.” The word shelamim comes from the same root as shalom/peace and shalem/whole. One contemporary understanding of this sacrifice is as an offering of greeting. According to Baruch Levine and other scholars, it was a meal shared between the priests, the people who brought the offering and God. In other words, through sharing a sacred meal there was a connection being made between the people, the priests and the Divine. Not only was this a meal of greeting, but the sharing of the sacrificial animal could also bring a sense of peace and wholeness that was a direct result of feeling connected to God and community (as represented be the priests). The sharing of this sacrifice allowed the participants to experience, in a visceral way, the connection that exists between all human beings and remind us of the shelaimut/wholeness and achdut/oneness of existence.  And when the final portion of the sacrifice was offered on the altar to God, it was as if God was partaking of the sacrifice along with the priest and the worshipper.

I could not help but beginning comparing this to the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. In this ritual, the worshipper partakes of the wafer and the wine that have been consecrated by the priest, minister or Officiant. In the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of transubstantiation states that the wine and wafer actually ‘become’ the body and blood of Jesus  (I.e., ‘the sacrifice’) when the priest consecrates it. In most other churches, they a representation of his body and blood. In either case, this is a ritual whereby a human being ingests divinity, or its representation.

I must admit that this ritual has always simultaneously intrigued and repelled me. I feel repelled because it seems anathema to the Jewish way of worship. I don’t think I can ever understand it’s true meaning for our Christian brothers and sisters. On the other hand, since in Judaism the actual sacrifice and the concomitant meal have been replaced with the more abstract concept of “prayer as sacrifice,” the idea of this physical ritual has always intrigued me as well.

In my understanding of the ritual of the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church (that with which I am most familiar) the sacred meal is also connected to achieving forgiveness for sin as well as connecting to the Divine. This occurs by believing that one is actually ingesting divinity into one’s body (I realize that I am not doing justice to the complexity of Christian theology, and I ask forgiveness from my Christian friends and colleagues for this).

However, in the ancient Israelite sacrificial system the idea of ingesting God, or even a representation of God, was indeed anathema. For our ancestors, the sacred meal consisted simply of the priest and the worshipper eating a meal together and symbolically sharing it with God. This meal consisted of ordinary meat from an ordinary, although unblemished, animal.  The meat was not made sacred or divine through any kind of blessing or ritual.  Rather, what made this ordinary meal extraordinary, was not the fact that it was “perfect” or that it was slaughtered, prepared and cooked by the priest.  Rather, what made this meal extraordinary was that it was being shared with God.  It was a reminder that, even though the priests had a different status in their society, and that God was beyond being human, all three entities shared something.  That something, represented by the sacrificial meal, is Oneness. Oneness in this case means that ultimately there is no separation or duality in existence. Oneness is at the heart of Kedushah/holiness that plays such a central role in Va’yikra/Leviticus and the entire Torah.

Eating a sacred meal does not make one any more or less holy, nor does the slaughter of the sacrifice by the priest (akin to the consecration of the wafer and wine by Christian clergy today) make the sacrifice holy. Rather, what makes the act and all the participants holy is the recognition of the deeper meaning, that we are all part of God. God is within us all, for we are all One within God.

Just as a fetus floating in a sea of amniotic fluid in a mother’s womb is part of the mother while still a distinct entity, so too are we floating in the sea of Godliness a part of God, yet distinct individuals. Of course, there is a major difference, since in Judaism the fetus is not viewed as an actual life, whereas we are human beings with personalities, character traits and, for better or worse, egos.

Yet, perhaps the sacrifice and the sacred meal are meant to remind us that in reality this is actually an illusion. Perhaps we are not complete on our own? We may believe (or our ego may trick us into believing) that we are self-sufficient. However, the necessity of eating the sacred meal – which is commanded – tells us something different. It tells us that without God we are not complete. Our independence is merely an illusion. This applies to all of us, including the priests. We do not need to ingest God in order to know this, for God is already within us for we are within God. Instead, in sharing the zevakh shelamim, the sacrifice of wholeness and completeness, we arer eminded that the connection to the Divine is our essence.  Without acknowledging that, we are like a fetus without the umbilical cord. We are surrounded and filled with God, and yet, unable to connect, we
are unable, spiritually, to survive.

However, we must also be cognizant of the fact that, while our ancestors were experiencing this through the sacred meal, God was also ‘partaking’ of the meal in the form of accepting the smoke of the sacrifice.  Can the message beneath this part of the ritual be that God is also incomplete without human beings? If we say this, aren’t we exhibiting the exact type of
egotistical hubris that we are supposed to be letting go of through this ritual? Perhaps.

God is Ehad/One, then God is whole and complete. Yet some, such as R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l (may his memory be a blessing) might say that God needs us as well. as we need God.  However, as my friend and colleague R. Ethan Franzel pointed out to me, that is a concept that has been created by human beings. Perhaps we want to believe that God needs to be needed, just as we need to be needed. This is an idea that we find pleasing and comforting. Perhaps that is why, in the Torah, the authors refered to the aroma of the sacrifices as a rei’akh nikho’ah, or pleasing odor.

When all is said and one, the sacrificial meal and its replacement, the prayer service, are not meant to make God complete. Nor are they meant to make human beings complete. Rather, they are meant to remind human beings of the unity, wholeness and completeness that already exists. Oneness is the essence of existence. Through sacrifice in the past and prayer today, we are reminded of the truth that ‘God is One’ means that all is one withi God. We are all a part of the Divine flow of energy that sustains our universe.

Perhaps the need to have a physical reminder of this Oneness lay behind the development of the Eucharist as a central ritual in Christianity? I have not studied this enough to know. However, I do believe that within Judaism we have tried throughout the centuries to create an experience akin to sacrifice through which we can sense the Oneness at the heart of existence. Prayer as “sacrifice of the heart” as the early rabbis called it, was meant to be a spontaneous, passionate way of experience unity and wholeness.

The Kabbalists (mystics) and Hassidim tried to revive this sense of cleaving to the oneness of divinity through prayer, meditation, deeds of kindness and other “spiritual practices.” Today, we must take all that our tradition has provided for us and determine what works best for us so we can achieve the same goals. However, we also need to remember that the critera must not be objective, ego-centered ones such as “it feels good to me.” Rather, the main criterion is whether a particular practice enables us to experience the reality of Oneness, completeness and wholeness that we imagine our ancient ancestors felt as they shared a meal with God. This is not easy. Yet, if we simply let go and allow it ti happen, it is much simpler than we imagine. That is the truth.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Poetic Commentary on Parshat Vayikra



     This week we begin the third book of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus with the reading of parshat Vayikra (each book of the Torah and the first parasha/portion of that book always bear the same name).
      Vayikra means “and he (God) called.”  It is easy for us to hear the call of the Divine when reading about the journeys of the patriarchs and matriarchs or the ordeals of the slaves and their exodus from Egypt.  But to hear God’s call in the description of sacrifices is not an easy task!  And yet Vayikra is about more than just sacrifices and laws.  At the core of Vayikra is the sacrificial system that is meant to connect the people with the Divine.
      In the first third of this parashah, which is what is read in many congregations this Shabbat, we read first of the Olah, the burnt offering, or literally “that which rises up.”  These were sacrifices in which the entire animal, after being ritually slaughtered was burned on the altar.  This differed from other sacrifices where part of the animal was saved as a sacred meal for the priests and the worshipers. 
      Most communal sacrifices were olot – burnt offerings.  The community would give the priests beasts and birds that belonged to them and watch them as they were sacrificed to God on the altar, watching the smoke rise up to God with a reyakh nee’khoah – pleasant odor.
      The minchah, or grain offering then followed the olot.  Here, grain was mixed with oil and spices and presented either in a cooked or uncooked form to the priest.  It was then burnt on the altar.  However, the text makes clear that no leaven and no honey may be used in the minchah offering.  We do not know if this is in any way connected with the later rabbinic association of leaven with pride, hubris, and ego, but this is certainly a connection that I possible interpretation.
     The following poem is broken up into seven portions. Each portion corresponds to one of the seven aliyot (individual Torah readings) read this Shabbat according to the breakdown of the Conservative movement in the USA.
Shabbat Shalom,

Steven


Hearing the Divine Call

Aliyah 1
I hear God’s call           
bring           
my sacrifice
my self
perfect    unblemished

but

I am not
            perfect
I am filled with blemishes
                        imperfections
                     faults
                 sin

still

I must
find
within
perfection
Godliness
holiness

from that
place
iImust sacrifice
offer
give
to God

aliyah 2

my offering
goes up in flames
before my eyes

I
am consumed
my soul
 aflame
the smoke
     my soul
            our soul
the soul
rises
returns
to it’s source

the scent of teshuvah
is in the air
pleasing God
the divine smile
            radiates
into my heart

aliyah 3

more sacrifice
more violence
blood
destruction

the smells
            the sounds
cacophony

I want to run

how could God desire
such sacrifice

how could God not

true sacrifice
is not easy    simple     pretty
true sacrifice
of the self
before God
is difficult   painful
yet necessary

I want to run

from the pain
from the noise
to somewhere pleasant 
           somewhere safe
                 somewhere simple

if only it really existed
            or
thank God it does not

aliyah 4

sacrifice continues
            I do not run           
I do not hide
            my eyes
            my heart
            my soul
from what is
real

the priest
            conduit between us and God
takes our offerings
            and kills them
my flocks
            my birds
                        my possessions
are no more

were they ever
real
really mine

no

they were Gods
as they still are

still

each time
            i see
one rise in smoke to God
            i feel
a piece of my self
            die with it
            and rise
            back to God

in my heart
I hear God saying
welcome home

aliyah 5

no more death
of animals
            of the self
it is finished

I have given all I can to God
            for now

then suddenly I smell
            something sweet
            something pleasant
mingled with the acrid smell
            of sacrifice

like fresh bread baking
            the smell of home
                        or hearth
            of safety
of security

this is something i can live with
            I can enjoy
I hope
it will never
end

aliyah 6

that wondrous smell
tempting me
hunger desire arising
            within me
I am ready to eat
            to devour
        the bread
    staff of life
source of my sustainance

but wait

the smell is changing
from sweet to acrid
pleasant to noxious
soothing to burning

the bread is burning
turned to smoke
on the altar

why
I wanted it
we all did

but of course
it is not
for us
it is
for God

I am in pain
my desire unfulfilled

I mourn the loss
of something
            I never had
            that was never mine

then i remember
this
is what
it’s all about

life

gain and loss
pain and pleasure
criticism and praise
recognition and invisibility

all illusions
            never real
            never mine
like the bread
they are here
            bringing joy
               that is not real joy
they are gone
            bringing pain
                that feels all too real

what is real
what is here
always
is simply
God

aliyah 7

and so I offer to God
            my meal
            my grain
            my source
            my soul

I do not bring
            leavened bread
            ego
            self
            selfishness
            pride
for it is no more
            if it ever was

I do not bring
            merely
            the sweetness
            that hides the pain           
                        that is real
            like honey masks
                        the bitterness
            we are meant to taste

I simply bring
            what is real
            all that i am
            no judgements
            no facades
            no illusions
just all that I am
            that is part of you
            part of God
            part of the world

a particle of the smoke
            rising from the altar
of life
            returning to the source
of life

I hear the call
            the my heart
I see the smoke rise to God
            my soul rejoices

and together
            we all
sing praise
to
 the
One
halleluyah





Friday, March 5, 2010

The Truth of Gold: Poetic Midrash on Parshat Ki Tissa



This week's  parashah Ki Tissa (Shemot/Exodus 30:11-34:35) includes the all-too-familar narrative of the Golden Calf. One image in the that has intrigued me, yet is less familiar and oft forgetten,  is that of Moses grinding the calf into powder, mixing it with water and forcing the people to drink it as expiation for their sin. This ingestion of the remnants of their sin holds powerful meaning within it. This is one interpretation of that moment and what it might mean.

Shabbat Shalom,
Steven


the truth of gold

gold
before me
now
gleaming brightly
holy tabernacle
god's glory
glowing
everpresent
neverseen
alwaysfelt

gold
then
molten
hot
burning
the calf
idol
searing
image
into
my
mind


people
crying
wailing
this
is your
god
israel
who
brought you
out
of
gypt

how
could
we
believe
how could
we
not

he
was gone
we
felt
fear
needed
certainty
where
there was
none

we
all gave
gold
melted
melded
merging
we
created
the calf
from
our gold
not
really
a god

it
was
us

blind
to
divinity
truth
presence
only seeing
false reality
deaf
to God’s voice
within
we only heard
cries
screams
fear
feeling
uncertainty


gold
obsession
i felt it
feel it
within
bitter taste of sin
infidelity
coursing
within


i drank
the waters
from his hands
looking
into
his eyes
burning
rage
accusation
contempt
flooded
tears of
sadness
love
disappointment
compassion
feeling
all
i drank
our sin
my sin
now
within

gold
given
to create
a monster
restored
to forgive
sinner
humans
being
human

gold
within
eternally
reminding
all
past
is past
not present
still
present
it’s presence
remind me
do not
 stop
living
feeling
knowing
embracing
the spirit
within
the moment

god
i was seeking
you
when i gave
my gold
what i found
when it was returned to
me
forced into
me
reminding me
was
eternal divinity
inside me
inside each
sinnersaint
each human being

remaining
within
long after
sin forgiven
present is past
past is forgotten

that is the reality
the turth
of gold
of god
within
within
us all


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