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Friday, March 18, 2011

Parshat Tzav: Finding Oneness in Our Broken World

This week's parashah/ portion is Tzav (Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36). In it the detailed description of the various sacrifices to be offered continues.  Last year, my commentary on this parashah began with the following :

"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."
As I read this today, I can’t but help think of all the tragedies our world is facing now. Often, it as in times of tragedy, rather than in moment of joy, when we stop for a moment to acknowledge our interconnected nature.

When I heard of the devastation and destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami, I could not help but shudder. I could not help but feel the grief and shock of the people of Japan, even if mine was and is only minuscule by comparison. 

As I read about and watched the slaughters perpetrated by Qadaffi on his own people or read Nicholas Kristoff’s accounts of the brutality taking place in Qatar (a US ally) I had a similar reactions, coupled with anger and a drop of hatred for this maniacal dictator.

And yet, though I believe these emotions were felt by most, if not all, of us, it is also true that we were celebrating along with the Egyptians in Tahrhir Square just a few short weeks ago.  That was a time when it did seem like much of the world was connected in joy, celebration and gratitude.  Would that there were more moments like these, and fewer of the former.

In last year’s commentary I spoke of a sacrifice that somehow connected the people, the priests and God in a kind of sacred meal.  In contemporary parlance, one might say instead: the ordinary people, the leadership and God.  It is often difficult to think of us as all as connected within God when events like those in Libya or in Egypt are occurring. After all, they seem primarily political and not spiritual.  Yet, we commonly refer to earthquakes and tsunamis as “acts of God.”  Why not other types of tragedies?  However, to me, equating tragedies of any kind with God’s actions gives a skewed idea of what God is.  God becomes simply the power that wreaks havoc on humanity. 

And so I ask, a tsunami is an act of God, what about a rainbow?  If the devastation of an earthquake is a sign of God’s hand playing a role in human history, why not the beauty and awe of a lunar eclipse or a brilliant sunset?  Why is it that we insist on connecting unexplained tragedies with godliness and ignore indescribable beauty?

If “all is God”, as Jewish and other mystical traditions teach, then God can be found in the destruction in Japan as well as the rain that brings end to a drought.  If “all is God” then God’s presence is somehow in the plume of radioactive smoke rising in Daiichi and in the destruction being wrought upon the Libyan people, as well as in the hearts of those rebelling against tyranny in Libya and  the people in Tahrhir square, as well as with the workers literally risking their lives at the nuclear power plant.

Looking at all this it easy to see how someone might throw up their hands and claim that God does not exist.  After all, how could God be causing all of these events? How could God cause these tragedies to occur, regardless of the counter-balance, of sorts, that is provided by the miracles that also occurred?  But it is in the very phrasing of this question that the problem can be found.  For I did not say that God “caused” any of these events. I simply said that God was “present.”

I do not believe in a God that causes earthquakes and tsunamis, any more than I believe in a God that causes the rains to fall.  I do not believe in a God that causes human beings to kill any more than I believe in a God that causes us to heal.

  God is the force that set the natural world in motion, to do what it will based on what we now call the “laws of nature.”  God is the life force that brought humanity forth from our ancient ancestors (yes. I believe in evolution. I just don’t know how to describe it accurately). 

But as with any energy source, the power that we inherently receive from the Divine flow in the world can be harnessed for good or for evil (I will not draw analogies to nuclear power at this time, as that would seem insensitive and crass.  But one can imagine them).  So, it is as if Gaddafi has taken the power that he has been given as a human being and then detached himself from its divine source and replacing it with the belief that he – his ego – is the source of his power.  He is ultimately detached from anything Divine and, it would seem, that he is incapable of reconnecting. 

I don’t know if the rebels in Libya or those in Tahrhir Square would see themselves as connected to the Divine in their fight, though I’m sure some do or did.  But, for me, simply the fact that they are joining together to fight for a greater good means that they are indeed connected to the Divine.  It is the life force of the Divine that gives them the strength to do what they are doing, or have done, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

The same can be said for our leadership.  If they act carefully and in the best interest of humanity, the actions taken today by the United Nations can bring about peace and serve God’s “design.”  Yet, we know all too well, what can happen to the best-laid plans of human beings.  So let us hope and pray that the sense of interconnectedness and responsibility continues to guide them and that this struggle does not become one about ego and power.  For once that happens, God has been disconnected from the process.

In closing, I would like to return to the paragraph I cited from last year’s commentary.  Later on, in that commentary I write about the nature of this “sacred meal”: “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.”  I wrote this by way of comparing the sacrificial meal to other religious traditions where the food ingested, such as the wine and wafer of the Eucharist, carry within them the power of holiness.  But instead, in this sacred meal, it is the sharing of the meal between people, leaders and God that makes it holy.  Our presence is necessary in order to sanctify the ritual.  For it is in the oneness of the sharing that holiness is found.

In short, this ritual meal is an “act of humanity” as much as it is an “act of God.”  For, in mystical terms, there is no difference.  All is One.  All is God.  And so, in this moment in history, we are partaking of both the communal sacred meal of tragedy as well as that of joy and celebration.  We are tasting the bitterness of tyranny brought about by the severing of unity, just as we are tasting the sweet wine of freedom and redemption which proclaim that same unity.

As we continue to live through these ever-changing times let us do the best we can to maintain the sense of oneness and connection that brings holiness into the world, even as there are those who try to stop it.  Let us remember that indeed, God is everything. But that does not mean that everything we do is Godly.   For only those things that perpetuate the oneness are truly godly.  The others are either an imitation, or even an abomination.  Let us do what we can in each moment to reveal those abominations for what they are and instead shine the light of the Divine into the world through acts of salvation, caring and love.

Shabbat Shalom.

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