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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Parshat Tzav: The Holiness Within

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 worshiper 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 criteria 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.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Better (very) late than never! Parshat Vayak'hel-Pekudei

Dear online community,
I wrote the following commentary for this past Shabbat and for some reason unknown to even me, I never published it. So I hope you enjoy it (or that it at least makes you think) even though it is a little late, though it is certainly still quite timely and relevant!


In general, I try to steer clear of politics in my commentaries. However, the intersection of politics and religion has become such a dominant theme in our society as of late, I felt like I finally needed to add my voice to the discussion. However, in no way do I support the idea that our government's policies should be based in any way on religious teachings. On the contrary, I believe strongly in the separation of church and state as a sacred tenet of America's founding. Yet, I do believe that religious values and beliefs can and do shape the opinions of our politicians and that religious teachings can have meaning for us in the civil realm. Still, there is a difference between religion informing us and our leaders and basing our government policies on religious belief and dogma. Keeping that in mind, I would like to share some thoughts on this week's parashah/portion.

In this week's double parashah of Va’yakhel-Pekudei (Shemot/Exodus 35:1-40:38), Moses instructs each of the people to bring a nediv lev/gift from the heart for the building of the mishkan/Tabernacle in the desert. As I have mentioned previously, the mishkan is meant to be a dwelling place for God in the midst of the people so that they can have a tangible reminder that God is with them. After the incident of the Golden Calf, this is more important than ever.

When Moses instructs the people concerning the giving of gifts for the sanctuary the text is explicit that he is speaking to the whole Israelite community. As opposed to the census that took place earlier; which only counted men over the age of 20, this commandment applies to all the people. It gives everyone an equal opportunity to donate to the building of the place where godliness is to dwell in their midst. 

God informs Moses what particular items are needed, and the list is lengthy and varied in nature. There are threads of every color, gold, silver, ram skins, acacia wood, olive oil, spices, and precious stones “ just to name a few. These items are not only meant for the building of the mishkan, but for the lighting of the menorah, the burning of the incense and other ritual activities. Every person, regardless of their status in the community is invited to give from their heart in order to create a space for God's presence to dwell in the heart of the community. In the end people not only bring adequate gifts from their hearts, but the people give to overflowing from their hearts to the point when they must be told to stop.

I believe that perhaps the most important teaching found within Va'yakhel-Pekudei is that every member of the community has the opportunity to count. We each have unique gifts that we can bring “should our hearts move us" to the building of a holy community. This applies to every member of the community, with no exception. What makes each gift unique, even thought he material might be the same, is the heart from which it comes. Moreover, each of these unique gifts of the heart combined is what we need in order to create a space for God's presence that is to be found in the heart of the community.

Of course, this idea could be applied to many issues connected to building community, but I would like to apply it issues which are being brought to the forefront in the current political discourse, especially in the Republican primary contests. For, based on much of today's rhetoric, it would seem that, for some people, only certain gifts are acceptable, as well as only certain “givers.” It is as if each potential giver is being given a litmus test to see if they and their gift will be acceptable in the eyes of God …. excuse me, I mean....the community (read: government or political party).

The potential results of this world view, were it to dominate our country, would be the continued denial of right such as marriage, health care, birth control, civil rights and more to those in our society who don't pass the test. In other words, those who don't look, believe and act as certain politicians believe they should act. Or as they believe God, religion and/or the Bible believe they should act!

If this had been the case when the mishkan was being built, I doubt that it ever would have been completed. For the gifts of too many would have been rejected because the givers just didn't meet at least one crierion. God and Moses would not have acknowledged unique gifts that each community member could to bring to the building of our mishkan. Rather, the goal would have been to build a mishkan that was a reflection of the beliefs of those in charge of its construction.

I am using religious language in a political context to state what I believe to be a moral imperative for us all. For I am basing this on religious teachings, I firmly believe that the concepts central to the building of the mishkan can be applied to the building and maintenance of our society. For what is the Constitution of the United States if not the guidelines for building a community based on justice and equality? Our 'civil mishkan,' such as it is, is the government that we have created in order to bring these ideals to fruition. They are the places in which the greater good of our society is meant to be embodied, just as the mishkan housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments that represented the essence of what it meant be a full member of ancient Israelite society.

Just as the Torah does not exclude people from bringing a gift for the mishkan because of their beliefs or practices, so we too must insure that no one is prevented from being counted as a full member of society because of their beliefs or practices. Every human being has the right to be part of society, to love whom they love, to create families as they wish, to believe as they believe and to receive health care without any moral litmus test.. I believe these are among our inalienable rights, as they are essential to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They are not privileges to be conferred or denied by anyone.

I believe that religious leaders and people of faith everywhere must make certain that these rights are upheld. We must dedicate ourselves to making our country and our world a better place by insuring that each of our individual gifts are valued. We are all created in the image of God and we all have the right to express that godliness in our own way.

I am in no way suggesting that religions should change their beliefs if something is contrary to them. For instance, I would never insist that the Roman Catholic Church provide abortions or even birth control. But I do believe that they must not prevent them from being provided. Nor would I ever suggest that all clergy should be required to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies if they felt this was contrary to their beliefs. However, that does not give them the right to dictate government policies on such issues.

In a free society, we must support the rights of any religion to decide what it will sanctify or not. I do not challenge this assumption. However, I do not believe that any religious group has the right to impose its beliefs on our government. As Jews who have suffered throughout the millennia at the hands of governments that were strongly influenced by religion, if not officially, an arm of the dominant religion, we cannot allow this to happen in the United States with regard to this or any other issue (even though often it does).

We must work together to insure that our national 'mishkan' is a place in which the highest ideals of humanity and our civilization can exist. For what else is the essence of holiness at its core? I long for the day when we can say that people no longer need to bring their gifts. I long for the arrival of the time when our goals are reached and all will truly be counted as equal members of society.
Until that day arrives a great deal of work needs to be done in this and other areas of justice and civil rights. For the rights of all must be protected and there must be no litmus test based on religious teachings or beliefs.

Let us work together with our leaders to continue doing the work to insure that all human being are counted and all of their gifts are valued and accepted. Only then can we claim that our gifts have been used to create a world in which godliness can dwell and be seen everywhere and within everyone.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Parshat Tetzaveh: Remembering the Light Within

This week's parashah/portion is tetzaveh (Shemot/ Exodus 27:20 – 30:10). In addition, this Shabbat, which falls just before the festival of Purim, is also called Shabbat Zakhor – the Sabbath of Remembrance. It takes its name from the special additional portion traditionally read from the Torah this week. This portion commands us "Zakhor/Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out from Egypt."

Amalek has long been viewed as the archetypal eternal enemy of Israel. According to the narrative in Shemot/ Exodus, the nation of Amalek attacked the Israelites while on their journey through the desert. Eventually, they were defeated, with the help of God, as well as Moses having his hands hands held up in the air. As long as they were being held up, the Israelites were victorious. If he were allowed to let them down, the tide would turn. This is read just prior to Purim because Haman,the villain of the Purim story found in the Biblical Book of Esther who tried to annihilate the Jews, was a descendant of Amalek.

At first glance, this special portion does not seem to connect at all with the regular Torah reading of Tetzaveh, which focuses on the lighting of the Ner Tamid (continually burning lamp) in the mishkan (tabernacle). However, things in the Torah are seldom as they seem.

The regular weekly parashah begins with God giving instruction to Moses, still on Mt. Sinai, that when lighting the Ner Tamid, the priests are to bring clear oil of beaten olives. Throughout the centuries, various commentators have compared Israel to this clear, freshly beaten olive oil.

Some commentators, such as Khaquiz (1672-1761) believed that just as olives "...yield up its oil only when it is crushed, [so] the people of Israel reveals its true virtues only when it is made to suffer."  Certainly, it seems easy enough to make a connection between this commentary and the people's ability to rise above persecution (just as oil rises to the top) and defeat Haman and the Persian Empire in the Purim story.

Though I am attracted to the idea that we have the ability to show what we are made of in the face of persecution, I am simultaneously troubled by the belief that it is "only" when we are oppressed that we
are able to reveal our true identity. For this simply gives support to the image of Jews as eternal victims and never as victors. This interpretation could also be viewed as an impetus for the us to continue focusing on our history of oppression and persecution the primary reason for us to keep our distinctiveness.

Other rabbis have also likened us to olive, in that we keep ourselves separate from the other nations, just as olive oil remains separate even when mixed with other ingredients. Again, though I would affirm the need for us to keep our distinct identity wherever we may be, I also believe that it is possible – and necessary - for us to do so while also firmly planting our feet in the soil of the nation in which we
live, and in the world community. We live in two civilizations, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, of blessed memory, wrote over sixty years ago. Actually, these days, most of us live in more than two civilizations! Talk about multi-tasking!

In sociological terms, I support the salad bowl metaphor, where the ingredients mix, but retain their individual identity, as opposed to the traditional image of the melting pot, where the ingredients merge to such a degree that they lose their unique flavor and taste. However, it could be said that many commentators believed we need to take this a step further and provide separate plates for each ingredient. Though this may make for table that is beautiful to the eye, ultimately the ingredients do nothing for one another and may indeed seem bland and unappealing each on its own.

Finally, as I alluded to earlier, some of the commentators focused on the fact that oil rises above the other ingredients with which it is mixed, and that Jews, when they maintain loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people, immersing themselves in Jewish knowledge and practice, will always rise above the other peoples of the world. Again, I find this belief in the inherent superiority of Judaism extremely problematic. That immersing oneself in the beauty of Judaism can help one rise to a higher level both spiritually and ethically may indeed be true, but this is only in comparison to the person one might otherwise be without the sense of belonging to something greater than oneself. It does not and should not require us to compare ourselves to other peoples and to assert that we shall always raise to a higher level than they.

Finally, Bereshit Rabbah (a collection of I/rabbinic tales on the book of Genesis) likens the idea to the verse in Isaiah that states we are to be a "light unto the nations." I have no problem embracing the concept of "a light unto the nations." We have many traditions and values that can help others learn how to be better human beings. However, this is not the sole domain of Judaism. Other religions and traditions also have light that they can share with us and with others as well. Our tradition may be unique and beautiful, but it is not inherently superior to others. Therefore, we can and should serve as one of the many lights among the nations that help to bring goodness and godliness into the world. To say that we are meant to be the sole exemplar for all others is chauvinistic and more than just a little "chutzpadik" on our part.

This Shabbat we prepare to celebrate the holiday of Purim, which is the ultimate topsy-turvy, crazy carnival holiday, which celebrates the victory of good over evil and weak over strong. We begin this preparation on Shabbat Zakhor by reminding ourselves of the serious story of how Amalek tried to destroy our ancestors (actually us) during their (our) journey in the desert. When we do so, we must also remember what has continually enabled us to triumph over oppression and adversity for so many centuries, in spite of the odds. 

I am not speaking of our chosen status or any sense of inherent superiority. Rather, it is the sense of connection to community, to God, to holiness and the oneness of the universe, which I believe to be at the core of Judaism, that has helped us to triumph. It is the light of the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, that burns within each of us, the light of God, that has enabled us to see through the darkness. It is this Divine light that has also enabled us to recognize that Amalek, whichever form he may take at any given moment, may indeed be the enemy, but he is not invincible.

What ultimately weakens Amalek is their belief that they are separate, set apart, superior to and stronger than all other nations. What makes this a fatal flaw is their belief that their strength and power comes from within them and not from a power greater than they. This is ultimately the flaw of all external enemies, as well as the ego-driven enemies that dwell within each of our own psyches and try to destroy or bring down the best that is within us.

Israel, on the other hand, at its best, recognizes that the strength and the light that is within us, communally and individual, does come from the greater light of oneness we call God. By connecting with that light, we join together in strength and unity. That strength and unity allows us to triumph over the more base and mundane aspects of human nature and over the oppressive and destructive forces in the world. Moreover, the way that strength and unity manifests itself in us as Jews is indeed uniquely Jewish (just as other peoples have their own unique ways as well).

This sense of unity allows us to rise, like pure olive oil, above the forces of hatred and oppression. However, if we are truly to serve as one of the lights among the nations and work towards bringing unity to God's fractured world, we must find those qualities within us not only when we are being beaten down or oppressed, but when we are free, content, and happy with our lives. For if only oppression can cause us to rise up, then we are ultimately lost.

We must also shine the divine light not only on our own people, but on all humanity. We must shine it wherever there is oppression, injustice and violence in our world. That is our responsibility both as human being created in God's image and as Jews. We cannot sit by as the blood of others is spilled, whether in the cities of Israel, the streets of the USA, or in Somalia or Sudan. Yet, we must also shine the Divine light where there is beauty, compassion, and peace in our world, lest we start to believe that all of existence is suffering.

In the end, the challenge for each of us as human beings and as a member of the Jewish people is this: to find the strength, compassion, holiness and beauty that is the essence of the Divine light within us, and allow it to shine on all of God's creation; to do so in our uniquely Jewish way, while also recognizing others unique ways, and to do so without oppression as our sole motivation. This is not an easy task, but it is one that we must undertake, moment by moment, in order to bring the light of the Ner Tamid, the light of the Eternal One, into our world and in order to observe the command of Zakhor – Remember. We must remember the ultimate meaning of our Jewishness, our humanity, and the reason why the light of the Divine is indeed within each of us. Once we remember that we can go out into the world and bring light, joy, salvation and happiness where it is so sorely needed.

Shabbat Shalom (and an early Happy Purim!),


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