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Friday, March 15, 2013

Parshat Vayikra: Creating a Structure for Holiness

This week we begin reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus. Also known as Torat Kohanim, the Torah of the High Priests, much of Vayikra is dedicated to the laws of sacrifice and ritual purity that were the domain of the ancient Israelite priests.

There is a long-standing custom within traditional Judaism that children begin their religious studies with Vayikra. It has always seemed strange that children were to  begin with the book of Vayikra and its detailed descriptions of animal sacrifices and its intricate laws and regulations. It always seemed more logical to start with the creation story or the intricate family dynamics of our ancestors found in Bereshit/Genesis or the drama of slavery and redemption found in Shemot/Exodus? Our sages asked a similar question in Yalkut Shimoni, a collection of midrash/rabbinic stories and commentaries, believed to have been written in the 12th or 13th centuries. Here we read, “Why do young children start with Torat Kohanim (“Torah of the Kohanim? [Why not] let them start with Bereshit/Genesis? Since the korbanot (sacrifices) are pure and the children are pure, let the pure come and deal with the pure.”

I like the idea of beginning a pure, young child's education with something that is directly connected to purity (at least in the minds of our ancestors). After all, we read in the Torah that we are to be a goy kadosh/holy nation and a mamlekhet kohanim/a 'kingdom' of kohanim/priest. What better way to begin this enterprise than be studying the laws of sacrifice that were incumbent upon the priest?

In the 21st century, this interpretation may not speak to us as it did to our ancestors. Yet,, I have come to realize that there is still great wisdom to our Sages' decision to begin Torah study with Vayikra. For one can discover through delving into this central book of the Torah (it is literally the center of the 5 books), the centerpiece of what it means to be a Jew, and a human being.

Vayikra means "and [God] called." It may seem easier for us to hear the call of the Divine when reading about mythic journeys of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the ordeals of the slaves and their exodus from Egypt or the revelation on Mt Sinai; to hear God's call in the description of sacrifices and ancient rituals is not so simple. However, Vayikra is about more than just rules and regulations. At the core of this, the central book of the Torah we find an attempt to create structure for a new society. This structure is based on the commandment which is
at the center of the book of Vayikra, and therefore near the exact physical center point of the Torah scroll: "you shall love your fellow human being as yourself. I am the Eternal your God."  This deceptively simple command is the essence of our quest for holiness and divinity in our world.

When we reach eventually Chapter 19 in Parshat Kedoshim (holiness) on Shabbat, we will read  this as one of a group of commandments that instruct us to be holy because God is holy. This quest for holiness and holy living is at the core of the Torah, for it is at our core as individuals and at the core of creating community. However, in order to create a society that focuses on holiness there must be a structure as well as a path set out for people to follow. The structure may be adjusted from generation still remains. The heart and soul of this structure is the commandment quoted above, which reminds us that each and every person we encounter in life – from our "worst enemy" to our "best friend," is created in the image of the Divine.

Jewish tradition is based on what we call halakhah. Most commonly  translated as "Jewish law," another translation might be "the way to walk." Halakhah is the path that is meant to lead us through life. It is the path of holiness. At one moment, the path may seem broad and winding, while at another it seems narrow and treacherous. It is halakhah, in its broadest, most flexible and porous sense that provides the for the path. of Halakhah. After all, there are many paths to holiness and to the One God. As a liberal Jew, I prefer to focus on its flexibility and adaptability, though of course, I respect my more traditional Jewish brothers and sisters who may have a different view. After all, there is more than one path to God and holiness. Yet, without an inner structure or without a path to follow it is ultimately more difficult for us to adapt and change as times change.

However, the path and the structure, as important as they are, are not  simply there to give us a sense of safety, security and grounding. For as much as we would like to feel safe, secure and grounded while walking the path, ultimately we never know when the earth will shift beneath our feet. Rather, the path and the structure give us a sense of where others have gone before us in their journey of holiness. Each step we take along the path invariably changes its very shape. Sometimes this occurs without us realizing, while at other times we change the path or reshape the structure quite intentionally, and even radically. How and why the path changes is not as important as  noticing the fact that is indeed changing with each step and in every moment and noticing where we are as this occurs.

In addition to changes we affect as individuals, the community also has an effect on the path as well. It is the community's search for holiness, and our part in it, which reminds us that we are created in the image of God, and allows us the freedom to discover who we are as individuals and as part of a community. The individual path and the communal path are neither totally distinct nor identical. Rather, they are intertwined and interdependent. Change in one calls for change in the other. For me, that is the essence of my halakhah; my way of walking the path of holiness. For to be holy does not mean that we are meant to understand exactly what holiness is and to behave in that exact way. Instead, to be holy means to seek out the that which is best for humanity and brings us closer to godliness in our world as we walk every step and every moment.

For me, the essence of what it means to seek holiness and hear  the call of the Divine is not only to be found in observing the traditional forms of ritual and behavior that we have come to call halakhah. For that is only one of the paths to holiness. Every moment is an opportunity for each of us to make a choice, and each step we take is also that moment's destination in our journey. As we continue on this journey, let us remember "Vayikra" – that God has called, is
calling and will always call to each of us if we only listen.  Ultimately, this call is what enables us to make the choices and take the steps as we continue on the path of holiness.

Friday, March 1, 2013

We Are Not Alone: Beyond the Idolatry of the Golden Calf

This week's parashah/portion is Ki Tissa (Shemot/Exodus 30:11 – 34:35) and includes the narrative of the Golden Calf.  As I mentioned two weeks ago, according to Rabbinic tradition the incident of the Golden Calf precedes the giving of the instructions for the building of the Mishkan/ Tabernacle.  Sinai and the Golden Calf are inextricably linked to one another.  Sinai represents the creation of a relationship between the people of Israel and God.  The Golden Calf represents, among other things, their refusal to completely let go of their past, as well as their inability to maintain their commitment to God when their patience is tested.  In short, Sinai implies trust and the Golden Calf implies its rejection.

Aviva Zornberg discusses the fact that the two sides of the coin that is the Golden Calf may seem to be contradictory, yet are in reality complimentary, or perhaps even symbiotic.  A main reason for the building of the Golden Calf is the people panicked once Moses had been on Mt. Sinai longer than they expected. This panic prompted them to command Aaron "Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him (32:1)." 

This verse implies that idolatry began long before the Calf. However, the idol was Moses, himself. For the people associated Moses with the one who redeemed them from slavery and not God.  It has been said that idolatry is when one worships a part and imagine to be the whole.  If God is the whole – the One of the Universe – then any human being, or any object for that matter, can only be a small part of the whole. But Moses, a mere human, becomes almost deified.  According to midrashic tradition (rabbinic legends), Satan (the one who challenges God, and not an evil power as in other traditions) shows an image to the people of Moses either dead or suspended somewhere between heaven and earth.  

In this mass hallucination, as Aviva Zornberg calls it (in her book the Particulars of Rapture), the people come to see "this man" Moses as no longer with them, and so they must create a new "god" to provide them with a physical representation of that which has no physical representation.  They must substitute a new part to worship as a proxy for the whole.  The people are unable to face God without Moses. This is similar to what occurred when they refused to hear God's voice at Sinai, but instead relied on Moses to relay the message to them.  The people forget God and God's oneness and instead search for a new god to worship (even though this new god was still, in reality, a representation of the One God).

As Zornberg puts it, this ultimate infidelity co-exists with an extreme form of fidelity found in the phrase "stiff-necked people" that we read for the first time in this narrative.  According to Rashi (12th cent. France) and others, "stiff necked" referred to turning one's back on the present and future and maintaining an unexpected "fidelity" to old ideals.  In the face of their belief that Moses was gone for good they revert to the old ideas of Egypt which they are unable to leave behind.  In essence they are simultaneously unwilling to leave their attachment to the past and also quite willing to create a new object to replace God.  The ultimate climax is when the people proclaim of the Golden Calf "this is your god, O Israel."  In doing so they are not denying that it is the One God who redeemed them from Egypt, but they are content to conceptualize and represent the unlimited God in a limited and idolatrous way.

This idea that human beings are unwilling to leave behind the past, yet all-too-ready to embrace new ideas because they provide comfort (even when they are antithetical to their beliefs) is at the heart of much of humanity's struggles.  We can certainly apply these ideas to our lives at various times.  For we are all suspended between these two poles, much as Moses is described in the midrash as suspended between heaven and earth.

Even if we look at the political situation in the world today it is easy to see how we get caught in the middle and in particular how human beings are inclined to confuse the part with the whole. Without discussing politics per se, I think we can all think of ways in which politicians (and those of us who elect them) are simultaneously holding on to old ideas while also trying to embrace new ones, without realizing that the are contradictory.

 But the analogy of the idolatry of the Golden Calf also works for our view of justice and goodness in the world as well.  As the only remaining “superpower” in the world many Americans view our country as the whole of the universe, rather than simply one part.  We are the saviors.  We are the source of righteousness and liberty for all.  Yet, in reality, if we wish to create a world that is free for all humanity we must realize that we are connected to so many other countries and peoples as well. We are a part of the whole, albeit a rather large and powerful one.

Our powerful standing in the world does not give us the right to make unilateral decisions that can affect the entire world, nor to ignore suffering elsewhere because we believe it doesn't directly affect us.  Rather, I believe that it gives us the responsibility and the imperative to act in concert with the other nations of the world that are dedicated to the same or similar values.  For if we set ourselves apart and isolate, as we have at other times in our past, we set ourselves up as the idol du jour and ultimately bring about negative consequences for ourselves. 

This paradigm can just as easily apply to communities, families and individuals. We must all see ourselves as part of the whole, and not the whole itself, as our ego would like us to believe. As the idiom says, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, let alone one part – even if it is the largest part.  I hope and pray that each of us and our leaders find a way to remember the lesson of the Golden Calf and focus on acknowledging the oneness of humanity, the oneness of God and not the ones, or perhaps alone-ness, of the United States.  In this way we can hopefully work together with the others dedicated to freedom, justice and equality in order to heal our world.

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