Thursday, April 17, 2014

Passover, Dayyenu and I'm Happy

This past Sunday I was watching CBS News Sunday Morning and learned about Pharrell Williams and his hit song “Happy.”  I had heard the song (I am of course forever attending seventh grade parties) and had already noted that I liked it, but knew little about its writer.

I was taken with Pharrell Williams’ humility and his gratitude to others. Williams gives credits to his teachers, remarking that his success is due largely to them and then concludes, "You see people spin out of control like that all the time. I mean, those are the most tragic stories, the most gifted people who start to believe it's really all them. It's not all you. It can't be all you. Just like you need air to fly a kite, it's not the kite. It's the air.”

Years ago, perhaps on another Sunday morning, I was reading the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed (III:12).  In it he remarked that people often complain to God about all they don’t have.  They chase after riches so that might be able to enjoy more.  They fail to see that they already have untold wealth.  Look at the world with different eyes, Maimonides counsels.  That which is most prized is less abundant and that which is most plentiful we take for granted.  We pine after diamonds and jewels.  We take for granted the water we drink and the air we breathe. 

We yearn for fine wine when we could instead be thankful for water.  And thus Maimonides reasons that we should change our perspective and thank God for the gift of air, the taste of water, a morsel of bread (or today’s matzah).  When we see how plentiful is the very air we breathe and when we ascribe that as a gift from God we have no choice but to be grateful and discover joyful hearts.  If your cup always needs to be refilled with wine then the soul can never be sated.  If instead you fill the heart with thanks and praises then the soul is stirred to happiness.

Likewise the Seder’s Dayyenu continues to linger in my ears.  “If God had only brought us out of Egypt.  Dayyenu—That would have been enough for us!”  And the list continues.  If God had only given us the Torah, if God had only given us Shabbat.  Dayyenu!  That would have been enough.  How often do such words really fall from our lips?  How often do we say that would have been enough?  “What only brisket and no turkey?” some still say.  Breathe in.  Thank God for the riches that are always provided and swirl about in the sky’s gentle breezes and the currents of the waters.  It’s not me.  It’s You God.  It’s not the kite that I fashioned.  It’s instead the air that carries it throughout the heavens.

That is the primary sentiment of all our prayers.  Shout praises.  Give thanks.  Not because God needs them but because we need them.  On Shabbat morning we offer these words: “Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues full of joy as countless waves, and our lips full of praise as wide as the sky’s expanse…we could never thank You enough, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors.”  Keep giving thanks.  Never tire of singing praises to God.  Clap along!

“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof/Because I’m happy/Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth/Because I’m happy.”

Ancient words or contemporary songs, the sentiment must remain the same.  Regardless of the century our spirits require gratitude.  It is good to fill those cups with fine wine, but it is even better and more important to fill the heart with thanks.   

Then there is no choice but to dance and sing: Because I’m happy.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Passover Questioning

On Monday evening we will gather around our Seder tables to celebrate Passover. One of the hallmarks of this occasion is the Four Questions. Usually the youngest child sings the words “Mah nishtanah—why is this night different from all other nights?” This ritual is based on the Talmudic dictum, in Pesachim 116a, that a son must ask his father questions about the Passover Seder. The Talmud then asks, what happens if the child is not intelligent enough to ask questions. It counsels that parents must then teach their children the questions to ask. Still concerned, and uncomfortable leaving anything to chance, the Talmud provides the questions with which we are familiar, or at least three of them. The third question about reclining was substituted by the medieval thinker Moses Maimonides in place of a Talmudic question about sacrifices.

And now in our own day and age we are left with this ritualized asking of questions rather than our tradition’s original intent. We sing the questions rather than asking our own. But our children’s hearts are supposed to be filled with questions. The Seder is meant to prompt them to ask many questions, the first of which is why is this night different? Instead we attempt to fill them with answers. We prepare them for all manners of tests with the admonition that this will prepare you for college and that will prepare you for a career. Answers do not prepare you for life. The foundation of a Jewish religious life is the asking of questions. Encourage them to ask. Urge them to question. The future depends on new answers to questions we do not even know to ask.

Once I learned about Isidor Isaac Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics, who is credited for not only his work on the Manhattan Project but for also laying the groundwork for magnetic resonance imagery and the microwave oven with which you will soon use to heat up your Passover leftovers. He was once asked, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in the neighborhood?” He answered, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘Nu? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy, she would say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.”

That in a nutshell is the essence of a Jewish life. You can know all the answers to the myriad of tests we take throughout our lives and become quite expert at filling in the correct bubbles with pencils but still not be able to tackle the most fundamental questions. Why am I different? What is my purpose in this world? What meaning can I bring to this life and the lives surrounding me? Asking these questions does not mean that answers are always discovered. A lifetime sitting around Seder tables discussing, and sometimes debating, such questions can still leave us without answers and perhaps sometimes even more questions. Still the effort must never be neglected.

You can sing the Four Questions on Monday evening or you can also ask questions that really matter. How is this night going to make me better? How is this night going to make my world better? Just because the answers to such questions appear unquantifiable and perhaps even unknowable does not mean we should stop asking or just keep singing yesterday’s questions.

The essence of our life’s quest is sometimes lost in singing questions that we were given to us. The meaning of our life is discovered in asking, and asking again, our own questions.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Metzorah, Mikvehs and Healing Waters

After five years of tackling Leviticus, I wonder if I have exhausted the appealing topics contained in this week’s portion. I have talked about leprosy and how we approach the sick. I have written about the rabbinic interpretation derived from these verses and the rabbis’ counsel to refrain from gossip. What is left to discuss? Should I venture where few Reform rabbis dare go and discuss the topic I always skip over with my b’nai mitzvah students and my fellow JCB staff urged me to avoid?

In Leviticus 15:15 and following we discover the biblical basis for taharat ha-mishpachah, the family purity laws. These laws prohibit sexual relations between husband and wife during a woman’s menstrual period until after she immerses in the mikveh, ritual bath. The most important detail about the mikveh is that it must contain living waters and so mikvaot collect rain water, but a river or ocean could also do. To the ancient mind these living waters restored life after the apparent loss of life symbolized by the menstrual blood.

To be fair, the Bible also concerns itself with men’s bodily fluids. The rabbis, however, allowed this requirement to fall into disuse. Is this evidence of their sexism? Women are required to visit the mikveh to overcome their “ritual impurity.” But men? Their obligation to visit the mikveh is no longer of consequence. Do you wish to know more? I am not sure I wish to. Still, I request of you, read on. This is Torah too.

By rabbinic times the length of a woman’s “ritual impurity” had expanded to fourteen days. The rabbis added a week to be sure she was no longer menstruating and then said women, in their devotion and religiosity, had added these days. And so two weeks following the conclusion of a woman’s period she visits the ritual bath so that she and her husband are once again permitted physical intimacy. Such laws appear out of step with our contemporary sensibilities. I remain baffled as well. Why would a woman allow a man to determine when her period has ended? And yet today the mikveh is being reclaimed by liberal Jews. Is it possible to infuse these rituals with new meaning?

Part of the reclamation to be sure is that women are now the decision makers. Women are turning to each other for wisdom and counsel—and not to men. Women are deciding if and when they should visit the mikveh. The other piece to our renewed understanding is that we believe that the body’s natural processes do not render anyone unclean. And so in the liberal world the ritual bath is starting to be used by both brides and grooms, as the tradition dictates, to mark the transition to married life. It is being used, again as Jewish tradition requires, to mark the entry into Jewish life by conversion students.

I must admit, there is no more powerful and spiritual moment for me as a rabbi than standing outside the door of the mikveh and listening for the sounds of the water enveloping my conversion student’s body and then hearing the words of the blessing: “Baruch Ata Adonai…who commands us regarding immersion.” “Amen!” And then more gentle splashes. “Baruch Ata Adonai…shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh—who gives us life, sustains us and brings us to this very moment.” Again I shout, “Amen!” And then my colleagues and I exclaim, “Mazel tov!” I hear the sounds of rejoicing and laughter and sometimes even sobs of joy. Splashes accompany the exit from the ritual bath. The water soothes. The living waters restore. Healing is uncovered.

The mikveh is finding new meaning for women struggling to overcome abuse, or to mark the conclusion of treatments for breast cancer, or to overcome the loss of a potential life after a miscarriage. Are there even more possibilities for the renewal of this ancient ritual? There is something about the power of water. It rejuvenates. It is restorative. Today we are only weeks away before we once again hear the shouts of joy accompanying our children playing in pools or splashing in the ocean’s waves. I count the days until the open water swimming season begins and I can leave doing laps in an indoor chlorinated pool behind and discover again the freedom of swimming in the waters of the Long Island Sound.

There is meaning to be found in the waters. There is power to be discerned in this ancient tradition. Perhaps the issue was never the mikveh. It was instead the decision makers. If I make the mikvah my own I can discover restoration and even rebirth at the water’s edge. The poet Denise Levertov writes: “Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive/to action and inaction.”

And so it remains. The living waters continue to offer us more than we initially thought possible.

And that will always remain my endeavor. “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it.” (Avot 5:22)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tazria, Calendars and Slander

Two weeks about leprosy! We continue our journey through Leviticus and the minutia of priestly concerns as we read Parashat Tazria this week and next week Metzora. Both portions focus on the disfiguring disease of leprosy. Most years, however, it is not two weeks, but only one week about such details. Why this year are we subjected to two weeks?

It is because this year is a leap year according to the Jewish calendar. In such a year we add an additional month. This added month of Adar, called Adar I, helps to reorient the calendar. The Jewish calendar is a combination of a lunar and solar calendar. The months are dictated by the cycle of the moon. The new moon begins the start of the month. The full moon indicates the middle. By the way it is not an accident that many of our holidays begin on the fourteenth of the month when there is a full moon in the sky. Imagine the days when there was only the moon and stars to guide our calendar and not today’s computers. We could then look to the full harvest moon and know it was for example Sukkot.

Thus our holidays must be tied to the seasons. And these are of course connected to the solar year. The upcoming holiday of Passover not only celebrates our freedom from Egypt but also the spring barley harvest. Sukkot not only marks the historical claim of wandering in the wilderness, but the fall harvest. While we are no longer farmers each of these holidays must be tied to their corresponding seasons. A lunar year is 354 days long. A solar is 365 days. If not for a leap year, and the addition of this year’s extra month, the holidays would therefore march into the wrong seasons.

We would then be adding the prayer for rain during the heat of Israel’s dry summers. The wisdom of our tradition is to add this prayer not when it would be miraculous and beyond our natural expectations, but instead during the rainy winter season. We pray not for the miracle of rain but rather that the rains will be plentiful and the seasons will continue to follow their prescribed path. (How we could use such prayers these days!)

Rain falls during its expected season, and soon, after our celebrations of Passover, we will let go of this prayer. Still we are left with two weeks of leprosy. The usual double portion is divided. What are we to make of these now lengthened discussions about a disease cured by antibiotics and absent from our experiences. I look anew to the wisdom of our tradition. Even the ancient rabbis spiritualized leprosy’s meaning, arguing that tzaraat—leprosy is not so much about a physical ailment but a spiritual deformity. Leprosy connotes the sin of gossip. To engage in slander deforms the gossiper.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great Jewish moralist, argues:
In the previous parasha, Shemini, the Torah lists the various types of animals and birds that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten (in the laws of keeping kosher). Here, we have the law of tzaraat (leprosy), which according to our Sages afflicts a person who was guilty of lashon hara—slander. The reason for this juxtaposition is because people are more concerned about not eating non-kosher food than they are about “eating up” a person through slander. Thus we learn from the juxtaposition that “eating up” a person is no less a sin than eating a worm.
And we continue to worry more about the food we eat, or the food we wish to eat, or even the foods we are forbidden to eat—whether because of religious stringencies or health sensibilities—rather than the words we say.

Regardless of the season, regardless of the year, this is a teaching worth remembering. There remain diseases of the spirit that can be as disfiguring as those of ancient days.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Shemini, Taboos and Shouts of Mazel Tov

When Susie and I were married, now over 25 years ago, Susie and I each broke a glass to conclude the ceremony.  The reactions this elicited from our guests were telling.  While we thought it was perfectly in keeping with our commitment to an egalitarian relationship, others were perplexed by this gesture and wondered (aloud) if we broke some ancient tradition.  Our arguments that the breaking of a glass at a Jewish wedding is only a custom and not law did not mitigate these concerns.  Our addition to the Jewish ceremony people had come to know and love was met with comments of “interesting” at best and “radical” at worst.  We had, in the eyes of many, broken some sacred taboo.

I have been thinking about taboos.  Not the game of course and not the breaking of anything more radical than a ceremonial glass, but instead the religious concept.  In any introduction to Religious Studies one learns that a taboo (and I quote from the Encyclopedia) is the prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too dangerous for ordinary individuals to undertake.  Our portion is framed by this concept.  It begins with details about the sacrifices to be offered in ancient days and in particular how to repair an offense with the sin offering.

It concludes with a list of kosher and non-kosher animals.  “These you may eat of all that live in water: anything in water, whether in the seas or in the streams, that has fins and scales—these you may eat. But anything in the seas or in the streams that has no fins and scales, among all the swarming things of the water and among all the other living creatures that are in the water—they are an abomination for you.” (Leviticus 11:9-10)  This list certainly creates the impression that certain foods are permitted and others prohibited, and are in fact abominations.

Sandwiched in the middle is the story of Nadav and Avihu.  They are Aaron’s sons and therefore priests.  They die when offering a sacrifice. “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)  What was their sin?   

The Torah offers little explanation.  Rabbis are left to ponder.  Some read the text literally.  God had not explicitly commanded this sacrifice.  A number even write that they must have been intoxicated even though the story does not mention such an infraction.  The prohibition against priests drinking alcohol while offering a sacrifice follows soon after this episode.  And so a connection is made between the two.  The list of possible interpretations is endless.  The young priests were overly ambitious.  They sought to usurp their father Aaron’s and Uncle Moses’ jobs.

We read again the words: they offered an “alien fire.”  What is an alien fire?  Does it burn in an unusual way?  Or is it instead that they brought something foreign to the sacrificial altar?  The Torah suggests it is the latter.  They had broken a taboo.  They brought something to the sacred precinct that was forbidden.  Their punishment was death.        

Such was the world view of the ancients.  There is a line between sacred and profane, permitted and prohibited.  Cross it and you invite death.  Still I wonder.  What is foreign is of course a matter of language and labeling.  What I call alien you might call akin.  What you call foreign I might call sacred.  What was labeled by some as approaching blasphemy others still view as a step forward towards egalitarianism.  Who has the power to deem this appropriate and that inappropriate?  And now we have arrived at the essence of the struggle between generations.  “Why can’t I wear shorts to dinner?” asks the child.  “Because!” the parent responds. 

I continue to wonder has the very concept of taboos been turned on its head.  In an age when privacy and personal fulfillment are set as the highest of goals how can there remain a shared concept of what is forbidden and what is permitted.  It was the pressure of community that made for taboos.  It was the community whose language labeled this an abomination.  Community is no longer as compelling as it once was.  And so today far more is permitted.  Or is this the perspective of a graying parent? 

Recall this. Both Nadav and Avihu were priests.  They were supposed to offer the sacrifice.  And yet in this instance they slipped.  They performed one small step out of place.  The line between permitted and forbidden is often very near.   The line was thin then.  Perhaps it remains just as close now.

And we remain, as the Book of Exodus proclaims, a “kingdom of priests.”  Will we stumble and fall?  The power of language continues to rest in our hands.  The glass remains shattered.

And yet the congregation shouted in unison, “Mazel tov.”  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Tzav, Purim and Jewish Power

This week we read more laws about sacrifices in Parshat Tzav. For the ancients the sacrificing of animals and the offering of grains was how they prayed. They brought to God physical gifts. While we find these details foreign, and even disgusting, they did provide what today’s services lack. You could literally hold your prayer in your hands. Sacrifice was as well an attempt to reorder the chaos of the world. Life’s vicissitudes can often be frightening. Offer a sacrifice. And some counsel, Say a prayer. Gain power over your life. And thus sacrifices, and prayers, can be seen as an attempt to address these feelings of powerlessness.

So too is the story of Purim, the holiday which begins on Saturday evening. In the beginning the Jews, and women, are powerless. Queen Vashti is kicked out of the palace by the drunken king. Our heroine Esther gains entry to the palace by hiding her Jewish identity and then winning a beauty pageant. She gains power by concealing her Jewishness. She saves the Jewish people from the wicked Haman (make some noise to drown out his name!) by revealing her identity.

This story raises many questions about power and powerlessness....

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Vayikra and First Tastes

This commentary marks the beginning of our fifth year studying the weekly portion together via the internet. As you know I have faithfully written a commentary each and every week for the past four years. I hope some of my words and interpretations have found their way into your hearts and minds. The effort remains the same as it has been for thousands of years. We continue to ask how the Torah can provide meaning and guidance for our world. As always I welcome your thoughts and responses, and even disagreements. Torah is given renewed life through our discussions and debates. May our conversations continue to be lively and thoughtful. And so today we begin again, and we begin anew.

This week we open the book of Vayikra, Leviticus. Its relevance for our present world appears distant and remote. The book is filled with details about sacrifices. Do you want to thank God? Offer a sacrifice. Such is the counsel of Vayikra. “The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting…. Its entrails and legs shall be washed with water, and the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1)

Could anything seem more irrelevant? Sprinkling blood? Cleaning entrails? Slaughtering an animal to please God?

Why then would the tradition insist that a child’s Jewish studies begin with this book of Leviticus? True, nearly half of Judaism’s 613 mitzvot are found in Leviticus. And so one could discover a life wedded to the commandments by studying these words. In the myriad of commandments listed in this biblical book a child can begin to learn the meaning of mitzvah. Yet many of these mitzvot are no longer binding. We do not offer sacrifices. We do not examine the sick for signs of leprosy. We do not get tattoos. (Perhaps another example might be more apt.)

So why begin our studies with a book filled with laws we are no longer required to observe? It is because then our study can truly be for its own sake. Then it is Torah l’shma. Some teachers even place honey on the text so that a child’s first taste of Torah is sweet. As we pour over the words of this book our motivations are purified. We discover there our desire to draw closer to God and God’s Torah. That can be our only hope for all this effort. When we open Leviticus first our intentions become true and we draw nearer to God. And then our lives become sweetened.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. It comes from the word to draw near. Its origin suggests that for the ancients sacrifice was first and foremost an effort to draw closer to God. Despite the book of Leviticus’ unappealing details of blood and entrails, the effort remains the same.

We open the pages of a book. We draw near to God. We begin again with the words “Vayikra—And the Lord called…”

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Pekudei and Finishing the Work

The Torah portion describes the conclusion of the Tabernacle construction project with the following words: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” (Exodus 40:33-38)

The tabernacle was the vehicle by which God led the people on their journeys. In fact the Hebrew word for tabernacle, mishkan, is related to the Hebrew “to dwell” which is connected to the name for God, Shechinah. This name is the name that we use when we want to suggest God’s presence is most felt. And all of this is tied to the building of the mishkan, tabernacle.

The Torah also suggests additional meaning by its choice of words for Moses finishing the work. The Hebrew, vay’khal, means to complete or even to perfect. By this word choice it draws our attention to the creation account when God finished that first construction project: “The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.” (Genesis 2:1) There is of course meaning to be found in this comparison. When we build and create, as Moses and the people did with the mishkan, we imitate God and God’s creation.

The rabbis took this connection even further, arguing an even more radical idea. They taught that God’s creation is in fact incomplete. They went on to teach that God purposely made creation imperfect and incomplete. God intended that part of our creative efforts must be to complete and perfect creation.

We perfect by creating. Making or dreaming up something new is the greatest of human achievements. Albert Einstein said, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” He also quipped, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created these problems.”

And so the synagogue is the place through which God becomes manifest in the world. The purpose of the synagogue is that it is a means to an end. Its purpose is to bring holiness to our lives and goodness to the world. Long ago the rabbis created the idea of the synagogue. They fashioned the synagogue’s architecture in response to the destruction of the Temple. They gave us this very place in order to help us complete and perfect creation.

It is a place to gather, learn and pray. It is a place to heal, comfort and uplift our lives. Today we must recreate this very same place. For years synagogues have operated on the assumption that everyone feels obligated to the synagogue, that people still feel commanded to affirm their Jewish identities, that people still feel a kinship with all Jews and the State of Israel.

These assumptions no longer hold sway. This is why the synagogue, although hearkening back to ancient days, must be recreated for a new age. We must mold something new out of the old. We must infuse synagogue life with new meaning and new energy, with new songs and new learning. Take heart from this week’s portion. There we are reminded that in truth there are no new creations. Everything hearkens back to the first creation account. All else is recreating.

Whenever we finish a book of the Torah as we do on this Shabbat we say, chazak, chazakh v’nitchazeik—strength, and more strength, let us be strengthened. In Jewish life we are never finished, creation is forever incomplete. And so we begin again, each and every year, each and every week, each and every day, and each and every moment.

That is why spring, although seemingly distant, offers us so much hope. The flowers bloom. The trees are reborn. Creation is renewed.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Vayakhel and Gathering Goodness

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was a popular teacher in pre-war Poland, leading a community in Piaseczno, a suburb of Warsaw. After the German invasion, and following the death of his family, he was shipped to the Warsaw ghetto. There he managed to run a secret synagogue. His teachings and sermons were popular among those trapped in the ghetto.

In the months prior to the ghetto’s final days, as the Warsaw ghetto uprising neared its bitter end, Rabbi Shapira prepared for the worst. He hid his sermons and teachings in a milk canister. After the war they were found by a construction worker. His writings continue to be studied to this day. I have spent some mornings in the warmth of Jerusalem’s summer pouring over his words. I return again and again to his work Bnai Machshavah Tovah, a treatise on creating and sustaining a conscious community.

He writes there of the power of community. He opens with the goals of the synagogue community he wishes to create.
Our association is not organized for the purpose of attaining power or intervening in the affairs of community or state, whether directly or indirectly. Quite the opposite: our goal is to gradually rise above the noise and tumult of the world, by steady incremental steps. It is not consistent with our goals to hand out awards as to who is advanced and who lags behind. The whole premise of our group is the vast human potential for both baseness and elevation. Our bodies and souls are currently quite unevolved, but our potential for holiness is very great. Holiness is our key and primary value; honors and comparisons serve no useful purpose. (Translation by Andrea Cohen-Kiener)
For Judaism gathering is of prime importance. Our tradition maintains an unmitigated faith in the group. It believes that we are at our best when standing with others, that with the aid of the group we can better achieve holiness and realize our full human potential. The community is the corrective to individual wants and needs. The congregation lifts us. The synagogue nurtures us. The community guides us.

And so in this week’s portion we read: “Moses then gathered (vayakhel) the whole Israelite community… This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them…” (Exodus 35:1-5) The people join together and build the mishkan, the tabernacle, so that they might focus their worship of God while wandering throughout the wilderness.

Still I wonder. Should this faith in the edifying power of the group remain unqualified? We also confront the opposite example. In last week’s reading we are reminded of the golden calf: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered (vayikahel) against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us…’” (Exodus 32:1) The group gathered for ill. Together they built an idol.

In one instance the people gathered for good, the other for bad. The Hebrew root of “gathered” indicates how close the positive and negative stand near each other. The two portions stand side by side. The line between whether we gather for good or for bad remains but a hairsbreadth apart.

That line continues to haunt thinkers. Following the Holocaust the field of social psychology began to emerge. It struggled with the question of how so many people could join together for evil ends. Studies were conducted. Research analyzed. In one such experiment the conforming impulse was unveiled. Members of a group were asked true or false questions that could be objectively measured. Is A taller than B, for example. Nine out ten people were told to offer the wrong answer when asked in public. These nine said true when in fact the answer was false. The tenth person was then asked for his answer. In the vast majority of situations this person also answered true. The desire to conform colored people’s vision. Truth and falsehood were obscured.

Do we conform for good or bad? Do we gather together to build the golden calf or the tabernacle? The group can either serve as medicine or toxin. Rabbi Shapira notes: “The techniques available to a group are qualitatively different than what an individual can hope to attain.” Much rests in the hands of the leader. In one instance Moses was present. In the other our leader was absent. The group’s vision became blurred.

After the uprising the Nazis sent Rabbi Shapira to the Trawniki work camp. There he was offered the opportunity to join fellow prisoners in an escape attempt. He elected instead to stay with his students. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was shot to death on November 3, 1943.

And yet the people continue to gather and read his words.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ki Tisa and Shabbat Signs

Shabbat is described in a number of ways. It is called a reminder of creation and in particular the work of creation. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. When we pause and observe Shabbat we recall that God ordered the heavens and the earth. According to the great medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, we affirm our belief in God by celebrating Shabbat.

Shabbat is also called a reminder of the exodus from Egypt. Again when we mark the seventh day we recall that God freed us from Egypt. More importantly our observance is a testament to our freedom. Only a free people can set a day apart. Only a free person can set out on a vacation (unless of course a winter storm enslaves us!). To choose to sing our Shabbat songs and prayers together is a reminder that we are free. We can choose to go to services or not. When we do, however, our hearts are lifted together and our souls can be refreshed.

In this week’s portion Shabbat is also called a sign of the covenant. We read the words of the V’shamru prayer that we sing at Shabbat services: “The people of Israel shall keep Shabbat observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time. It is a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:16-17)

Circumcision is also called a sign of the covenant. The tefillin that are bound on the head and arm are also signs. They are, however, physical. By the way the rainbow is also deemed a sign of the promise that God made to Noah following the flood. How I long for such a sign on this day! Yet the rainbow is not a sign of the Jewish covenant. Tefillin, circumcision and Shabbat are signs of the pact made between God and the Jewish people.

Are these signs for us or for God? Does the Torah intend these signs to serve as reminders to God of God’s commitments to the Jewish people? This could be one reading of these texts. Or do these instead remind us of our obligations to God, the Jewish people and Jewish history? How can a day serve as a sign? It is self-evident how physical signs can serve as constant reminders. How can Shabbat remind us? How can a day set apart, a day of rest and refreshment prod us?

Every week we sing the words of V’shamru. Have we taken the time to ponder its words and meaning? The Zionist thinker Ahad Haam wrote: “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”

Shabbat is not a sign for God. It is not a sign for us. It is instead a sign for the future. Shabbat lights tomorrow.

And I offer the following to those who are observing Valentine’s Day. These words are from the greatest love poem ever written, a few verses from Song of Songs, a biblical poem filled with passion, eroticism and love.

You have captured my heart,
My own, my bride,
You have captured my heart
With one glance of your eyes,
With one coil of your necklace.
How sweet is your love,
My own, my bride!
How much more delightful your love than wine,
Your ointments more fragrant
Than any spice! (Song of Songs 4:9-10)