Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Dynamic Atonement

This week's Torah portion is Acharei Mot, which means, after the death,” referring to the death of Aaron's two sons. It contains all the laws for Yom Kippur: how it was celebrated so long ago with ceremonies and sacrifices, and the portion also lists prohibited marriages, which are mostly those within the family. Yom Kippur is our holiday of atonement, but also cleansing and expiation. In the ancient past, blood atoned for our sins, as the Torah says, “For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the altar to provide atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that atones for the soul.” (Levit. 17:11). How was it that blood atoned for sins?

Perhaps in the ancient world, which was more destructive and warlike, people experienced death so much more frequently than we do: either human death through battle or the natural death of family members, or they experienced the killing of animals for food or during worship through sacrifice. Maybe there was a kind of balance of life, seen as the image of the scales of justice: something died and there must be a payment for the life; or perhaps a restitution for the death, to restore balance to the world. Perhaps there was an appreciation that life inevitably creates death. Moses said, “Choose life,” which leads us believe that we can cause more life or more death through our words and actions.

Our atonement is not very much like the kind described in Acharei Mot. Comparing us to the people who lived at this more brutal time, I'm sure they would have thought of us as wimps. Yet there are two similarities between their atonement and ours. The high Priest had to confess and atone three times during the Yom Kippur service. So admitting to ourselves what is less worthy is always part of our expiation. Also, the giving of the sacrifice is similar to the giving of charity for us, or the giving of ourselves to others which is an alternative pathway to atonement. Our atonement may be less filled with awe, but perhaps it is more dynamic; more concerned with ways to extend our goodness into the world. We are asked to feel contrition for what we do, but also to feel hope that we can do just a little better and be blessed through our small personal victories, when goodness and kindness, patience and love win over our less than holy selves.

The Haftarah for this Shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol, which is the great Shabbat, just before Passover, says, “Turn back to Me and I will turn back to you.” (Malachi). At this time of renewal during Pesach, and of the spring when new hope blossoms, let us turn in ourselves to that which is most giving, most patient, and most loving, so that our atonement can be not a preoccupation with paying for the past but the expressing of our goodness in the present and into the future. As King David wrote in Psalm 34: “Turn from the bad, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” (Ps. 34:15). That is, the moment is now, and we can make it wonderful.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Right Kind of Fire

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini, which means 8th. This eighth day was to be a grand holiday, the day on which the priests offered sacrifices on behalf of the people in the newly built Tabernacle for the very first time. All the Israelites were assembled there. They had made the Tabernacle and the priests vestments just as they had been commanded. The priests offered the sacrifice exactly as God instructed them and the cloud of God’s glory, showing God’s approval, appeared to them, letting them know that God was happy with them. Then tragedy struck. The Torah says, “Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it and they brought before God an alien fire that God had not commanded them. A fire came for the from before God and consumed them and they died before God.”(Levit 10:1-2)

This is one of three notable instances in the Torah in which fire is associated with misfortune. Twice in Numbers fire injures us. The Torah says (Num. 11:1) “The people took to seeking complaints. It was evil in the ears of God and God heard; God’s wrath flared and a fire burned against them and it consumed at the edge of the camp.” Just a few portions later, “They journeyed from Mt. Hor by the way of the Sea of Reeds to go around the land of Edom and the spirit of the people grew short on the way. The people spoke against God and Moses, ‘why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness, for there is no food and no water and our soul is disgusted with the insubstantial food.’ God sent fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people.” (Num. Chukat) In these three passages we can see that the fire, or the energy for the burning, came from the people themselves. In each instance, these people were acting for themselves alone, not for the greater good. Rabbi R.S. Hirsch brings out the very important point that the two sons, Nadav and Abihu, took their own fire pans, not the holy objects that belonged to the nation to make this sacrifice. This tells us that they were concerned with their own prestige, their own ideas, and their own power.

The people who complained in the book of Numbers had lost sight of the reason for their wandering, the reason behind the existence of the Jewish nation, and its mission. Shemini tells us that there is a mission, a reason for us to participate in the what th S’fat Emet calls a “system of restraint,” which could mean the laws in the Torah, or even just the dietary laws at the end of this portion. There is a reason for everything that has been asked of us. There is the right kind of fire and a wrong kind of fire. From our small vantage point, none of it makes sense, when the focus is on ourselves. We literally cannot see the forest for the trees. Rabbi Hirsch says that in idol worship, the aim of the sacrifices was to bend the Gods’ wills to our own, but Judaism concerns the fulfillment of God’s will which is a better life for us all. This requires us to send out the right kind of energy into the world. Not the fire of complaints or of ambition, but the fire of love for goodness, a burning desire to be of help and service to others, the fervent faith that what we do matters vitally in the world, so that God can guide it toward greater goodness and blessing for us all.

We all want to feel important, to live lives in which others look up to us. We all want to live secure lives of comfort and ease, expressing ourselves and fulfilling ourselves. We can achieve these ends by harmonizing our inner fire to serve the unfolding of a higher consciousness in the world, and by exhibiting that consciousness when we interact with others. As Rabbi Hillel famously said in Pirkei Avot, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” And if not now, when? Our unfolding and the quality of our growth is in our own hands. And anyone who wants to expand into goodness will be encouraged, helped, and lifted from above.

Friday, April 4, 2014

What is Most Holy?

This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, which means, command. God continues to issue instructions for the priest concerning the presentation of sacrifices. The fire on the altar was never to go out. In the mornings, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, cleared the ashes. Fat and blood were not to be eaten. At the end of this portion, the priests were sanctified for seven days and consecrated to begin their service for God and the people. The first sacrifice mentioned in this portion is the elevation offering, the only one burned in its entirety. What follows are instructions about three other types of sacrifices: the grain or mincha offering, the sin, and the guilt offering. Each of these three offerings were partially consumed by the priests. God tells them that part of each sacrifice will be burned. Then the Torah says, “Aaron and his sons shall eat what is left of it, it shall be eaten unleavened in a holy place, in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting shall they eat it…I have presented it as their share from my fire offerings. It is Kadosh Kadoshim, holy of holies, like the sin offering and like the guilt offering.” Right after that it says, “Whatever touches them shall become holy.”

This phrase, most holy, or holiest of the holies, is said five times in this portion. Whatever touches them shall become holy, is said twice. God is attempting to tell the priests something important, but what is it? The meal offering was the least a person could offer. It was often brought by a person who was poor. Significantly, its holiness is described first among the edible sacrifices. The Midrash quotes Psalm 22:24 (Midrash Rabba III:2) “You that fear God, offer praise; All you the seed of Jacob, glorify The Eternal; And stand in awe of God, you seed of Israel, for God has not despised nor abhorred the lowliness of the poor; Neither hath God Hid the Divine face from him. But when he cried unto God, The Eternal heard.” This tells us that the offerings of the poor are special and precious to God.

Next the sin and guilt offerings are listed. The priests must eat them in a holy place, for they are kadosh kadoshim, the holy of the holies. Whatever touches them becomes holy. If we think about these three offerings, of the poor, concerning sin, and guilt, we might think that God might regard them with some disdain, or perhaps just tacit acceptance, because they represent wrongdoing. But this disdain is just what the priests are cautioned to avoid. Perhaps they needed to be told about the great holiness of these offerings. What is holy is not the sacrifice itself, but the confession of the person over the sacrifice, the intention to seek forgiveness, and the desire to change. A well-known precept of the Talmud is that. “In the place where penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand.” (Berachot 34b)

The priests were overseeing the most important mechanism that exists for the full fruition of humanity: the elevation of the human soul. We know that the world can only improve if we change. The priests were not to treat these sacrifices lightly, disdainfully, or even in a “business as usual” manner. They were to approach these sacrifices with a deep reverence for the person offering them, and for the spiritual elevation they represented, knowing that they were the midwives to the birth a better world. Through confession, atonement, repentance, and the intention to do better each of us urges the world forward, in tiny increments. The priests observed people and hence the world, slowly improving. By their encouragement and respect for each sacrifice, they were able to promote the highest in the person offering the gift to God.

The meaning for us, who serve as our own priests, is to develop a reverence for our own capacity to grow and intention to change, for “it is most holy.” And we should know that whatever facets of our lives are touched by these changes become holy as well. The human way is to fall down and rise up. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “Whenever a person rises from one level to the next, it necessitates that they first have a descent before the ascent. Because the purpose of any descent is always in order to ascend.” (LM 22) If we wish it, our mistakes can be the rungs of the ladder of ascent, that we grasp that rung to pull ourselves up, and then stand upon it. Let us be in awe of our own capacity to grow, which will never end, and experience the holiness of God’s mechanism, the human way, of rising through our mistakes, because we, they too, are holy.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Witnessing our Relationship to God

 Pekudei 14: This week’s Torah portion is Pekudei, which means reckonings. Moses gives an accounting of the value of the materials the Israelites brought to construct the Tabernacle. The vestments of the Priests are woven and sewn, and all the work is completed. Moses inspects it, approves it, and blesses all the people. God gives the instructions for Moses to set up, sanctify, and anoint the Tabernacle at the New Moon, and then Moses erects it. The priests are dressed in their vestments and also sanctified and anointed. When all was complete, the Holy Presence, represented by the Cloud of Glory, covered the Tent of Meeting, and filled the Tabernacle. God showed approval by a tangible manifestation of the Divine Presence, the Shechinah.

At the beginning of Pekudei, the structure that was being erected is called Mishkan Ha-Edut, the Tabernacle of the Testimony. The Hebrew for testimony comes from the word, EYD, witness. Mishkan and Shechinah both come from the word shachan, to dwell. Therefore, these two words can also be translated as the Dwelling of Witnessing or even the indwelling of witnessing. The Midrash asks, (Ex Rabba Midrash LI:4) “What is the meaning of testimony (or witnessing)? R. Simeon, said: It is a testimony to the whole world that there is forgiveness for Israel” in reference to the sin of the Golden Calf, that God’s instructions to build the Tabernacle showed that God had forgiven us. “Another explanation” given by the midrash is: “It is a testimony to the whole world that (he) [Moses] was appointed by God [to erect] the Tabernacle.”

For me, the dwelling of the witnessing also speaks about relationship. In Ki Tissa, two weeks ago, Moses has a conversation with God in which God says to him, “…you have found favor in my eyes and I have known you by name.” (Ex. 33:17) This intimacy between God and a human being was unprecedented before Judaism, before Abraham. It was something entirely new in human history. What is being witnessed by the Tabernacle, the dwelling, is truly the bringing forth of this intimacy of relationship into the lives of each of the Israelites, which has never ceased.

Moses speaks of this relationship all through the Book of Deuteronomy, and we recite it at each synagogue service: “You shall love the Eternal your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” We are the witnesses, called upon to unite earth and heaven. Abraham Joshua Heschl speaks about this relationship in his book, Man Is Not Alone. He says, “God remains beyond our reach as long as we do not know that our reach is within God; that God is the Knower and we are the Known; that to be means to be thought of by God.” (P128). Heschl also speaks about being noticed by God, through our holy deeds. The S’fat Emet says that the Tabernacle was given to us, to “strengthen their hearts…to bring Divine blessing into the world.” (Commentary on Pekudey) He quotes the prophet Isaiah who said, “You are my witnesses, said the Eternal, and I am God.” (Is. 43:12)

The re-emergence of spirituality in our time, in Eastern religions and in Judaism shows the hunger for the intimacy of relationship that was established for us, at the completion of the Tabernacle. The cry of the prophet shows the great need for us to be witnesses to that relationship. As with the Israelites, we have been given, lovingly, a way to connect ourselves to that Divine love through our wholehearted intentions and righteous actions. The Zohar says, “Happy are the righteous …, for many are the effulgences treasured up for them, many the felicities reserved for them. … For them that take refuge in Thee…” We are meant to be witnesses to the possibility of intimacy with the Divine, and to actively seek out God’s love. Then will we experience God’s favor and we will know, as Heschl taught, that we are noticed by God: that God also knows us by name.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Miracle of Giving

This week’s Torah portion is Vayakel, which means, and assembled. Moses assembles the people to begin work on the Tabernacle. He asks them to bring free-will contributions of gold, silver, copper, fabric, wood, and animal skins. They return and bring so much, day after day, that there is extra, and Moses tells them that there is enough. The portion ends with the actual construction of the shining furniture and the sacred enclosures.

In verse 36:4 the Torah says, “All the wise people came.” This phrase refers to those who were skilled, who knew how to use their talents to construct the Sanctuary, the lace curtains, the embroidered tapestries, and the holy furniture. But in a broader sense, “all the wise people came,” can also refer to those who made any contribution: money, materials, knowledge, or labor: from the wealthiest people, the princes, who contributed the precious stones for the High Priest’s breastplate, to the children who probably brought water and food to the workers. Since we are all One, giving in any form means that we are giving to God, to others, and also to ourselves. We can’t give just to one without giving to all three. The Universe is structured that way.

Knowing how the Universe works, knowing about being One with God and each other is wisdom, and when this wisdom is translated into conscious choice and conscious action it is a powerful engine leading to spiritual growth and the expansion of a person’s compassion and goodness, the ability to be a mensch in the world. The Torah also tells us, in Deuteronomy, Verse 15:10: “You shall surely give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; because for this thing the Eternal your God shall bless you in all your works, and in all that you put your hand to.” This means that the blessing we give somehow returns to us.

This D'var Torah is only half of the sermon I gave last week. I read a story from the book, Lamed Vav, the favorite stories of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. In short, a poor man whose children and wife went about in rags, somehow saved enough to buy a farm. But a widow in the town discovered that when her husband died they were destitute, and her daughter's wedding into a wealthy family was in peril. The poor man gave his life savings to the widow so that her daughter could marry the man she loved. The poor man and his family was greatly blessed with unimaginable wealth. During WWII, all his descendants were taken to Auschwitz and every one survived. They came penniless to this country, but within a month, the family was wealthy again. Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, February 21, 2014

What Love is All About

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tissa, which means.” when you take.” It begins with the taking of a census, goes on to appoint two people to oversee the work of the Tabernacle and holy vestments, and reiterates that Shabbat observance supersedes work for God on the tabernacle. Later in the portion, while Moses is gone, the people make and worship a golden calf. Moses wins forgiveness for them and has an intimate encounter with God, in which he hears a description of God’s attributes: that God is compassionate and gracious; slow to anger, forgiving, and great in kindness and truth. At the end of the portion, Moses’ face shines with divine light.

Ki Tissa is one of the few Torah portions that speaks about relationship: specifically Moses’ intimate relationship with God. While Moses is on Mt. Sinai, with the Eternal, receiving the tablet of the Ten Commandments, the people long for him to return so they can feel connected to their Divine Protector. When Moses does not return on time, they demand an idol, the Golden Calf, thus breaking their promise to God. The prophet Hosea likens the relationship of God to the Jewish people to a marriage, where God is the groom and Israel the bride. “And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and judgment, and in loving kindness and compassion, I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know God. (2:21-2)

Most of Ki Tissa traces the development of Moses’ relationship to God. As in a human relationship, there is testing. God offers to kill the people and create a new nation, beginning with Moses. Moses passes the test, refusing to abandon the people and hence, refusing to abandon God. Then it is Moses’ turn to seek a deeper relationship. He repeatedly seeks out God, speaking to the Divine at the entrance to a special tent outside the camp, which Moses calls tent of meeting. At one of these encounters, Moses says, in Rashi’s translation, “If I have indeed found favor in your eyes, make you ways known to me, so that I may know you, so that I shall find favor in your eyes.” Knowing someone, in the Torah, when applied to humans, means sexual relations. Here, it describes the great longing we have for completion, for perfect union, that we occasionally find in human relationships, usually only for a short while. But we are really seeking something more universal and profound. We are all looking for the Other in which we can find the Self. Only we can’t usually distinguish romantic love from spiritual love. It all feels the same and one gets mixed up with the other. We don’t have the words to describe the feeling of love, no less the difference between the two kinds. Love is one of our highest human functions.

We literally mint the spiritual currency of the universe when we love. The whole universe works on the principle of love, the more we love the more love we experience in return. Moses, like us, wants more of the good stuff – spiritual fulfillment, through love. And he finds it, by going one step further, asking God, “Show me your glory.” God grants him a close spiritual encounter, cautioning him by saying that he must not come too close, “for no human can see me and live,” which reminds us of what we all know: the flame of love, whether romantic or spiritual, can warm or burn us. This is stated in Song of Songs: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a sign upon your arm; for love is strong as death, Its passion as cruel as the grave. Its sparks become a raging fire. Great seas cannot extinguish love. No river can wash it away, If a man offered all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”(Chap 7)

In Moses’ close encounter, God calls out with the attributes of the essence of who God is: compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, truthful, and forgiving. Like the song by Lieber and Stoller recorded by Peggy Lee, Is that all there is? We feel let down. To us it sounds good, but not great; not good enough to satisfy us. However we have to put ourselves into Moses’ experience. For him it is communion or even union, for in experiencing this intense love for the other, he has lost himself in God and found himself; not only the self he knows, but his best, highest self, which, really is what love is all about. When we find that completion, those spiritual riches in ourself, we have found peace and contentment, which can then be shared. We have enough, we’re less needy, able to give more than receive. In a paraphrase of the W.B. Yeats’ poem of 1919, the center holds, the journey is more placid, we are at home in our own skin. The love we give can bring about the peace we seek. May we give it to each other, and experience that peace.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Essence of Jewish Royalty

The special vestments made for Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, in his role as High Priest, comprise a grand costume, as the Torah says, “You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother, for glory and splendor.” (Ex. 28:2) They were made of precious and semi-precious stones, gold chains, fine linen, turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool, and real gold thread. It is interesting that the priests had vestments befitting royalty but Moses had no costume or symbol of kingship. It is also interesting that the High Priest’s vestments were made of mixed fibers: wool and linen, which are specifically prohibited to us in Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11, the prohibition known as shatnez, combined fibers.

Moses was humble, we are told, the most humble person on earth (Num.12:3). His royalty was inner, not outer. We are asked to emulate Moses, not the High Priest in this matter. Why is Aaron commanded to wear mixed fibers while we are prohibited from doing so? Aaron was commanded to look grand and we, as individuals are asked not to try to look like priests, to look royal. We are urged to cultivate humility as an important value in Judaism, and not to appear to be too wealthy, royal, or grand. When I hear about people who buy ostentatiously lavish lifestyles for themselves, I often feel sorry for them. That’s royalty on the outside. Those who need royalty on the outside may be compensating for a lack of royalty on the inside.

True outer royalty is always collective, not personal. Royalty comes from conferring authority upon someone to represent the nation, the group, or the tribe. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch pointed out that the priests’ vestments were supplied by, made by, and owned by the people (Note to Lev. 28:42-43). When not serving the nation, the Talmud tells us that the priests were not to wear their vestments to go about the town (Yoma 69a). By tradition, Aaron was a regular sort of person when he was not at work. No one can be outwardly royal alone: royalty is always about the group. But inward royalty is another matter. We can and should be royal on the inside, individually. Inner value is true and lasting value. Outer royalty is fleeting at best, and usually elusive. It is comparative and subjective and has no objective reality. It is a costume we put on and take off, because none of us is really royal on the outside. Remember the adage, no one is a hero to his valet? The trappings of wealth and power are even seen, by the rabbis of the Mishnah, as a hindrance to spiritual progress (Avot, 2:10, 4:21, 6:4.

Rather than admiring the outer, the Torah teaches us to focus on the inner: that which provides lasting satisfaction, happiness, harmony, and love. We are all royal on the inside, if only we could see that our divinity comes from the Radiance of God. The full beauty of a human soul is too dazzling for us ever to comprehend. We are already royalty, descendants from the Eternal Holy Presence. We truly need no outer emblems of self-worth. Our task is to convince ourselves of the greatness within, by cultivating nobility in Godly attributes: taking care of others, acts of kindness, and compassion. The less we need to prove our worth and status to the world, the happier we become, letting our inner royalty shine forth. Inner royalty is magnetic. We respond to true inner nobility in another person because we admire and feel a kinship with God’s attributes of mercy, graciousness, kindness, integrity, and generosity. It needs no trappings. May we find within the royalty we seek, needing less and less of the outer symbols our society seems to value. May inner holiness be the royalty we seek, and may we find it, with God’s great blessing.

(Note: This piece was published in The Jewish Week, February, 2014)