Thursday, December 18, 2014

If There Were No Chanukah...

This year, Christmas comes just as Chanukah ends, which is just as it should be, for you see, if there were no Chanukah, there would be no Christmas. Why is that so? Toward the end of the Greek Empire, the Greeks were feeling tremendous pressure from the new power in the world, the Roman Empire, which was threatening to engulf them. We are familiar with the Nazis trying to exterminate all the Jews and so many others, Catholics among them, during the Second World War. In the 2nd Century BCE, a similar thing was happening, only the Greeks were not attempting to kill the Jewish people, although many were murdered; they were trying to destroy the Jewish religion.

The Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV’s idea was to resist Rome by making his Syrian Greek Empire thoroughly Greek. Only Greek Gods could be worshipped, only Greek culture could exist. The Jewish religion must be wiped out. A band of Jewish rebels resisted swearing allegiance to the Greek Gods and to the worship of Antiochus IV himself as a God. Jews were forced to eat pork, prohibited from observing the Sabbath and from circumcising their children. A band of them, later called the Maccabees, ran into the hills to train as a guerilla army. The Greeks sent larger and larger forces against them, even elephants, the “tanks” of the day. Then “a great miracle happened there,” (symbolized by the letters on the dreidel): the few defeated the many; the weak overcame the strong. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem, they cleaned and rededicated the great Temple. There is a legend that a small amount of holy oil burned for the eight days of the re-dedication celebration.

However, most importantly, Judaism survived, and Jesus, also known as Rabbi Joshua, could be born, about a hundred and fifty years later. There is a growing acknowledgement from Christians that Jesus really lived as a Jew and died as a Jew. And there is a small but growing acknowledgement from within Judaism that Jesus’ teachings are fully Jewish, and that he was an important prophet, in the tradition of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. So if the Jews had not defeated the Greeks, there would have been no Rabbi Joshua, to become Jesus, the great teacher to Christendom. As we celebrate this holiday season, may we appreciate our common roots, accept and love each other, and know that we are much more interdependent than we realize. Happy Chanukah! Merry Christmas!

Jill Hausman is the Rabbi and Cantor of the historic Actors’ Temple.
This article was published in Times Square Chronicles in December, 2014

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Linking Ourselves to the Divine

This week’s Torah portion is Nasso, which means do, as in, do a census. Moses continues to take a census of the Levites; and the Levites are assigned tasks for dismantling and carrying the Tabernacle. Instructions for purifying the camp are given, there is a process to atone for sins, and laws that have been abandoned, such as the trial by ordeal, when a husband is suspicious of a wife; and the rules for temporary nuns and monks, the Nazarites, are outlined. This portion famously includes the Priestly Benediction; and concludes with the description of identical offerings of the tribal leaders for the dedication of the altar.

Each year I read this section: “....When a man or woman shall commit any sin that earthlings commit, to do a trespass against God, and if that person is guilty; Then they shall confess their sin which they have done; and he shall make restitution for his trespass in full, and add to it its fifth, and give it to him against whom he has trespassed. (Num. 5:6-7). I have spoken before that the words, against God, B'Adonai, can also be interpreted as, “in God,” which tells us that we live inside of God, or inside of being, inside of existence. Since there is no life outside of existence, outside of being, how can we re-establish the feeling of being loved and cared for and accepted by God after we have been less than charming? This Torah portion gives us a few ways to re-link ourselves back to God, which is the meaning of the word, religion: a re-establishment of our connection to equanimity within God.

The first method in this portion is confession and then giving 20% more, when we have sinned. That's like apologizing and also giving flowers or candy, or doing something extra nice for someone. The broader principle is that by giving we can feel good enough about ourselves to allow ourselves to feel better about what we did, and feel accepted by God.

The second way is through ritual that involves an official representative of religion itself. This is suggested by the arcane trial by ordeal of the Sotah, the wayward wife and the jealous husband. Something was wrong in this marriage. Neither the wife or husband was happy. The priest steps into this breach with a prescribed set of actions which all parties hope will effect an improvement in the relationship. Perhaps even just the triangulation of the wife and husband speaking to the Priest separately and then the priest speaking to the other spouse could increase positive communication, which is the basis for all healthy relationships. It was a kind of early marriage therapy, by bringing a pastoral presence to calm the situation and to help.

And then there is the method of the Nazarite. Perhaps this person is really tired of repeating the same negative behaviors, over and over again. The nazarite has taken himself or herself in hand to put a stop to the undesirable pattern and choose differently. Alternately, perhaps this person is frustrated by the unceasing demands of everyday life, and needs some peace, to feel rejuvenated and relinked to God. The method here, with the Nazarite, is by establishing a set of prohibitions upon oneself. No wine? Understandable. No grapes or raisins? No haircuts? Ridiculous, and yet the process of abiding by a prohibition, just because God asked it of us, does many things: it reduces our ego. It helps us to abide by God's laws. It shows us how to develop our inner fineness by letting us set the limits. It develops our integrity, not allowing us to fool ourselves or be less than totally honest with ourselves.

All of these techniques helps us to reestablish our connection to the Divine. The priestly Benediction, speaks of prayer and acceptance. By being gathered together for a blessing, we are reassured that eventually we will be forgiven. This portion then circles back to exactly where it began: with giving. The giving of gifts by the Tribal heads stresses the importance of charity and tells us that this is a pathway to help us to do good in the world and to feel good about who we are and our actions.

Living within God isn't easy for us humans. We often don't measure up even to our own standards, no less God's standards. Luckily we don't have to be perfect. We can make mistakes and be forgiven, relinking ourselves to the Divine. Ultimately it's about caring: how earnest we are in trying to do the right thing, and how quickly we can reestablish our connection to God, feeling good about ourselves again. Because we live inside of God and are made of Divine matter and energy, our innate goodness helps us to yearn to feel the flow of love between earth and heaven. May we make the effort to keep our love flowing to each other, and may we be guided back into love and acceptance when we need a helping hand.



Friday, November 28, 2014

Possessing and Sharing

This week’s Torah portion is Behar, which means, on the Mountain. Behar asks us to observe a Sabbath for the land every seven years, and a Jubilee, every 50th year. At the Jubilee, the land was to return to its original, ancestral owners, slaves were freed, loans were forgiven, and liberty was proclaimed for all inhabitants, the sentence inscribed on our Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Then there are laws to prevent poverty, such as the necessity to buy back land that was sold out of dire economic need, and the responsibility to help a relative or any person in the community, who becomes impoverished. This portion contains a number of interesting concepts that stress kindness, charity, integrity, and also trust in God. At the beginning of this portion the Torah says “But on the seventh year there shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God. Your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. The aftergrowth of your harvest you shall not reap and the grapes you shall not pick.” Rashi comments that, “you shall not reap” means “to take possession like other harvests, rather it shall be ownerless for all (to take freely).

This comment about ownership introduces a theme that runs throughout this portion. Later the Torah says, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine, for you are sojourners and residents with me.” And later, with regard to indentured servitude, in the case of one who becomes poor, we are commanded not to work each other with slave labor. God says, “for they are my servants who I have taken out of the land of Egypt, they shall not be sold as the selling of a slave.”

We humans are acquisitive and possessive, not always in a bad way. Some things we have are necessities: a place to live, savings for the future, food to eat, money to spend in the course of living. Our possessions help us to feel secure, but this Torah portion brings to the fore a larger truth: we are just passing through. As we say toward the beginning of the Amidah, Ayl Elyon, v'koneh hakol: God on high, who owns everything. We might think that if God owns everything, that God would want to distribute all wealth and resources equally, in a kind of exquisite Divine communism. But we know that this isn't the way God structured the world. Some are happy with a little; some are only happy with much more. Behar's solution to the inequality is to emphasize some larger truths and command us to share and help each other, giving us a gift: the opportunity to perform mitzvahs, deed of loving kindness for each other.

In the seventh year, no one can sell any crops. Everyone can come and eat whatever has grown on its own, and there will be enough for all. No one will be hungry. No one should be allowed to amass all the land. We are commanded to strengthen the poor and we should not own each other. The commentary Sifra says, “for they are my servants and so should not be subject to my other servants.” This leads us to another truth: our possessiveness – the desire to hold onto things, goes against the natural order. Our lives flow, money and possessions flow; very little is fixed. My teacher, Rabbi Gelberman said, “if you can lose it you never had it to begin with.”

We are not here to have, to acquire, or to amass. We are here to serve, to give and to share, nurturing & engendering life, being good stewards of the gifts we have been given: the earth, our physical selves, our souls. Serving, giving, sharing make us happy, and add holy energy to the world, enriching it and creating plenty for all. Rabbi Plaut, in his Torah commentary, points out that the word for the Sabbath of the land, Shemitah, comes from the root to let something drop. We can let go of a need to control and possess, which block the coming of the future, by allowing the flow of energy to ebb and flow in our lives. May the energy that flows toward us be for the good and may we by our actions and choices help and strengthen one another.


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 forth 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 the 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 commanded, and 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’ will 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, November 21, 2014

The Elevation of the Human Soul

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.

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.