Thursday, April 29, 2010

Emor: The Sum of Our Parts

"How is this relevant?" Do you ever find yourself asking this question? Whether in your personal life, your work environment, or your synagogue experiences, you may have said this to yourself or someone else once or twice. I ask myself this question all the time. Not all rabbis (or clergy in general) may agree on this, but I think it's one of the most important questions we must answer for our congregants every single day.

Especially when we're reading the Book of Leviticus, we find that the question of

relevance pops back up over and over again. This week, we're back at it, as we learn about the laws of the ancient priests, including the rights and responsibilities that come with their job description. For instance, they cannot come in contact with a dead body, they cannot marry certain people, and they have various obligations regarding sacrifice, purity, and physical appearance.

Once again we must ask ourselves, how is this relevant? What do these laws mean for life in 2010? One possibility is that these restrictions still apply to those who are Kohanim, descendants of the ancient priests. Some people say that even though they no longer serve in a long-since-destroyed Temple, they still must abide by these laws. In my opinion, it is more of a personal

choice. As a community, we choose to honor the memory of their priestly ancestors by calling the Kohanim up for certain aliyot to the Torah, along with a few other rituals and traditions. At the same time, I think these laws speak to all of us about leadership.

When you are a communal leader, you take on certain rights and responsibilities. In ancient
Israel, the priests offered sacrifices on behalf of everyone else, and they received tithes that afforded them a certain lifestyle. Today, some of our communal leaders also become quite wealthy due to their status; like actors, athletes, and musicians. Other leaders speak on our behalf and govern our society; like politicians, elected officials, and even synagogue board members. But with these rights come responsibilities. All of the above are held to a higher standard, their behavior is scrutinized, and we feel entitled to comment on the life choices they make.

Sadly, some leaders - ancient as well as modern - want the rights without the responsibilities. Football stars want to be judged by their Super Bowl wins, not their behavior in nightclubs. Politicians want people to look at their voting record, not their extramarital affairs. But the Torah teaches us to judge, and be judged, by everything that we do. In many ways, we are all communal leaders, whether nationally, locally, communally, or simply within our own homes. Someone is looking up to you, and someone is learning from your behavior. A lot of people miss this message, because they are too busy dismissing the Biblical laws as antiquated and irrelevant.

In reality, however, they are all too current, and they can teach each and every one of us a thing or two about owning the choices we make and living a life that inspires the people around us. Sometimes I'm not sure if we're ready for just how relevant the Torah can be...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Stumble You Might Fall

One of the biggest issues that I come across on a regular basis is lack of communication. Whether it's work-related, family politics, or marital issues - improved communication COULD solve many of these issues, yet it often feels like an insurmountable hurdle. Not surprisingly, it sometimes seems as if the Torah suffers from the same problem. Time and again, we are forced to interpret the meaning of Biblical statements, because the literal meaning just doesn't cut it. As a result, we often end up with tens (or hundreds...) of proposed interpretations, and we are left with more questions than answers.

This is what happens in our current Torah portion, where we are introduced to the "Holiness Code," a long list of behaviors and actions which is meant to lead us to a holier state of being. Some of the laws are mercifully straightforward (though still hard to live by), like "you shall each revere his mother and his father" (Lev. 19:3) and "you shall not steal" (Lev. 19:11). Some, however, require a little more analysis. One of the famous lines of the

Holiness Code is "You shall not... place a stumbling block before the blind" (Lev. 19:14). What does this mean? It is almost impossible to read this verse literally, because no one places a stumbling block in front of anyone, let alone a blind person! For that matter, what IS a stumbling block? Do they sell them on (Probably...) Why would anyone sell stumbling blocks, if the only expressed purpose is to make someone else trip?!? Clearly, it's not a literal commandment, but one that requires thought and consideration.

So what is the meaning of this metaphor? On one level, it's about people who cannot defend themselves. Do not take advantage of someone weaker or more vulnerable than you. On another level, however, it is also about all of us. We each have a weakness, a disability to which we are blind, and over which other people can cause us to stumble. Whether you're an alcoholic, have a gambling problem, a weight problem, or a poor self-image; we all feel like the blind person sometimes. At the same time, if you ever purposely gave someone bad advice, wrong directions, or discouraged them from doing something they wanted to do; you've also put a stumbling block before someone else. And let's face it, some credit card, insurance, and mortgage companies have made billions of dollars violating this prohibition every single day! Not all of them perhaps, but some.

I think you'll agree with me then, when I say that this is a pretty important issue. So why is the

Torah so enigmatic about it? Why leave it up for interpretation, so that someone who wants to assuage their guilt can say, "Well I'm not tripping blind people, so this law doesn't apply to me"? If this is such a major problem - and it is - why doesn't the Torah articulate it more clearly? As it reads, it almost seems like poor communication, as if the Torah missed an opportunity. But I don't think that is what's going on.

Some of the other, more explicit laws may be direct, but we also read them quickly and move right along. "Don't steal." Ok, we got it. Let's keep reading. This one, however, makes you stop and think: "What the heck is a stumbling block??" It catches your eye, and forces you to spend an extra moment reflecting. Furthermore, the Torah presents many laws that forbid things we do in secret, like hating someone in your heart. But no one can

arrest you for violating such a commandment! It's up to you to police yourself. That is the case here. If you want to, you can pretend this law doesn't apply to you. You never bought anything from, did you? But if we're being honest with ourselves, this law applies to all of us. We should each examine our actions and think about how this law applies to us. We may be hurting someone we love without realizing it. We may be ignoring people who are calling out for help, and who we don't see until it's too late.

You can tell yourself this law isn't speaking to you. But if you do that, you're really just covering over your own eyes and setting yourself up for a pretty bad fall.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tazria-Metzorah: A New Perspective on Society, Sickness, and Strife

The beauty of Torah study is its openness to individual interpretations. The Bible is wonderfully democratic, in that anyone can have an opinion, anyone can offer a possible solution to a conundrum, and no theory is ever wrong. Sometimes the richest Torah portions demonstrate this the best, because there's so much depth to the text that it's interesting to see what different people do with it. And sometimes the more challenging portions highlight this better, because everyone struggles mightily to find decent interpretations. What therefore happens is that every once in a while a new Torah scholar emerges, offering a fascinating new perspective.

One of our B'nai Mitzvah students at Ohev Shalom did just that this week. He had the misfortune of being saddled with Tazria-Metzorah, one of the most complicated Torah portions in the Bible. All we read about are laws of purification, skin disease, and cleaning "contaminated" houses. Most rabbis try to focus elsewhere this week, or they rely on rabbinic sources that reframe Tazria-Metzorah, and make it all about slander and gossip. Our brave young man, however, opened my eyes to a very interesting new perspective.

He had chosen to dedicate his Mitzvah (here: Social Action) Project to interviewing a Holocaust survivor, and this Shabbat he will be telling the congregation about the life story of this particular survivor. It happens to also be a particularly appropriate time for this D'var Torah, because last Monday was Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Our Bar Mitzvah student looked at the atrocities

committed by the Nazis, and he saw that it all boiled down to how we treat people who are different, and how we deal with the fear of the unknown. He pointed out that the Israelites in the Bible feared disease and impurity, and required those afflicted to wait outside the camp for one week before returning home. The Nazis, in a way, were also looking to isolate what they saw as a "disease," but they took it to a whole new, monstrous and gruesome, level. And for the Nazis, there was no way to redeem oneself or return to society.

What a fascinating perspective! I've been thinking about this comparison for a while now, and it truly intrigues me. How do we treat "the Other"? How do we face our fears and seek to explain that which we cannot understand? The Israelites created their own rituals for dealing with disease and impurity, and through their rituals we identify their value system. Yes, the afflicted individual was forced to leave camp, but only temporarily. Re-admittance was always assumed. And the entire nation would wait for them to return before continuing on their travels through the desert. The individual was isolated, but remained indispensable to the community. Indeed, the way society - any society - treats its outliers betrays its morals.

This perspective also forces us to examine our own behavior. How do we as individuals and as a

collective handle illness, difference, dissension, and divisiveness? The Israelites offer us one, somewhat antiquated and sacrifice-based, model, while the Nazis offer us the complete antithesis of how to cope with any type of variance. What about us? In some ways we may be succeeding and in some ways we continue failing, but are we moving in the right direction? I think our Torah portion pushes us to think about these questions. I didn't really realize that before, but thanks to a wonderful new Torah scholar, my eyes have been opened! Have yours?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Shemini: You Are What Your Food Ate

One of the most well-known aspects of Jewish practice would probably have to be our dietary laws. The word, "Kosher," alone has made its way into modern English usage, where it means "proper" or "legitimate," as in "That e-mail I got from the Nigerian prince who needed me to loan him money didn't seem quite Kosher." Even someone who's never met a Jew may very well still be familiar with the word "Kosher." But what does Kashrut (the broader term for keeping Kosher) really entail? Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't really have much to do with bagels, lox, or shmaltz (if you don't know what that is, don't ask...).

One of the main principles of Kashrut forbids us to mix dairy products with meat products. This is based on a verse in Exodus 34:26, where it says, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk." The rabbis turned this single principle into a much broader prohibition against anything dairy being mixed with anything meat. Besides that, the rest of the laws of Kashrut primarily govern which animals we can eat and which are off limits, and how the animals are slaughtered. This week's Torah reading includes Leviticus, chapter 11, which gives us the general run-down of which cold cuts... err, I mean animals, are Kosher. And there's something striking about the list we are given.

There are a few guiding principles - criteria for all mammals, criteria for anything aquatic, and a specific list of approved birds - but we don't actually get any explanations. The Torah never tells us why certain animals are ok and others are not. The laws are simply presented, and we are expected to comply. Now I'm not suggesting we NOT comply, I'm simply pointing out that the laws are not qualified, and if we want to understand the laws better, we have to interpret for ourselves. For example, we are forbidden to ingest any blood, and the forbidden birds seem to generally be birds of prey (eagles, hawks, vultures, etc.). Perhaps the Torah feels that eating carnivorous birds means eating whatever they ate, including the blood of other animals, which is why they're off limits. Sort of a "you are what you eat" type of scenario.

It's also important to realize that Kosher animals aren't "cleaner" animals. We're not talking about healthier eating. It's about creating restrictions for yourself. It's about taking a stand regarding your food, and not eating whatever is put in front of you. Even if you don't follow the strictest form of Kashrut, do you still have certain moral or ethical guidelines that govern your eating habits? What do you know about how your meat was killed, or how the animal was treated before it died? We aren't told why certain foods are permitted and others forbidden, perhaps because we're meant to contemplate the reasons for ourselves.

We don't always think of it this way, but meat-eating involves a great responsibility. Another life was sacrificed so that we might be nourished and sustained. I encourage you to take that responsibility seriously. Just because we eat meat, doesn't mean that animals should suffer. And it doesn't mean we can eat whatever we want and as much as we want. "Kosher" does mean "proper," but for each of us that might hold different meaning. It should, however, mean something. And we all have the responsibility to figure out what that means for us, and to live our lives accordingly.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pesach: The Pendulum of Jewish History

As we cross over from March 31st to April 1st, we actually enter into a period of great turbulence and mixed emotions. No, I'm not talking about the NCAA basketball tournament's Final Four, and I'm also not talking about the crazy weather we've been having (though in Sweden "April Weather" is indeed marked by alternating snow storms and gorgeous, sunny summer-like weather - sometimes even on the same day - so maybe we ARE in for a bumpy ride...).

I'm looking at the Jewish calender, and feeling very confused about the mood of the season ahead. On the one hand, it's still Passover, and we continue to celebrate and talk about our redemption from slavery. We also have the holiday of Yom Ha-atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, coming on April 20th, accompanied by great celebration and merriment. A month after that, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot; the day on which we received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

On the other hand, we have also begun the counting of the Omer; a

49-day mourning period in which we avoid festivities and weddings. It is said to commemorate many calamities, from deaths during the rabbinic era, to attacks during the medieval Crusades, and into the modern era where Holocaust atrocities were committed in this season as well. We also commemorate Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 11th, as well as Yom Ha-Zikaron, a memorial to those who died fighting for the State of Israel.

Back and forth, back and forth. Joy, sadness, celebration, commemoration.

What's going on? How are we meant to feel during this confusing season? I think perhaps there are a few things we can learn from all of this. After Passover, the Israelites were waiting to receive the Ten Commandments and the entire Torah. They were also feeling mixed emotions - excitement, apprehension, curiosity, fear - because they had been freed from Egypt, but freed to become a holy nation, obligated to God and with a series of commandments to follow.

And the Israelite experience is recreated in every generation.

Expulsions, Crusades, Pogroms, Holocaust; all serve to remind us how persecuted we have been in the name of our religion. Maintaining a certain code and ethical standard has gotten us in trouble with our neighbors time and again. The Israelites in the desert were right to be apprehensive! But we have also experienced God's protection and care, both in miracles like the creation of the State of Israel, and in the simple fact that we are still here!

It began with the Israelites and their receiving the Torah. But in every century we continue to feel the constant swing, back and forth, of our long and complicated history and our complex relationship with God. This upcoming season once again mimics that for us, and reminds us what it means to be a Jew. Sometimes we commemorate what we've been through, and sometimes we celebrate how far we've come and the opportunities that lie ahead. Let us hope our future holds blossoming and warmth; just like the season about to begin.