Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tazria-Metzora: When a Ritual Needs to Jump Off the Page

Very often in life, there's a BIG difference between theory and practice. A rule on paper is very different from how it's implemented in real life. It's true in many (if not most) fields, and it's certainly the case in religion. I've experienced this myself many times, where rabbinical school prepared me with clear-cut examples, textbook definitions, and 'regular' questions that congregants might throw at me. And then there was real life...

I find this especially true in lifecycle ceremonies, where the Rabbi's Manual (yes, I have one of those) outlines how rituals are 'supposed to' go, and I often find myself smiling at how oversimplified they can
be. The book suggests questions to ask a mourner when preparing for a funeral, but some questions seem stale and artificial. It outlines a ritual for a baby naming, but it feels forced and overly-scripted. I was recently researching the ritual for delivering a Get, a divorce document, and found a five-page script for what the rabbi, husband, wife, and witnesses are supposed to say; word for word. All I could think was, "Good God, these people just want to get this over with A.S.A.P.! Why all this extra agony?!?" Some of our rituals can be so fraught with awkwardness, embarrassment, and discomfort, we really have to ask ourselves, 'what is the point?'

This week's Torah portion shows us that all this dis-ease has ancient roots, in a part of the Torah that deals with, well, disease! Our parasha is one of the most uncomfortable of all, as it discusses - in excruciating detail - skin diseases and discharges, and how the priest in the Temple has to examine 
each one. Closely. And several times. In order to determine whether it's Divine punishment or just some poor shmo with excema. And as weird and unsympathetic as the whole ordeal is, it actually gets worse still. We read in Leviticus 13:45-46: "As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, 'Impure, impure!' He shall be impure as long as the disease is on him. Being impure, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp." So first the guy has a rash. Then we bring the High Priest to examine it thoroughly AND in public (anyone want their rabbi that up close and personal? Not me!), and to really pour salt in this wound, we tear up his clothes, uncover his head, have him live alone outside the camp, and make him shout out, "I'm impure! Run away!!" YIKES! By comparison, the divorce ritual looks like a walk in the park!

So in the midst of all this craziness, the rabbis mercifully swoop in and redeem this for us, if only just a little. In the Babylonian Talmud (Masechet Chulin), in discussing why the person calls out 'Impure!,'
the rabbis declare, "he shall make known his affliction so that they may pray for him." In other words, rather than further humiliating the person, the reason for making this whole thing a public ritual is so that others can pray for him. So that they can bring food, take care of his family members, suggest a good dermatologist. Sometimes we choose to suffer in silence, thinking that no one else cares about what we're going through. But we have to make that initial effort, we have to reach out to the people around us and make it known that we're struggling, because we may instead discover that MANY people care, and many people want to help. 

The same is true for the overly scripted rituals, or even the practices that are described in theory one way, but implemented in another way entirely. The missing link is the warmth of a human touch. 
It's not the fault of the Rabbi's Manual that its ceremonies are stale; they're in a book meant for everyone! They are a spring board; a starting point with a general outline, which is then meant to be infused with the uniqueness of the individual rabbi, the distinct family, and the specific moment in time. The difference between theory and practice is an essential difference, because it reminds us how vital we all are. Ceremonies and rituals left on paper - even if that paper is the Torah - are lifeless and dated. It's our job to bring those ceremonies back to life, and to make them applicable here and now.

Photos in this blog post:

1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber and Ohev Shalom

2. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber and Ohev Shalom (in case you didn't believe it existed...)
3. CC image courtesy of Cea. on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of AdriaanC on Flickr 

5. CC image courtesy of Alex E. Proimos on Flickr

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shemini: The Holiness of Community Theater

Hello everyone,
I know it's been a little while since my last blog post; I kind of disappeared on a bit of an unannounced hiatus. Sorry about that. Between Passover preparations and a truly unfortunate number of funerals, it's been a very busy few weeks. But I'm back now, and I hope you've been able to find other Torah commentaries in the meantime to hold you over. Thank you for your understanding. So, without further ado, this week's installment:

If you've been spending any time around Ohev Shalom this past week, you're probably assuming I'm going to write something here about our synagogue play, Broadway Bound, which debuted on 
Thursday night. Well, you'd be right. Following last year's highly successful performance, the Ohev Players are back with (if possible) a MORE entertaining and wildly energetic show. So if you're in the area, you DON'T want to miss this one. Please check out our website for more info on showtimes and such.

Of course, I am not the most unbiased person, being that I'm actor in the show myself. But I promise it's good. And one of the things I really love about taking part in these 
productions is the sense of camaraderie that evolves among cast and crew members. We have young kids and grandparents, amateurs and professionals, make-up folks, set designers, musicians, tech people, and a whole bunch of individuals who never knew each other before signing on. Yet here we are, functioning as a unit, a team, and really developing a group dynamic. It's amazing how that happens. 

I've been thinking about this concept a lot lately, and was surprised to read a Torah commentary on this week's parasha that seemed to speak to this exact issue. Our Torah portion is Shemini, and it deals with the rituals performed by the High Priest, Aaron, and his sons, as they were being installed to run all aspects of Temple worship in the
desert. Right in the middle of this very holy ceremony, tragedy strikes. Two of Aaron's four 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 at the instance of the Lord" (Lev. 10:1-2). As if this wasn't puzzling enough, Moses' words of comfort to his brother in this devastating moment are, "This is what the Lord meant when God said: 'Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.'" How on earth is that supposed to comfort Aaron? What does it even mean? And let's add to that, what the heck does this have to do with the Ohev Players?!?

Patience, patience; all will be revealed. I read a really terrific commentary through AJWS by Adina Roth that kind of brought all of this together for me. Roth writes about how the word for 'people,' either 'Am' or 'Eidah' or 'B'nei Yisrael,' appears 11 times in chapter 9. She writes, "While Aaron and his family perform the ritual, the text alludes to the idea that there is no rite without the people. The
priests may reach towards the Divine, but the Divine is only contained in the face of the entire collective." So even though this whole section tells us about the importance of a priesthood, and how they were the ones connecting directly with God, we can also see that the rituals meant nothing without the community. She goes on to suggest that the 'crime' of Avihu and Nadav can be seen in the text's focus on their self-centeredness: 'Each person' did such-and-such, using 'his' fire pan - a vessel clearly meant for a single-serving sacrifice, unlike Aaron's dedication of a giant altar for the whole people to use. 

This also explains Moses' response, imagining God saying, "yes, the individuals who are close to Me get special privileges, but '[I] gain glory before ALL the people.'" The priests have a role to play, but it's meaningless without a community of people witnessing the rituals. 
And for me, this week, it kind of works on two levels: It reminds me of the importance of a full cast. The individual performers are terrific, but the full company numbers are also HUGE crowd-pleasers, and vital to creating that wonderful camaraderie I spoke of. And let's not forget that we'd be nowhere without our tech and crew! At the same time, the Ohev Players are kind of like the priests, whose efforts are pointless if there aren't people (you!) witnessing our hard work. The audience has just as crucial a role to play in the success of any performance.

Besides having fun on stage and wearing some ridiculous costumes, I think having a synagogue production is essential in the life of our community. It brings people
together, it creates a sense of energy and vibrancy, it makes great use of our facility, and it gets EVERYONE involved. Whether you're on stage, behind stage, in the audience, or a contributor to our Playbill; you're a part of this. And I think the 'glory' that we're gaining is obvious to every, single one of us.


Photos in this blog post:

1. Image courtesy of Ohev Shalom

2. Image courtesy of Ohev Shalom
3. CC image courtesy of linearclassifier on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of misocrazy on Flickr 

5. Image courtesy of Ohev Shalom

6. Image courtesy of Ohev Shalom