Friday, May 27, 2016

Behar: Scared Straight?

We don't generally like fear. I mean, some people love haunted houses and horror movies, but generally speaking, we don't like to feel ACTUAL fear in our lives.
I would also venture to say that this is especially true when it comes to our relationship with God. Many people feel conflicted about God - if they even believe there IS a God. If they DO have a relationship with a Deity, they prefer emotions like joyful, loving, and compassionate to describe how that connection is expressed. But fear? You can see this discomfort in English translations of the Bible, where synonyms like "venerate" and "revere" replace "fear," and we speak about being "awed" by God. But let's address the uncomfortable question: Does the Bible want us to fear God?

This week, our Torah portion doesn't just use the word "fear," it employs it as a poignant juxtaposition, and one that is perhaps a little surprising. The text is talking about relationships between people in a
shared society, and how important it is to show compassion and kindness. The Torah instructs us as follows: "If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side: do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God." (Leviticus, 25:35-36) The parallel that is being drawn here is, "Don't do bad things - fear Adonai." It is, perhaps, a strange euphemism for kindness. Why doesn't the Torah just instruct us to be compassionate with one another? We would listen, don't you think?

Well... I guess I'm not so sure. It's a hard truth to swallow, but human beings don't always do the right thing on their own. The Torah very often deals in the real, not the ideal. The authors of the Torah see wealthy people and poor people, and they understand that you really DO need to compel the wealthier citizens to treat the less-fortunate with kindness, because it isn't
self-evident. Just a few verses after the section I quoted above, the Torah again paints a scenario in which someone must sell himself into slavery. And once again, the Torah demands: "You shall not rule over him ruthlessly; you shall fear your God!" (25:43) Asking/requiring people to be good and kind, just 'cause, simply isn't enough. The Torah gets it; people need REAL incentive, and they need to know that someone - or really Someone - is watching. There are repercussions and consequences for all our actions, whether in this world or the next. And then, the Torah has to sit back and hope that we are listening. Ultimately, it cannot force our hand. Fear is basically the last line of defense.

Nevertheless, I still think this makes us uncomfortable. We don't like to bring fear into our relationships with God. It creates distance rather than closeness. And we don't entirely need to resolve this tension; it's ok to say we DON'T like this aspect of Biblical theology. But perhaps we can also challenge ourselves to understand it a little bit better. The Torah DESPERATELY wants us to be good to one another, to be more
generous, loving, unconditional, and kindhearted. Step around the word "fear" for a second and recognize that a major, central, pervasive theme in the Torah is loving-kindness, and we can all do more to bring that value into our lives. The Torah doesn't entirely trust us to be good, that is true. So what? Let's not prove the Torah right, by ignoring its teachings. Let's prove it wrong, by showing that we CAN be more compassionate and loving. And believe me, the authors of the Torah would be THRILLED to admit they had underestimated us! Fear CAN be a motivator, but if that doesn't work for you, fine. Find another reason that compels you. But we still need to hear what the Torah is saying, and accept the task of making this world better, because it IS our responsibility. In the end, I don't think the Torah really wants our fear. It just wants our kindness, and it'll take it any way it can get it.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Michael Rivera on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Ras67 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Liftarn on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of US National Archives bot on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Emor: What's in a Name?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about God's Name. It was sort of a rant, mainly around how much I dislike the use of "G-d" when writing God's Name in English. If you haven't already read that post (and would like to), you can find it here.
One lingering question that I never really answered, and which I think deserves at least SOME consideration is, "Why does it matter?" What are the long-term ramifications of writing "G-d" versus "God," and who, honestly, cares? I wanted to return to this question now, because next week we are engaging in another important Jewish ceremony here at Ohev Shalom. It is a ritual that is entirely pointless if we cannot answer the question, "Why does it matter?" And I also believe that having a sufficient and meaningful answer to this query has a lasting impact on so many other things that we do in our day-to-day lives.

This week, our Torah portion is Emor, and we read in Emor a familiar statement from God: "You shall not profane My holy Name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people - I, the Lord, who sanctify you." (Leviticus, 22:32). In fact, at least six times in Leviticus - from chapters 18 to 22 - we are instructed not to defile, desecrate, or simply disrespect the Name of God.
Back in March, when I wrote about God's Name, I referenced the Ten Commandments, which also talk about not taking Adonai's Name in vain, but the reality is that it is a common trope throughout the Bible: Stop misusing God's holy Name!!! But if these laws and regulations AREN'T talking about using "G-d" (and I promise you, they are NOT), what are they asking us to do? What does it mean to disrespect God's Name, and how can we avoid doing so? One of the rules that the rabbis created, based on this concept, is the importance of treating sacred books, that contain God's Name, with respect and dignity. And yet, try as we might to take good care of holy books like Siddurim and Chumashim, sometimes they just get worn out. What then?

Well, next week, we are inviting children from our religious school, AND any interested adults who would like to participate, to come to our Ohev cemetery in Brookhaven, PA, and help us bury sacred books that can no longer be used.
In Judaism, we honor God's Name in writing by not throwing away any text that includes that Name, and instead burying it at a Jewish cemetery. This also includes every single sheet of paper that has "Adonai" or "Elohim" written on it, whether handwritten, Xeroxed, or printed out, and it is further extended to all old tallitot (or talises), to sets of tefillin, and honestly anything that is a sacred, Jewish object. I am inviting you to join us, to bring any Hebrew prayer books or Judaica items, on Wednesday afternoon, May 25th, at 5:00 p.m., and together we will honor God's Name in a way that our Jewish ancestors have done for thousands of years.

And yet, I feel we must also return to our original question: "Why?" Why are we doing this? Why does it matter? Well, I can definitely tell you that I'm NOT doing it for fear of angering God. My theology doesn't work that way. We aren't doing this to appease or placate some ill-tempered deity who might otherwise smite us all for our insolence. No, I believe it's about you and me, right here back on earth. The way we show respect for someone or some-thing says A LOT about us.
Respecting God and God's Name is actually about respecting ourselves; showing sensitivity, humility, and appreciation for something outside of our own internal narratives. We otherwise get terribly caught up in our own needs. You may ask, "Why care so much about God's Name, a four-letter scratch on a printed piece of paper?" Well, you have to believe in something, don't you? Some concept, value, or ethic outside your own echo chamber? So much of the violence and devastation we see in the world comes from a lack of humility; people who care only about themselves and their own needs. Honoring God's Name is about saying there's more to this world than just me and my immediate needs. Our ceremony on Wednesday may look like it's focusing on death, but to me, it's actually a symbol of how much our religion is full of respect, sensitivity, mindfulness, and life. I hope to see you there!

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Geagea on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Daderot on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Gordon Griffiths on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Rrafson on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Kedoshim: A Holy Mess

This week, I am away. I'm visiting family in Sweden, so I have invited my colleague, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, to come and guest-blog. Enjoy, and I'll see you all again next week. 

First of all, I want to thank Rabbi Gerber for inviting me to guest-blog this week - I enjoy reading his “Take on Torah” weekly, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be part of the conversation!
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Kedoshim,  seems to be a bit “all over the place” at first glance.  It is full of laws that don’t seem to have much to do with one another; ritual instructions are followed by labor laws, which are in turn listed alongside fiery condemnations of witchcraft and fortune-telling.  Some of the laws still reflect our current sensibilities and ethical commitments, and others are more difficult to wrestle with from our perspective as 21st century Jews.  It can be a tough text to access, partly because of the whiplash you can get as you move from verse to verse!  One might fairly ask, “who organized this, and what on earth were they thinking?!”
I am continually amazed by how the Torah defies our expectations, bringing us up short and forcing us to notice things that might otherwise recede into the background. I think that this might be one reason why parashat Kedoshim stubbornly refuses to get organized.  The very structure of the parashah reflects the messiness of real life.  While we may prefer our commandments in neat “boxes”, the Torah insists that we are not allowed to see any part of life as separate or disconnected from any other. 
It is particularly striking that the theme of this parashah is holiness - its name comes from the opening verse, in which God tells the people of Israel that they must be holy, since God is holy.  We may be tempted to think of holiness as something that exists in an ethereal realm - far away from the mess and difficulty of everyday life.  This parashah reminds us that if we want to find holiness, we have to go deep into the mess - the physicality of life, the details of what we eat and who we love, the ways we make a living, the blood and guts of sacrifice (literally and figuratively).  It’s by staying in the struggle that we have a chance of finding holy connections, holy moments, holy insights.
It seems fitting that near the very center of this parashah, which is near the middle of the book of Leviticus, which is the middle book of the Torah, we have one of the most famous lines in the entire Torah: “You shall love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)”.  The Torah teaches us that this powerful kind of love is found in the middle of things - in the mess and in the struggle.  It is only when we are immersed in the details of life that we are able to have empathy for the people around us, to understand that everyone is doing their best with tools that they have.  When we are in touch with our own mess, we can love the mess that we encounter in others.  

Friday, May 6, 2016

Acharei Mot: What Happens After?

I had a realization about our Torah portion this week. Sometimes insights come to us because of wonderful, joyous occurrences in our lives, while other times they happen in mundane, random, and unexpected situations. 
Unfortunately, they can also take place in times of sadness or even tragedy, and this was the case for me this week. I officiated at the funeral of a 48-year old woman who died very tragically. It was not a heart attack, stroke, or cancer, but an illness nonetheless, and one that we often struggle to talk about. I had officiated at her son's Bar Mitzvah a few years back, so I felt a connection to the family, and I felt personally impacted by her passing. Death plays a role - albeit subtle - in this week's parashah as well, and it has left me feeling quite reflective.

Our Torah portion is called "Acharei Mot," which literally means, "After the deaths of..." The reading begins by reminding us of the untimely deaths of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, which we had already 
heard about weeks earlier, in Leviticus, chapter 10. It is odd that the Torah chooses to remind us of this incident, and to do so right here, because the rest of our reading has nothing (directly) to do with their deaths. That's why I say it's subtle. It's a stark reminder to us all that death has a lasting impact, it never disappears altogether. Our parashah mainly focuses on laws pertaining to the priesthood, and yet because of those two little words, Acharei Mot, we all feel the dark shadow of that terrible incident looming large over the rest of the reading, and specifically over the High Priest (and father of the deceased boys), Aaron. Here's how I imagine we might read excerpts from the text (with my own nagging thoughts in parentheses):

16:4 - "Aaron shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic..." (My God, his two sons just died!) 
16:6 - "Aaron is to offer his own bull of purification offering... () (I wonder how he's feeling. Is he able to concentrate on his work? Should he have taken a few more days off??) 
16:23 - "And Aaron shall go into the Tent of Meeting, take off the linen vestments that he put on when he entered the Shrine, and leave them there..." (Does he cry in there when he's alone? How does he feel about God in those quiet moments in the tent?) 

Our Torah reading never directly addresses the deaths of Avihu and Nadav, but it seems to me it MUST be the 600-pound gorilla in the shrine! And so it is for many of us. Death lingers. We learn to live with it, the pain feels a little less raw, but it does not vanish entirely. 
These two words become a lasting question - but also a challenge that we each must answer: What, indeed, does come "Acharei Mot," "after death"? My answer is, "U'vacharta ba-Chayim" - "Choose life!" This is a consistent theme throughout the entire Torah, and it is summed up succinctly at the end of Deuteronomy: "Choose life!" (30:19) On an average day, this seems pretty easy. But Acharei Mot, after death, that is when we have to make a conscious, deliberate, and sometimes painful effort to choose life. We do so without trying to deny the hurt, or pretend we're totally fine. "Acharei Mot" may still be rattling around in our heads and in our hearts, but we choose to move forward regardless. This is the message of the Torah, it is the message of Aaron, the High Priest, and even in tough moments of untimely deaths, it is a message we still must take to heart today.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Anagoria on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of SteinsplitterBot on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Gnissah on Wikimedia Commons