Friday, March 17, 2017

Ki Tisa: Are These Cows Making You Uncomfortable?

This week, I want to talk about a seemingly minor point in our Torah portion, and then make a shameless plug for an upcoming synagogue program. And no, it's not tomorrow night's
(slightly late) Purim Masquerade Ball. I just wanted to be up-front about my intentions, so you know what you're in for. Ok, here goes: This Shabbat, our Torah reading includes a pretty major incident in the Exodus story, and strangely enough, we are also observing a special weekend (leading towards Passover), called Shabbat Parah, which contains a similar theme. Both have to do with cows. The parashah tells the infamous story of the Golden Calf, and Shabbat Parah focuses on a peculiar, mystical ritual involving a Red Heifer. But I am (mostly) not going to focus on either bovine.

The episode with the Golden Calf comes in the midst of God's giving Moses many, many, MANY laws of ritual and observance. Our Torah portion begins with laws of Temple service for Aaron, the High Priest, and his family, and ends with commandments regarding holiday
sacrifices and rites. And between these two subjects, the people rebel. And the reason I DON'T want to talk about the calf itself, is because I think there's an important lesson to learn on either side of this story. You see, folks, I get it. I know why God gives Moses (and the people) so many laws. They're creating a society and a nation from scratch; they need rules and regulations. There is comfort, safety, and familiarity in ritual, and it can build a solid foundation that will stand the test of time. Again, I get it. But sometimes we cross a line. When are the observances helpful... and when do they veer into the realm of harmful?

The mitzvot we learn about at the start of our parashah are REALLY detailed and specific. We are told about tools and utensils for the Temple, and given PRECISE instructions on where to put these items: "...a laver of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing; and place it [the laver] between the Tent of Meeting and the altar." (Ex. 30:18)
God wants everything done just so; no questions asked!! And on it goes. Sometimes ritual pushes us away, rather than inviting us in. It feels harsh, judgmental, and even dangerous, rather than spiritual, meaningful, and compassionate. The rebellion of the people could, and should, be a wake up call for God and Moses that maybe it's too much too soon. I've implemented a lot of changes at Ohev in my time as rabbi, but if I had tried to make all those changes in the first two or three months, I doubt I'd still have my job! Ritual CAN BE a force for good, but it can also be a sledgehammer that we bludgeon people with, if we don't realize the power it can have AND use it wisely, carefully, and sparingly.

And now, my smooth transition to a shameless plug: Next Saturday morning, we're doing a program during Shabbat services called Bimah 101. The purpose of Bimah 101 is to help make OUR rituals, OUR observances, and OUR Jewish practices a bit more accessible, meaningful, and user-friendly. We will go over how to have an aliyah,
how to lift and dress a Torah scroll, the blessing recited when putting on a tallit, and over similar rituals. That is, we'll do all this IF people come who want to learn... It's hard to admit when we're unfamiliar with something. If you're not great with Hebrew or sanctuaries or convos with the Almighty Creator of the Entire Universe, it can be tough to just say so. But ritual is always going to seem foreign, mystical, and inaccessible - like the sprinkling of ashes from a Red Heifer mixed with water (don't ask...) - until we put ourselves out there and try to learn something new. So I invite you all to come to Bimah 101. AND I also invite (urge, even) everyone, whether you're coming on March 25th or not, to send me questions you'd like answered and/or rituals you'd like demonstrated. You can submit them here on the blog, or send them to me directly, if you prefer. I know ritual can be scary. But I promise that if you reach out, ask for help, and allow yourself to learn something new, it's amazing how quickly it becomes a little more familiar, and stops looking like a bunch of mysterious, ancient, weirdo cow-stuff.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Teaser image of Ohev's Wolf Auditorium, getting "spiffed up" for tomorrow night's Masquerade Ball (ok, this is kind of a sly, sneaky plug for the ball as well... sorry...)
2. CC image courtesy of Alexandr Ivanov on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of North Carolina National Guard on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of how to perform a Hagbah (lifting the Torah) courtesy of Michal Patelle on Wikimedia Commons

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