Friday, April 28, 2017

Tazria-Metzora: Learning From the Outcasts

I don't often use this forum to speak about the Haftarot that accompany each Torah portion. Technically speaking, this blog is called "Take on Torah," and
none of the Haftarah texts come from the Torah. What can I say, I'm a rule-follower! You see, our most narrow definition of "Torah" is the Five Books of Moses, and every, single Haftarah was chosen from a DIFFERENT part of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible - from the prophets, the Holy Writings, almost anywhere else BUT the Torah itself - and attached to a Torah portion. One possible origin of the custom of chanting Haftarot relates back to a time when the Jews were forbidden from reading out of the Torah itself. So they chanted OTHER texts instead, but ones which subtly and secretly helped them remember which Torah portion SHOULD be read each week. Pretty sly... Well, this week I'm making an exception, so that I can talk about everyone's favorite topic: Leprosy.

Let's face it; our parashah is not an easy one to discuss. It focuses on a lot of laws of purity and impurity, skin conditions, menstrual regulations, mold on clothing and walls, etc., etc. In short, it highlights a lot of (our) dis-ease with disease. So, having spent all this time in the Torah talking about bodily ailments, the Haftarah continues the theme, in a way, with an odd story about lepers.
This tale comes from the Second Book of Kings. Four (unnamed) lepers are living in exile, shunned by their community. Cast out, they decide to try their luck at an Aramean battle camp. The Arameans are enemies of Israel, but the lepers figure, "hey, what've we got to lose??" To their surprise, they enter a desolate camp, and the narrator of the story explains that God fooled the Arameans by conjuring up the sound of thundering armies, and everyone abandoned the encampment and fled to the hills. First, the lepers eat and drink to their hearts' content (and even bury a little bit of blundered loot because... why not?). But then they say to one another, "We are not doing right. This is a day of good news, and we are keeping silent! ... Come, let us go and inform the king's palace." (7:9) The Israelites rejoice at this news, and all ends happily.

So what is the point of this strange, surprising, and even somewhat comical vignette? I think it is a subtle critique of hierarchies within society. ALL societies. As the names suggest, the two Books of Kings mainly feature royalty, priests,
prophets, and the leaders of our communities. But sometimes we can also learn important lessons from those with the least amount of social capital; the outcasts, the recluses, those looked down upon by others. If for no other reason, because positions change! Just because you're at the top NOW doesn't mean you'll stay there forever, and vice versa. So the protagonists - sort of - in this story are the lepers. Sure, it's incidental and the "real" hero is actually God. But no one else would ever casually saunter into an enemy camp. It is more likely that the Israelites would never find out, while the Arameans eventually might discover that no enemies were really attacking, and they would resume their posts. The lepers are instrumental to the story, and ultimately THEY are the ones who do the right thing and inform the king and their compatriots... people who - let's not forget - had excommunicated these afflicted individuals in the first place!

I think, perhaps, that we are all meant to learn some important lessons from this story: Don't judge a book by its cover. Or as the ancient rabbis put it: "Who is wise? One who learns from all people." (Pirkei Avot, 4:1) In the right circumstance, ANYONE can be your teacher. And remember that
positions change. When we are low, we want to be treated with respect and kindness. Therefore, when we are higher up, we must be the ones to model these same behaviors. Sometimes phrases like "be kind to others" become so cliché and rote, we just roll our eyes and treat them like white noise. And yet, it's STILL a serious problem in society. Who are the lepers today? Who do we discount, ignore, shun, and even mock? Why and when do we exile people from our communities and beyond our borders, and what can and do we demand of them for reentry? Like our cliché expressions, stories like this one about the lepers are easy to ignore and brush off. But we shouldn't. Because they actually reflect our communities TODAY, and in every generation. Details of the stories change in each new century, but the underlying message remains the same. So take care of the lepers! Some day, that might be you...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Vert on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of "Four Lepers Bring the News to the Guard at the Gate of Samaria," courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Anandajoti on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, April 21, 2017

Shemini: Lessons from a "Lost" Town in Moravia

It is hard to resist the urge to label things - in life - as either "good" or "bad." Sure, it's an oversimplification, but it just makes things so much EASIER! Experiences, memories, books and movies, even holidays; some are "happy," i.e. "good," and some are "sad," i.e. "bad." But we should resist. 
Real life doesn't take place at the black-or-white ends of the spectrum, it's mainly lived in the gray-scales in between. I mention this here, because of two moments I want to highlight in the Torah portion AND because of our Loštice Shabbat. Here at Ohev Shalom, we have a Torah scroll that was saved after the Holocaust. It came from a town in Czechoslovakia called Loštice, and last year we began an annual Ohev tradition of celebrating the Jewish community that once chanted from this same scroll. And yes, I do say "celebrating." With Yom Ha-Shoah right around the corner, we could, perhaps, simply reduce stories like that of the Jews of Loštice to a Holocaust narrative. But please, please, PLEASE, resist that urge!

We used to call this Torah our "Holocaust Scroll," but last year I lobbied the congregation to change the name. Loštice, like all the thousands of towns, shtetls, cities, and villages that were annihilated in the Holocaust, was a real place, not 
just a graveyard or a memorial candle. There was life there - real life - for centuries, and I feel strongly that we are adding to the tragedy of the Holocaust when we reduce their stories to death, destruction, and the Kaddish prayer. To be clear; we SHOULD also say Kaddish for them. The Memorial Scrolls Trust, which gave us our Loštice Torah back in 1980, actually has (and shared with me) the transport lists that tell us what befell many of Loštice's Jews. And this Saturday we WILL indeed say the Kaddish prayer and remember them. But is that all we can do? That, and put their holy scroll in a glass case and gaze at it mournfully? No, absolutely not! Their scroll lives in our Ark, among all its brethren, and on Shabbat we will read from it as part of our service.

The problem is, we're battling a ubiquitous human urge; to see the world in black and white. Take, for example, our Torah portion, Shemini. Included in this parashah is the story of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who brought "strange fire" (Lev. 10:1) before God and were instantly struck dead. And so, Shemini is often known ONLY for this tragic story. 
But the Torah portion is three chapters long! And it's filled with other material that is often overlooked and forgotten, because it's easier to just focus on this one, peculiar, upsetting (but also sensationalized) story. So I want to, therefore, share with you another verse from Shemini, and also connect it to a DIFFERENT narrative that I'll be sharing on our Loštice Shabbat. Our parashah mainly focuses on the sacrificial rite in the ancient Tabernacle. And early on in the reading, Moses says to Aaron and his sons: "This (ritual system) is what Adonai has commanded you to do, so that the Glory of Adonai may be revealed to you" (9:6). In the ancient world, God was accessed through sacrifice, but today we've replaced this with prayer. But either way, I think it's important to consider that our rituals - ancient and modern - can actually reveal to us the Glory of God. That what we do, and how we pray, MATTERS!

But religion can burn us as well. Nadav and Avihu certainly learned this, as did our ancestors in World War II. Neither story, however, should be reduced to just a cautionary tale of destruction. Loštice actually has many more secrets to reveal, and some truly bring forth the Glory of God. This Shabbat, I'll be sharing with our 
community the story of Fanny Neuda, who was married to Loštice's rabbi, and who composed a book of prayers for women. Her creation, "Stunden der Andacht," became a best-seller across Europe in the 1850s, and was republished in over 18 editions! And just a few years ago, it was translated into English by Dinah Berland, and published as "Hours of Devotion." Neuda's story is only one of many from Loštice. If we insist on labeling things as "Holocaust-related," or reducing narratives exclusively to "good" or "bad," there is so much that we miss! The fate of Nadav and Avihu is not the only lesson about sacrifice that the Torah seeks to tell; we need to also remember that worship can reveal the Glory of God and enrich our lives immeasurably. I hope you'll join us tomorrow to learn more about Fanny Neuda, her incredible and beautiful prayers, as well as the town of Loštice. Not only is it a fascinating, rich, and somewhat mystical story, but it's filled with gray areas and nuance. And don't forget; that is where life is truly lived.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of the synagogue in Loštice, courtesy of Cheva on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of graves in the Loštice cemetery, courtesy of Cheva on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image, also of the synagogue building in Loštice, courtesy of Lehotsky on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image of Rabbi Abraham Neuda (Mr. Fanny Neuda) from Dinah Berland's website

Friday, April 14, 2017

Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Pesach: Quitting an Ancient Addiction

There is a very serious tension that resurfaces over and over again in the Torah. It's so severe, so deeply-problematic, that it's almost like an addiction. Believe it or not, I'm talking about idol worship. It sounds like such an insignificant thing; it is such a non-issue in our world that we forget how alluring, enticing, and tempting it really was to the ancient Israelites. For our ancestors, it was a PAINFUL habit to break; just like any modern-day addiction that plagues society today. Let me give you a couple of examples, and let's also examine why this is so relevant and prevalent during this Passover holiday.

Idol worship was all around. Our forebearers were the ONLY monotheists, and there wasn't even all that much atheism around, so EVERYONE you'd meet was essentially an idol worshiper. This was a problem
for nearly everyone we read about in Genesis. Abraham was concerned about his son, Isaac, marrying a local (pagan) woman. Isaac and Rebecca agonized over Jacob's marital prospects. And even when Jacob married cousins, they had trouble abandoning their idolatrous ways. In Genesis, chapter 31, we read about Rachel stealing her father's household idols; like I said, a tough habit to just quit outright. Throughout the Torah, and indeed later books of the Bible as well, we are warned about Moabite and Canaanite women, we are commanded not to make deals with the locals, and we are ordered to smash the holy places of any enemies we defeat. Why? The answer, in every instance, is fear of descending into idol worship.

So what is the big lure? Why is it so addictive and enticing? This Shabbat, our reading for Chol Ha-Moed (in-between days of) Pesach gives us some insight. The people want to SEE God. They simply cannot bear an invisible, intangible
God. Even after all the plagues and miracles they had witnessed, they still couldn't go without. They so badly needed an image, a THING to worship, it led them to build a Golden Calf. Despite being punished, the temptation persisted, and they kept clamoring for a statue, a symbol, SOMETHING!!! Our Torah reading shares with us a moment of vulnerability and insecurity, where even Moses himself asks God for something physical to hold onto: "Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor" (Exodus, 33:13). And when God agrees to be present... but in a more general, vague, ephemeral sort of way, Moses can't help himself, and blurts out: "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!!" (v. 18) And God has to disappoint him: "you cannot see My Face, for humans cannot see Me and live" (v. 20).

Even Moses wants it. He's been "clean" of idol worship since the burning bush, but the pull is always there at the edges...
In part, it is indeed about the physicality of it, but what that REALLY signifies is assurance, dependability, guarantees. The idolaters could SEE their god, so obviously that meant their prayers were heard, and the god in question would take care of them. For us, we have to hope God hears us, and we are left in an uncertain world where bad things happen and good people suffer. We may not have idols in the classic sense today, but we DO have people all around us promising eternal paradise, and knowledge of "The Truth" with perfect certainty. And it's REALLY enticing. People are drawn to it like moths to a flame... or like addicts to a dealer.

And this is our reading on Passover! Why? Because this holiday celebrates our closeness with God, and all the ways in which God really WAS there for us, saving us from slavery. And the bond that we feel, that we felt back then, needs to last us and sustain us for generation after generation. God doesn't work miracles like that today; instead we need faith that can survive a lack of idols AND an imperfect world. Is it hard? Of course. But what's the alternative? The simplicity promised by the idol worshipers is an illusion. It always has been and always will be. Passover reminds us that reality is tough, it's filled with more questions than answers, but it's real. And in the end, after we quit the addiction, it's leaps and bounds more rewarding and satisfying than any other alternative.

Chag Sameach!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Gauraviit on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Dr Jorgen on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of 1Veertje on Wikimedia Commons