Friday, March 9, 2018

Haftarat Shabbat Parah (Vayakhel-Pekudei): What's Hiding Behind the Walls

No one really likes the language of "clean" and "unclean," ESPECIALLY when it comes to religion and ritual. It's icky (to use a technical term...). It feels unsettling, judgmental, and discriminatory. But if you ever read our Bible (and I've perused it
once or twice), the language of cleanliness returns again and again. So why do we still read this stuff? And what do we make of it today? This week is a good example. We are reading the last section of the Book of Exodus, where we're learning about all the tools and implements used in the ancient Temple. We are also told who can touch what, because of ritual purity or impurity. This leads straight into the NEXT Book of the Torah, Leviticus, which loves to talk about cleanliness. This Shabbat is also a special one, called Shabbat Parah, leading up to Passover. The reading for Parah is all about purity as well, because purity is obviously an essential part of Pesach... sort of. So what IS this all about, and what's it got to do with Pesach???

First of all, I think it's talking about something else entirely. The text is using ancient language and ancient metaphors to articulate some pretty universal values and concerns. A mentor of mine once taught me, you've got to listen for "the music
behind the words." When the Tanach talks about "clean" and "unclean," what it REALLY means is "included" and "excluded." Do you now see how something ancient and antiquated is actually incredibly relevant? It's about bullying, immigration policy, the DACA debate, LGBTQ issues, and a whole host of other topics. And here's the thing that especially fascinates me: Even from the period of the Torah to the period of the later book of the Tanach, the meaning of these concepts changed. Ideas need to evolve and stay current, and we can indeed witness that transformation taking place before our very eyes!

Again, the Torah's focus is cleanliness. Actual, literal bathing to merit entering the Temple: "Moses and Aaron and his sons would wash their hands and feet; they
washed when they entered the Tent of Meeting and when they approached the altar - just as Adonai had commanded Moses." (40:32) Shabbat Parah takes its special Haftarah from the writings of the Prophet Ezekiel. "Parah" literally means "Cow" or "Heifer," and on the surface it appears we are still talking about purification. In ancient times, the ash of a sacrificed heifer was used to PURIFY items and people performing Temple worship. However, Ezekiel then morphs this idea into a new concept. He writes, "As Jerusalem is filled with sacrificial sheep during her festivals, so shall the ruined cities be filled with flocks of people" (36:38). Speaking to Judean exiles in Babylonia, who were banished from their land, Ezekiel is talking about purification as a thing that will one day happen, when our people merit to return to our land. It's about national redemption and salvation; NOT soap and water!

Now it's our turn. We need to do the same thing. We need to listen to the music behind the words, and help our texts and our laws evolve. If purity really means "inclusion" and "exclusion" today, how can we bring more people in? Our Pesach observance is no longer about bringing sacrifices to an altar, but it IS still about remembering how we were redeemed, and praying for peace and redemption once
again. Only this time, not just redemption for ourselves, but for all people. And we can't just pray for it, we need to bring our actions and voices into it as well. You may not LIKE that some are included in society and some are excluded, but you KNOW that is our reality. So what are you going to do about it??? That is the REAL question of Passover. You know what salvation looks like, you know what freedom from oppression can do to uplift an entire nation's spirit; so how can you possibly justify not DOING SOMETHING about it?!? If our texts and our customs are going to survive, they need to evolve. We need to help them evolve, and we need to MAKE them relevant. This Passover, ask yourself (and your guests) the tough questions that are hiding behind the words of the Haggadah. I think you'll find it will make your Seder table come alive in new and exciting ways. Good luck!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Benzoyl on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Bpenn005 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Daniel Schwen on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of The Deceiver on Wikimedia Commons

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