Sunday, April 13, 2014

Putting Pesach in a Pot / Passover 2014

In between cleaning out chametz, and cooking batches of knaidlach (matzah balls) and charoset (the wonderful sweet concoction on the seder plate that looks like mortar and tastes like freedom), I want to invite you to put the festival of Pesach in a big pot and simmer slowly until you have boiled off the complex and intricate ritual web, so that what is left is the core essence: one single, central, compelling message that bespeaks the entire festival. What is the residue in the bottom of the pot?

You might well be thinking that the suggestion that Pesach boils down to one single, unified message is absurd. If so, please consider the image of a tree: the trunk of the tree is the structural core. It has roots sunk deep into the soil that stabilize the tree and suck up nutrition. It has branches that spread out and sprout leaves to absorb energy from the sun. But the trunk of the tree is the core. If you drill into the core, or take a cross-section, you see everything—ideas, rituals, meaning, values—passing through the cambium, which connects the xylem (inside tissue) and the phloem (outer tissue); the vascular cambium creates a channel for nutrients to travel from roots to branches and the sun’s energy to travel from leaves down to roots. You might think of the residue at the bottom of the Pesach pot as the trunk of the tree.

Each spring, Jews around the globe gather to re-enact the story of the Exodus. But even more than re-enact it, we attempt to experience both the slavery and the redemption of our ancestors anew. What was the experience of our ancestors like? How did it feel to be a slave? Pesach is an exercise in national empathy. We ingest not only knaidlach and charoset, but even more importantly an ancient memory that we convert into the ultimate spiritual nutrition: empathy, compassion, and moral obligation toward others. This is the core of Pesach, this is the trunk of the tree: to shape ourselves into empathetic and compassionate human beings—individually and communally—who, having tasted the bitterness of slavery (even if only through ritual acts and foods) turn from the seder table toward the world around seeking to free those still in bondage.

What are the roots of the tree? The experience of slavery in Egypt, powerfully recorded in the Book of Exodus, elaborated upon in midrash and commentary for more than 2,000 years, and recounted at every seder table. Other peoples claim to be descended from kings, magicians, warriors, or gods, making it nothing short of remarkable that our ancestors locate our beginnings in the degrading and barbaric arena of slavery. Our origin, tradition holds, is not merely humble; the nation Israel was spawned in the brick pits of Egypt and arose out pain and suffering, human degradation, and the aspiration for liberation—thanks to God’s redemptive power.

The branches of the Pesach tree are the lessons and imperatives we learn from our experience: first and foremost, redemption is possible and it does happen; second, to cherish our freedom and all its blessings by living in covenant with God; and third, we are obliged—religiously responsible—to empathetically recognize that others are still enslaved and lend our help so they can leave their Egypt.

Everything about Pesach derives from this root and leads to these branches. Each element trains us to be attuned, sensitive, and empathetic to others; to spot injustice; and to seek ways to reach out to those in pain. Just a few examples:

  • Everyone who has been to a seder knows that near the beginning we hoist a young child onto a chair, whence the child recites four scripted questions and everyone applauds. It is not the hours the child spent learning to read or recite the Four Questions in Hebrew that we applaud, or at least it’s not what we should be applauding. It’s question-asking itself: Asking insightful, penetrating, challenging questions is the beginning of all learning, and the first step toward seeing that the world is not as it ought to be. We train our children to ask questions (especially difficult questions) and not to accept the status quo, especially when it entails human enslavement in its many, many guises.
  • We dip twice: first we dip the sweet karpas (something green and leafy, usually parsley) in salt water: the bitterness of slavery covers over the hopeful green promise of spring renewal. But that is not where we leave things: later in the seder we then dip the marror (bitter herbs) in the sweet charoset; the sweetness of liberation wipes out the bitterness of slavery. The direction of the world is toward repair, improvement, and redemption. If we can see that, if we can believe that redemption is not an unreachable ideal, but a very real goal, then we can be among those who bring it nearer. Elijah’s cup sits out on the table all evening, a reminder that redemption can come, will come.
  • The Haggadah is structured around Maggid—the section of the service in which we are to recount the story of the Exodus. Yet the story is not told in the Haggadah. Yes, there are a few passages from the Torah and some lore from the Talmud, but the substance of the story is not there because it is the job of the grownups present to tell the children around the table the story (1) in their own way, and (2) in a way that is appropriate of those seated around the table. This means that the adults must consider carefully the ages, natures, and needs of the children, as well as the needs of the adults, and determine how best to convey the story so it enters not merely the head, but lodges deep in the heart. Some people dress in costume. Others act out the story, scene by scene. Some write and perform musicals or operas. Most people sprinkle the telling with additional questions and topics for discussion. Whatever it takes to feel that pain of slavery and the ecstasy of redemption is what is called for.

Pesach is all about learning to be empathetic and compassionate.  But it’s not easy to be empathetic. We build walls against feeling the pain of others without even realizing it. We think of others as “strangers” so that we don’t have to feel their pain. In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen writes about a physicist and Holocaust survivor named Yitzak who attended a retreat at Commonweal for people with cancer. Yitzak found himself feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable amidst strangers; he didn’t like what he described as “all dis huggy-huggy.” Yitzak’s self-protective wall went up to keep him apart from these strangers. Finally, Yitzak took a walk along the Pacific Coast beach and asked God what his role should be at this retreat. God’s response? In Yitzak’s words: “I say to Him, 'God is it okay to luff strangers?' And God says to me, 'Yitzak, vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don't make strangers.'"

Torah implores us: You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20 and 23:9). The prophet Zechariah (7:10) warns us not to ignore or oppress the most vulnerable amongst us: Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the stranger or the poor, and do not plot evil in your hearts against one another.
We make people strangers; God doesn’t. There it is—Pesach in a nutshell, the trunk of the tree: when we cultivate in ourselves empathy, there are no strangers, only people whom God loves and whom God wishes us to love and help, in turn.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, March 31, 2014

Tear Down the Walls! / Parshat Metzora

Medical anthropologists Ron Barrett and George Aremelagos contend that ancient nomadic peoples suffered less from acute infectious diseases that led to raging epidemics than from chronic infections and parasites contracted hunting and gathering. With the advent of the agricultural revolution, people settled into the land and formed villages, allowing local populations to grow sufficiently large to support acute epidemic disease. Torah speaks of plagues that strike the Israelites, interpreting them as God’s punishment for violations of divine will; perhaps this is a reflection of the later agricultural period in Israelite history.

In the parshiot Tazria and Metzora, we find echoes of the nomadic challenge of chronic infections. In this week’s parashah, Metzora, Torah discusses the metzora, one who is afflicted with tzara’at, which is often inaccurately translated “leprosy,” as well as neg’a, some sort of plague that infests houses, growing on the walls. Imagine, for a moment, how frightening such infestations must have been in the ancient world.

The term tzara’at is an umbrella term covering a variety of skin ailments that were understood to convey ritual impurity and require exclusion from the community until healed, followed by purification when the sufferer is welcomed back. We do not know precisely what conditions are included under this umbrella, but chronic infections and parasitic skin ailments are undoubtedly among them. Priests preside over the identification of tzara’at, the welfare of the metzora who is required to reside outside the camp, and the purification of the sufferer once readmitted. Purification involves two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop (Leviticus 14:4) entwined in a complex ritual. Here is how Torah describes it:

The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be purified of the eruption and purify him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be purified shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be pure. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair—of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be pure. (Leviticus 14:5-9)

The following day, the recovered metzora brings a sacrifice to the Tent of Meeting consisting of two male lambs, one ewe lamb, flour, and oil.

The metzora bathes himself not once, but twice: the first time he washes his clothes, shaves his hair, and bathes his body while still outside the camp, just before re-entering; again, a week later just prior to bringing sacrificial offerings to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) he bathes a second time. Sefer Ha-Hinnuch, published anonymously in Spain in the 13th century, explains that the purpose of bathing himself is not only to cleanse himself. We are talking about ritual purity here, not personal hygiene, so this comes as no surprise, but Sefer Ha-Hinnuch has an interesting take on the spiritual effect the immersion in water: It is an act of rebirth or recreation; the metzora is born anew out of the water. Just as the world emerged out of watery chaos (Genesis 1:2) so too the metzora emerges spiritually a new person from the emotional chaos of tzara’at, the exclusion from the community, and recovery. He is a different person.

Many people who have gone through a devastating illness report that they emerged new people and describe survival as starting life over. Suleika Jaouad graduated from Princeton University in 2010, ripe and ready to jump onto the fast track to success. No sooner had she begun her first corporate job than she was diagnosed with cancer. Following two years of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Suleika emerged a different person, one who had developed what she calls “invisible muscles” for confronting and coping with stress. One senses that her experience has led her to reassess her life path. The world looks entirely different on the other side of the dark tunnel, because the one who emerges into the light is forever changed.

If you have been in the dark valley of illness or trauma, did you emerge changed in some way? Were you, in a sense, born anew, with new insights and priorities, newfound sensibilities?

The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847–1905) makes a fascinating comment on a very strange verse in the parashah. After recounting the rituals and procedures described above, Torah tells us:

When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Leviticus 14:34)

The S’fat Emet asks, as perhaps you are asking yourself:

What sort of strange announcement is this?

S’fat Emet invokes Rashi’s imaginative suggestion that the plague on the walls of the houses was not a punishment for wrongdoing, but rather a ploy to compel the Israelites to tear down the walls, thus revealing treasure concealed within. He explains:

Rashi explains that the Canaanites [had been hiding gold treasures inside the walls of their houses, which the Israelites would find upon destroying the houses]. Now really?! Did the Creator of the universe need to resort to such contortions? Why would God have given the Canaanites the idea of hiding [treasures in the walls of their houses] so that Israel would have to knock down the houses?!

The idea of a treasure-concealed-within inspires S’fat Emet to comment:

The real meaning of these afflictions of houses is in fact quite wondrous, a demonstration that Israel’s holiness is so great that they can also draw sanctity and purity into their dwelling-places… That is what Israel did when they brought the land of Canaan forth from defilement and into the reality of holiness. Then it became the Land of Israel, and the blessed Creator caused His presence to dwell in the holy Temple...

We can already see that S’fat Emet is bringing a psychological interpretation to this passage of Torah. The houses of the Canaanites are the world around, as well as us. The treasure concealed in the walls is the holiness implicit in everything in the world, including us—all reality—awaiting discovery. But we build psychological walls in our houses-of-the-self and fail to find them. Yet the hidden treasures—inherent holiness—abounds and surrounds us. And what is more, the treasure of holiness is within us. S’fat Emet concludes:

This is the real “hidden treasure” — that in the most corporeal of objects there are hidden sparks of the greatest holiness… (S’fat Emet 3:139f)

We must destroy the walls to find the treasure. I would propose that our walls may be build of self-absorption, deceit, insensitivity, vicious competitiveness, overweening pride, thoughtlessness, stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, nastiness, fear of considering new ideas, pomposity—all of which arise from our sense of vulnerability and insecurity. We build the walls (that is, act out of these negative attributes) to protect ourselves, to wall ourselves off from the sense of being vulnerable, the feeling of insecurity. The key to our happiness and wellbeing, expressed in Torah as cure and purification, is to tear down the walls and shed these negative traits.

But how do we do that? It would seem by accepting vulnerability and insecurity as a normal part of the human psyche. It’s okay to feel that way—everyone does. A young mother named Lana who suffers from chronic illness (rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia) says that illness has changed her in some positive ways, as well as some not-so-positive, ways. The positive changes are that she has learned to choose acceptance, to offer and when necessary seek support, and to look for a silver lining instead of asking “why?” Lana understand that she must actively decide to choose to accept her vulnerability. She copes with her insecurity by choosing to accept help from others, and by pushing away the dead-end question of “why” and instead searching for a silver lining.

Demolition is never easy. But it is liberating. It may seem counter-intuitive, but accepting our own vulnerability and insecurity contributes to our own spiritual healing by allowing us to liberate the treasures of holiness hidden behind the walls. Accepting our own vulnerability and insecurity frees us to be far better versions of ourselves.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, March 23, 2014

When is a Rash Not a Rash? / Parshat Tazria

Contracting poison ivy as a child meant I had to remain at home because the sight of it elicited looks and comments best not repeated. Living in New England, it was not difficult to come by poison ivy; all it took was someone down the road burning wood in a fireplace. Around the age of 10, a publisher producing a textbook with the working title, “Extreme Cases in Dermatology” called from California to request a photo of me with a full-blown case of poison ivy for the book. Somehow they’d heard about the kid from Connecticut who got whopping cases of it. I knew what that meant: I was a hideous freak. You won’t be surprised to learn that I said no thank you.

Parshat Tazria dives headfirst into the deep end of the pool of physical embodiment, specifically the muck and mire of a broad array of skin conditions, all gathered under the rubric tzara’at: rashes, sores, scaly conditions, swellings and inflammations, leprosy, skin eruptions, and even burns… These conditions all render one tamei, in a state of tum’ah (ritual impurity), unfit to enter the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting), and even requiring exclusion from Israel’s encampment. The priests served as examiners and diagnosticians, and determined when one stricken with a skin lesion could be admitted back into the community and undergo a purification ritual.

We do not live with a constant awareness of, and concern about, ritual purity. Death itself, which is to say contact with a corpse, is the most severe purveyor of tum’ah, but the sores and rashes of tzara’at make one impure, as well. Jacob Milgrom explains that matters of ritual purity—tum’ah and taharah—reflect Torah’s premium on life. That which touches death conveys tum’ah (impurity). Purification, then, is the process of restoring full life to the body.

Mary Douglas, in Purity and Danger, suggests that tum’ah is about disruption of the proper order, a trespass of proper boundaries and limits, in this case of the body most directly, but by extension disruption of the world order. The danger impurity poses to the body is mirrored in the society as a whole because the individual’s body is a microcosm of society, the social body. This explains why one stricken with impurity-rendering body sores was separated from the community until cured.

Those periodic cases of poison ivy certainly disrupted the order of my life in a big way. Hiding at home, the equivalent of outside the camp, shielded me from painful stares and comments. Poison ivy was not just skin deep. Like the Torah, the early Hasidic masters also understood that tzara’at was far more than skin deep, but in a very different way. For them, the sores, rashes, and eruptions are understood as symbolic of spiritual lesions.

R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk (1717-1787) interprets this passage from Tazria:
When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration [or: brightness], and it develops into a scaly affliction on the skin of his body it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affliction on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affliction appears to be deeper than the skin of his body it is a leprous affliction; when the priest sees it he shall pronounce him unclean. (Leviticus 13:2-3)
R. Elimelekh, in his commentary on the Torah, Noam Elimelekh, identifies each manifestation of tzara’at mentioned by Torah: swellings, rashes, and discolorations.
A swelling refers to bad qualities that are the root of sin, and the root of all bad qualities is pride…

Or a rash. Here Scriptures warns us against various causes that can lead a person to arrogance. The first is associating with empty people who spend their days in the streets—such company can lead a person to arrogance very quickly…

Or a discoloration/brightness. This is the second cause. Sometimes the bright light and enthusiasm a person feels from doing a good deed can lead to arrogance. You have to be very careful with this.

And it develops into a scaly affliction on the skin of his body. The words “affliction” (נגע in Hebrew) and “pleasure” (ענג in Hebrew) are written with the same letters [נ, ג, ע]. This teaches that you can transform the affliction into pleasure [that is, you can transform something bad into something good], but if you are not careful it will become tzara’at.
R. Elimelekh goes on to equate the priests with tzaddikim, Hasidic rabbis who guide the sufferer toward spiritual healing. For Elimelekh, this is an important point; he was instrumental in developing the Hasidic doctrine of the Tzaddik as a mystical, spiritual leader.

R. Elimelekh begins with an arcane text from the Torah, one that is remote from our world both ritually and scientifically, and reinterprets it for the spiritual realm we inhabit in the 21st—and any other—century. He warns us that pride and arrogance are the enemies of goodness and, ultimately, happiness in our lives. Pride and arrogance are defensive emotions that guard against vulnerability, revealing the true self, and the risk that we are not what we would hope to be. Pride and arrogance corrode our souls, transform our visages, and render us unfit to be among others. And lest we tell ourselves: but I’m not prideful, nor am I arrogant — R. Elimelekh warns us that even the good feeling that comes from doing a good deed, while not in itself bad, can lead to arrogance if we are not careful to guard against it.

Arrogance is corrosive, and poisons our relationships. A farmer from Texas, touring England, met an English farmer and asked, “How big is your farm?” The Englishman replied, “Thirty-five acres.” “Thirty-five acres?” scoffed the Texan. “Why I can get in my truck at 8:00 am and drive until noon and still be on my farm. Then I can eat lunch and drive again until 5:00 pm and I’m still on my farm.” The Englishman nodded in sympathy. “I had a truck like that once, too.” Humor may serve on occasion to hold another’s arrogance at arm’s length, but not always, and it certainly doesn’t help us mitigate our own arrogance.

R. Elimelekh therefore offers a common and wonderful Hasidic trop: evil and negativity can be transformed into goodness. Here R. Elimelekh employs a word play: the terms in Hebrew for “affliction” נגע, and “pleasure” ענג, are written with the same three Hebrew letters: נ, ג, ע. Re-arranging “affliction” gives us “pleasure.” One is never imprisoned by one’s negative traits; they can always be transformed into something good and wonderful through awareness, effort, and with the help of a “priest” who might be a spiritual guide, spouse, friend, or therapist.

R. Elimelekh’s interpretation of tzara’at may be far from the very real biblical concern with skin afflictions and their implications for ritual purity, but it speaks to us now in the lives we live.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sacrifices: cycle of kindness, or vicious circle? / Parshat Shemini

In the wake of World War II and the devastation Japan experienced through the bombing of Tokyo, and the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a frantic rush to rebuild. Cheap, low-quality wooden frame houses popped up everywhere. Lacking seismic reinforcement, many did not survive subsequent earthquakes and in short order did not meet heightened building codes, so they depreciated with time. Today it is common for people to buy land, demolish the existing house, and build anew. Architect Alistair Townsend, who works in Japan says, “The houses that are built today exceed the quality of just about any other country in the world, at least for timber buildings. So there’s really no reason that they should drop in value and be demolished.”

It seems that Japan has fallen into a vicious cycle: people don’t maintain or upgrade their houses, contributing to the sense that they are disposable. And that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Richard Koo, chief economist at the Nomura Research Institute, says that houses in Japan have become durable consumer goods. As a result, Japan is awash in a building boom and it’s an architect’s paradise, yet the population is shrinking, and the economy has been stagnant for two decades likely in great measure due to the building boom.

Vicious cycles of assumption about how the world operates are all too common. In this week’s parashah, Shemini, the Tabernacle is complete and Aaron and his sons have been ordained priests to minister there and make the sacrifices. Torah tells us that as soon as the sacrifices commence, God will appear.

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron: “Take a calf of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering without blemish and bring them before the Lord. And speak to the Israelites saying: Take a he-goat for a sin offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish for a burnt offering; and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a meal offering with oil mixed in. For today the Lord will appear to you.” (Leviticus 9:1-4)

Isn’t this more than a tad peculiar? God suddenly appears to the people? God who, according to Torah, has appeared as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead them through the Wilderness for the past year? (Exodus 40:17 tells us the Tabernacle was erected in the first month of the second year after leaving Egypt.)

Is it possible that, with the sacrificial cult officially inaugurated and operating daily, the people have come to see God in a different way? In the midrash the Rabbis, keenly aware that the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem are no longer available to Israel, perhaps wonder: How does offering sacrifices affect how God “appears” to the Israelites? How do we, without sacrifices, experience God’s presence? Vayikra Rabbah (Leviticus Rabbah) 11:5, without even referencing the parashah, gives a striking answer, or perhaps we might say, a stunning warning. 

The midrash opens with Psalm 18:26:

With the merciful, You are merciful;
With those with integrity, You act with integrity,
With the pure, You act pure,
And with the crafty, You are wily.

The Psalm suggests that those who are merciful are inclined to see God as merciful; those who are crafty tend to see God as wily. A God who possesses the same attributes we do reinforces and justifies our behavior, be it good or bad.

Rav Yehudah, however, interprets Psalm 18:26 as applying to Abraham in a very concrete way:

When [Abraham] acted with mercy, the Holy One blessed be God was merciful toward him. When [Abraham] acted with integrity, the Holy One blessed be God acted with integrity. When [Abraham] acted craftily, the Holy One blessed be God acted wily. When [Abraham] sought clarification about his affairs, the Holy One blessed be God clarified for him his affairs.

Curiously, Rav Yehudah has changed the order of the four behavioral characteristics, reversing the third and fourth, perhaps in order to end on a positive note. His explanation, drawing on the account in Genesis, goes like this: First, when God, in the guise of three strangers, visits Abraham (Genesis 18:3), Abraham lavishes kindness on his guests, washing their feet and preparing for them a feast. When they take their leave, Torah tells us: Abraham remained standing before the Lord (Genesis 18:22), which R. Shimon handily explains in the midrash the Scribes amended to say that the Shekhinah (God’s presence) waited for Abraham (hence God’s kindness in repayment of Abraham’s). Second, when Abraham pleads with integrity the case of the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah, God responds with integrity, promising not to destroy the innocent (Genesis 18:28). Third, when Abraham acted craftily, pointing out that since he is childless his servant Eliezer will inherit his estate, Abraham implies that God promised—but failed to deliver—progeny; God responds in kind with an evasive and incomplete answer, merely saying that Eliezer will not inherit (Genesis 15:2-4). Finally, when Abraham requests a clear and upfront accounting of where he stands vis-à-vis possessing the Land of Israel, God replies that his offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs—clearly implying that they will ultimately wind up in the land that is theirs (Genesis 15:8, 13). The midrash continues with R. Nechemiah’s exposition of Moses’ interactions with God along the same lines.

This is a peculiar midrash. Is Rav Yehudah suggesting that God merely follows peoples’ lead—if they’re nice, so is God, but if they’re not, God responds in kind? Tit for tat? This sounds like a petty version of retributive justice.

Is Rav Yehudah suggesting that, like the sacrifices, what we put out, we get in return? What you give out in terms of kindness, generosity, civility and respect on the one hand, and shrewdness, avarice, cruelty, and neglect on the other, determines what you get back—a kind of karma-in-this-lifetime? If so, the sacrifices are a means of propitiating God in order to manipulate God into treating us with kindness and generosity.

I suspect that this is his meaning, but for me, the midrash serves as a warning that in the world of sacrifices there is the risk of seeing sacrifices as “payment-in-advance” in a tit for tat universe. By such thinking, no gift is pure; it is always given with an expectation of being paid in kind because reciprocity rules. Our lives are complex enough to marshal “evidence” to prove the conjecture that God (or other people, or the world itself, for that matter) operates as Rav Yehudah reads Psalm 18:26. As his cherry-picking verses from Genesis to fit his interpretation that God responds in kind, do we find a warning that we do the same thing, recalling with emphasis words and events that fit our theory, ignoring those that fail to confirm a tit for tat perspective?

The Japanese housing market has fallen into a vicious cycle, one of waste and destruction, and one which prevents Japanese families from accumulating wealth and establishing an economically vibrant society. In a similar way, the thinking exemplified by this midrash can engender a vicious circle in our lives of seeing the entire world as tit for tat: a place that is unsafe, unfair, and unkind. In fact, the purpose of the sacrifices is to demonstrate love and loyalty to God without a definitive and detailed expectation of personal return on the investment, because when we give out of love and loyalty, we build vibrant and enduring relationships.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, March 10, 2014

Priestly fashions—what's trending this season? / Parshat Tzav

In second grade, I assumed that my teacher lived at the school. After all, that’s the only place I saw her. In third grade, a friend and I rode our bikes through her neighborhood and passed my social studies teacher, gardening in her front yard. What a shock! She lived in a house and had a life outside school. I suppose that wouldn’t come as a surprise to children these days. Yet the students of Jim O’Connor, who teaches math at St. Francis High School in La Canada, California, knew nothing of their math teacher’s life outside school either. Mr. O’Connor, a Vietnam vet with short-cropped hair, an unexpressive face (at least in the classroom), and stern countenance, is a strict teacher. He doesn’t believe school can be fun. He expects students to work hard. He is not the sort to coddle anyone—or so his students thought, until one of them, Pat McGoldrick, discovered a hidden side to Mr. O’Connor, buried beneath his forbidding exterior.

In parshat Tzav we read about the consecration of Aaron as High Priest, and his sons as priests. In preparation for the ceremony, Moses dresses Aaron in the raiment of his office:

He put the tunic on him, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him, girding him with the decorated band with which he tied it to him. He put the breastpiece on him, and put into the breastpiece the Urim and Thumim. And he set the headdress on his head; and on the headdress, in front, he put the gold frontlet, the holy diadem—as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Leviticus 8:7-9)

Appearance—the outside wrapping—is important. Talmud tells us that when it comes to the priesthood, the clothes make the man:

While they are clothed in the priestly garments, they are clothed in the priesthood; but when they are not wearing the garments, the priesthood is not upon them. (BT Zevachim 17b)

This is particularly interesting because when it comes to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, when the High Priest plays the central and decisive role in the nation’s ritual, we find something curious and anomalous. The High Priest had two sets of raiment: the “Golden Garments” and the “Linen Garments” between which he changed four times. At the outset of the day, the High Priest wore the sparkling, impressive, regal Golden Garments. Talmud (BT Yoma 23b) describes how he changed into the far plainer Linen Garments for the two occasions he would enter the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. The first time he entered to offer the blood of the atonement offering and the incense; the second time he entered to retrieve the incense censor. In between, he donned the Golden Garments.

The High Priest appears one way—robed in gold robes—in front of the people, but quite another way—dressed in simple linen garments—in God’s presence. All pretenses stripped away, his exterior revealing his inner self, the High Priest presented himself before God as himself.

Mr. O’Connor also presented a façade to his students: strict and demanding—outer garments of the man the students knew as stern and severe. But Pat McGoldrick, during a visit to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles to arrange a blood drive, noticed that on a plaque listing the biggest blood donors, Mr. O’Connor’s name headed the list. He then discovered that Mr. O’Connor also comes to the hospital not to give blood, but to give love. He may not have coddled his students, but three days each week for 20 years, he has come to Children’s Hospital to cuddle, feed, and comfort babies whose parents cannot be with them. Beneath the gruff exterior is an altogether different man than Mr. O’Connor’s students thought they knew.

Perhaps the High Priest divested of his Golden Garments and donned simple, revealing linen garments because, before God, all is seen and all is known.

And perhaps the message for us is twofold: First, we sometimes think we know people, as Mr. O’Connor’s students believed they knew their calculus teacher to be gruff and cold. We know far less than we think, and this is especially true concerning the pain and burdens so many people carry with them through life. It is for this reason that our Sages taught dan et kol ha-adam l’chaf z’chut—judge everyone for merit, given them the benefit of the doubt.

The second message concerns us: We might be tempted to laud Mr. O’Connor’s quiet practice of chesed (loving kindness) as an act of humility, but that would probably be wrong. Mr. O’Connor, when interviewed by a reporter, said he didn’t want his tender and compassionate side revealed to his students, and that’s too bad. Pat McGoldrick said, “I’ve always respected him, but now it’s a different degree really, to the point where I try to emulate him. He’s the epitome of a man of service.” Perhaps we should hide less behind the trappings of our positions, jobs, titles, or stations in life, and be as the High Priest in the Holy of Holies: clothed in simpler garments and there to be of service.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, March 3, 2014

Size matters / Parshat Vayikra

Every family has its own in-house competitions. For a time, ours revolved around who could bring home the most ludicrous certificate. In the heyday of self-esteem-through-worksheets-and-certificates, it seemed that no matter what the kids did, they brought home a certificate or award, often merely for being there. I shudder to think how many trees were felled to print all these certificates. My daughter Naomi won the family competition with a certificate so absurd, it brought the contest to a grounding halt: she received a “certificate of invitation” to apply to a pricy summer program. The underlying thinking behind the deluge of certificates was that self-esteem was deemed an essential entitlement of all children. And while I agree that self-esteem is crucially important, it is arguable whether passing out certificates of participation and invitation cultivates genuine self-esteem. And this brings us to the topic of humility, because self-esteem built on a pile of rubbish generates arrogance and closes out the possibility for humility.
This week we open Torah to the Book of Leviticus and, if we peer into a sefer Torah (the hand-written scroll), we see what appears to be an error: the last letter of the very first word (ויקרא “He called”) is written smaller than the other letters: 

Sloppy penmanship? While we do not know the origin of the small aleph, the traditional explanation of its meaning is that the undersized aleph is Moses’ expression of humility. Aleph is the first letter of אני (“I”)—and Moses diminished its size out of humility, as if to say: God’s word is what is important, not mine.

Our Sages speak often and eloquently about the importance of anavah (“humility”). The Rabbis revered Abraham, Moses, and Hillel for their humility and held them aloft as exemplars. In pleading with God on behalf of the innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham addressed God, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). Moses, the paradigm of a leader, prophet, and sage, is considered the most anavah (“humble”) of all people. Talmud recounts (Pesachim 66a) that when Hillel comes to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) from Babylonia he is asked whether the laws of the Passover sacrifice override shabbat (i.e., may the paschal lamb be sacrificed on shabbat). He responds, employing logical reasoning, and is instantly elevated to the position of Nasi, president of the Sanhedrin. No sooner is Hillel designated the leader of the Jewish community than he is asked another question: If one forgets to bring the knife to slaughter the Passover offering to the Temple prior to shabbat, what do we do, since carrying the knife on shabbat is forbidden and does not override shabbat? Hillel, the newly selected leader, responds openly, honestly, and with deep humility: I don’t know; let’s see what the people do. And sure enough, the answer becomes evident when they walk outside and see that one man has inserted the knife into the wool of the sheep and another has placed it between the horns of a goat, both allowing the animal to carry the knife to the Temple.

Surely a strong and healthy ego is a good thing. Without it, one cannot survive, let alone thrive. But as a master of Musar (Jewish ethics) Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Satanov (1749-1826) reminds us: “Human self-adoration is the strongest love that God implanted within the animal spirit…” (Cheshbon ha-Nefesh). This is both an acknowledgement that a robust ego is a gift from God, and simultaneously an unequivocal warning that excessive ego is a dangerous pitfall, turning a human being into a self-absorbed animal. 

Self-worship is all too common. Equally common is the desire to be adored by others. Musar teacher Alan Morinis (Everyday Holiness) tells a wonderful and funny story about this. Once, after finishing a talk, a woman approached him and began, “You have a wonderful, wonderful…” but then could not finish her thought. Morinis says that he imagined her completing the sentence, “way with words” or “presence.” He could virtually taste the adulation that was surely on the tip of her tongue. When the woman found her words and completed her thought, however, she said: “…wife.” And so we do well to hold close the admonition of Bachya ibn Pakuda (11th century author of Chovot ha-Levavot, “Duties of the Heart”), “All virtues are dependent on humility.” Humility is the gateway to developing other traits we would wish to have.

But it is not enough to appear humble. In fact, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (in Midot ha-Re-iya) pointed out that phony humility is detrimental to our wellbeing, and the difference between feigned humility and the real thing is not difficult to discern:
Genuine humility and lowliness increase health and vitality, whereas the imaginary (humility) causes illness and melancholy.  Therefore, one ought to choose for oneself the traits of humility and lowliness in their clear form, and thus become strong and valiant… Whenever humility brings about melancholy, it is invalid.  But when it is worthy, it engenders joy, courage and inner glory… At times we should not be afraid of the feeling of greatness, which elevates a person to do great things.  And all humility is based on such a holy feeling of greatness.

How, then, do we cultivate genuine humility? I love the way Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein expressed it: “Genuine anava [humility] says, ‘I am capable of doing much more, and therefore I must.’” Rabbi Krumbein reminds us that when we convert ego into a sense of obligation, we avoid excessive self-importance and retain the pure core of humility. The focus is not on our assets, but rather how we can use what we have to bless others.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wiki-Tabernacle / Parshat Pikuei

Just as the economic disaster of 2008 hit, in which sub-prime loans fueled an inflated real estate bubble that subsequently exploded, giving way to unprecedented numbers of foreclosures and thousands upon thousands losing their homes, Alistair Parvin graduated from architecture school. Not surprisingly, the demand for architects plummeted, ironically planting the seed ideas for the Wikihouse, Parvin’s open-source project for Build-Your-Own homes. With Wikihouse, people can design their own homes using a free library of 3D models and blueprints, and use a "printer" to cut out the pieces from plywood. The printer even produces mallets to facilitate the wedge and peg construction. With pieces and tools in hand, you engage the “social economy” (that means call your friends to come help) and— well, if you grew up with lego, tinker toys, erector sets or more recently have put together an Ikea bookcase, you get the picture—a 21st century barn-raising.

Parshat Pikudei—indeed much of the Book of Exodus—describes the Israelites’ barn-raising, or rather Mishkan-raising. The Mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle) is a home, a dwelling place for God, and the Israelites build it much as a Wikihouse comes into being: it is the democratization of production. How so? First, the entire community provides the materials and labor. Pikudei opens with a materials list. Here are a few snatches:

All the gold that was used for the work… came to 29 talents and 730 shekels by the sanctuary weight. The silver… came to 100 talents and 1,775 shekels by the sanctuary weight… The copper… came to 70 talents and 2,500 shekels…

The ephod was made of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen. They hammered out sheets of gold and cut threads to be worked into designs among the blue, the purple, and the crimson yarns, and fine linen…

The breastpiece…was square… They set in it four rows of stones. The first row was a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper….

(Exodus 38:24-29, 39:2-3, 8-13)

Next, Torah tells us that the people brought all the components of the Tabernacle to Moses:

…with the Tent and all the furnishings: its clasps, its planks, its bars, its posts, and its sockets; the covering of tanned ram skin, the covering of dolphin skins, and the curtain for the screen; the Ark the Pact and its poles, and the cover; the table and all its utensils, and the bread of display; the pure lampstand, its lamps—lamps in due order—and all its fittings, and the oil for lighting; the altar of gold, the oil for anointing, the aromatic incense, and the screen for the entrance of the Tent; the copper altar with its copper grating, its poles and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand; the hanging of the enclosure, its posts and its sockets, the screen for the gate of the enclosure, its cords and its pegs—all the furnishings for the service of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting… (Exodus 39:33-40)

And finally, it’s barn-raising day: On the first day of the tenth month, the Israelites gathered together as a community to set up the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:2).

The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847–1905) sees a lovely connection between this account of the Mishkan barn-raising and the account of Creation. Torah tells us that after completing the work of Creation, God blessed the world and declared it holy (Genesis 2:2-3). The same language—of work, of completion, of blessing—is here in Parshat Pikudei, as well.

All the labor of the Tabernacle was completed; the Israelites did just as God had commanded Moses; such did they do…
When Moses saw that they had performed all the work—as Adonai had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them. (Exodus 39:32, 43)

The S’fat Emet notes that God had already blessed all of creation (in the second chapter of Genesis) so there was no need to bless Israel separately. This Moses does when they close the circle of creation by constructing the Tabernacle.

But it seems to me that there is also a fundamental difference between the two blessings. God blesses creation as a natural, self-sustaining order; that is, for its existence and for its potential. Moses, in contrast, blesses the people for what they do as God’s partners in the on-going enterprise of Creation. These distinctive blessings come together here: As God created a home for people—this world—so the people create a dwelling place for God, drawing God’s Presence into their lives.

The building of homes is sacred work, be it a dwelling place for the divine or a house for people to shelter from the elements, raise a family, and find refuge from the hurricanes of life, real and metaphorical. Homes are incubators for loving and nurturing relationships, and for learning values that send us out into the world to help others and make the world a better place for our having lived. Homes are the places we return to when we are weary, disillusioned, grieving, or in search of support. Just as the Tabernacle is a place where the Israelites can come home to God, we hope that our homes are all that for us, as well. We hope that our homes are places of blessing.

But what of those who lack a roof over their head? The scourge of homelessness in our country continues unabated because we, as a society, have failed to affirm the democratization of living with a roof over one’s head. The status quo is morally, religiously, and socially unacceptable, and groups like Habitat for Humanity have taught us that where there is good will, there is a way. There are other creative solutions. Here are a few:

The Carver Apartments, Los Ageles (here and here)

In addition to involving ourselves in spreading the blessing of home so more have roofs over their heads, those of us who have a permanent or even temporary address (after all, the Mishkan moved around as the people journeyed through the wilderness) face the challenge of turning our house or apartment or room into a home. Gratitude is a good start, as is being a blessing to those who live under the same roof with us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman