Monday, March 29, 2010

Double Dipping / Pesach

Among the myriad customs and traditions that comprise the complex and delicious drama of the Pesach seder are two dippings: near the beginning of the seder we dip parsley into salt water, and just before the seder meal we dip maror (bitter herbs) into charoset (a sweet fruit concoction). (With love and affection to those who believe that dipping matzah into chocolate ought to be a central seder practice, I’m going to limit myself to the two more traditional dippings here.) Life often dishes out good and bad, blessings and curses, together, but at different stages of our journey toward redemption, one taste predominates over the other.

For the first dipping we drench sweet parsley in salt water. The parsley symbolizes springtime which embodies the promise of life and renewal, so central to the meaning of the story of the Exodus. Our ancestors left Egypt for a new life in the wilderness, freed from the grasp of Pharaoh, free to commit themselves to God. The salt water evokes the painful, bitter tears our ancestors shed as slaves in Egypt. When we dip parsley into salt water, we acknowledge that there are times when the promise of new life and renewal is temporarily drowned by the bitter reality that overtakes and overwhelms us. Perhaps for a time all we taste are salty tears, all we feel is the pain of slavery. In Hebrew, the name for Egypt is Mitzrayim meaning “the narrow straits.” Life imposes many narrow straits that entrap and enslave us, closing us off from the sense that life and renewal can be ours. Yet the core of the first dipping is parsley, not salt water: we say borei p’ri ha-adamah (“Creator of the fruit of the earth”), a blessing over the sweet, green parsley, not over the salt water.

For the second dipping we take up maror, the bitter herb that symbolizes the bitterness of slavery in all its manifestations – physical, political, social, psychological, emotional, spiritual – and dip it in sweet charoset. The bitterness of the maror is masked by the sweetness of the charoset. The maror is there, but we primarily taste the exquisite sweetness of charoset, made from fruits and wine, God’s bounty combined with our quintessential symbol of joy. This time, it is over the maror that we say the blessing: asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al achilat maror (“Who has made us holy through commandments and commanded us to eat the maror”).

Pesach is about redemption, about moving from a place of slavery and degradation, pain and suffering, to a place of dignity and freedom, peace and well-being. Redemption can be a transformation, a journey, or a miracle – or perhaps combine them all. It is a complex process, both for our ancestors and for us a physical and spiritual journey, often with unforeseen twists and turns along the way. In the beginning, the sweet possibility of life and renewal are barely recognizable for the tears (parsley dipped in salt water), yet down the road redemption brings a sweet taste to the tongue (maror dipped in charoset). Yet the parsley is there beneath the salty taste, and the maror is there beneath the charoset.

Life dishes out the good and the bad, the blessings and the curses together. Even in our darkest moments, God’s promise of redemption and spiritual healing exists, however elusive the taste, however difficult to experience. And after we have crossed through the Reed Sea and experienced redemption, the bitterness of where we have been stays with us as a memory, hopefully not scar tissue on our souls, but memory that increases our capacity for compassion and love.

This Pesach, let us dip twice and with each dipping savor both tastes, knowing that life is a tapestry of good and bad, but God promises that redemption and healing are possible and helps us find the route out of Mitzrayim to the wilderness.

(c) Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tossing God's Dice - Twice / Parshat Tzav / Shabbat haGadol

The seal of Yale University shows a folio inscribed with two Hebrew terms that we find in this week’s parashah, urim v’tumim, below which are the Latin words “Lux et Veritas” (“light and truth”). You’ll notice that I translated the Latin, but not the Hebrew. That is because it’s easy to translate the Latin, but far more difficult to translate the Hebrew. (For more on the Yale University seal, see as fascinating discussion of its possible philosophical, religious, and political underpinnings click here.)

In parshat Tzav we read the account of Moses’ ordination of the priests, and in particular, Aaron his brother as the High Priest:
Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water. He put the tunic on him [Aaron], 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 Tumim. And he set the headdress on his head; and on the headdress, in front, he put the gold frontlet, the holy diadem – as Adonai had commanded Moses. (Leviticus 8: 6-9)
Aaron wore a special, colorful outer garment called an ephod, as well as a breastplate encrusted with 12 precious and semi-precious stones, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, because as High Priest, Aaron served as their emissary to God in making sacrifices (see Exodus 28:15-30). It might be helpful to have a picture of what the High Priest looked like in all his regalia. Here is one:

The urim v’tumim were secreted inside the breastpiece. The terms “urim” and “tumim” seem to mean “light” and “whole/right.” They were objects that the High Priest employed when he could not discern the answer to a significant question and needed to consult God. Some commentators have suggested that they were piece of parchment. Scholars have suggested that the urim v’tumim were oracular objects, in shape and function similar to dice, with “yes” and “no” inscribed on each.

Does this mean that discerning God’s will is tantamount to tossing die?

Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman of Girondi, 1194-1270, also known as Nachmanides) tells us that the urim would cause the stones of the breastpiece, which were inscribed with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, to light up when the High Priest sought an answer from God, but the response always came scrambled. The tumim provided ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) that enabled the High Priest to decode the information from the urim.

I think there is a message about decision-making here for us. When confronted with a difficult or sensitive dilemma, we would often like a simple “yes” or “no” so we can stop pondering our decision and move on. Accordingly, we often latch onto a simplistic reason for our “yes” or “no,” often couching it in large, all-embracing terms, such as “One should never…” or “It’s always good to…” or “I couldn’t possibly…” This is the answer of the urim. But it is not always a sufficient response to an important question. We must also consult the tumim that imbues us with ruach ha-kodesh (divine inspiration). When we consider how our situation relates to God and others, how our question is situated in the broader and divine scheme of things, and the long-term effects of what we do, we bring more sensitivity and sanctity to the decision-making process. We unscrambled the message of the urim and see it with greater clarity, increasing the chances that we will arrive at “light and truth” and get the “whole” thing “right.”

This coming Shabbat is Shabbat HaGadol, the shabbat preceding Pesach. Traditionally, the sermon on that day is reserved for answering questions about the complex minutiae of Pesach observance. However, the Haftarah from Malachi contains God’s promise to rebuild the Temple following its destruction by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C.E. The prophet reminds us that hope is found in repentance, observance, and practices that reflect divine justice – all behaviors that require us to make appropriate decisions for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our society. The Haftarah ends with these stirring words, concerning Elijah the Prophet:
Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parent with children and children with parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction. (Malachi 3:23-24)
According to tradition, in the messianic age, Elijah will answer all our unanswered questions. Until then, we must answer some of those questions as best we can. The model of the urim v’tumim can guide us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Ideal Dinner Table / Parshat Vayikra

Why did God want – or why did our ancestors understand God to command – the sacrifice of animals and grains, with their accompanying incense offerings and wine libations? How does this serve God? How does this ennoble Israel? In what way does this promote kedushah (holiness)? Torah asserts often that God enjoys the “sweet savor” of the sacrifices offered by humans. But does this mean that God “needs” or “wants” the sacrifices?

Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus), which we begin this week, reads much like a pocket manual for kohanim (priests) ministering in the Mishkan: when, under what circumstances, and how each sacrifice is to be made in the minutest detail. For some, this material is fascinating. For others, it is a major yawn. For yet others, it is a major embarrassment: the image of slaughtering animals, sprinkling their blood on the altar or against the curtain to the Holy of Holies, and burning their entrails so the smoke will rise to heaven – sounds brutal, primitive, irrational, and barbaric.

How might we think about the animal sacrifices that were the cornerstone of our people’s worship from Sinai until 70 C.E., from the completion of the Mishkan until the destruction of the Second Temple?

Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204), the consummate rationalist, makes a radical suggestion in his Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide for the Perplexed”). God ordained animal sacrifices to wean Israel off the idolatry they witnessed among the surrounding nations, and particularly to separate them from the abomination of human sacrifice:
They were used to a form of worship that included fire, and they were raised [in an environment that included] sacrificing animals on which they placed idols… It was for this reason that God preserved these kinds of worship, but transferred them from creatures and imaginary matters, and commanded us [to sacrifice] to God, may God be praised. (Moreh Nevuchim, section 3, chapter 32)
Rambam is saying that God never desired sacrifice for God’s own sake, and indeed it has no intrinsic religious value. The entire sacrificial system is a concession designed to provide Israel a stepping stone along the path from primitive paganism to ideal worship, comprised of prayer, study, and deeds of kindness. Rambam further suggests that the particular animals sacrificed in the Mishkan, and later in the Temple, were chosen to correspond to the deities worshiped by ancient peoples. Sheep, he held, were worshiped in Egypt; goats were worshiped in Chaldea; and cattle were worshiped in India. Israel would thereby uproot idolatry in the very act of sacrificing sheet, goats, and cattle to God.

Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi, 1194-1270, also known as Nachmanides) claimed that the Rambam’s explanation was sheer nonsense. Torah affirms frequently that God enjoys the “sweet savor” of the sacrifices. Abel and Noah offered sacrifices yet they were not Jews and their sacrifices had nothing to do with idolatry. Rather, Ramban tells us, offering sacrifices acknowledges our subservience to God because through sacrifice, we substitute an animal life for a human life. Moreover, Israel’s sacrifices ensured that the Shechinah (God’s divine presence in our world) would remain among them and not depart.

Curiously, we find in Vayikra Rabbah a midrash that seems to span the seemingly unbridgeable abyss between Rambam (Maimonides) and Ramban (Nachmanides). The midrash addresses Leviticus 17:3 which seems to suggest that the only permissible consumption of meat is that which was slaughtered by the priests in the Tabernacle. The midrash presents an argument between R. Yishmael and R. Akiba in which the former says that Leviticus 17:3 comes to permit the non-sacred slaughter of meat, which had previously been forbidden, and the latter claims the inverse. R. Yishmael, who claims that Torah limits slaughter and consumption of meat to sacrifices, teaches:
It was taught by R. Yishmael: Owing to the fact that in the wilderness Israel were forbidden to eat flesh of desire, Scripture exhorts them that they should bring their sacrifices to the priest, and the priest would slaughter them and receive the blood. Although the owners sat and thought all day long [that they intended their offerings for idols] everything depends only on the one who slaughters [i.e. the priest, not the person who brings the sacrifice]… R. Pinchas said in the name of R. Levi: This is analogous to a king’s son who thought he could do what he liked and habitually ate the flesh of all types of carrion. The king said: “I will have him always [eat] at my own table and he will become habituated to eating [as we do at this table].” Similarly, because Israel were passionate followers after idolatry in Egypt and used to bring their sacrifices to the goat-demons, as it is written, And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat-demons (Leviticus. 17:7)… the Holy One blessed be God said: “Let them offer their sacrifices to Me at all times in the Tent of Meeting and thus they will be separated from idolatry and be saved from punishment.” (Leviticus Rabbah 22:7, 8)
The king seeks to inculcate new habits in his brutish son, but as a parent he also cherishes the company of his child and the communion their time together makes possible. There is sacred meeting at the dinner table – just as there is sacred time at the family dinner table today. The king takes pleasure in his son’s company and his son’s progress.

For our ancestors, the Tabernacle was the nexus of heaven and earth. Imagine a cone (representing heaven) with the large side opening up and the small end downward, touching a second cone (representing earth) whose small end faces upward and whose bottom opens downward. What joins the realms of heaven and earth? Where do they meet? The nexus is the Mishkan, where sacrifices are offered. Torah, the Book of Leviticus especially, reflects an idyllic memory of the Mishkan – complete, perfect, ideal. Earth as a reflection of heaven; sacrifice as a conduit between heaven and earth. The ideal family dinner table at which are seated God and God’s children, loving one another talking with one another, sharing what is most precious with one another.

If we do not long for a return to sacrifices (and while some do, many of us do not), we nonetheless long for the idealized vision of connection with heaven, an open conduit for our thoughts and prayers, and God’s presence and compassion. That, our Sages have taught, comes through Torah, prayer, and gemilut chasadim (deeds of loving kindness). What have you done this week to open the conduit and keep the flow moving?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mirror, mirror on the laver / Parshat Vayakhel

The ritual of washing our hands before eating bread derives from the requirement of the kohanim (priests) who washed their hands and feet prior to service in the Mishkan (wilderness Tabernacle) and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Rabbis transferred this ritual from the sacred precinct into the home, the mikdash m’at (small sanctuary) so we would all be “priests” and could all participate.

This week’s parashah, Vayakhel (which we read coupled with Pekudei) continues the description of the furnishings and rituals of the Tabernacle. Among these was the laver, where the kohanim washed their hands and feet. The laver stood between the altar and the entrance to the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting).
He made the laver of copper and its pedestal of copper, from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks [tzav’u] at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8)
What are these mirrors and what did the women do that was so noteworthy?

Rashi, drawing on Sotah 11b, comments:
The daughters of Israel had in their possession copper mirrors that they would look into when they would beautify themselves. Even these they did not withhold from bringing to contribute to the Mishkan. But Moses rejected them because they were made for [accomplishing acts of] the evil inclination. The Holy One, blessed be God, said [to Moses]: “Accept [the mirrors] because these are the dearest to Me of all, for by means of them, the women established many legions [tz’vaot rabot] in Egypt.” When their husbands would be exhausted by the oppressive work, they would go and bring them food and drink and feed them. Then they would take the mirrors, and each would view herself with her husband in the mirror and entice him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” By these means, they would bring their husbands to desire and would have sexual relations with them, and conceive and give birth there, as it is said, Under the apple tree I aroused you (Song of Songs 8:5).
Moses is concerned that the mirrors are used only for vanity, and vanity leads to lewdness and immortality. Moses sees them as instruments of the Yetzer Ra (the evil inclination) and thereby unsuitable for the purifying laver. But God sees the situation differently: when Israel was enslaved in Egypt, the women used the mirrors to entice their exhausted husbands into having sexual relations with them so that children would be born and the people would survive. They saved the Jewish people through flirtation, love, tender care paid to their husbands, and a commitment to bringing forth another generation. Given all that negativity and judgmentalism that surrounds sexuality in our society, this is a wonderfully positive and affirming midrash. It tells us that sexuality that leads to stable, loving relationships and households is desirable and praiseworthy. This speaks to the current controversy surrounding same-sex marriages.

Yoma 69b fancifully recounts that on one occasion, people captured the Yetzer Ra and imprisoned it in a sealed lead container, hoping to rid the world of evil.
They imprisoned him for three days, then looked throughout the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find one. They said: What shall we do now? Shall we kill him? They world would then go down. Shall we beg for half-mercy? They do not grant halves in heaven. They put out his eyes and let him go. It helped insofar as he no longer lures men against relatives. (Yoma 69b)
The midrash Rashi cites, as well as the one from Yoma remind us that the Yetzer Ra is an urge deriving from our natural biological-sexual energy. Certainly there is the possibility of doing much evil, but so too can it be harnessed for positive purposes. The Rabbis understood that that without the energy of the Yetzer Ra, “no man would build a house or marry a wife” and no constructive work would be done. The goal then, is to use sexual energy for good.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How much is a half-shekel really? / Parshat Ki Tissa

Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk (1717-1786) taught, “Money is like fire. Like fire it can destroy and annihilate, or illuminate and warm, depending on how it is used.” An economic downturn is an appropriate time to revisit the questions how we use our financial resources, and the meaning of money in people’s lives.

The Israelites, newly freed from Egyptian bondage, have generously contributed their resources – as we are told in Terumah and Tetzaveh – to build the Mishkan (wilderness Tabernacle) to invite God’s presence into their lives. They have invested the little they possess in creating community, investing community with spirituality, and assuring that future generations would have a stake in the Covenant forged at Mt. Sinai. They did not ask: does this meet my personal needs right now? They acted out of generosity, considering the needs of the community and future generations, a most inspiring model for us.

In this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, we are told that every Israelite contributes equally each year to the Mishkan:
This is what everyone who is entered into the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight – twenty gerahs to the shekel – a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord… the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering as expiation for your persons. (Exodus 30: 13, 15)
The half-shekel is a nominal amount, but all matters related to money have the potential to be either divisive or unifying. We have all seen this in families, in synagogues, and in civic society. But what does it mean that the half-shekel was given as expiation, or ransom, for one’s soul?

Menachem Mendel, the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859) explained: Moses could not understand how a mere coin could serve a person as "a ransom for his soul to God.” God answered him by showing him a "coin of fire." God was saying that when a person performs even a modest act of charity with the fire of passion and enthusiasm, he is indeed giving a piece of his soul. As we learn to live on less, we must learn to appreciate each act of generosity more – a good idea at all times, but a necessity now. At a time when finances are tight, it is all the more important that our synagogues, societal institutions, and political institutions be more responsive to the needs of its members, and not only the goals and desires of those in positions of power.

Midrash HaGadol says that the essence of the half-shekel mitzvah is that each person should contribute half the value of the dominant coin at the time, be it a takal, a selah, or a darcon. A Hasidic master asked: Why not a complete coin? To teach that no person is complete unto him or herself. Only by joining with another can a person become a “whole being.”

In the case of the half-shekel, two half-shekels combined to make one whole are not sufficient either. The contributions of the entire community are needed: the creativity, strength, enthusiasm, participation, and caring of everyone is needed for the Tabernacle to function properly. So too our institutions and communities. Our task is to encourage everyone to see that their half-shekel is worth intrinsically more than its nominal monetary value.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman