Sunday, May 23, 2010

Change and Second Chances / B'haalotekha

The autumn is packed with holy days: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah. By the time they have passed, many of us are on holiday overload.

There is a midrash attributed to R. Levi that tells us that God originally intended every month of the Jewish year to feature a festival for celebration. But the incident of the Golden Calf caused God to revoke the festivals planned for the summer months of Tammuz, Av, and Elul. To compensate, Tishrei has two extra holy occasions. The third compensating festival was assigned to Iyyar and it is Pesach Sheni, which we read about in Numbers chapter 9 in this week’s parashah.

Pesach Sheni means “a second Passover” and it comes one month after Pesach. Pesach differs from other biblical festivals, where the “main event” was communal sacrifices. On Pesach, individuals bring sacrifices and share them with their families and friends. The one who brought a lamb to be sacrificed needed to be in a state of ritual purity (taharah). Anyone who had had contact with the dead (for example, by being present in the room when someone died, or by attending to a burial) and had not had time to undergo a purification ritual, could not bring, or eat, the pesach offering. Those who were far from home when Pesach came, and could not return to offer the pesach lamb, were also included among those who needed a “second chance.”
In this weeks’ parashah, the ritual of Pesach is delineated:
The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: Let the Israelite people offer the Passover sacrifice at its set time: you shall offer it on the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, at its set time; you shall offer it accordance with all its rules and rites… (Numbers 9:1-3)
Then we are told that those who could not participate raised an objection to Moses:
But there were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the Passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those men said to hem, “Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” Moses said to them, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you.” (Numbers 9:6-8)
Moses brings their concern to God, seeking a remedy:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord, they shall offer it in the second month on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and they shall not leave any of it over until morning. They shall not break a bone of it. They shall offer it in strict accord with the law of the Passover sacrifice. (Numbers 9:9-12)
B’haalotekha tells us that those who, on the 14th of Nisan following the Exodus were tamei by reason of contact with a corpse or who were far from the Temple, are to be given a second chance one month later.

Today we are not concerned with tum’ah (ritual impurity) from a corpse because everyone is a state of tum’ah and we no longer offer the pesach lamb. Therefore, Pesach Sheni has no practical import – though there are some who make a practice of eating a bit of matzah 30 days after Pesach. Yet there is one observation concerning the nature of Jewish law, and one message I’d like to share with you that derive from Pesach Sheni.

The observation: this is not the only case in which ordinary people question a law, and after Moses appeals to God, the law is changed. The daughters of Tzelophehad question the justice of the laws of inheritance. Upon appeal, God changes the law (Numbers 27:1-11 and 36:1-12). Pesach Sheni and the case of the daughters of Tzelophehad strongly suggest that Jewish law must be flexible in responding to the exigencies of life, responsive to individual and communal need, which changes with time, and responsive to our evolving understanding of justice, compassion, and ethics.

The underlying message of Pesach Sheni – that we have a second chance – is crucial to hear and internalize. So many lives are lived under a cloud of perceived opportunities missed, dreams unrealized, failures that cannot be redeemed. But that is not the case. It’s never too late to forgive someone else, never too late for forgive ourselves. It’s never too late to study Torah or embrace religious traditions. It’s never too late to learn a new skill or pursue a dream. Food for thought this Shabbat.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The mystery of the red heifer / Parshat Chukkat

On my desk sits a “red heifer” – in reality, it is a bright red plush ox with small horns, so quite possibly male. Close enough for a stuffed animal. It reminds me of the mysterious paradox of the parah adumah (red heifer). Torah tells us that ashes of the parah adumah (red heifer) alone affected ritual purification due to contact with the dead. However, those who came into contact with the red heifer’s ashes because they are involved in its preparation, burning, and cleanup, are made impure through this contact. I don’t pretend to understand this paradox. Even King Solomon, according to the Sages (Numbers Rabbah 19:3) admitted, “I have labored to understand God’s teaching, and have understood it all except the ritual of the red heifer.”

Here are the verses from Parshat Chukkat that describe the ritual of the red heifer:
This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight – its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included – and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest my reenter the camp, but he shall be unclean until evening. He who performed the burning shall also wash his garments in water, bathe his body in water, and be unclean until evening. A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing. He who gathers up the ashes of the cow shall also wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. This shall be a permanent law for the Israelites and for the strangers who reside among you. (Numbers 19: 1-10)
How can something that is innately purifying render those who deal with it impure?

A wise and loving friend recently reminded me of something in another context that perhaps sheds light on the paradox of the red heifer. Someone who faces a medical, emotional, or personal challenge – one that evokes pain, anxiety, and fear –needs the “purifying” love of those closest to them. Love and support, however, are costly to those who generously give them; they absorb some of the pain, anxiety, and fear. Perhaps that is the cost of love. But who would have it otherwise?

In ancient times, those who were in a state of tum’ah (ritual impurity) due to contact with a corpse could not participate in the life-affirming rituals of the Wilderness Tabernacle or later, the Temple in Jerusalem, until they were purified. It was through being sprinkled with the ashes of the parah adumah (red heifer) – which brought tum’ah (ritual impurity) to those who made the purification possible – that the impure one could become pure again.

The sustaining love of those closest to us is as enigmatic as the ashes of the red heifer. It is emotionally cleansing and spiritually purifying. It is the touch of God. Could there be a greater blessing amidst such mystery?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Returning to Sinai / Parshat B’midbar and Shavuot

Ironically, we begin reading Sefer B’midbar (the Book of Numbers) this shabbat. Shavuot, the occasion in our liturgical calendar when we relive our people’s sojourn at Mt. Sinai, where they received Torah and entered into an eternal covenant with God, begins this coming Tuesday at sundown. Yet before that, this coming shabbat, we read parshat B’midbar, which opens with our people preparing to depart Mt. Sinai after the revelation. Seems backwards, doesn’t it?

The Rabbis often explained difficult passages by saying ain mukdam v’ain me’uchar ba-Torah (“there is no early or late in the Torah”) meaning that the accounts in Torah are not always chronologically arranged. That is not our problem here (if, indeed, we have a problem), since reading Parshat B’midbar this shabbat occurs merely as a coincidence of our cycle of reading. However, it would have been nice to celebrate Shavuot – when we will roll the Torah back to Exodus 19 and reread the account of Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), and then the following shabbat read Parshat B’midbar.

This occasions several thoughts:

First, for Revelation to be meaningful, it might be sufficient to relive it publicly and communally twice each year – when we read Parshat Yitro (which contains Exodus chapter 19) and with even greater celebration and attention on Shavuot, but it is not sufficient to relive it personally and privately only twice a year. Revelation is continual: it is the ceaseless suffusing of Torah values through our lives so the direction of our lives and the choices we make are informed by Torah and in response to God. It’s difficult to maintain this kind of mindfulness, but there is much in our tradition to help us. Our Torah liturgy – each time Torah is read publicly, but especially on shabbat – is intended to help us achieve a semblance of that experience – perhaps as “booster shots” from one Shavuot to the next. Torah study can help us achieve the experience of Torah al levavcha (“in our hearts”). Private prayer and meditation is grounding for many people.

Second, Parshat Bemidbar begins with an account of a census taken in the Wilderness. Ostensibly for the purpose of determining how many men were available to bear arms and defend the nation, the census reminds us that Jewish spirituality is not a solo sport, it’s a group endeavor. We live in a society that promotes rugged individualism in every realm, from sports to spirituality. But Judaism is a team sport, and life is best lived with other people in healthy interdependent relationships. We count people to make sure everyone counts. The manner in which the Tabernacle was dissembled and transported through the Wilderness by many, many people, each of whom carried a critically necessary part, and then reassembled together, is a magnificent model. Torah comes not only from Sinai, but from the midst of peoplehood and community; that is why when the Israelites set up camp, the Tabernacle is in the center (see Numbers, chapter 2).

Third, for Revelation to have depth and sticking power, we need teachers who will open new doors for us and keep the experience of revelation flowing. For most of us, truly learning Torah doesn’t happen either automatically or by ourselves. Rabbi Yehoshua b. Perachyah taught Aseh l’kha rav, u’k’nei l’kha chaveir (“Get yourself a teacher and acquire a friend to study,” Pirke Avot 1:6). Parshat Bemidbar closes with a description of the election, organization, and service of the Levites, who were charged not only with sacrificial service in the Tabernacle, but also with teaching Torah and leading worship. This is a reminder that we need to find opportunities to learn that will stretch us, challenge us, and help us grow in Torah.

What combines all three observations? They all require effort and, and if we have isolated ourselves, breaking out of our shells and joining with others to study and celebrate.

Shabbat shalom and Chag sameach.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Slavery in the Torah / Behar-Bechukkotai

We close out the Book of Leviticus with this week’s double portion: Behar and Bechukkotai. In parshat Behar we find laws concerning indentured servants and slaves. It’s hard to know if we should be relieved and inspired, or chagrined and embarrassed. How do we resolve the contradiction between ancient institutions (such as slavery, but slavery is not the only troubling institution permitted or required by Torah) and the elevated ethical values that seem utterly at odds with these institutions?

We read in parshat Behar that Torah places restraints on the institution of indentured servitude, encouraging the redemption of one who, because of financial straits, must sell himself into servitude. Having known the suffering of slavery, the Israelites are prohibited from enslaving one another. We would like to see this prohibition extended to non-Israelites, but the Torah does not go this far. It further instructs that when Israelites are pressed into indentured servitude by foreigners, they should be redeemed by their families.

Torah does not obliterate servitude and slavery, which were rife in the ancient world, but rather limits them and continually reminds us to show compassion to others, strongly suggesting that slavery should fall by the wayside, For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God (Leviticus 25:55).

How can Torah, which teaches that each and every human being is created in the divine image, countenance slavery? Why didn’t Torah abolish slavery once and for all, in one valiant, dramatic, radical sweep?

It has often been explained that ancient agricultural economies would have collapsed without the staples of indentured servants and slaves. That claim was made far more recently when our own country faced the debacle of the Civil War in the mid-19th century. Torah, the explanation goes, limits slavery, promotes redemption of indentured servants, and lays a groundwork for eventually ending all slavery and servitude as a matter of justice and compassion, rather than legislative caveat.

And so we find in the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides) the laws concerning slavery couched in ethical terms that rely on us to “do the right thing.”
It is permissible to work a non-Jewish servant harshly. Yet, although this is the law, the way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a servant, and to provide them from every dish and every drink.

The early sages would give their servants from every dish on their table. They would feed their animals and their servants before sitting to their own meals. Does it not say, As the eyes of the servant to the hand of his master; as the eyes of the maid to her mistress [so our eyes are towards the Lord our God...] (Psalms 123:2).

So, too, you should not denigrate a servant, neither physically nor verbally. The Torah made him your servant to do work, not to be disgraced. Do not treat him with constant screaming and anger, rather speak with him pleasantly and listen to his complaints. Such were the good ways in which Job took pride when he said, Did I ever despise the judgment of my servant and my maid when they argued with me?... Did not my Maker make him, too, in the belly; did not the same One form us both in the womb? (Job 31: 13, 15)

For anger and cruelty are only found among other nations. The children of Abraham, our father – and they are Israel, to whom the Holy One, blessed be God, has provided the goodness of Torah and commanded us righteous judgments and statutes – they are compassionate to all. This is one of the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be God, that we are commanded to emulate: God has compassion for all God has made (Psalms 145:9).

Furthermore, all who have compassion will be treated compassionately, as it is written, God will give you compassion and God will have compassion upon you and multiply you (Deuteronomy 13:18).

(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Indentured Servants 9:8)
Rambam has faith that those who take Torah seriously, internalizing its values, will come out on the side of compassion and justice. August Bondi, an immigrant to Nebraska from Austria in 1848, was active in the Free State movement, which advocated that Nebraska become an anti-slavery state. The vote was stolen by heavily armed pro-slavery factions, and Bondi joined John Brown’s raid in 1856. Bondi survived the battle and continue to champion the anti-slavery movement. Michael Heilprin immigrated from Europe in 1858. A biblical scholar, critic, and writer, he was appalled by the infamous proslavery sermon preached by Rabbi M. J. Raphall from the pulpit of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City on January 4, 1861. A week later, Heilprin published a passionate editorial in opposition (you can read it here). Heilprin rightly distinguishes what Torah permitted in the ancient world from the values it inculcated and later traditions that teach us to create a better world. Rabbi David Einhorn was among those who did just what Rambam trusted many Jews would do. He spoke vehemently and vociferously against slavery from his pulpit at Har Sinai in Baltimore. In 1861 an angry mob threatened him with violent – tarring and feathering – and he fled to Philadelphia But he did not relent in the pursuit of Abolition. These three, and many more, fulfilled Rambam's expectation.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman