Monday, April 25, 2011

What is Holiness? / Parshat Kedoshim

We have arrived at the peak of the Torah. Imagine Torah as a mountain – like Everest or Sinai. Think of Genesis and Exodus as the ascent up one face. The first half of Leviticus is the final assault on the peak. The latter half of Leviticus is the first step of the trek down the other side, with Numbers and Deuteronomy comprising the rest of the trip to the base camp.

Each year we climb the mountain. Year after year. At the peak of the mountain is the 19th chapter of Leviticus, which has come to be dubbed by Bible scholars “The Holiness Code” because it spells out in detail, and by example, what it means to live a holy life in covenant with God. Fulfillment of the Holiness Code is the greatest height to which we, as human beings, can ascend.

At the very moment Moses ascended Mount Sinai, God instructed him to tell the people, “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Holiness Code begins with these words:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community, and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:1-2)
Is “holy” here description or prescription? This is not a description of the Israelites. It is a prescriptive statement: Be holy because I, the Lord your God [in whose image you were created] am holy.

What follow in rapid succession are three commandments (Leviticus 19:3-4), which I present as a bulleted list for clarity:
  • You shall each revere his mother and his father,
  • and keep My Sabbaths: I the Lord am your God.
  • Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves: I the Lord am your God.
Respect your parents who gave you physical life. Keep my Sabbath celebrations of creation, and thereby appreciate God, the ground of existence, who made it possible for the universe to come into being. Do not be led astray and invest your spiritual energy running after idols; focus on what is ultimate.

Phrased another way, this is the beginning of the formula for becoming a holy people:
  • appreciate your life;
  • know the Source of existence;
  • focus on what is ultimate, not distractions.
Most of the mitzvot in chapter 19 are bein adam l’chavero; they concern human relationships: leave part of your harvest for the poor, do not steal from or deal deceitfully or dishonestly with others, do not take advantage of the frailties and weaknesses of others, judge all impartially, do not harbor hatred or resentment, do not eat the blood of any living creature, do not sell your daughters into harlotry, rise before the elderly and show them respect, treat strangers decently, conduct business honestly. What underlies all these is the recognition and conviction that humans have dignity bestowed by God, and to be holy, we must uphold that dignity in all our interactions with others. That’s a tall order. Do you do that most of the time? Are there times when you haven’t and wish you could have what we called on the playground a “redo?” If you think you don’t always get it right, life will provide you many more opportunities.

Some of the mitzvot of chapter 19 are bein adam l’makom; they concern our relationship with God: peace-offerings, kilayim (crossbreeding animal or plant species), abstaining from collecting the produce of fruit trees for their first three years. These are often called chukim, mitzvot for which there is no clear rational basis. How can these make us holy? Perhaps the purpose of chukim is to help us train ourselves to do things that would not automatically or naturally be our choice, but to do them because they are related to a higher purpose.

There has long been a debate about what was given at Mount Sinai. The whole Torah (including Leviticus 19)? All but Deuteronomy (again, including Leviticus 19)? Just the Ten Commandments? Only the first two commandments? Just the first word, Anochi (“I”)? The Hasidic teacher, Rabbi Mendel of Rymanow (1745–1815), taught that at Sinai only the aleph of Anochi was revealed – a letter that is silent, human breath. The aleph is the One, God Who is the ground of being, beyond words. Yet we humans have to attach words to express our experience. And so, amending the words of Hillel, at Sinai the silent first letter aleph was revealed and “All the rest is human commentary.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed it similarly: What God revealed at Sinai was God; the rest is midrash.

Talmud (Shabbat 105a) interprets Anochi as an acronym for Ana Nafshai Katvit Yahvit (“I Myself wrote it and gave it”), but I much prefer the explanation of the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847–1905) who interprets Anochi this way: “I wrote and gave Myself.” At Sinai, Israel encountered God and bound themselves to God in their own unique way.

The essence of that way is spelled out in the 19th chapter of Leviticus: we are to live in such a way that we uphold the dignity of every human being and treat them as the image of God before us. In that way, we will earn the designation “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

What more can you do to live in this way?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Do we ever really leave Egypt? / Shabbat during Pesach

This shabbat we deviate from the yearly cycle of Torah readings, and read a special portion in honor of Passover: Exodus 33:12–34:26. It’s tricky to find mention of Passover in this portion, but it’s there briefly toward the end, between the prohibition against idolatry and the declaration that every firstborn (human and beast) belongs to God.
You shall not make molten gods for yourselves.

You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread – eating unleavened bread for seven days, as I have commanded you – at the set time of the month of Aviv, for in the month of Aviv you went forth from Egypt.

Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a male as firstling, whether cattle or sheep. But the firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every firstborn among your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed. (Exodus 34:17-20)
In short order, Torah tells us about idolatry, Passover and the Exodus, and redemption of the firstborn. Is there a connection here? And if so, what does it mean for us?

The prohibition against idolatry is ubiquitous in the Torah. It seems that every column is laced with concern that the Israelites not turn away from their covenant with God and engage in the idolatrous practices of their neighbors. But the biblical picture of what constitutes idolatry is rather narrow: making offerings to pillar, posts, and statues that others take to be their gods. (This is not even an accurate understanding of ancient idolatry, but that is a subject for another day.)

I understand idolatry as anything we hold to be of ultimate importance that commands so much of our worshipful devotion that it shapes our values, determines our priorities, and steers our choices in life. Modern idolatry comes in many forms. Commenting on the Golden Calf the Israelites built at Sinai, one Christian writer offered this list of the idolatries of modern Christian men: Cars. Pickup trucks. Convertibles. Motorcycles. Notebook computers. Cell phones. Big screen TVs. GPS navigation systems. Cordless power tools. Here’s my list: money, status, self-esteem, body image, consumption, political ideologies. Do any of these resonate for you?

It is only when we push aside our various idolatries that we can experience God within us and glimpse God beyond us.

Judaism enshrines the prohibition against idolatry in the second of the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20:4-6 and Deuteronomy 5:7-10. What’s the big deal about building an idolatrous image? We can’t really create something that is God’s image, so why so much emphasis on the prohibition? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that creating and erecting images is a distraction from the profound and sacred truth that we are God’s image in this world. You cannot fabricate God’s image, but you can be God’s image.

The story of Passover and the Exodus illustrate this magnificently. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt (literally, “the narrow straits”) – dehumanized, degraded, demoralized. The Egyptians do not recognize the tzelem (image of God) in each of them, and even they cannot recognize it. Perhaps that is why it takes them 400 years to cry out to God for help: 400 years to recognize God in themselves. We are commanded to remember and relive the Exodus as a reminder of that each human being – Israelite, Egyptian, and every other – is the very image of God and should be honored as such. No wonder Jews recount travesties of social justice at their seder tables: these are all examples of the consequences of idolatries that prevent people from seeing and honoring the tzelem (image of God) in others.

Would that we could all understand our connection to God, that God is within each of us, animating our souls, prodding us to be our best, offering us moral choices at every step of our life journeys. In fact, in the sense that each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), each of us belongs to God. This is not another form of slavery, but rather the ultimate liberation to be who we are and were meant to be, to reach for the moon and realize our true potential. But how many of us have truly left Egypt, the “narrow straits”? Not all of us are ready, so God claims the firstborn. We can understand the firstborn not in strict familial and biological terms, but rather as those who are first ready to see the potential inborn in them. Who are the figurative “firstborn” in your life? Who are the ones who model liberation and strive to reach their potential? Who are the ones who inspire you to become all you can become?

Do we ever really leave Egypt? Yes, in fits and starts, again and again and again. That’s why we re-enact this powerful drama year after year. Our task, as Jews, is to free ourselves from idolatry and Egypt – emotionally, psychological, physically, politically, or in any other way. To do that, we need to divest of the idolatries that hold us back, and recognize in ourselves the tzelem (image) of God shining forth. Sometimes the best way to liberate ourselves is to help those around us free themselves. Sometimes we need to accept a loving, helping hand extended toward us. Then we can join the ranks of the “firstborn” and see ourselves and indeed all humanity, as the living, breathing, walking, talking, loving image of God; when we do, miracles will happen.

May this Pesach bring you liberation, love, and happiness.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, April 11, 2011

Guilt Trip / Parshat Acharei Mot

I'm told we Jews are masters of guilt. At least, that’s the myth, especially with regard to the stereotype of Jewish mothers inducing guilt in their children to manipulate their behavior. I myself never experienced it, nor did my husband, but the jokes still abound. Q: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? A: Never mind, I’ll just stand here in the dark and suffer.

One night, more than a decade ago, I found myself in conversation with a Catholic priest at 3 am. We were standing outside Shock Trauma in Baltimore. As volunteer chaplains for the police department, we were there to attend to two police officers undergoing treated, and we were outside for a short break and fresh air. Somehow the conversation turned to guilt, and I mentioned that Jews have a reputation for doing guilt well. “You just think you do,” he laughed, “but you’re rank amateurs. We Catholics do guilt better than anyone!”

Guilt is a strange thing. When appropriate, it serves us well. When inappropriate, it strangles us.

Guilt is that feeling of responsibility, remorse, and regret that creeps into our minds and takes hold of our souls when we have done something wrong, or failed to do what was right. It is the voice of conscience calling us to task. We can think of it as an ethical early warning system: it alerts us to make a change. In that regard, it is good.

It also has a flip side. While guilt can arise from real events, it can also arise from imagined wrongdoing – and that is a big problem. How can you mitigate something that never happened? What is more, guilt can hang on, clinging to our souls, long past the event that provoked it has been resolved. It can generate a host of suffocating feelings, including failure, unworthiness, shame, anxiety, and self-loathing. This is not good.

(There are also far more complicated types of guilt, including Survivor’s Guilt. In this drash, I am speaking only of the guilt we all feel from time to time, not exceptional cases.)

Parshat Acharei Mot describes a ritual that seems at one and the same time bizarre and familiar. It is familiar because we recount it each year not only when we read this parashah, but also on Yom Kippur during the Avodah service.
Aaron shall take two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats one marked “for the Lord” and the other marked “for Azazel.” Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a purification offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and send it off to the wilderness for Azazel. (Leviticus 16:7-10)
The first goat is offered up as a sin offering: it atones for sins committed against God. But what becomes of the second goat?
Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16: 21-22)
What a bizarre ritual! The scapegoat bears the sins of an entire nation on its back. Later tradition tells us the goat was pushed off a high precipice, but Torah says nothing of that. Torah is very clear: the goal shall be set free in the wilderness. In a deliberative and public ritual, the goat carries away sins the people had repented. The goat – burdened with the people’s sins – unburdens them. The goat not only carries away their sins, it also carries away their guilt. And everyone knows it.

This is a brilliant ritual. It signals the people that once teshuvah (repentance) has been done, they should expunge guilt from their souls. It no longer serves a healthy purpose.

So should we. In fact, after guilt has served its purpose and signaled the need for change, it has done its job. Chronic guilt can hold us back from moving forward to become better versions of ourselves. What is more, continuing guilt can open the door to those suffocating feelings of failure, unworthiness, shame, anxiety, and self-loathing.

The message of the goat sent to Azazel is that we must learn to forgive ourselves, just as God forgives. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. Indeed, perfection is not a Jewish value or goal. The Jewish goal is improvement. Perfection is a goal we can never attain: no matter how hard we try, we will fail. But improvement is always within reach, again and again. I have always appreciated sports teams that award children ribbons and trophies for self-improvement. Competing against others may be a natural human proclivity, but it is not a religious value. Competing against our own selves – to improve ourselves – is a religious value of the highest order.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Together and Apart / Parshat Metzora

Just when you thought we were done last week with tzara’at (skin eruptions, often erroneously translated “leprosy”)… it returns this week. In most years, the Torah portions Tazria and Metzora are read the same week. Because this is a leap year, featuring a second Adar, they are each read on a separate shabbat, so that we read about tzara’at for two weeks running.

Few people turn cartwheels at the prospect of reading Metzora. We generally find the notions of tum’ah (ritual impurity or uncleanliness) and tahara (ritual purity or cleanliness) difficult to conceive, and the rituals pertaining to purification arcane and incomprehensible. I once heard someone compare tum’ah to “cooties” (remember that from second grade?) – you cannot see them, but everyone in second grade recognizes who has cooties and who doesn’t, and there are elaborate rules about how they are contracted and how one rids oneself of them.

A more sophisticated approach is to view tum’ah as negative energy flowing between heaven and earth, deriving from death (or anything that is evocative of death) or that which doesn’t fit neatly into the natural order as God is understood to have created it. Accordingly tahara is positive, life-promoting energy flowing between heaven and earth. Tum’ah and tahara are still difficult to get a fix on.

The concern with tum’ah and tahara is tied up with other biblical concerns, specifically the laws of kashrut (found in parshat Shemini, Leviticus chapter 11) and childbirth (found in parshat Tazria, Leviticus chapter 12). A midrash in Vayikra Rabbah (Leviticus Rabbah 14) links the two together and ties them to Creation:
R. Simlai teaches: just as the creation of humanity followed that of animals, beasts, and birds, the rules pertaining to humans are presented after that of animals, beasts and birds. That is why, This is the instruction for animals [that may be eaten] (Leviticus 11:46 - 47) precedes, When a woman who has conceived gives birth (Leviticus 12:2).
R. Simlai frames the rules of both kashrut and impurity in childbirth using the story of Creation in Genesis (chapter 1). He tells us that just as animals are created before humans, so too rules pertaining to animals (specifically, which may be eaten, and which are forbidden as food) are presented in the Book of Leviticus before the rules pertaining to human beings.

This seems a most peculiar observation. We might be inclined to say: so what? Both sets of rules are for humans, and there seems little connection between eating animals and human childbirth, after all. (All you men who happily ate for two alongside your wives while they were pregnant are the exception.)

There are several possibilities here.

One possibility is that R. Simlai has in mind that the rules of kashrut and impurity due to childbirth might strike anyone as “artificial” and an imposition by the priests on the personal lives of the people. If that is the case, R. Simlai tells us: no, these rules are imbedded in the very fabric of creation. They are not extraneous, but rather fundamental to God’s creation and intention.

A second possibility is that R. Simlai is telling us that humanity is distinct and separate from the animal kingdom because only humans are required to follow prescribed rituals and practices, and adhere to limitations in their diet and behavior set down by God.

A third possibility seems, at first glance, to contract the second possibility above. The third possibility is that R. Simlai seeks to impress upon us our place in Creation – not separate and apart, but integrated into the whole of Creation. That has profound implications for our relationship with the natural world, one that ought to command far more of our attention than it does.

With the second possibility, we are apart from Creation. With the third possibility, we are a part of Creation.

Thus far, I have barely mentioned this week’s parashah. R. Simlai’s midrash speaks to the two preceding Torah portions. Metzora explains – in excrutiating detail – the procedure for purification of one afflicted with tzara’at (an eruptive skin condition). Now Torah explains that tzara’at can extend beyond our bodies to…
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.” The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become impure; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house… (Leviticus 14:34-36)
A house? How can a house can be struck by an eruptive skin condition? The commentary in Etz Hayim tells us:
The appearance of tzara-at in the stones of a house was a mysterious event. Some Sages doubted it ever happened, and others consigned it to a distant past. Commentators consider the afflicted house (ha-bayit ha-m’nugga) to be a moral warning rather than a natural consequence, even more emphatically than they consider cases of skin disease to be a moral warning. (Etz Hayim, p. 664)
In other words: this has no basis in physical reality, so we interpret it as a spiritual/moral phenomenon. I’m totally on board with that approach. When I line this up with R. Simlai’s comment about animals and people being integral to creation, the image of the bayit (house) that emerges is the planet earth – our global home. There was a time when “half way around the world” meant too far away to be connected, but that is no longer the case. What we do to the environment in one place on planet Earth has repercussions “half way around the world.” The polar cap is melting, destroying the habitat for many species. The sea levels are rising, and salinity changing. The Gulf Stream that protects Europe from bitter cold is shifting. Our heavy use of chlorofluorocarbons is punching a hole in the ozone layer in the upper stratosphere; the upper ozone layer protects us from electromagnetic radiation. Clear-cutting forests destroys the habitats of countless species and causes soil erosion; destroying vegetation along the seashore depletes a resource that protects against hurricanes. Increasing levels of pollution may well be a cause of increased cancer rates, autoimmune conditions, and more. And all the while we produce more, consume more, and discard more in landfills.

We can no longer speak about "the world" and “the animals” and "human beings" -- as if they are separate entities -- without realizing that our lives and welfare are integrally interwoven with the well-being of the entire planet. The bayit (house) is afflicted with a plague we cause by our unwillingness to respond to R. Simlai’s prescient warning that everything goes back to Creation, and creation must be cared for and renewed at every moment. We cannot live apart from Creation; we must become fully a apart of Creation.

Above, I suggested several interpretations of R. Simlai’s midrash. One was that we are apart from Creation. Another was that we are a part of Creation. I would suggest to you that both pertain: we are a part of Creation in that our live and well-being cannot be sustained apart from the well-being of planet Earth. We are apart from Creation in that we, alone, of all God’s creatures, are tasked with the responsibility to be responsible stewards of God’s Creation (as Adam was charged with tending and tilling the Garden of Eden, so are we charged with the stewardship of Earth). And that brings us to the first interpretation of R. Simlai’s teaching: perhaps one of the purposes of rituals and practices that sometimes seem bizarre and often lacking a rational foundation is to inspire in us a mindfulness in all that we do, including our relationships with the natural world, with animals, and with other people.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman