Friday, April 13, 2012

Too many trees here - where's the forest? / Shemini

What do Mickey Mantle, John Elway, Kevin Johnson, and Phil Esposito have in common? It’s not their sport. It’s the number on their jerseys: 7. The number seven pops up everywhere. If you’re a mathematician, 7 is a double Mersenne prime. If you’re a historian, the Seven Hills of Rome or the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World may come to mind. Literature lovers: Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. James Bond is agent 007 (shaken, not stirred). And perhaps most importantly, in the seven Harry Potter books, students study for seven years at Hogwarts; there are seven secret passages leading out of Hogwarts, and Harry Potter sports a 7 on his Quidditch jersey. In Jewish tradition, seven is the number of creation because the world was created in seven days, rest being an integral part of creating (workaholics take note).

The Israelites have just spent seven days celebrating the inauguration of Aaron and his sons as priests. These seven days brought the Tabernacle -- nexus of heaven and earth -- into operation.

Now it is the eighth day. We speak far less often about eight. In Genesis, the eighth day is the first day of a completed creation. A boy is circumcised on his eighth day; bringing him into the Covenant on the eighth day completes him. Eight is the number of completion.

Parshat Shemini begins:
On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel… (Leviticus 9:1).
What happens on the first day of the completed Tabernacle?
Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down from making the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of wellbeing. (Leviticus 9:22)
Aaron blesses the people, and after that offers the sacrifices

The Rabbis, however, pick up on an ambiguity in the Hebrew. They suggest (in b.Megillah 18a) that we can read Leviticus 9:22 to say: Aaron blesses the people, having stepped down from the altar where he made the sacrifices; which is to say that Aaron makes the sacrifices first, and only afterward blesses the people.

Does it matter which Aaron does first: bless the people, or offer the sacrifices? I think it does. It’s a matter of setting thoughtful and intentional priorities. Aaron’s orientation is toward the people. He performs the sacrifices on their behalf and for their welfare. The people come first; ritual comes second in service of the people.

Judaism is action and ritual oriented. We do Jewish. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen has studied the American Jewish community for more than four decades. He recently wrote that the term “Jewish identity” is outmoded and freighted with baggage. Cohen prefers “Jewish engagement” or “Jewish involvement.” Engagement and involvement are about doing.

Prioritizing doing above meaning carries the danger that doing can become an end in itself, a higher priority than the religious meaning of the ritual.

Parshat Shemini also includes the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). They are clearly spelled out. The Rabbis expanded them, innovating the complete separation of milk and meat that includes plates, flatware, and cooking utensils. But it didn’t stop there. Over the generations, more and more restrictions have been added until we reached a level so absurd it is almost laughable -- almost. When tiny crustaceans called copepods, which are largely invisible to the naked eye, were discovered in New York City tap water in 2004, several rabbis from Brooklyn declared water from the faucet treife. Families were scrambling to install water filters costing upwards of $1500, or purchasing pricy bottled water. Did they really believe that keeping God’s covenant requires this? Is this the purpose of kashrut, to foster an endless raging river of restrictions? The rules have taken on a life of their own. Can’t see the forest for the trees.
For me, the purpose of kashrut is to provide a distinctly Jewish means of reminding myself that everything -- even the seemingly mundane and animalistic activity of eating -- can be sanctified. Kashrut is also a means to identify with Jews through time and space.

We have recently celebrated Pesach, and that provides yet another example. We clean away the chametz. Of course it’s impossible to find every crumb, so tradition provides a formula to recite the evening before Pesach begins, that declares any inadvertently remaining chametz to be as dust. The Rabbis knew that it is impossible to remove every speck. Reasonable and sensible. There needs to be a limit. Yet there are people who not only change over all their pots and dishes, but actually swap out their kitchen counters and take an acetylene torch to their ovens! By the time you have cleaned to this degree -- and there’s still the shopping and cooking to do! -- how can you have the time or spiritual energy to contemplate the meaning of Pesach in your life? Short of swapping out kitchen counters and lighting acetylene torches, there are people who refuse a cup of tea at a friend’s or matza brei until the eighth day. Ironically, prioritizing ritual over meaning makes us slaves to ritual for a festival that celebrates our redemption from slavery. So consumed with trees, it’s possible to miss the forest.

Ritual serves a purpose. It’s an expression of meaning, a means to bringing people together, a way to sanctify the mundane. But it was never an end in itself.

It’s all about priorities. What’s most important? Aaron has it right: blessing the people comes first, because the sacrifices are for their sake. Ritual that serves people is wonderful; ritual that enslaves them is not.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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