Monday, May 28, 2012

Community camping / Parshat Naso

The Israelites’ trek through the Wilderness is like an extended camping trip. They don’t travel light. Parshat Naso describes in minute detail how the Mishkan is disassembled and carried along the journey.

A week after my husband and I arrived in Israel for our senior year of college, we set out to go camping in Ashkelon, equipped with a tent, two sleeping bags, and very little food. We planned to buy food when we arrived, but the shuk had closed up and the supermarket was closed due to a strike. We set up our tent amidst a sea of large, olive drab, flat-topped canvas tents (some with several rooms!) inhabited by families that moved in for the summer. We soon found ourselves surrounded by Israelis who were fascinated by our tiny, blue nylon wonder. People exclaimed over it. Several offered to buy it on the spot. The tent looked something like this:

As the sun dipped below the horizon, one family took special notice of us. In those days, people brought low-wattage bulbs to the campground and plugged them into outlets secured to the trees. They rented one for us so we would be able to read at night. When dinnertime arrived and they saw us eating food from a can, they invited us to eat with them. The following day, they fed us breakfast and lunch, and in the afternoon took us for a tour of Ashkelon, including a visit to Yad Mordecai.)
Yad Mordecai

Another family told me: They always take care of people, but if they hadn’t, we would have taken care of you. What began as a misadventure (an entire weekend without food) turned into a marvelous experience.

(As an aside: Our host family came from Romania. They had arrived in Israel in the 1950’s, but more than that they refused to discuss. It was years later that the story of the rescue of Romanian Jews by Israel was told. Israel paid $1000 to $3000 per person in the 50s and 60s, as much as $50,000 in the 70s, and sometimes in livestock and even one factory to bring them to freedom. You can read about it here and here and here.

As we open the Torah to parshat Naso this week, we find the Israelites engaged in the monumental task of creating a cohesive, caring, and moral community in the Wilderness. They do not wait until conditions are optimal: a time in the distant future when they will have their own land and establish themselves as a nation among nations. They begin immediately.

These are the steps recounted in parshat Naso, and my interpretation for our efforts to create -- and sometimes rebuild -- genuine community in our congregations and institutions:
  • First, a census is taken of the levitical clans (Numbers, chapter 4). Each is assigned responsibilities related to the Tabernacle: dissembling for, and guarding during, travel, as well as assembling when the Israelites make camp. The very act of taking a census is a public effort to count everyone because everyone counts. The assignment of duties reminds us that everyone has a contribution to make and we should welcome and value their gifts. In fact, we should seek them out. Recognizing people’s talents and skills draws them closer.
  • Next, ritual purity precautions are established to protect the community from those who might “defile the camp” (Numbers 5:1-4). While the ancient concerns about ritual purity no longer pertain as they did for our ancestors, I am reminded that there are people who “defile” our “camps” -- those who are undermining, toxic, and hurtful, those whose narcissistic tendencies wreak havoc. It is difficult to deal with such people in the context of a volunteer organization or a community, but far too often they are permitted to “remain in the camp” (in positions of authority) and do great damage. That should not be.
  • We are next told that those who wrong others also wrong God, and must make restitution (Numbers 5:5-10). This law underscores the premium placed on personal responsibility, respect for others, and the rights of people. For a community to thrive, personal relationships of those involved must be civil and respectful. From my experience, this happens best when the standards for interaction are articulated clearly and often.
  • We next learn the ritual of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress (Numbers 5:11-31). In the absence of police and jails in the Wilderness, the ritual of the Sotah offered a measure of protection to women whose husbands flew into potentially violent rages of jealousy. (Perhaps a better solution could have been found; this one comes at the cost of the woman’s dignity.) The ritual of the Sotah reminds us that jealousy is a dangerous emotion and can lead to violence. Jealousy is often at the root of community problems. We need to learn to recognize it, and like our ancestors, address it. We need to learn how to discern what people’s underlying motives and agendas are, especially when they derive from envy.
  • Torah then proceeds to speak about a special case in the community: Nazirites, who made special vows over and above what Torah requires (Numbers 6:1-21). You’d think that Torah imposes a sufficient number of obligations, but Nazirites sought more. Every community has people with different perspectives and different needs. We need to recognize their individuality and address their needs as best we can. This brings us full circle: the census reminds us to count everyone.

The Israelites began shaping a functional, civil community in the wild and uncivil Wilderness. Community begins with people, not place. I saw that creation of community at a campground in Ashkelon. In the two years I lived in Israel, I camped in many places, all nice, but everyone in those days knew that Ashkelon was the best because the culture created by the people who camped there every summer was uniquely warm, welcoming, and caring.

Aaron and his sons are instructed to bless the people with a blessing we still cherish and use to this day:

May God bless you and protect you.
May God deal kindly and graciously with you.
May God bestow divine favor upon you and grant you peace.
(Leviticus 6:24-26)

Shalom (peace) means wholeness, completeness. This blessing, Torah tells us, will link God’s name -- God’s identity, values, holiness -- with the people of Israel. If we want that peace, we need to strive for shalom (wholeness) for everyone. We can do that by starting here and now -- not waiting until conditions are optimal -- just as people did in a campground in Ashkelon, as our ancestors did in the Wilderness.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

 Beach at Ashkelon

Saturday, May 19, 2012

From wilderness to mountaintop / Parshat B'midbar and Shavuot

People who know how everyone else should live their lives astound me.  I find it’s a full-time occupation figuring out my own life. Maybe there’s a computer for this? The supercomputer “Deep Thought” in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is constructed by a race of hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings. Its purpose is to provide the “ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” Good deal. Too bad it’s fiction.

This week we open the Torah to Sefer B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, which largely recounts the Israelites’ 40-year trek through the Wilderness in pursuit of answers to the questions put to Deep Thought. In addition, as we bid goodbye to shabbat, we usher in Shavuot, which celebrates Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah) at Mt. Sinai. From the Wilderness to the mountaintop -- shall we say from questions to answers?

Ah, but it’s not that simple. Torah is not the Jewish version of “Deep Thought,” generating answers to any question posed. Torah is actually more than “Deep Thought.”

It’s curious that Torah takes us from the creation of the cosmos just up to the border of Eretz Yisrael. In all of Torah, with the exception of the ill-fated episode of the spies reconnoitering the Land, no one sets a toe in the Land of Israel. Perhaps that is because we’re always in the Wilderness -- always asking questions, always searching for answers: To what purpose our lives? Where should we invest our energies? What is the meaning of our experience? How do we make ethical decisions? And even when we think we’ve found some answers, we realize that they only generate more questions.
We might hope that Psalm 107:4-8 encapsulates our life experience:

Some lost their way in the wilderness, in the wasteland;
they found no settled place.
Hungry and thirsty, their spirit failed.
In their adversity they cried to the Lord,
And he rescued them from their troubles.
He showed them a direct way to reach a settled place.
Let them praise the Lord for his steadfast love,
His wondrous deeds for humanity;
For he has satisfied the thirsty,
filled the hungry with all good thing.

The seemingly simplistic mechanism described in the psalm is not how the world works. God doesn’t swoop down and solve our dilemmas. Torah doesn’t churn out answers to every question. But perhaps that’s not how we are to understand the poet’s verses.

Let’s start with our parashah. B’midbar devotes three chapters to a census taken in the Wilderness:

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. (Numbers 1:2)

 The people are counted, tribe by tribe, clan by clan, and detailed tribal enrollment numbers are recorded. Why? Because, I would suggest, life is with people: living in family and community, forging relationships, and working them out. It is in the context of relationships that we find purpose and make our lives meaningful. It is in the context of relationships that we face the most challenging ethical conundrums and questions about meaning. We need to take a census of the people in our lives, the relationships that constitute our world.

But whence the answers? We might hope to find them in Torah. From the Wilderness to the mountaintop where one can see everything -- it’s a nice image but Torah is not “Deep Thought” for anyone who thinks deeply.

Zohar, the seminal work in Jewish mysticism, teaches that Torah will lead us to answers, but it’s not a simple computerized process.

R. Shimon said: “Woe to the human being who says that Torah presents mere stories and ordinary words! If so, we could compose a Torah right now with ordinary words, and better than all of them. To present matters of the world? Even rulers of the world possess words more sublime. If so, let us follow them and make a Torah out of them. Ah, but all the words of Torah are sublime words, sublime secrets!... Woe to the wicked who say that Torah is merely a story! They look at this garment and no further. Happy are the righteous who look at Torah properly! As wine must sit in a jar, so Torah must sit in this garment. So look only at what is under the garment. All those words and all those stories are garments.  (Zohar 3:152a)

For the mystics, Torah holds answers, but they are secrets encoded in its words and available only through meditation and interpretation. For those of us who are not mystics, we can take this meaning from the Zohar: Torah is not a book of quick, easy answers. Its words must flow through us, enabling us to ask the right questions and find our own truths.

Parshat B’midbar affirms this. B’midbar concludes (chapter 4) with instructions on breaking camp. The levitical Kohathite clan is charged with porterage. The Tabernacle’s sacred objects are to be covered with blue, crimson, and purple cloths, and dolphin skins. The objects sit in garments, as the Zohar tells us Torah does. Coverings are tantalizing. They invite us to rip them off to find what is concealed beneath.

B’midbar ends with these words:

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Levites. Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness [inside the sanctuary] lest they die. (Numbers 4:17-20)

We never see or know it all. We’re always “outside” to some degree. But did you expect all the answers before you die?

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, after 7.5 million years of continuous computation, Deep Thought returns the ultimate answer: 42. But the Ultimate Question remains a mystery! Perhaps Douglas Adams provides genuine Torah here: we may think we have the answers, but did we really ask the right questions? So too the Psalmist provides great wisdom. God provides food and drink, not in the conventional, simplistic way the Zohar warns against, but in a far deeper way: Torah, our mayim chaim (“life-giving waters”) helps us shape our questions, as well as find answers that generate more questions, sending us searching for more truths. We climb higher up Sinai, deeper into God. Perhaps that’s the whole point. The Jewish approach to truth is to cherish your questions even more than your answers.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, May 13, 2012

You are what you eat / Behar-Bechukkotai

Jews have a thing about food, but every ethnic group thinks it has a thing about food. For us, however, food and eating are integral to Jewish religious observance and moral values.

French lawyer, politician, and gourmet, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, published Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante two months before his death in 1826. It has never been out of print in the past 186 years. There you will find this quote: "Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es." Translation: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Ronald Reagan was quoted in the Observer (March, 1981) as saying, "You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jellybeans."

“You are what you eat” suggests that there is a direct connection between the food we consume, and our physical health and state of mind. Torah would add that the food we eat both affects and reflects our spirituality; hence the extensive laws of kashrut we read a few weeks ago in Parshat Shemini. In this week’s parashah, Behar, Torah broadens the connection to an interactive triangle of land, food, and spirituality.

Torah speaks of the shemittah (sabbatical year), a year of complete rest for the land. Every seventh year the land lies fallow to regenerate itself.

Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. (Leviticus 25:3-4)

What is more, after counting off seven sabbatical cycles, the fiftieth year that follows is the Yovel (Jubilee year). Then, too, the land is allowed to rest.

You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security; the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security. (Leviticus 25:18-19)

Long ago our ancestors understood the fundamental connection between the eco-system, the food we consume, and our spiritual lives. Torah affirms that human behavior -- especially unethical behavior -- pollutes the very land. For far too long, we have lost that connection, that sense of the land as a living, pulsing, vibrant part of our lives. We live in hermetically sealed homes, travel through the world in climate-controlled cars, and acquire food in cardboard and plastic containers, far from the fields in which it was grown. Our technological abilities -- which have brought so much good to our lives -- have another side. We have seen the dust bowl. We have seen the results of air pollution and water pollution.  We have seen the despoliation of rain forests. We have presided over the extinction of hundreds of species. We have also seen Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Auschwitz, and the Killing Fields.

Yet we have also seen the extraordinary view of our precious Blue Marble from the perspective of space and have come to see that we are not separate from the earth (or the universe, for that matter). We are integral to it, and dependent upon it. We have come to understand the imperative to take responsibility for the technology we build and unleash. Parshat Behar reminds us to keep land, food, and spirituality inseparably linked.

Thanks to many dedicated souls in the Jewish community, today we are reclaiming the crucial connection between the environment, kashrut, and the Jewish premium on social justice. “Eco Kashrut” and “Magen Tzedek” are leading the way.

Eco-kashrut, led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and championed by the Renewal Movement, has for several decades advocated expanding our understanding of kashrut to include ecological concerns. For ancient shepherds and farmers, God provided rain so that the earth could support their flocks and herds, and yield fruits, vegetables, and grains. For us, however, coal, oil, electric power, and insecticides are part of our food production. Our food is delivered in plastics and papers -- rarely produced from recycled materials -- that draw on fossil fuels and forests, and most often end up in landfills.

Much has been written on the environmental impact of food production. Try this and this and this.

Eco-kashrut encourages us to expand our observance of kashrut by eating organic produce and purchasing from local growers for the sake of the environment on which we depend.

The Magen Tzekek certification program grew out of the Conservative Movement’s commitment to enlarge kashrut to encompass social justice concerns about workers and animals.  Here is how they describe their mission:
The Magen Tzedek Commission… combines the rabbinic tradition of Torah with Jewish values of social justice, assuring consumers and retailers that kosher food products have been produced in keeping with exemplary Jewish ethics in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.

The cornerstone of the program is the Magen Tzedek Standard, a proprietary set of standards that meet or exceed industry best practices for treatment of workers, animals, and the Earth; and delineates the criteria a food manufacturer must meet to achieve certification. Upon successful certification, the Magen Tzedek Commission will award its Shield of Justice seal which can be displayed on food packaging.

The Magen Tzedek seal is available only for products that currently carry a traditional Hekhsher seal from an authorized kosher certification agency. It is not intended as a replacement, but rather a complementary enhancement to a brand’s reputation.
It is past time to return to the wisdom of the Torah that understands that land, food, and spirit are interwoven.

“Upon creating the first human beings, God guided them around the Garden of Eden, saying, ‘Look at My creations! See how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! I created everything for you. Make sure you don’t ruin or destroy My world. If you do, there will be no one after you to repair it.’” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

Our ancestors knew it. We have to relearn it.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Defective or whole? / Parshat Emor

Everybody’s life is circumscribed in some way or another. None of us can do whatever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want… except in our dreams. Certainly, physics and biology impose limitations on us -- both conspire to prevent me from flying -- but so too my relationships with other people.  And just as our relationships impose limits and obligations on us, so too do we impose limits and obligation on others.

The priests, as described in parshat Emor are bound by a strict set of regulations: they may not come in contact with a corpse, with the exception of a close relative; they may not engage in some of the signs of mourning, specifically those related to the body; they may not marry a divorcee; they may neither go around bare-headed nor rend their priestly vestments. Then we get to a very troubling regulation concerning their physical qualifications to offer sacrifices in the Mishkan (Tabernacle):

No one at all who has a defect (kol ish asher bo mum) shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. (Leviticus 21:18-20)

I cringe when I read these verses, not because of the physical deformities and impairments described, but because of the use of the phrase kol ish asher bo mum / every man who has a defect. One who has a defect is by definition “defective.” What makes me cringe is the very notion that a human being can be thought of as “defective”: damaged, deficient, incomplete.

Human perfection does not exist. If any of is “defective,” all of us are defective. Indeed, the very concept of human perfection is insidious because it suggests we all hopelessly miss the mark. (For that reason, I believe the Jewish notion of teshuvah/repentance is far superior. On the High Holy Days, I do not strive for perfection, which is impossible, but rather self-improvement, which is within my power.)

The notion of defect, which in turn implies the possibility of human perfection, generates a sense of inadequacy among many people. Whether it a physical matter or an emotional challenge, it makes them feel insufficient, less than, even intolerable. Imagine how much pain such thinking engenders. Every human being seeks shleimut/wholeness, a sense of completeness that brings in its wake serenity and equanimity (at least for short intervals). To describe a human being as asher bo mum / that he has a defect suggests that wholeness is beyond that person’s reach precisely because of how he or she deviates from “the norm.”

The concept of “defective” is dangerous and deadly when applied to a group of people, be it a nation, an ethnicity, a religion, or a tribe. To call a group “defective” -- just like labeling them a “virus” or a “cancer” -- is to brand them sub-human and therefore expendable. History has shown us far too often that such thinking leads to genocide.

Michael J. Perry, professor of law at Emory University, writes:

Some people have thought that to be black is to be, not merely different, but defective, it is to be a defective human being -- less than fully human -- because being white is normative… Some people have thought that to be female is to be a defective human being, because being male is normative. And some people have thought -- and think-- that to be homosexual, to have a homosexual orientation, is to be a defective human being, because being heterosexual (“straight”) is normative. Judge [Richard A.] Posner has observed that “[homosexuals,] like Jews, are despised more for who they are than for what they do…” (The Constitution in the Courts: Law or Politics? p. 176)

Our language and our thoughts are indistinguishable. Saying, “Well, that’s not really what I meant” doesn’t wash when what is on the line is the very humanity of a human being or a group of people. The Oxford English Dictionary has well over 250,000 entries; there are probably more words in the English language than in any other. There are ways to say what we truly mean. We must presume that people mean what they say. But before speaking, we would all do well to consider what we believe. It would behoove each of us to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we see those whose bodies and minds do not function in a way we are inclined to consider as “normal.” It may be that we need to challenge our own beliefs, however deeply imbedded in our psyches and backgrounds. It may help a bit to remember that if another is “defective,” so are we.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman