Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On Passover and Inclusion

Redemption does not happen alone in Judaism, not in solitude or silent contemplation, but in joyous family and communal celebration. Our Seders follow the model of the first Passover celebration in Egypt, in which the paschal sacrifice was eaten in groups. Haggadah means telling. We are talkers. We experience redemption by talking to each other, and for such an experience, we cannot be alone.

Nor is this an elite holiday. All are to be included. Moshe told Pharaoh, bena’areinu uvezkeineinu neileikh, “with our youth and our elderly we will go.” Pharaoh thought that only the middle age males should go to worship God, but Moshe understood that this religion was for everyone, that redemption is not complete unless all parts of the nation are involved.

The Haggadah makes this point clear right from the start. Its entire first section is concerned with defining its audience in as broad a way as possible. We begin in Aramaic (ha lahma anya) -- which for years was the lingua franca in the Jewish world -- as a way to open up the Seder to all, whether or not they are speakers of Hebrew. Ha lahma anya, we say. “This is the bread of poverty (or affliction) that our fathers ate in Egypt.” And what lesson do we learn from this memory of our humble origins? Openness and inclusion. Kol dikhfin yete veyekhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are needy, come and join in our Passover celebration. The Seder is for everyone, the poor, the rich, and anyone who has some need, whether financial, emotional or social. The important word here is kol, ALL.

Nor is this a holiday for the scholarly elite. First, a story is told about a group of learned rabbinic sages who stayed up all night discussing the exodus, but then, immediately afterwards, come the 4 sons, one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not even know how to ask. The Seder is for all these audiences at once. It has passages of intricate Torah discussion as well as folk songs, prayers and simple statements. It has words and it also has actions like the dipping of food into salt water, the eating of bitter herbs and matzah, the leaning to the left. There are those at the Seder, like my 3-year-old, who don’t just want to talk about the exodus experience, but actually want to feel it, to act it out. The Seder is meant to include all these groups.

There is one more group that is included in our Seders, and this group, too, is essential for our experience of redemption – all those many generations of Jews who have celebrated Passover before us, in other places and other circumstances, in Poland and in Russia, in Ethiopia and in Spain, in comfort and freedom and in war and persecution. Over and again, we refer to them. Bekhol dor vador, we say. “In every generation.” There is that word kol, “all,” again. In every generation one must feel that she has left Egypt. In every generation, we have had oppressors and been saved from them. In every generation the Seder has been celebrated, and our own celebration connects to this kol, links us through time to this “all.”

What does it mean to be redeemed from mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt? The word has famously been connected to the word tzar, narrow. How can we be redeemed from the narrow places in our lives, from the narrow limits of our individual selves and perspectives? Through a celebration which brings together old and young, learned and ignorant, pious and doubting, those alive and those no longer alive. Together we form a kol that is klal yisrael, the entirety of Israel. It is only when we sit and talk and eat with each other that we move beyond our narrow selves and experience redemption.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Parashat Vayikra: On Sacrifices and Intimacy

This week we start a new book of the Torah, Vayikra, or as the rabbis called it, Torat Kohanim, the teaching of the priests, a name which is similar in meaning to the English “Leviticus,” the book of Levites/priests. This new book. whose subject is holiness and purity, begins with instructions concerning the sacrificial system.

While this book is generally given short shrift by modern readers, it was a favorite of the classical rabbis, the first book in their curriculum for young students. In its placement as the middle book of the 5 books of the Torah, it also represents the heart of the Torah.

And yet, here we are, in 2010, reading a book about animal sacrifices. How can we possibly relate?

Let’s begin with the first few verses. Moshe is instructed by God to say the following to the Israelites: Adam ki yakriv mikem korban lashem. “When a person brings close from among you an offering to God,” then, says the verse, it should be from the following animals, . . . What is strange about this verse, as many commentators have noted, is its use and placement of the word mikem, “from among you.” There is no need for this word, and the word is also placed strangely not after the word for “person,” Adam, but rather after the word for “bring close,” yakriv. “When you bring close from among you,” the verse says. What does this mean?

Rabbenu Behayei suggests that the word comes to warn us against human sacrifice. “When a person wants to bring an offering from you, i.e. from the human population,” don’t do it. Instead, bring an animal. The Talmud (Sukkah 30a) learns from the word mikem that sacrifices brought from stolen goods are not allowed; the offering must be from you, i.e. belonging to you, and not to someone else.

My favorite interpretation is that of the Abravanel and Sforno, both of whom see the word mikem as referring to the giving of oneself to God. You should bring from yourselves, meaning a piece of yourself, of your energy and passion, to the service of God. In a way, this interpretation picks up on the previous one, concerning stolen goods; the offering needs to be yours, not just in the sense of ownership, but also in the sense of coming from inside yourself. This interpretation is also an interesting twist of the warning against human sacrifice. On the one hand, human sacrifice is prohibited, but on the other hand, it is precisely the sacrifice of something human, some piece of yourself, which is required. Animals take your place, but are meant to represent you, with their blood and guts, so that you, too, feel that you are bringing some part of yourself to God.

Why? Why bring an animal or a piece of yourself to God? In English, the word for such offerings is “sacrifice.” In Hebrew, it is korban. The root of korban is closeness. Yes, the call is for a sacrifice, is for the bringing of something precious from you to God, but the goal is not asceticism, the sacrifice of some earthly good to God, but kirvah, closeness, intimacy with God.

Such intimacy cannot be experienced without sacrifice, without giving some piece of yourself. One holds dear the people to whom one gives. It is for this reason that parents feel so close to their children; the constant acts of giving and sacrifice lead to tight bonds. God gave us the framework of sacrificial offerings not in order to feed Him, Heaven forbid, but in order to give humans a chance, through a system of constant sacrificial giving, to feel close to Him.

We don’t have animals to offer up anymore. But there are other ways of giving, other ways of sacrificing ourselves in the service of God, other forms of mesirus nefesh. As the famous rabbinic saying goes, lefum tsara, agra, “According to the pain is the gain.” The Torah’s demands can be quite taxing and overwhelming, in terms of time, energy and resources. Anyone who has prepared for Passover or walked to synagogue on a cold wet Shabbat can attest to the sacrifice involved. At the same time, it is precisely the taxing nature of the system which makes it so rewarding, which draws one in, turning a “sacrifice” into a korban, a hardship into a source of intimacy and connection.

Perhaps the book of Vayikra begins with animal sacrifices in order to teach us, first and foremost, how to give of ourselves. The book begins with these offerings to God, but at the heart of this middle book are also instructions concerning how we treat others, concerning the gifts we are to leave for the poor in our fields. Generosity is a practice, and the sacrificial system habituates one to this practice of giving, giving to God, giving to the priests who depend on such offerings for their livelihood, and giving to the needy. Such giving, both of financial gifts and of oneself, mikem, is the indeed the heart of the Torah.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei: On Shabbat and the Tabernacle

When my sister was little, she saw a house being built and said: “God created everything in the world except that house.”

She was noticing something important. We talk about God’s creation of the world, but we humans are also little creators, mimicking God’s creation through our manipulation of His raw materials, making houses out of trees, shoes out of leather, plastic out of petroleum, blogs out of Torah.

The work of the mishkan (tabernacle) involved just such fine human manipulation of raw materials, the cutting and shaping of wood, the melding of metals and the weaving of fabrics. In many ways, the description of this human work parallels the story of God’s creation of the world, as classical and contemporary commentators have pointed out. In both accounts the word asah, “to make,” plays an important role; in both there is a similar statement regarding the completion of the work; and in both there is the creation of lights and curtain-firmaments to separate spaces. God created the world for humans, and it is as if humans are then commanded to build a little mini-world for God to dwell in.

What a tremendous honor is here given to human talents and creativity! The Torah spends only a scant portion of a parsha on God’s creation of the world, but over four parshiyyot on the human construction of the mishkan!

And yet, there is a difference between divine creativity and human creativity, and the Torah, even in its celebration of human potential, also puts on some brakes. In last week’s parsha, after God finishes giving Moshe the instructions concerning the Tabernacle, He says to him: Akh et Shabtotai tishmoru. “But you should still keep My Sabbaths.” And here, again, in parashat Vayakhel, just before Moshe begins to tell the people about the mishkan, he reminds them first about Shabbat. Even in the midst of the holiest of human creative enterprises, the building of the mishkan, the Israelites must stop their work to observe Shabbat and remember who the Creator of the world is.

The work which is prohibited on Shabbat is in fact defined by the work done in the construction of the mishkan. The same word is used for both, melakhah. Whatever type of melakhah (39 in all) was required for the erection of the mishkan and its appurtenances, that is the work which is prohibited on the Sabbath.

Melakhah involves human manipulation of the environment created by God. This week’s version of the Sabbath commandment ends with a prohibition against burning fire. Why? Yeshayahu Leibowitz suggests that fire represents the beginning of human civilization; through fire, people learned to manipulate nature’s materials to create the secondary products they desired. By not burning fire on Shabbat, we pause to acknowledge the limits to our own creative powers, to acknowledge that the world exists without our intervention, and was created without our help.

But Shabbat does not teach only about itself. The commandment concerning Shabbat includes both the prohibition against work on the seventh day as well as a positive commandment to work on the six days preceding it. Rest on Shabbat, and during the week, work in a way that remembers that rest, that remembers its lesson of God’s sovereignty. What kind of work is that? Work like the construction of the mishkan, work that is done leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, work that takes the best of human talent and energy and plows them into the creation of a world that, like the mishkan, is a place in which God can dwell. In a way, then, Shabbat is not just a counterpoint to the work of the mishkan but also a partner to it; Shabbat and the mishkan deliver opposing messages, but also integrated, overlapping ones. When you rest and when you work, remember your Creator.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Parashat Ki Tisa: The Sandwich Parsha

This week’s parsha, Ki Tisa, relates the sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. The parsha is sandwiched on either side by parshiyyot dealing with the erection of the mishkan, the Tabernacle -- parshiyyot Terumah and Tetzaveh on one side and Vayakhel and Pekudei on the other.

Nehama Leibowitz outlines a basic disagreement among classical commentators as to the actual order of events. According to many rabbinic midrashim, as well as Rashi, Maimonides and others, the Golden Calf took place first, and God only ordered the erection of the mishkan as a reaction to the sin of the Golden Calf. By creating an idol out of gold, the people showed that they had need of a more concrete form of worship, and the mishkan was an accommodation to this need.

According to Nachmanides, however, the order of events is as it stands in the Torah. God ordered the construction of the mishkan, the people sinned, and then, after the people repented and God forgave them, Moshe was allowed to continue with the instructions for the mishkan as a sign of this forgiveness and God’s continued desire to reside among His people.

Building on these classical notions, I want to ask the question a little differently: Whether or not the events took place in this order, why does the Torah tell the story in this way? What message is conveyed by this enveloping structure of – mishkan, sin and forgiveness, mishkan?

The orders for the construction of the Tabernacle and its furniture and utensils are quite detailed and precise. Everything in God’s house must be just-so; these are holy things and a holy place where God will dwell.

What happens in the middle of all this divine order, holiness and perfection, is the messy truth about human beings. The mishkan symbolizes God’s desire to reside on earth, among His people. But His people are human beings, fraught with imperfection. The Golden Calf episode points out these imperfect qualities. The people are impatient for Moshe to come down; they are doubting and impulsive, having very quickly forgotten their experiences of God in Egypt, at the Sea and at Sinai. And they are base and unholy, eating, drinking, laughing and making loud merry sounds when they should have been serious.

Such is the nature of humanity. We are insecure and doubting, base, impulsive and impatient. Can God reside amongst such? It is almost as if the people are testing Him, acting out their worst qualities as if to say: Can you really live with this?

The answer, on God’s part, after some coaxing from Moshe, is definitely yes. There is anger and punishment after the Golden Calf, but there is also forgiveness and the forgiveness is long and exceedingly intimate. In fact, it is during this process of forgiveness that the most intimate moment between God and a human occurs, when God physically “passes over” Moshe and tells him all of His special attributes.

The mishkan’s construction is not the only thing that happens twice in this series of parshiyyot. There are also two sets of luhot, tablets. The first are thrown down and broken by Moshe in anger at the Golden Calf. That could have been the end of the God-Israel relationship. But no. Humans are humans and will be imperfect, and this is a relationship that will always have room for second chances. A second set of luhot; a second chance to build a mishkan.

The implication of the structure of these parshiyyot is that what stands at the heart of the building of this perfect divine dwelling place is imperfection, sin and forgiveness. At the same time, what contains, supports and buttresses this messy relationship in the middle is the building itself, the walls of the mishkan which, like the parshiyyot, stand on either side of the mess. The divine-human relationship needs structure and holiness on the one hand, and on the other hand, it also needs to allow room for mistakes and anger and the growth in intimacy which result from such encounters.