A Lesson on Comfort (Parashat Shimini)

March 17, 2014
Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire (Matthäus Merian the Elder)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.  And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Eternal meant when by saying:

    Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
    And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent. -Leviticus 10:1-3

Aaron’s sons have improvised a ritual that resulted in catastrophe. Moses responds by “comforting” his brother Aaron with words that offer no comfort whatsoever.

There are pairs and parallels in the passage: two sets of brothers stand before God. Two sets of brothers mess up. Nadab and Abihu bring “strange fire” and are killed by another [strange] fire. Moses and Aaron confront the disaster. Moses, who described himself as “slow of tongue” gives a speech. Aaron, the man who is first mentioned in Exodus 3 as one who “speaks exceedingly well” is starkly silent.

It’s horrifying and unsatisfying, a passage that we will forever puzzle at, trying to plumb its depths.

On a human level, I am struck by Moses’ insensitivity. He responds to the horror by quoting and interpreting God in a particularly heartless way: “this is God’s plan!”  Moses is not comforting Aaron; he is comforting himself that this horrible event somehow makes sense.  Aaron is silent.

There is something in us human beings that wants to make sense of dreadful events. When we are caught in that impulse, we say terrible things such as:

  • “This is God’s plan!”
  • “He’s in a better place!”
  • “At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that the best way to comfort a mourner is to be quietly present. Sitting with a grieving person and being present to them is both difficult and easy. We have to let go of our need to explain, our need to make better, and instead simply be there. We have to sit with the mystery and the pain and endure, so that the mourner does not have to sit, like Aaron, silent and alone.

Moses was a great and good man, but even he had his off days. It is one of the beauties of Torah that those are not hidden from us: our greatest leaders had bad days, and we can learn even from those.

Image: Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) Public Domain


Within the Mess, There is Holiness

February 7, 2014
The Kohen Gadol

The Kohen Gadol

We read Parashat Tetzaveh this week. It begins with the pure olive oil for the Temple lamps, and continues with a detailed description of the priestly vestments and the ordination of Aaron and his sons as the first priests of Israel.

This is a Torah portion that lends itself to flights of fancy. The ancient rabbis and modern Hebrew school kids both love to visualize the vestments and imagine the exact appearance of the great candelabrum. The ordination is a bit grubbier, with its orders for dabs of blood here and there, and splashing of blood and stacking of gory sacrifices.

It is tempting to separate the two, to focus on the beautiful priestly garments, made from wool and flax, woven with many brilliant colors and studded with jewels. But I think it is no accident that the two descriptions come together in the Torah: first the beautiful clothing and ornaments, then a description of what was to be done in those vestments.

The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, did not sit on a throne observing the action in the Temple. The work of a Cohen was the work of a holy butcher, calming the beasts, blessing them, then slipping a very sharp knife through skin and veins and cartilage. When the animal collapsed, then the priests had to work together to skin it, to cut it into the pieces the sacrifice demanded, and to stack it up on the altar to be burned. This is not delicate work, and it is certainly not clean work. By the end of a busy day at the Temple, the Cohanim must have looked ghastly. Even their ordination required them to be anointed with the blood of a sacrificial animal, underlining the work that they were to do.

In the 21st century, we often talk about “spirituality” as if it is something very beautiful and serene. And I imagine that the priestly garments, when new, were magnificent. But in the actual business of doing the holy work, something happened: everything got messy. Blood and tears and mess were smeared about, splashed about, and the beautiful garments got dirty with blood and soot and gore.

And folks, that is real life: the “perfect” Shabbat table gets messy with spilt wine. The most elegant Chanukah menorah will be covered with wax at the end of the holiday. Real, adorable babies wear diapers. And our real lives are not as we dream them: they are messy with frailties, bad habits, neuroses, and failings.

Our task is to learn to see the toddler under the spaghetti sauce, the human being in a sneering teenager, and the spark of the Divine in our own fallible selves and others. It is then that we have truly internalized the lesson of the Kohen Gadol in his magnificent, bloodied vestments: within the mess, there is holiness.

Image:  Andreas F. Borchert, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.


Holy Places: Terumah

January 29, 2014
Our Jewish homes are sacred places.

Our Jewish homes are sacred places.

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is pretty easy to summarize in large strokes. It records the first Jewish fundraising campaign and then an extended narrative blueprint for the complex called the Mikdash, the Holy Place. The famous Ark of the Covenant is at the center of this complex.

Notice the attention to detail in this portion! When Jews build a holy place, we must do so with the greatest care, with attention to the details of Torah. We have had only a few holy places in our history, and each was built with care: this portable desert Mikdash, which was finally set up in Shilo after the Hebrews arrived in the Land. That’s where Hannah went to pour out her heart to God in 1 Samuel 1.  (If you don’t know the story, click on the link.) Later, King David moved it to Jerusalem, where his son King Solomon built the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple. The Babylonians destroyed that building in 586 BCE and its contents disappeared. In 516, the Jews dedicated a new Beit HaMikdash, the Second Temple, built with funding from Cyrus of Persia. That modest structure was completely rebuilt and considerably expanded by Herod the Great in 19-20 BCE, and then destroyed by Roman armies in 70 CE [Common Era = AD].

Since then we have not had a Beit HaMikdash. The Jewish people have built synagogues, known as Batei Kenesset (Houses of Gathering) for communal activity, but the place designated as Mikdash, a holy place, is the Mikdash Me’at, the “little sanctuary.” The little holy place of the Jewish people is the Jewish home, no matter how humble or how palatial.

Our homes are not built according to the narrative here in Terumah, but they should be built according to other blueprints in the Torah, commandments to make the home a safe place (Deuteronomy 22:8). We moderns would extend that not only to physical safety, but also to emotional safety: our homes should always be places of peace. They are also places of hospitality, following the example of Abraham in Genesis 18. They are the place where we observe the commandments. In our homes, we observe Shabbat, we observe Passover, we observe Chanukah and other holidays. We observe the daily mitzvot, like teaching our children, giving tzedakah, and the commandments regarding our speech. We hang a mezuzah on the doorframe, as commanded in Deuteronomy 6.

This week I’m going to take a few moments to look around my home. I’m going to ask: how is this a mikdash, a holy place? What can I do to make it safer, more welcoming, more beautiful? What would make it more peaceful? What can I change? What would I not ever change about it?

How is your home a Mikdash Me’at, a little sanctuary? What single change would you like to make, to make it better serve your household and the people of Israel? What about it would you never change?

 

 


The Bondwoman’s Narrative

January 25, 2014
Title Page, in the author's handwriting

Title Page, in the author’s handwriting

I just finished reading The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts. The book was published in 2002, but I somehow missed hearing about it until I read a New York Times article this past September. I added it to my list of books to read, and it finally came to the top.

I love books that open up a window to history, and this one did not fail. “Hannah Crafts” is the pen name of Hannah Bond, a woman who was born and grew up enslaved in the antebellum South, and who as an adult made a successful run for freedom. The edition I read has both a Prologue by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, and footnotes by Dr. Gates, which provide a context for the story, which appears to be heavily autobiographical. This is the only known written slave narrative that was not edited by white publishers.  The copy that was discovered appears to be the working manuscript, so we see not only the story as the author intended it, but also the rejected phrases and false beginnings that can reveal a great deal about the writer’s process, even her handwriting. As such, while the story in the narrative is wonderful and carried me into the history, Dr. Gate’s material and Ms. Crafts’ own notations offer the reader an even deeper trip into her experience.

Ms. Crafts makes clear that this world is not divided so neatly into black and white as many romanticists imagine, but that indeed, many if not most people in the novel’s world are or might be mixed race. Uncertainties about this form a major plot point, but it also led me to wonder how much of the later anxiety about “drops of blood” in the Southern psyche and legal system came from insecurity about this point. This carries me back to some of my other ruminations about authenticity (Who’s the Most Jewish?, The Problem of Legitimacy Part 1 and Part 2.) Sometimes I wonder if we human beings are cruelest to those we think may be a bit too much like ourselves.

The book itself was a page-turner. It’s clear she’d read some Brontë and similar novels, but her own voice shines through, and I’m glad that no helpful editor came along to “fix” it. It is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, and to the difference small kindnesses can make in the world. I am horrified to think of all the Hannahs whose voices are forever lost.

The Torah connection to this? Do I even need to say it? Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt… [Genesis 15:15] We are commanded to pay attention to this topic, to continue to learn, to continue to fight injustice, to free the captive. Hannah Crofts voice speaks to us across time, reminding us what it is to be enslaved.


I will not forget (BaShallach)

January 8, 2014

2048px-Seashore

I will not forget the night that we left Egypt.
I remember clutching the baby, and the borrowed treasure,
And the screaming in the houses
As those people found their children.

I was not sorry, I was glad and terrified
Because I knew that when they made the connection
They’d be on our heels

We were on our way, through the dark
Night and day, following that cloud, that pillar of fire
It circled behind us, when the army came
We could hear the horses in the dark, hear the chariots grinding
All through the night

And the wind blew so hard I could not breathe.

We were caught between the fire and the shoreline knowing
That Pharaoh was just behind the fire, just behind
And we were trapped.

Moses kept waving towards the sea, hollering that we should go
And what, drown? but Nachshon waded out until
All we could see was his head, disappearing
And the sea, churned up by the wind, seemed to part before him

We rushed into the breach
on our way to the future.

Image by By Chenspec (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Names and Deeds

December 19, 2013
Moses in the Bulrushes

Miriam & Moses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the little ironies that pepper the text of the Torah.This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, begins with the line:

“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

and sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not one woman’s name in the list. For the first fourteen verses of the portion, it’s just boys, boys, boys. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women from reading this stuff.

But here’s the irony: the rest of this portion is full of the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism!

In Chapter 1, we get the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: children survived because they looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we get the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! And when she can hide him no longer, she puts him in a basket and puts the little bundle in the Nile – a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was full of crocodiles – but her daughter, Miriam, follows along on the bank, watching over the baby to see what happens. Midrash tells us that Miriam had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. But think for a moment about a girl, who sees her mother lose her nerve, putting the baby into the arms of God, as it were, but who follows along. There were crocs on the bank, too – yet little Miriam still watches over her brother.

In Chapter 4, Moses has grown up, and left Egypt, and his young wife, Zipporah, sees that he has a mysterious encounter with God that nearly kills him. She decides that it has something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she takes a knife and performs the circumcision herself. It is a very mysterious story, but one thing is definite: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she is no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of  men, but it is the deeds of  women that set this great saga in motion.

 


Wisdom from the Grumpy Old Guy

November 20, 2013
English: King Solomon in Old Age (1Kings 4:29-...

English: King Solomon in Old Age (1Kings 4:29-34) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday I moved into my new home. Last night, the skies over the Bay Area opened and it has been raining ever since. Last night I got the kitchen set to rights and was contented, today I am watching the gutters overflow and am looking for someone to help.

Life is like that. You get things all tidy and — oops! — something else happens. When I was young, I found that very frustrating. Now that I am older, I know that it’s just how it goes. Now that I am older, I know to be grateful it’s something as simple as the gutters.

There is a Jewish voice who speaks to this phenomenon. His name is Kohelet, the voice of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and he’s the original Grumpy Old Guy.  According to tradition, he was King Solomon in his old age. According to those sources, in youth, King Solomon wrote Song of Songs, the great erotic love poem of the Bible. In his prime, he wrote the book of Proverbs, a repository of wisdom. But in old age, he wrote Ecclesiastes, saying, “All is vanity.”

At the end of the book, after looking at all the kinds of pleasure life has to offer, and all the problems life has to offer, he concludes:

Not only was Kohelet wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.

The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd.  Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

– Ecclesiastes 12: 8-14

There are some things in life that are clearly good, or clearly bad, but for many things, we won’t really know until it all plays out. There’s an old Jewish story in which a man gets a horse for free, and he crowed, “Good luck!” Then his son broke his leg riding it, and he cried, “Bad luck!” Then the Russian Army came through drafting all the young men, but they didn’t take the man’s son because he had a bad leg — but the man would no longer declare something “good luck” or “bad luck” because the truth is, it’s often hard to tell.

May your gutters run freely, may your feet stay dry, and may all of us learn to reserve judgment until we have all the facts!


Two Creation Stories

November 7, 2013
English: Advertising postcard, picture side, f...

Advertising postcard, picture side, for the “Happy Day” washing machine, sold by the National Sewing Machine Co. of Belvidere, Illinois. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Tale of Two Delivery Men

A rabbi was setting up her home, to make it more suitable for feeding people and welcoming them. She went on the internet and ordered a table and chairs for the patio. Then she called the local appliance company and talked to them about a washing machine. There had been a washing machine in this house before, and everything seemed all set up for a standard size machine. Then she waited.

The first delivery man arrived, with the table and chairs. He got them off his truck, and dumped them on the front walk. The rabbi began to open the boxes to check for damage. He made a comment about suspicious women. Then he stuck his clipboard at her and said, “Sign here.” The rabbi felt a little nervous about this guy, who seemed angry about something, so she didn’t ask if he could help her get the boxes inside.

The rabbi wondered how she was going to get the furniture into the house. She figured she would call friends. She felt annoyed, but shook it off.

The second delivery man arrived, with the washing machine. He came into the house and looked where we would put the machine, and he frowned. “I think there may be a little problem,” he said, “Machines are bigger than they used to be.” He fished out his tape measure and sure enough, the machine he had delivered was not going to fit.

“Oh no!” said the rabbi. “I am so sorry you made this trip for nothing!”

“We will measure to make sure the next one fits,” he said, very kindly, and so he did. Then he said, “I need to take photos, so that my bosses will know that I really measured.”

The rabbi felt badly that his bosses did not trust his word, but she was very happy. The delivery man could have left her feeling stupid or angry, but instead he taught her the secret of allowing 4 inches for the hose, which she had not known. She called the appliance company to order a smaller machine, and to tell them that Mr. Diego was a great delivery man.

I have no idea what was going on with the gentlemen who delivered things to my house this week. I just know that one of them left me feeling nervous and annoyed, and the other left me feeling good, even though he was the one who delivered a disappointment.

They reminded me of the power we all have in even the most trivial encounters. We create worlds with our words, just as in the Creation story of Genesis 1. The first delivery man created a world that seemed dangerous and unfriendly. I have no idea what was going on with him, but I knew I didn’t want to ask for any favors, and I definitely didn’t want to invite him into my home. The second guy had totally the opposite effect: he came to bring a washer, but ultimately had to deliver bad news, but he did it with such kind words that I was glad our paths had crossed. The “world” he created with his words was a world in which he had the power to treat me well, and so I responded by calling his company to tell them he’s a great guy. This was a world in which people have the power to do the right thing.

What worlds have you created today?

 

 


Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

November 5, 2013

 

I’m so tired my eyeballs are falling out.

I forgot to post yesterday. So much for the great resolution. But I shall get back on the horse and ride, even if the horse feels dead at the moment.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yetze, we read the story of Jacob and Laban, a story of a man and his horrific relationship with his father-in-law. Jacob and Laban spent all their time and energy circling one another, trying to get an advantage or get even after the other had taken advantage. Their foolishness would haunt the family for generations.

Laban had two daughters, one beautiful, one with “weak eyes.” Jacob wanted the pretty one. Laban (and his daughters) deceived Jacob and married him to Leah, the one he didn’t want. So he wound up working another seven years for the wife he wanted. Jacob, who had tricked his brother out of his birthright in the last Torah portion, was now the victim of a cleverer trickster. He got even by breeding Laban’s sheep and goats in such a way that he profited from the deal. Meanwhile his two wives had a fertility competition, dragging in concubines and competing to see who bore the most sons.  It is no surprise that those sons grew up to be a contentious lot.

Why on earth do we keep this stuff as holy Scripture? Perhaps it is to teach us that all of life has the potential for holiness, even the messiest, most unholy bits of it. The God of Israel insisted on seeing potential in a bunch of people who seem more suited to The Jerry Springer Show.

So yes, it’s been a rocky day at Chez Coffee Shop Rabbi. I’m tired and dirty and can’t think what to type. But I refuse to give up on my potential, because if God could see potential in scheming Jacob and his two fussing sister wives, then maybe there’s hope for me.


“You Intended to harm me.”

September 2, 2013
All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...

Giza Pyramids (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember the story of Joseph? He was his father’s favorite child, and annoying to boot, so much so that his brothers considered murdering him. They decided that they did not want his blood on their hands, so they sold him into slavery instead. He began his life in Egypt as a slave, but after many adventures, he rose to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, managing the economy of Egypt during a terrible seven year famine. His brothers came to Egypt during the famine seeking food, and eventually realized that the mighty Vizier of Egypt was their brother Joseph.  He sent for their father Jacob, and the family lived under Joseph’s protection in Egypt until Jacob died.

Then, with Jacob’s death, the brothers feared that Joseph would finally feel free to “get even” with this brothers. He had the power to order them all dead.  Instead:

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:19-21

It turned out Joseph wasn’t plotting revenge. He knew what his brothers had intended when they sold him, but he took the longer view: he saw how things actually turned out. And unlike the child he had once been, he didn’t feel the need to lord it over his brothers.

People change. They grow up. They get older. We fantasize that we know “exactly what they are going to say.” And maybe we are right. Or maybe, like Joseph’s brothers, we are expecting rage or reproach when really, all we are going to get is a hug.

Let us open ourselves to the possibility of surprise about the intentions of others, as we continue our work towards the Days of Awe.


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