Hearing Voices in the Bible

May 30, 2014

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Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… Ecclesiastes 1:2

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending a class led by Rabbi Steve Chester at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley. He explored the resonances between the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and Tony Kushner‘s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

There is no direct connection between the two: Kushner’s play is not “about” Ecclesiastes. But the lecture set me to thinking about the many and varied voices in the Tanach (Jewish Bible).

There are very few pretty stories in the Bible, if you think about it.  Ruth is a sweet story, I admit. But most of the rest of our Bible stories involve carnage or trickery or dysfunctional families. Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister several times, with the result that she wound up in other men’s harems. Isaac, the gentlest of the patriarchs, was deceived by his son Jacob. Jacob cheerfully manipulates and steals from his brother. It goes on and on; the Book of Judges is one long nightmare.

Some people ask, quite reasonably, why all this stuff is there in a supposedly holy book. Ecclesiastes, in particular, is written in a bitter and cynical voice. What possible edification can anyone get from that?

The answer to that will depend on your orientation to scripture. I am a modern Reform rabbi, and I approach these books both as the product of divine inspiration as well as as the product of human hands. The books are holy because they have been recognized as holy for thousands of years, and because the faithful have continued to find something they need in them.

The genius of these books is that they are not a collection of nice easy stories in which everyone gets what they deserve. They are, instead, a collection of voices and experiences from the full range of the human experience. Some voices in Scripture insist that God is fair and wise and indeed, everyone gets their just desserts (that voice is named Deuteronomy.) Some voices in Scripture remind us that life is not fair, and even go so far as to question whether God is fair (Job.) Some voices are angry at God (parts of Lamentations) and some are young and not much concerned with God, reveling instead in physicality (Song of Songs). Kohelet, the voice in Ecclesiastes, is old and cynical. He’s seen it all, and it all disappoints.

When I am sitting with someone who is having a hard time, I do not usually have words to offer that are going to make everything “all better.” Face it, sometimes there is nothing on earth that will truly console those in deep suffering: the man who has lost his child to a senseless crime, the woman who has lost the love of her life, the person who has seen their life’s work go for nothing. What I can offer that person is evidence that they are not alone in their suffering. I don’t know “exactly how they feel” but there are voices in the Tanach that come pretty close. Those voices can help put words to feelings, and rebuild the connections between a suffering person and the rest of the world.

I think one can make a good case that Hannah was suffering from depression in the book of 1 Samuel , and that King Saul suffered from bipolar disorder. Ruth was a poor foreign woman in an unfriendly land. Jeremiah was persecuted by the authorities despite the fact that he was a messenger from God. David’s children were a terrible disappointment, except for Solomon, whose children were also a terrible disappointment. Families are mostly dysfunctional.

The people and the voices in the Bible are not goody-two-shoes. They make awful mistakes, they do dreadful things, and terrible things happen to them. And that is the point: they are us.

At the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob dies, and Joseph’s brothers fear that he is finally going to take revenge on them for selling him into slavery many years before:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

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 50:15-21

That’s the message: we human beings are fallible and frail. We make tragic mistakes, we are selfish, we are vengeful, we are vulnerable to bad luck. However, we can also be agents of good in the world. We can make small differences. We can forgive and cherish and do good deeds. And sometimes things do work out well. Most of all, we are not alone in our experience. As Kohelet says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

That is not always a bad thing.

Image by Sonny Abesamis, some rights reserved.


Time and Torah

May 20, 2014

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Among the everlasting puzzles of the Torah are its expressions of time. The Book of Numbers is a case in point: it is explicitly not in chronological order.

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt. (Numbers 1:1)

Then, in chapter 9, we read:

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt (Numbers 9:1)

There are other instances where the chronology is not so clearly out of order, but where a careful reader will say, “What? Didn’t that already happen?” Genesis has two completely different Creation stories – was the world created twice?

For this reason, our sages concluded long ago that “there is no earlier or later in the Torah.” (Pesachim 6b). In other words, while we may certainly seek insight from the arrangement of events in the Torah, we should not assume that the only way to arrange them in the order in which they appear.

Genesis chapter 5 is full of ages that drive readers crazy. Adam supposedly lived to be 930 years of age. (Genesis 5:4-5) “Did he really live that long?” students ask, and I always reply, “What do you think?”

It does not make any sense that a human being was able to be alive for 930 years. It is somewhat more believable (but still a stretch) that Moses lived to be 120. I think it is more likely that these extreme ages have symbolic meanings, which may or may not be available to us today. Adam’s age is 130 when he sires Seth, the third son who was born after Cain killed Abel. Then Adam lives 800 more years. I am not aware of particular significance of either 130 or 800 — but what if the text is telling us that Adam felt 130 after one son murdered the other? But then the birth of a third child gave him hope, and he was fortunate to live to see that third child grow up and have children of his own?

If you follow up by reading Genesis 5, you’ll see that the chronology of the story of Noah doesn’t really work, since Noah was supposedly 500 when he sired Shem, Ham, and Japeth, and the Flood was 100 years later….!

But remember, “there is no earlier or later in Torah.” So perhaps it makes more sense to say, Adam lived to a good old age and saw his grandchildren. Noah was no spring chicken when he built the ark. Moses was a grown man when he spoke with the burning bush and an old man when he looked out from Mt. Nebo to see the Promised Land.

While we like to think in chronological patterns, life itself is not that simple. Have you ever met a child who was an “old soul?” Met someone in their 80’s with a young heart? Needed to know how a story ended, before you could take in its beginning? Whether Torah is a blueprint of the world, or a mirror of the world, “it is not in the heavens” (Deut. 30:12) but here in our hands, to interpret today.

Image: Gero, “Time,” Some rights reserved under Creative Commons license.


What is Shmita?

May 7, 2014

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, introduces the concept of the sabbatical year. As it happens, 5775 will be a sabbatical year. So you may be wondering, what is shmita (shmee-TAH, the Sabbatical year)?

Shmita literally translates in English as “release.”

Leviticus 25: 1-7 states:

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:  Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. 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. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce — you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.

The Torah here draws an analogy between the people and the land. Just as the Jewish people are commanded to rest every seventh day, and to allow our animals and servants to rest every seventh day, we are commanded to rest the land every seventh year.

Deuteronomy 15 adds additional regulations for the sabbatical year:

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 

That chapter goes on to specify that Jewish slaves belonging to Jews will also be released in that year.

Now in fact, we don’t know exactly how these rules were applied in ancient times. The Biblical text suggests that the sabbatical year wasn’t observed:

This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’[a] Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. (Jeremiah 34: 13-14)

In Nehemiah 10, the re-establishment of the sabbatical year is proclaimed, but again, we don’t hear how that actually played out.

The problem was and is that taking this law literally is extremely difficult. Imagine for a moment what it implies: all agriculture ceases for a year. All debts are cancelled. Slaves are let go. The richer you are, the more losses you take, but there are risks and losses for everyone.

The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud devised ways to make it work. (If you are interested in the details, check out prozbul, and otzar beit din.  To get an idea of what is involved in a traditional rabbinical observance of these rules, you can read “Shmittah Revisited” by Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff.)

But what if we take a more expansive approach to the interpretation of these verses? What if the real point is not in the details, but in the values that the shmita year teaches?

What are some of the values that shmita endorses?

  • Food security
  • Economic justice
  • Sustainable use of land
  • Human, animal, and land health
  • Freedom

Genesis 1:26 is often interpreted to mean that human beings may do with the earth what they like:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

The principles of the shmita year (as well as the prohibitions on unnecessary cruelty to animals) remind us that we are not the rulers of creation, free to do whatever we like regardless of consequences.

Economic expert Rabbi Meir Tamari has observed in his book The Challenge of Wealth that proponents of various political and economic ideologies have often tried to use Torah to argue that their particular system is God’s system. He points out that one can make such arguments for many conflicting systems: capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Torah is not an endorsement of any one economic or political system; rather it offers us a vision of a world of justice and peace. It is up to us and our human creativity to find ways to bring that world to fruition.

Perhaps the commandment for shmitah (remember, it is literally translated “release”) teaches us that we should regularly release our preconceived notions of economics in order to take a hard look at what is going on around us so that we may bring our world back into line with the values expressed in Torah:

  • Are there slaves? Release them!
  • Are there hungry people? Feed them!
  • Are resources being exhausted? Find better, sustainable ways to meet the need!

We are living in a time when many people are concerned with these problems. While we do not all agree on solutions, we can support one another in seeking many different solutions to slavery, workplace abuses, hunger, concerns about climate, and concerns about justice. We can release our insistences that our plans be the only plans.

Our times call for creativity, and now the shmita year is coming to call us to even higher creativity, and an even higher standard of justice.

Psalm 126 says that “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” Much is wrong in our world today. Let us make use of the shmita year, and shmita creativity, to work towards a new harvest, a harvest of joy.

 

 


Ableism in the Torah? Say it ain’t so!

May 1, 2014
Leadership and Disability: totally compatible!

Leadership and Disability: totally compatible!

 

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 1no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.’” – Leviticus 21: 16-23

These words from parashat Emor are troubling. This is a commandment given concerning the kohanim, the priests of the Temple. It seems to say that anyone blind, lame, disfigured, or deformed is not as good as a “whole” person. It seems to say, “We won’t starve you – you have a right to live! – but we ask that you keep out of sight. You are not good enough to serve in the Temple.”

And indeed, there is a long sad history of human beings saying exactly that to family and community members who were physically or mentally different. Stay out of sight – or at least keep your disability out of sight. This attitude has also taken the form of pretending that disabled people are invisible. And sadly, these verses from the Torah seem to support the notion that the best thing we disabled folk can do is to stay out of sight.

For years, I hid my own disability when it came time to lead services, despite the fact that standing for any length of time gave me excruciating pain. I got the idea from this Torah portion that a person who was leading services should be physically perfect, and that if I needed a cane or a wheelchair to function, then I was not fit to lead a service. As a result, I was not at my best on the bimah (the raised area from which services are led.) I was fuzzy minded, clouded with pain. I mispronounced words. I forgot things. I did not give the congregation the leadership it deserved. Eventually, I decided that I should not be a congregational rabbi, because of the disability I struggled to hide.

I have changed my mind about all of it. First of all, there can be strength and beauty in the prayers of a person who sits in a chair or holds a cane. I know, because I have seen it.

Secondly, I look at the historical context of this commandment. Other ancient cultures exposed (killed) infants who were deemed defective. Even Plato says that in an ideal community, infants with defects would not be allowed to live. So anyone with a congenital disability was deemed unworthy to live: compared to that attitude, saying, “You can eat the holy food, but don’t serve at the altar” seems like a big step forward.

Third, we can look at the interpretation of the tannaim, the earliest rabbis who actually recalled a time when the Temple was standing. In Mishnah Megillah 4.7, Rav Yehudah says that a kohen with stains on his hands also may not give the priestly blessing, “because people would be inclined to stare.” If in fact the reason for keeping the kohanim with visible “defects” from the Temple service was that “people will stare” then it suggests that the problem is not in the disability, but in the reactions of the public to disabilities. Later rabbis went even further: in the Gemara, Megillah 24b, they say that if the kohen is known locally, and “people are used to him,” then there is no impediment to his participating in the service.

This clearly locates the problem with the distraction of the congregation. The kohen may not serve publicly if his disability makes it impossible for the congregation to concentrate.

In this day and time, since we know that it is wrong to discriminate against those with disabilities, this is a red herring. If I am “distracted” by someone’s race, or accent, or the wheelchair they use, it is my task to “get over it” – or more accurately, to get over myself. It is not fair, it is downright wrong, for me to say to anyone, “Don’t lead services, your disability is distracting.”

So if the literal understanding of this verse does not hold up to scrutiny, if a physical disability should no longer prevent someone from serving, what “defects” should keep one from publicly leading a service? Further on in tractate Megillah 29a:

Bar Kappara gave the following exposition: What is the meaning of the verse, “Why look ye askance, ye mountains of peaks, at the mountain which God has desired for His abode?” (Psalm 68:17)  A heavenly voice went forth and said to them: “Why do you look askance at Sinai? Ye are all full of blemishes as compared with Sinai. It is written here “with peaks” and it is written elsewhere “hunchbacked or a dwarf.” (Leviticus 21:20) R. Ashi observed: You can learn from this that if a man is arrogant, this is a blemish in him.

The Psalmist asks why the greatest mountains, with beautiful peaks, look disapprovingly at little Mt. Sinai. The heavenly voice retorts, “Why are you criticizing Sinai? You are all full of blemishes!” Bar Kappara is drawing a parallel between the beautiful tall mountains looking down at Sinai, and the beautiful human beings looking down at a hunchback or a dwarf. Indeed, says Rav Ashi, the real blemish is arrogance.

Thus while this passage appears to reek of old prejudices – and in fact it may represent an old, bad solution to the problem of ableism – further study in the Oral Torah reveals it to be something quite different. If the real blemish is arrogance, then the arrogant may not lead services – but we’ll still feed them.

I can live with that.

Image: FDR in Wheelchair, public domain

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?

 

 


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