Where Do You Sacrifice the Animals?

This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“Rabbi, can we see where you sacrifice the animals?”

A group from a local Christian church was touring the synagogue. I explained that we don’t sacrifice animals anymore. We haven’t sacrificed animals since the destruction of Herod’s Temple in year 70 of the common era. Our rules said we could only do that in the Temple in Jerusalem, so once that building was gone, we had to find a new way to stay connected with the Divine.

I don’t think he believed me, but it is the truth.

In a Reform synagogue, not only do we not sacrifice animals, we are no longer hoping to rebuild the Temple. We agree with Maimonides, who wrote in about 1190 in The Guide for the Perplexed that what God wanted from us was prayer, not sacrifices. The sacrifices had been instituted, he wrote, because we saw other people in the ancient world making sacrifices to their gods, and so God gave us a limited program of sacrifice: only certain animals, and only in one place. That program was meant to move us towards prayer as worship. Maimonides never wrote “so don’t bother to rebuild the Temple” but that became the position of the Reform Jews of the 19th century.

Instead of the sacrifices in the Temple, Jews say a prayer every day at the times appointed for the sacrifices. That prayer, often called “the Amidah” [standing prayer] is a series of short blessings said without a pause or interruption. Rather like the pyre on the altar that they replace, these prayers are layered one upon another in a particular prescribed order. For Orthodox Jews, the Amidah includes a prayer for rebuilding the temple, but in the Reform version, that prayer becomes a prayer that God will “pour out Your spirit” upon us, instead.

There are some people so interested in rebuilding the Temple that they have built elaborate models of it, and others who are trying to develop a red heifer so that the new Temple could be properly purified.

I think there are enough mitzvot that need doing in the world without rebuilding the Temple. I am reminded of the words of the Prophet Hosea, and other prophets as well:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6

The Temple was one of the wonders of the world in its time. Today, that space is occupied by someone else’s house of worship since the year 703. Meanwhile, Jews have moved on to a new, more portable form of worship, the layered daily Amidah, and the shorter Amidah for Shabbat. Personally, I’m glad.

What about you? Would you like to see the Temple rebuilt? Why or why not?

Blessing for a New Job

Now_Hiring

“Is there a blessing for a new job?”

I got this question from an old friend who is currently job-hunting. I hope that he has an occasion to bless his new job very soon.

The quick answer is yes, there’s always Shehecheyanu, the blessing for an unusual event, be it a holiday or even the taste of the first fruit of the season:

Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiyemanu, v’higianu, lazman hazeh.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who has given us life, protected us, and brought us to this moment.

But what about something more specific? The guy is a baby boomer like myself – we’re of an age now when getting a new job means triumphing over ageism and beating the odds. Getting a new job is a very big deal, and it speaks to dignity and survival. I think it should have its own special blessing:

Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shenatan li tikvah v’ko-ach v’he-vi oti l’avodah hadashah zo, kach ani yochal l’hitparnas.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who gives me hope and strength and has brought me to this new employment so that I may make a living.

May the day come when all people have the dignity of honest work for a sufficient wage and the sustenance of body and spirit it provides!

Praying for Rain, Drowning in Snow

New England has been hit with a huge snowstorm. I’ve seen it on the news: multiple feet of snow, snow billowing in the wind, filling up the screen. I know that it is causing a lot of suffering; I shudder to think what homelessness or poverty mean in weather like that.

And yet I have to confess that one of my emotions watching this news is envy.  I’m in California. The East is having biblical storms, and we are having biblical drought. As awful as that blizzard was, we’d need a few of them up in the Sierras before we could quit worrying about water here.

The phrase in Hebrew in the tweet is “who sends wind and causes the rain to fall.” It’s a prayer we say daily as part of the Amidah from Sukkot to Passover, asking for rain to fall, asking that winter be winter. So far, winter in California has been more like fall or spring: cool and breezy, but not much rain since December.  And winter “back East” and in the Midwest has been brutal and wet.

Our climate is out of whack. There’s a section of the Shema I think about a lot lately, one that the early Reformers ditched back in the 19th century because they felt it too “superstitious:”

And if you obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Eternal your God and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Eternal’s wrath will flare up against you, and God will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Eternal gives you. – Deuteronomy 11: 13-17

Let’s leave the traditional understanding of that passage aside, just for a moment. Try this paraphrase of the last bit:

Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray from the commandments and worship alien gods (like power, money or convenience) and bow down to them (give them priority over the commandments.) For then there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish.

The last several years have been the hottest on record. Drought plagues the breadbasket of the nation and the eastern cities are awash in floods and snow. Perhaps, just perhaps, greed might have something to do with this. Convenience might have something to do with this. A desire to ride in my own car all by myself, no matter the cost, might have something to do with it. That’s what the scientists are saying; so much for “superstition.”

I have lost count of the number of my friends with cancer. I’m a baby boomer. We’ve been swimming in toxic chemicals all our lives, from dyes to food additives to pesticides and plastics. DDT wasn’t banned for agricultural use until 1972. Questionable stuff abounds in our air, our food, our water, and in our bodies. All of those things make money for someone, give power to someone, are convenient for someone. When “someone” is myself, it’s still cold comfort when the diagnosis comes.

Are money, power and convenience bad? Of course not, not in and of themselves. In excess, though, they can be a problem. When we put them before our ethics, yes, a problem.

One of the purposes of Jewish prayer is to make us more aware of the contradictions in our lives. If we say the Shema and pay attention to the meaning, every word of it will transform our lives. Same with the daily Amidah: say it and pay attention, and suddenly life will look different.

As for this one prayer for rain, I suggest to anyone who feels waterlogged that they might quietly add “b’California” (“in California”) to the line. We’re mighty dry.

A Vidui for Martin Luther King Day

"<a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ShofarSound.JPG#mediaviewer/File:ShofarSound.JPG">ShofarSound</a>" by <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Jonathunder" title="User:Jonathunder">Jonathunder</a> - <span class="int-own-work">Own work</span>. Licensed under <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0" title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a> via <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/">Wikimedia Commons</a>.
The sound of the Shofar traditionally calls Jews to repentance.

A vidui is a Jewish confession of sin. We tend to associate this form of prayer with Yom Kippur and with the prayers of the dying, although a short vidui is part of the traditional weekday liturgy.

A communal vidui includes sins which I may not personally have committed, but which some in my community may have committed. By claiming them as my own sins, I underline that I am responsible not only for myself, but also for elements in our communal life which may have fostered the sin in our members.

I offer this vidui for my sins and those of my communities.

For all our sins, may the Holy One who makes forgiveness possible forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Arrogance, that makes it difficult to see our own failings

For the sin of Brutality, that makes it possible for us to stand by and think, “He must have deserved it”

For the sin of Credulity, in which we have believed “news” from unreliable sources

For the sin of Disregarding facts that were uncomfortable for us

For the sin of Executing those whose offenses did not merit their death, and for standing by as our civil servants carried out those acts

For the sin of allowing unreasoning Fear to dictate our behavior towards others

For the sin of Greed, underpaying for work or over-charging for services

For the sin of baseless Hatred, that demonizes entire groups of other human beings

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of willful Ignorance, not wanting to know things that are embarrassing to us

For the sin of Jailing massive numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, separated from opportunities to better themselves and their families,

For the sin of Killing the hope of young men who believe that their only futures lie in prison or the grave

For the sin of Laziness in speaking up, when we hear racist language

For the sin of Minimizing the discomfort of others

For the sin of Non-Apologies that didn’t express true sorrow

For the sin of Omission, when we failed to act upon our expressed convictions

For the sin of Presuming that someone has a particular role because of their skin color

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of Quiescence in the face of the racist behavior of others

For the sin of Racism, in all its myriad forms

For the sin of Self-congratulation for acts of common decency

For the sin of Taking umbrage when someone calls us on a racist word or act

For the Unconscious acts which have injured others without our awareness

For the sin of Violence against other human beings

For the sin of using Words in ways that perpetuate racism in any way

For the sin of Xenophobia, fearing and hating those who seem foreign to us

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of Yakking when we should have been listening

For the sin of Zoning out when we assumed this list wasn’t about us

For all of the sins of commission and omission, all the sins we committed consciously and unconsciously, for those that were simply accidents and those for which we failed to make an apology

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For it is through true acts of genuine repentance and a sincere desire to change that we will open the future before our nation: a future of fairness, justice and peace. May all troubled hearts be comforted, may all wounded souls be healed, and may we live to see the day when the scourge of racism is truly behind us.

Amen.

 

[Image is licensed under Creative Commons copyright]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Song in Prayer

Singing is not just for the choir!
Sing to the Eternal a new song! – Ps. 98:1

“I get more out of the service when I sing.”

The person who said that to me this past Shabbat evening was a woman I’ve known for a long time. She used to sit quietly during services, listening to the music but never participating except by tapping her toe or her fingertips. I noticed that she was singing, and asked her about it.

“I just get more out of it if I sing,” she said, “I can’t explain it.”

That’s my experience, too: I feel the service more deeply and I lose myself in it if I sing along. A lot of people don’t sing because they are insecure about their voices, and that’s a shame. Jewish prayer is a whole-body, whole-person experience, and the person who doesn’t sing misses out on a part of it. People don’t sing for a lot of reasons:

“I have a terrible singing voice” – The quality of your singing voice is not important. It might have been important in high school glee club, but it isn’t an issue for congregational singing. If you are really worried about it, sing softly, but sing.

“I don’t know the tunes” – The way most people learn the tunes is by singing along. Again, sing softly if you are unsure, but if you can sing with the car radio, you can sing along with “Adon Olam,” even if the tune is new to you.

“I don’t know the words.” – So don’t use the words! Sing “lai-lai-lai” or “dai-dai-dai” or whatever works for you. Again, if you sing along, you’ll learn the words faster.  If you are self-conscious, sing softly.

“I’d rather listen to others sing.” – OK, sometimes when that’s what I need from the service, I just listen, too. But if that’s all I ever did, it would be like showing up to potluck suppers empty-handed time after time. Congregational singing is part of the service precisely because it lifts the spirit in a way that nothing else can; it is something we do for ourselves and for one another.

If you are worried about the etiquette of congregational singing, here are some tips:

  1. Do sing, but don’t bellow. A nice rule of thumb is that you should be able to hear other people around you sing, too.
  2. If you are unsure of words or tune, sing a bit more softly.
  3. Sing with, not against the congregation. If you learned the tune a different way, that’s interesting but do not try to impose your will on others.
  4. Sing with the congregation. If the cantor or soloist is singing alone, don’t chime in; it will look like you are showing off.

When human beings sing in a group, we join ourselves together at a deep level. We take breaths together, we move together, we almost become a new, larger being. Music is a mysterious and wonderful part of liturgy; it reaches parts of the human psyche that are otherwise difficult to touch. It is one of the oldest forms of Jewish worship:

Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Eternal, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the Eternal, for God is highly exalted. – Exodus 15:1

Music transcends time; it is old and new. It stirs memory and emotion and it moves hearts.  Do you sing in the service? Why or why not?

 

 

Working Out Jewishly?

gym-148632_640I work out twice weekly with a trainer. I have some physical issues that make it really important that I work out, and equally important that I be supervised – I tend to mess up on my own, doing either too much or too little or the wrong thing.

My trainer has been out on maternity leave this fall. That is great news (adorable healthy baby!) but it does mean that I’ve been working out completely on my own. The good news for me is that I kept up my workouts four days a week. The not-so-good news is that I didn’t challenge myself enough, so I’m not in the shape I was in before the baby arrived. Could be worse, and at least I didn’t get injured, but I’m glad to be back into routine, working out under Brittany’s watchful eye.

It occurred to me today as I hobbled back to my car that physical training has a lot in common with a number of things in Jewish life. My prayer life and my study life go better with company, too.  When I do them on my own for too long, I get slack. Eventually I will start losing ground, getting lazy, taking shortcuts, losing the benefit of the activity.

This is why, when I can, I pray with others and I study with others. This past summer and fall I did a thorough review of Biblical Hebrew grammar with a teacher. Sure, I know all that stuff – or I did! – but going over it with a teacher who knows the fine points was a great way to work out my brain and re-sharpen my tools. The same is true for prayer. I have been busy with the hospitality project and not in synagogue as much as before. It’s time to fix that, and improve my prayer by doing more of it with a minyan.

What about you? What aspects of your Jewish life go better with company? Is there anything you feel you truly do better alone?

 

Thanksgiving Blessing

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign over all that is,
Who sets within human beings the desire to gather together
to prepare food with memory and gratitude, to share that food
with friends new and old, with family from near and far.

You give us minds to understand the issues of the day;
please grant us the love and patience
with which to respect our differences,
for when those who disagree can truly listen to one another
miracles can happen.

Grant us mindfulness about our food; bless those who grew it,
who picked it, and brought it to market.

Bless those who prepared it and cooked it.

Grant us the awareness of the many sources of this food,
not only in the present, but the minds and hearts in the past
who devised ways to make simple things delicious.

May we rise from this table
with new understandings of one another:
filled not only with food,
but with gratitude for our many blessings.

Blessed are you, Holy One, who has given us hearts
that can appreciate one another,
and the many blessings we receive.

Amen.