Moving the Furniture

Image: My computer, unplugged and out of the way.

We have to rearrange the house to get some repairs done. Sukkot is coming, which means at least one gathering, and some other events as well. We are cleaning and repairing things in expectation of guests, holidays, and (soon) a new grandchild.

Funny, if you move the furniture around, you find stuff. We discovered when we moved the couch that there was a line of shmutz (Yiddish for dirt) just under it. I’ll have to clean that up before we replace the couch.

Yom Kippur is a lot like that. Our tradition gives us a season to drag around the furniture of our lives, checking for shmutz, fixing what’s broken. That season culminates in a serious 24 hour period for reflection, stripped of our usual distractions of food, or drink, or sex. If we use it well, we will be renewed. If we waste it by clinging to distractions, we are the losers.

Many of us are worried about the state of the world and the country right now. That, too, can be a distraction from dealing with the things that are truly ours to control: our behavior, our attitudes, and our choices.

I wish you a thoughtful, prayerful time as you traverse the Days of Awe 5780.

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Nitzavim: We Stand Together

Image: The menorah in the Knesset garden in Jerusalem. (Possi66/Wikimedia)

The beginning of Parashat Nitzavim is thrilling. Moses is speaking to the community, and he makes it clear that he is speaking to everyone:

You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—

to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that God may establish you this day as God’s people and be your God, as God promised you and as God swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day.

Deuteronomy 29:9-14.

First of all, the word translated “stand” in the first line means much more than “stand.” It means established, or rooted: that all the people gathered together are determined to enter into this covenant with God. Moreover, they stand as equals, from the highest to the lowest members of society, each of them is established as a full member of the People of Israel, a sharer in what would become, over the coming centuries, the great project of Judaism.

Secondly, all of them are named as children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: there is no distinction here between men and women, or adults and children, and there is no distinction between the DNA-bearing descendants of Abraham and those who came along as part of the “mixed multitude” from Egypt:

And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle.

Exodus 12:37-38

And then, just as the reader is tempted to think, “Wow, that’s inclusive!” there’s yet another dimension, the dimension of time: “those who are with us this day… and those who are not with us this day.” So that all the Israelites who have ever been, all the way back to Abraham, and all the Hebrews who perished in Egypt, and all the Jews who would be born in the years to come, right down to this very day, were all standing together at this moment. Thus it is an eternal moment, a cosmic moment, in which we all stand together as the People of Israel.

It gives me the chills.

Whenever I am tempted to be discouraged by all the fighting among Jews, I think of this passage. Perhaps we can agree on almost nothing but by golly, Moses looked at us – looks at us, in this cosmic moment, and he says to us, “You, ALL of you, are established today before the Eternal your God.”

We may scrap and fuss and and quarrel among ourselves oh, how I wish we did not! but we are all Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, past, present and future. Nothing changes that, not the Egyptians, not the Babylonians, not the Romans, not the Spanish Inquisition, not Hitler, and certainly not the modern-day creeps who threaten us. And even among ourselves, when we squabble about who’s the most authentic, who’s the most Jewish: before this passage in Deuteronomy, it all fades away.

We stand. We are established. We are rooted in the truth of who we are: and no one, absolutely no one, can diminish that, or take it away.

The Torah on Crossdressing

Image: JoJo the toy poodle does not wear clothes, which solves the problem.

לֹא־יִהְיֶ֤ה כְלִי־גֶ֙בֶר֙ עַל־אִשָּׁ֔ה וְלֹא־יִלְבַּ֥שׁ גֶּ֖בֶר שִׂמְלַ֣ת אִשָּׁ֑ה כִּ֧י תוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ כָּל־עֹ֥שֵׂה אֵֽלֶּה׃ (פ)
A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD your God. — Deuteronomy 22

For the past few months, I have been accompanying a young woman as she goes through the grueling process of preparing for gender affirming surgery. There are still many months ahead of her, and I am committed to accompanying her through those as well.

I do not pretend to be anything but a support person and a learner. Most of what I have learned is a deep respect for those individuals who choose the life-affirming path of owning their proper gender, whatever medical modalities they choose or do not choose to employ. They begin in a painful, confusing situation. They have to figure it all out despite opposition that may be psychologically and/or physically violent.

So when I read this week’s Torah portion and the quotation above unrolled before me, I immediately thought of all the ways it has been used to hurt people dealing with gender dysphoria.

It’s one of those lines that seems so obvious we don’t look twice. “No crossdressing!”

Except — what if it is actually a commandment to respect the gender identity of others? If my young friend is certain she is a woman, then according to this verse, forcing her to wear men’s clothing is a to’evah — an abhorrent thing!

Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” Our first impressions of verses from Torah may be clouded by many elements, including our prejudices. May we continue to “turn it and turn it” until our understanding is in line with the main thrust of Torah, which calls for peace and wholeness for all!

Rule for Prophets & Pundits

Image: Two faces, back to back, with elaborate and opposing speech balloons. (Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him; and if anybody fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I Myself will call him to account.
But any prophet who presumes to speak in My name an oracle that I did not command him to utter, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet shall die.”

And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Eternal?”—
if the prophet speaks in the name of the Eternal and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Eternal; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him.

Deuteronomy 18:18-22

Parashat Shoftim offers us rules for prophets, rules with resonance for our own time.

We may not call them “prophets,” but there are many talking heads competing for our attention. Whether you are a conservative or a liberal, there’s someone on the radio or the TV or the Internet telling us how they see things. From Rush Limbaugh to Rachel Maddow, from Fox News to Mother Jones, they are talking, talking, talking at us, and they disagree on almost everything.

Deuteronomy offers us a way to sort them out: fact check them. It’s a little frustrating to read: “Only treat them as a prophet if what they say comes true.” At first glance, that seems too late. But looking more closely at the Hebrew, what it says is, “If the prophet speaks in the name of the Eternal and his [the prophet’s] word does not “go” (yah-VOH,) that oracle was not spoken by the Eternal.” That sounds clumsy, and I understand why the translator of the JPS translation chose “come true” – it’s much more graceful. Personally, I’d opt for the less elegant “makes sense” – do the prophet’s words stand up to scrutiny?

So whether we are listening to Fox or MSNBC, NPR or CNN, we can ask the question, “Has that been verified? By whom?” And then we have to climb out of our bubbles a bit, and look to see how the different versions of the story line up. Who is telling the truth – not just because we like what they say, but because it can be verified? Who is saying it, and what are their credentials? Are they appealing to my fears? To my prejudices?

False prophets are a curse on any civilization, and history is littered with them. They tend to prey on our prejudices and our fears, and power is their payoff. The best defense against them is the combination of an open heart and a critical mind: I should never discount someone just because they irritate me, and I should never believe someone merely because they look like a friend.

We live in a time of competing prophecies. Our job, as listeners, is to listen carefully and check the facts.

The Red Cow: A Feminist Interpretation

Image: A red cow. (pexel.com)

The laws of ritual purity left the daughters of Israel a problematic legacy. No matter how body-positive we may strive to be, the Torah text in Leviticus 15 tells us that the natural function of menstruation regularly render women’s bodies tum’ah, ritually problematic.* Unfortunately, in the past readers have seized upon those commandments, jumping to the conclusion that the people who inhabit those bodies (women) are problematic and perhaps lesser or more dangerous than people with bodies that don’t bleed monthly. This has given rise to folklore and rules that continue to be extremely damaging to the rights of women.

The ritual of the Red Cow in Parashat Chukat may offer a counterweight to negative attitudes toward the menstruating body. The Red Cow is distinct from other sacrifices in important ways:

  • It is a female animal, rather than a male. It is specifically an adult cow. (Mishnah Parah 1.1).
  • It is sacrificed outside the camp, rather than before the Tent of Meeting.
  • A little of its blood is sprinkled toward (but not on) the Tent of Meeting, but most of the blood is left to be burned with the Cow.
  • Shni tola’at, “crimson stuff” is also burnt with the Cow. Shni tola’at means “scarlet produced by the scale insect kermes vermilio.” The ash of this fire, when combined with mayyim chayyim (“living water”) in Numbers 19:17, produces an antidote for corpse tum’ah.

The combination of these elements: a female animal, the complete separation from the usual sacrificial site, the emphasis on blood and the color red (Red Cow, fire, “crimson stuff,”) and the use of mayyim chayyim –— the same water required for mikvaot -— suggest that the ultimate
tum’ah of death may be balanced by a ritual that makes repeated references to the menstrual process!

May we, in studying this ancient antidote to ritual impurity, be led to value the messiness of our human bodies and affirm life wherever we find it!

*For a fuller explanation of tum’ah, which is often translated “impure” or “unclean” but which has nothing to do with cleanliness, see Clean and Unclean: A primer.

July 1: This Year, Part Two

Image: Half-drunk cup of coffee next to a list “2019 goals” (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Today we begin the second half of 2019. Do you remember your New Year’s resolutions, whether you made them at Rosh Hashanah or at the secular New Year? What happened with them? What happened with you?

If your resolutions were life-changing and are now accomplished, mazal tov! I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

If you are like many of us, and those resolutions faded, I want to suggest to you that they are still useful – not as resolutions, but as information. In last week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lecha, Moses sent spies into the Land of Israel to check it out. The spies came back with a 10-to-2 vote that the Land was too scary and the Israelites too weak. God was furious at the lack of faith, and declared that none of that generation would enter the Land. Instead, they would live out their lives in the wilderness, and their children would enter the Land.

We usually read that story as a failure: foolish Israelites, not having the faith to finish the job! We read God’s response as a punishment.

But was it really a punishment, or just an acknowledgment of reality? The former slaves were not equipped emotionally to make war in the Land. Instead, God cared for them in the wilderness, feeding them manna and renewing their clothing. Midrash tells us that all their needs were met while they lived in the desert. The damage from enslavement was too great: so God cared for them until a new generation came of age.

Resolutions that didn’t work out give us important information about ourselves. Often we adopt a resolution because there is something we don’t like about ourselves. Do we need to change that thing – or do we need to learn to accept ourselves as we are? Did we need someone to guide us as we made that change? Did we need to seek out better support? Did denial about something important keep us from from our resolution? Or did we take on a resolution because we wanted someone else to change? (Spoiler: that never works.)

Let’s use these days of summer to think about those old resolutions. If they succeeded, celebrate! And if not, let’s mine them for insight and opportunity.

I wish you a happy Half Year!

We Must Not Stop Caring

The news is full of pictures of the camps on the southern border of the United States. The photo above is from one such news item, from “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border” from npr.org. I know that many of you are, like me, horrified at these reports.

I have been told that these camps existed during the Obama administration. If so, shame on us- this policy does not fit with my understanding of what America is supposed to be. We are slamming the door not only to immigrants like our own ancestors, but slamming doors on refugees from violence, people seeking asylum from terrible danger. I don’t care when it started; I want it to stop, and to be replaced by a fair and coherent immigration policy, something that both Republican and Democratic administrations have so far failed to produce.

I’ve written letters and made calls for months, and the news has only gotten worse. I’ve sent donations, and seen no progress. It is very, very easy to get weary, to decide that nothing will help, and to feel how tired I am of all this worry and activity. That weariness is a temptation to stop caring so much.

Ever since I first heard about the so-called detainment camps and the separation of children from their parents, I have protested it using the verse Deuteronomy 10:19: “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I’ve quoted those words so often, with so little result, that they have begun to seem meaningless.

Verses do that sometimes. They become rote, syllables that I repeat. At that point I step back and look at the larger context of the thing I’ve been quoting:

Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.

You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Listen to the violence in that passage! “Cut away the thickening about your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more.” This verse is sometimes translated literally as “circumcise your hearts” but I prefer this translation because it brings the metaphor closer – we are not talking about brit milah here (upon which we moderns can get sidetracked into debate) – we’re talking about heart surgery!

We who have been sending in our tax dollars to pay agents to orphan children by taking them from their parents —

We who have been leaving mothers and fathers weeping for their children —

We who have been treating strangers like animals, caging them and denying them basic needs like soap and toothbrushes —

We who have been doing this out of fear (“they will rape our women”) or out of greed (“they will get our jobs”) need to change our hearts today!

We who have acquiesced to it by blaming the bad stuff on the president and his people, by saying, “I didn’t do that” or “that’s not US!” need to change our hearts today!

O God, who knows the hearts of all, please help us cut away the calluses on our hearts, please help us to care. Help our caring to find a better way: a just and coherent immigration policy, with the support it needs to succeed.

The worse the news, the longer it goes on, the more urgent it is that we care and that we continue taking action. If you would like a list of possible actions you might take to care and to act, Slate Magazine recently posted an excellent list.

We must not stop caring!