Shoftim: Who Is My Idol?

Image: A collection of idols: Egyptian gods, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Israeli fighter jet, smartphone, Greek demi-god, Kardashians, U.S. Twenty dollar bill, Andrew Jackson, Child sacrifice, Moloch. Collage from public domain photos by R. Ruth Adar.

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

You shall not set up a sacred post—any kind of pole beside the altar of the LORD your God that you may make— or erect a stone pillar; for such the LORD your God detests. – Deuteronomy 16:20-22
The first verse above is one of the most famous in all the Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” it commands with mighty emphasis. It sits right at the beginning of Parashat Shoftim, or “Judges.”
The follow-up to“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” seems like a non sequitur. It is a commandment against idolatry via the Asherah pole or a stone pillar, either of which is an idol. So we might ask: what’s the connection?
God detests idolatry. It’s one of the major themes of Deuteronomy: don’t make idols, don’t hang out with idolaters, don’t even think about idols. In the historical period when this book was written, that meant, don’t worship any god other than the one named Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey who brought you, Israelites, out of Egypt.
Archaeologists tell us that in fact there was a lot of other-god-worshiping happening in the Land of Israel at the time. The goddess Asherah, wife of El, was particularly popular – hence all the commandments against setting up Asherah-poles, as in the verse above.
So we have first, a famous verse commanding the pursuit of justice. Following it, there is a commandment against idolatry.
We now live in a different time.  Our idols are usually not made of stone, and we don’t usually call them “gods.”
Only a year ago, a group of people gathered in Charlottesville, VA, because they loved the statue of a dead man and they wanted to preserve it. It was so important to them that they put on a show of weapons and violence. They marched with torches, with weapons, and chanting angry slogans.
They were there for a more complex set of reasons than a statue of Robert E. Lee. They felt that a respectful memory of the Confederacy is important. They feel their way of life changing, and they don’t like it.
Other people – many of the local citizens of Charlottesville – felt that it was time for that way of life to change, because that way of life, to them, is called racism. That’s why their city government had taken steps to get rid of the statue.
Now I ask you: is it not idolatry to take a statue so seriously that it is worth a show of violence? Is it not idolatry that a woman was killed by someone who felt he was defending the statue?

Racism is in fact a modern brand of idolatry. It insists that some human lives are rightly privileged above others. It contradicts the Jewish concept of B’Tzelem Elohim, that all human beings are made in the image of God.

Now, lest my readers think this is just an exercise in pointing out where other people are messing up, let’s turn this insight upon ourselves.
When we decide to pursue justice, we need to ask ourselves about idolatry. Not “Whom do I worship?” but “What or whom do I prioritize above all else?” Specifically, when I think I’m doing justice work, I need to examine and reexamine my priorities: for whom am I doing this work? Who benefits? What’s my payoff for doing the work?
  • If I fight for justice when “justice” will also keep people I don’t like out of my face or my neighborhood – what am I really worshiping?
  • If I fight for justice, but only if it won’t cost me a dime – what am I really worshiping?
  • If I fight for justice, but only if I always get credit for what I do – what am I really worshiping?
We can be idolaters in the 21st century. If I want to know what I worship, all I really need to do is to take a hard look at what’s most important to me. What am I willing to defend with my reputation, with my money, with my life? 
Whether we call them “gods” or we call them “priorities,” every person alive has them. Even those who say “I don’t believe in God” have something that concerns them above all else. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich wrote at great length about a concept of God he called “Ultimate Concern.”
We all have something that is more important than anything else to us. Whatever that may be, it is the thing we worship.
Whom or what do you prioritize above all else? Don’t tell me in the comments – tell yourself. Then decide if that’s really the worshiper you want to be.
(This is a variation and expansion on a post from 2017.)
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#BlogElul — Prepare!

Image: My colleague @imabima has posted a list of topics for Elul on her blog every year since 2012. The image above is this year’s list, days 1-29.

The lovely thing about @imabima’s list of topics is that for the whole month of Elul I don’t have to think of topics. They sit right there in front of me in a tidy list, already set. Today is Day 3 (yes, I missed 1 and 2. I may come back to them later.)

The word PREPARE always brings one verse of the Bible to my mind:

  קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵינוּ

A voice calls – in the wilderness, clear the road of Adonai!  Go ahead  in the desert, prepare a road to our God. – Isaiah 40: 3, translation mine.

This verse is echoed in the Christian New Testament:

φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ· Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ,

He is a voice calling out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord! Make his paths straight! – Mark 1:3 (ISV translation) 

In both cases, a prophet is speaking to the people: Isaiah in his eponymous book, and in the opening of the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist speaks to his followers, quoting Isaiah.

For the devout, the context is already there. Isaiah 40 is known to devout Jews by its first line “Comfort, comfort my people” – it is the haftarah for the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. He was speaking to Israel after the disaster of the fall of Jerusalem, comforting them and saying, “Get on with it! Get moving! Buck up! Good things are ahead!”

Devout Christians today understand John to be saying, “Get ready! Jesus is coming!” What many Jews of his time likely heard was, “Remember what Isaiah said! Look forward, good things are ahead!”

Lately I’ve learned about “preppers” – people who focus on preparedness, usually with a bad scenario in mind.  They are preparing for massive accidents, terrorist events and natural disasters. They lay in supplies of nonperishable food and other necessities. Some of them get involved in amateur radio (for when the phone system crashes) or stockpile weaponry (for when the revolution comes.)

Preppers are  getting ready for bad things to happen. I confess have always been a bit of a worrier myself, and I try to be prepared for the things that worry me. I have a supply of water laid in, and a case of peanut butter, and dog food, because I worry about the earthquake fault in my backyard.

The thing is, neither Isaiah nor John were advocating “prepping.” They weren’t saying, “Look ahead, and be afraid!” They were saying, “Something good is coming, you better be ready!”

Today there are upsetting things all over the news. And yes, that Hayward Fault is percolating away beneath my feet. All that is true.

And yet the prophet calls to me,

“Clear the road of Adonai!  Go ahead  in the desert, prepare a road to our God!”

Perhaps, instead of preparing for the worst, my energy is best spent striving towards something better.

 

 

I Cringe When I Read Leviticus 25

Image: An old wooden fence post, criss-crossed with barbed wire. (LeoNeoBoy/Pixabay.)

Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. – Leviticus 25:44

We are reading Parashat Behar-Bechukotai this week, in which these words appear.

There are verses in the Torah that are downright painful to read, and Chapter 25 of Leviticus, with its rules for Jews keeping slaves, is one of them for me. These verses have been used to justify the practice of slavery in many different times and places in history. These verses justified the keeping of slaves by Jews, and they were cited to justify the keeping of slaves in my birth state of Tennessee.

Over time we have learned better. Jews no longer keep slaves. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives a summary of the history of those changes in The Slow End of Slavery, a d’var Torah on Parashat Mishpatim.  So what can we get out of reading these verses again and again, year after year?

First, while the practice of slavery is in our past, it is part of our history. As recently as the American Civil War, there were Jews as well as Christians who used the Torah to justify their ownership of other human beings. The memory of that should keep us humble. We should never forget that there may well be things we do lightly today that future generations will judge harshly.

These verses remind us that there are times and places in which we still, today, profit from immoral advantages over other human beings. For instance, “redlining”  was banned 50 years ago, but the evil it did still impacts black families today.

Look at our synagogue communities: we make it difficult for Jews with brown or black skins to feel at home in our synagogues. We are quick to assume that they must be hired help or dangerous strangers. We leave them standing alone at the oneg. Even if we don’t say or do something overtly cruel, we fail to greet them with the same enthusiasm we might extend to a member who “looks Jewish” to us. If you don’t believe me, do a little reading. One good beginning is Kippahed While Black: The Troubling Resurgence of “Schvartze” and “Kushi” a short opinion piece in the Forward by Michael Twitty.

We American Jews have a favorite photo that we like to trot out whenever the subject of civil rights or race comes up:

KingHeschel-photo

In the photo, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marches at Selma with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr in March 1965.* But we speak too often of this photo as if the work is done: “See! There’s a rabbi there! One of ours!” We speak of it as somehow each of us should get credit for Rabbi Heschel’s walk.

The trouble with this is that each Jew is responsible for their own self. ALL of us are commanded – individually! – to free the prisoner, to feed the hungry, to love the stranger, and to pursue justice. We can’t slide by on the righteousness of a single rabbi who took courageous action 53 years ago. We cannot stand by while our neighbors bleed, while African Americans are executed for holding cell phones on their own family’s property.

Each of us – me included! – needs to ask “What am I doing about racial injustice today?” We need to ask it not in the past tense, and certainly not by proxy. We need to be open to improving our behavior. We need to drop the defensiveness that keeps us from learning when we’ve messed up. We need to not be so fragile when someone points out that what we’ve said or done was, yes, racist.

We can do this. I have great faith in our ability to learn and to make change. We can do it in the voting booth. We can do it by speaking up at racist “jokes.” We can do it by biting our tongues at phrases like “Not all white people…” We can do it by inviting speakers and leaders of color to our congregation to speak. We can do it by including in our tzedakah budgets organizations that serve people of color. We can do it by doing the good work and then not insisting on credit.

Every year when Leviticus 25 comes around, I cringe. I don’t like being reminded of past wrongs – no one likes it. But if I use that discomfort to open my heart, to open my ears, then it will all be worth it.  Shabbat shalom!

*For more about that iconic photo, read Susannah Heschel on the Legacy of Her Father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement, an article published in Moment Magazine in April, 2015.

 

Guest Post: Dear Israel

The following post is by musician Beth Hamon. She writes with great heart and simplicity about some very complex matters. I asked for her permission to share it here with you, my readers. For more about Beth and her music, you can check out her website. – Rabbi Adar

Dear Israel,

You and I don’t really get each other very much, I admit it.
I don’t get why people tell me I should want to move there.
You don’t get why Portland is my Jerusalem. 
I don’t get how you can be simultaneously so loving towards certain Members Of the Tribe and so awful towards, well, a whole lot of everyone else (see: women, people of color, Palestinians).
You don’t get why I think it’s possible to be dynamically and fully Jewish wherever you are — and with whomever you love.

And yet, when I hear your name I still stop for the tiniest moment and listen.
I notice.
I ponder.
I wonder about what it means to be connected to a place so far away, and to Jews whose temperament is so different from mine. (You’re not the first to tell me I’m too nice or too polite.)

Look, I’m super-broke and probably always will be; so it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever be able to go and meet you in person.
So let’s agree to try and understand each other and respect each other a whole lot more from afar.
Can we work on that, you and me?
I’m willing to keep wrestling.
Are you?
Happy 70th birthday. May you have many more in good health.
I hope and pray that someday soon you’ll know real, lasting peace.
Thanks for being here — Beth

Shabbat Shalom! – Tzav

Parashat Tzav takes us deeper into the Book of Leviticus, and into the minutiae of Temple sacrificial practice. This week we see the sacrifices from the priest’s point of view, especially the week-long ordination rite. What can any of this possibly have to say to 21st century Jews? Take a look at these divrei Torah and see!

Giving Thanks in the Present Moment by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Tzav: Oil and Blood by Maggid Melissa Carpenter

The Life Blood and the Nefesh by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Leadership, Precision, and the Power of Ritual by Rabbi Rachel Sabath- Beit Halachmi

“Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The Convert Who Loved Nice Clothes by Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

The Convert Who Loved Nice Clothes

Image: The High Priest in the Holy of Holies, from the Holman Bible, 1890. Public Domain.

This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, “Command.” It begins:

“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: “Command Aaron and his sons thus…” – Leviticus 6:1-2

Nowhere in Scripture is there anything to suggest that Aaron wanted the position of High Priest. The more I think about that role, the more I am convinced that it isn’t the sort of job most people would want. It’s hard, heavy work: slaughtering animals, skinning them, cutting them up, stacking the pieces with wood in a very precise manner, burning the lot, then cleaning up the mess. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty work.  And as we will soon see,  mistakes in the vicinity of the Mishkan [Tabernacle] can be fatal.

It’s easy to miss the grubbiness and danger of the job. We read about elaborate vestments with fancy embroidery, precious stones, and magical devices. Most sacrifices involve a meal for the priests. The title is seductive, too: “High Priest” or in Hebrew, “Kohen Gadol.”

There is a story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) about a non-Jew who walked by a synagogue, and heard the reading from Exodus describing the High Priest’s garments. He was very curious, and asked a bystander about the passage. “They are special garments for the High Priest.” The man was excited. “For this, it is worth becoming a Jew. I’ll convert and become the next High Priest!” The bystander, amused, suggested that he go see a rabbi named Shammai, who was a builder by trade.

He went to Shammai and said, “I want you to convert me, but only on the condition that I become the next High Priest!” Shammai, disgusted by his chutzpah, poked at him with a measuring rod until he fled the shop.

Undeterred, the man got the name of another rabbi, Hillel. He went to see Hillel and repeated his outrageous demand.

Hillel looked at him for a moment. “OK,” he said, “But if you want to become High Priest, you should learn the laws concerning the High Priest. Start with those.” Overjoyed, the student went away to study.

Then he read the verse, “Any non-priest who participates [in the holy service] shall die” (Num. 3:10). “To whom does this refer?’ he asked. Even King David, he was told. Even David, king of Israel, was not allowed to serve in the holy Temple, as he was not a descendant of Aaron the kohen. He was horrified: he didn’t want to die!

He returned to Hillel. “May blessings fall on your head, humble sir, for drawing me under the wings of the Divine Presence.” For you see, even though he no longer wanted to be the High Priest, he had found the beauty of Torah in the text itself and in the person of Hillel. He continued studying Torah, and eventually converted to Judaism.

There are many lessons available in that story. One I have to work to remember is that sometimes ignorant people ask offensive questions without meaning offense. I can pick up the nearest measuring rod to chase them out of my shop – Shammai’s response is understandable! – or I can give them what they need to educate themselves. It’s my choice.

Have you ever asked a question you realized later was foolish or even offensive? When and how did you learn better? And what did you do then?

Shabbat Shalom! Vayikra

This week we begin the book of Leviticus with Parashat Vayikra. Leviticus is unique among the books of Torah in that it reads like a manual for the kohanim, the priests of Israel. It lays out the laws of korbanot, or sacrifices. The word korban has as its root the Hebrew letters kufbet, and nun. That puts it in the family of Hebrew words having to do with closeness: to draw close, to be close. Sacrifices are the way the ancient Israelites sought to be close to God.

Even though the topic seems dry and far removed from us, you will be surprised at some of the great divrei Torah available on the subject, such as these:

Leviticus on Love by Rabbi Arnold Eisen

Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Rabbi Lance J. Sussman

Invitation to the World by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Generation to Generation? by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

 

Thinking about Sacrifice by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat