Friday, February 22, 2013

You Don't Smell Like Santa

13 Adar 5773 / Feb. 22-23, 2013

In this week’s portion, Tetzaveh, we find the instructions on how to consecrate Aaron and his sons as the priests of Israel, how to create the High Priest’s special garments, and we also learn how to construct the incense altar (and are told to light incense twice daily). 

Really?  An incense altar? 

Why on earth would our ancestors need to construct an incense altar / be commanded to light incense twice daily?  What does an “incense offering” really do anyway?

Well, first off, it seems pretty apparent that the fragrance of incense would be a positive addition to a courtyard in which you’d also find the burning carcasses of myriad animal sacrifices. 

In addition to the practical, Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi, doctor and philosopher, felt that offering incense also had spiritual implications:  

Since many beasts were daily slaughtered in the holy place, the flesh cut in pieces and the entrails and the legs burnt and washed, the smell of the place would undoubtedly have been like the smell of slaughterhouses, if nothing had been done to counteract it. They were therefore commanded to burn incense there twice every day, in the morning and in the evening, in order to give the place and the garments of those who officiated there a pleasant odor. There is a well-known saying of our Sages, "In Jericho they could smell the incense" [burnt in the Temple]. This provision likewise tended to support the dignity of the Temple. If there had not been a good smell, let alone if there had been a stench, it would have produced in the minds of the people the reverse of respect; for our heart generally feels elevated in the presence of good odor, and is attracted by it, but it abhors and avoids bad smell.
Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:45.

According to Maimonides, good odors have the ability to elevate our hearts.  In addition to this being a strong argument in favor of bathing before going out on a date, it also shows the significant value our tradition places on scent, and its perceived mystic linkages. 

We find the first mentioned linkage between the nose and the soul in the Book of Genesis (2:7):

“Then God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

We later learn from the rabbis in the Talmud (Berachot 43b):

“What is something that the soul enjoys but not the body? It is the scent.”

This special connection between scent and soul can also help explain why smelling spices is part of the Havdallah ceremony. We learn in the Talmud (Taanit 27b): 

“Reish Lakish said: Man is given an additional soul on Friday, but at the termination of the Sabbath it is taken away from him…”
When Shabbat ends, we’re taught that the extra soul departs, and smelling the spices at Havdallah is meant both to revive us – serving as spiritual smelling salts – and to soothe the remaining soul that is now left alone.

While contemporarily it’s not customary to burn incense in synagogues, are there ways that we can better creatively and effectively use our sense of smell to uplift our souls on a regular basis? 

Most of us know what it’s like to smell a Shabbat meal before it’s served.  (There’s just something about challah baking and chicken soup on the stove that puts one at ease and heightens one’s awareness).  What prevents us from striving to fill that aspect of our souls every week?

Maybe there’s a special perfume or cologne that you want to set aside for Shabbat, holidays and other special occasions where you want your sense of smell to be particularly heightened in order to have a clearer channel to your heart.

Or maybe, you just want to make sure to Febreze your apartment or home before having company over.

By consciously finding ways to infuse our lives with wonderful scents, we can keep our spiritual avenues open, and like our ancestors before us, connect with the Divine.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Girl Look At That Body...

6 Adar 5773 / Feb. 15-16, 2013

In this week’s portion, Terumah, we find uber-specific blueprints instructing the Israelites on how to build the Tabernacle, altar, ark, menorah, etc.  Basically, a transmission of the instructions on how to build the ritual objects that the Israelites would keep with them as they wandered in the desert for the next 40 years. 

Early in the portion, we find God telling Moses that the Israelites should bring gifts in order to have the materials with which to construct these ritual objects.  God also shares with Moses the rationale for the impending project: “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

What does it really mean to build a sanctuary so that we can be in the company of the Divine?  While in the Torah portion we’re dealing with a very specific physical structure, can we today find meaningful ways to create structures of holiness in our lives (both physical and spiritual)?  Can we ourselves be the sanctuary that brings Divinity into the world?

We’ve often heard the phrase “my body is my temple.”  What does it look like to really live that concept?

Are we conscious of what we’re eating / drinking?

Are we exercising regularly and finding ways to enjoy the outdoors and the awesomeness that is nature?

Are we getting enough rest from the daily grind?

Are we introspective enough to see where we can grow, how we can better treat others, and how to best walk in the world with holy purpose?

When we can answer yes to the above, perhaps we can really begin to understand what it means to have the Divine dwelling among us, and we can construct sanctuaries both physical and spiritual to reflect the accompanying power and joy.

Friday, February 8, 2013

I'm A Slave For You

29 Shevat 5773 / Feb. 8-9, 2013

This week’s portion, Mishpatim, is full of rules for the Israelite nation to adopt and follow, from how to treat one’s parents, to the punishments for murder and thievery, to not collecting interest on loans to fellow Israelites.  A concept repeated more than once in the portion is: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Surprisingly (to me), a significant portion of Mishpatim’s rules deal with how to treat one’s slaves.

For example, we learn that while you can’t kill your slave outright, you can beat him.  But, if in doing so you poke out his eye or knock out his tooth, he gets to go free.

The Israelites had just been enslaved for hundreds of years in Egypt.  How could they possibly think about enslaving others so soon after their exodus into freedom?

Some rabbinic commentators argue that the verses here don’t deal with slavery as we’ve come to know it, but rather, indentured servitude (I’ll note as a refutation to the concept that the word “eved” is used in the verses here to describe such a slave – just as we say “avadim (plural of eved) hayiinu” on Passover when retelling the story of our own enslavement).

The notion of indentured servitude is an interesting one.  Is such servitude any better than, or any different than, slavery?

How does indentured servitude arise?  In the Torah, it comes about when you owe restitution to another, but don’t have the means to make the payment.  For example, in Mishpatim, we learn that if a thief is caught in the act during daylight hours, he must make restitution.  If he lacks the means, “he shall be sold for his theft.”

While there is a distinction between a restitution payment and a debt obligation payment, and while the notion of “working off a debt” certainly makes more sense in agrarian societies where there are all manner of field labors that need to be performed (and can be performed by everyone), can we imagine a contemporary society where indentured servitude for unpaid debts is the norm?

If you had no way of paying outstanding debt and defaulted on a loan, would you go work for the lender or lending entity until you’ve paid your debt off?  Would you feel a sense of responsibility for your outstanding obligation?

We jokingly see this in movies sometimes in the form of washing dishes at a restaurant in order to pay off your check (think Mighty Ducks 3).  But as a more serious example, there are many people currently defaulting on their student loan payment obligations.  In Biblical times, the result of such defaults might have been indentured servitude (which in today’s world might actually be deemed positive, as you could put a line on your resume saying you “worked” at a bank, for the government, etc., assuming that one of the primary reasons for default is lack of income due to under or unemployment).  Can you imagine some sort of contemporary indentured servitude arrangement for those who default due to an inability to pay what they owe?

My guess is that due to the personal autonomy we have in America, coupled with laws that make slavery in its myriad forms illegal, it would be quite a challenge to suggest that individuals serve as indentured servants in order to pay off their accumulated debt.  But it seems evident that the prospect of indentured servitude as the potential consequence of failure to pay what we owe would certainly make us a bit more cautious as it relates to how we treat others, their property, and any debt we might willingly acquire.

I find it a struggle to stomach the notion that the rules of enslaving others were given so shortly after securing our own freedom from Egypt.  However, if such rules can help us place a value on treating others and their property well, borrowing modestly, making timely payments, and honoring our debt obligations, those lessons ring true and hold value for us today, despite societally no longer (thankfully) allowing slavery in its myriad forms to legally exist.