Friday, April 26, 2013

Holier Than Thou

April 26-27, 2013

In this week’s portion, Emor, we continue learning about some of the laws specifically pertaining to the ancient priests.  For example, we learn that they were not permitted to enter a cemetery (except for the burials of immediate family – and in the case of the High Priest, not even then) and were not permitted to marry divorcees.  We also learn that the general population was meant to treat them as holy.

The priests were commanded to be holy.  And yet, the general population was also instructed to treat them as holy.  What gives?  What need was there for the population to treat them as holy if they were already being holy?  Shouldn’t the holiness speak for itself?

Sometimes, the way people look at us / treat us is the way we look at ourselves.  When others denigrate us or put us down, we have a tendency to see ourselves through their eyes, often damaging our self-esteem.  So too, the potential exists to do the opposite – to prop up those in particular positions by treating them well and with honor, so that they’ll be less likely to stray from their righteous paths.  Thus, perhaps we were instructed to treat the priests as holy so that just in case they forgot they were meant to be holy or had an inclination to do something unholy, they’d have the community there supporting them and reminding them of their stature (and accompanying expectations).

However, we’re only human, and treating some as holier than others presents a number of potential problems.  For example, there is the risk that those being treated as holy become so egocentric that they forget they’re imperfect human beings just like the rest of us.  It is through this lens of egocentrism that we can begin to understand one of the more challenging parts of our tradition, found in this week’s portion. 

While many of us today are taught that Judaism is a faith that is all about social justice, “repairing the world,” and watching out for the little guy, such as the stranger, the widow and the orphan, our tradition has some parts that aren’t quite as flattering.  This week, we learn that if you were an ancient priest (coming from the lineage of Aaron), if you had some sort of physical “defect,” you were not permitted to make sacrificial offerings (which is the primary priest job responsibility).  You were judged to have a “defect” if you were blind, lame, had a limb too short or too long, were a hunchback, a dwarf, and more.  So too, the animals themselves being offered had to be “blemish free.”  The implication is that in order to serve (or be offered up as a sacrifice to) the Divine, you must be physically perfect.

Where does this emphasis on “perfection” come from?  From a practical perspective, I can maybe understand why having certain physical challenges would cause problems performing the duties assigned to the priests as outlined.  For example, if a priest was missing both arms, it would be quite challenging to perform sacrificial slaughters with the precision demanded.  However, wouldn’t we like to think that we’re a community and nation that values inclusion, and could find creative ways to include even those priests who have what many might have perceived as limitations?  Perhaps it was due to ego and inflated sense of self due to receiving special treatment from the community that the priests came to equate holiness with physical perfection at that time.

It has been a long struggle, but contemporarily, in much of the Jewish world, our values strive to reflect inclusion and equality, as, for example, many synagogues now have some way for those with physical challenges to participate fully in services, often having a ramp in addition to stairs to ascend the bimah.  So too, many have begun to embrace and explore the concept of universal design.  However, there’s no question we’re still far off from anything resembling complete inclusion, as our community’s schools, camps and worship spaces all have significant room for improvement – both in terms of the physical accommodations they make, as well as the way they welcome and broadcast their love for all people, no matter what their differences may be or what form they may take.

Later in this portion, we learn that we are required to have “one standard for the stranger and the citizen alike” – a triumphant cry for equality, which we should be proud of.  As the Temple has been destroyed and the daily duties of our priestly class along with it, we should recognize this as an opportunity for honest reflection on the problems that come along with setting aside some as “holier” than others.  Our tradition teaches that not only the priests, but also all of us, as Israelites, are meant to be holy.  We each contain a holy spark. And therefore, we should treat everyone, regardless of perceived status, class or disability as holy, just as we are.

Friday, April 19, 2013

I Ain't Afraid Of No Ghosts

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim
10 Iyar 5773 / April 19-20, 2013

In this week’s double portion, we find the steps the High Priest took each Yom Kippur to atone for the nation, we find a slew of sexual morality laws (incest is not okay – sorry Lannisters), we get some general guidance as to how we’re meant to be holy in our actions as a result of God being holy, and we learn that hanging out with ghosts is a no-no. 

I’m particularly fascinated by this concern about hanging out with ghosts.  The portion actually mentions the prohibition a few times, further emphasizing its import. Just how prevalent was hanging out with ghosts in those days?  I’d love some more information.  Were they concerned about people entering intimate relationships with ghosts? Perhaps they were more concerned about being slimed by ghosts?  Or maybe they were ahead of their time and were buying into the Jewish cultural mythology around possessing spirits, or Dybbuks. 

The textual answer provided in the portion as to why we should not hang out with ghosts and other spirits (if you do, you’ll be rewarded with the death penalty) is that other nations consort with ghosts and spirits, and we’re meant to be holy (hence, unlike those other nations).  Not an entirely satisfying answer.  Notice that the Torah doesn’t say that ghosts and spirits don’t exist; rather, there seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that they do – but we’re instructed not to engage with them.

Spirits and ghosts have been on my mind quite a bit this week, as I just returned from my first ever visit to Poland.  While there, I had the chance to celebrate contemporary European Jewish life by running a Moishe House “How to do Shabbat” Learning Retreat for 30 European Jewish young adults in their 20s.  I also had the chance before and after the retreat to visit some of the wartime monuments in Warsaw, as well as the Treblinka extermination campsite (which is a now a massive memorial as well), where over 800,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

Needless to say I’m still processing my experience, and in particular, the confusion and awkwardness of celebrating Jewish life in a place where the darkness of the past can still tangibly be felt.  Walking around downtown Warsaw, one can still see (and feel) the lingering effects of the war.  My grandmother is originally from Poland, spent time in concentration camps there, and was very much against my going to visit given the ghosts and spirits that still plague her dreams 70 years later. 

From this lens, I can begin to understand why there would be a blanket prohibition in our tradition against consorting with ghosts and spirits.  Allowing oneself to be taken into that world risks being entirely consumed by it, eliminating the ability to find warmth, love and joy, which I would argue are spiritual prerequisites for a number of other justice-centric instructions we receive this week, such as leaving behind the corners of our fields for the poor.  

We had 30 people from 7 countries singing songs of Shabbat, celebrating our shared Jewish heritage and striving to learn more about it this past weekend in Poland.  What need do we have of external ghosts and spirits when our own spirits can be elevated so powerfully?  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

It's All About Cooties

3 Iyar 5773 / April 12-13, 2013

In this week's double portion, we learn that Judaism is really all about a fear of cooties. Last week we learned about which  things we can eat and which we can't, with the can't column largely encompassing those creatures that eat the waste of other creatures and/or are creepy crawlers. This week the focus is on those who have skin afflictions and how the community is meant to deal with such outbreaks. For example, it's perfectly logical that if you had a rash you'd go to see a priest (you'll love him Ma - he's a priest AND a doctor!). Similarly, clothing and even homes were subject to such scrutiny. For those found to be "unclean," a process existed (often including isolation for a week) to earn back your "clean" status.

We learn later in the Torah that as punishment for speaking out against her brother Moses, Miriam is stricken with a skin disease requiring her to be separated out from the nation for a period of time.  We are taught her external affliction was the result of an internal spiritual imperfection.

It seems obvious to note that when one is struggling internally, it's not challenging for others to notice based on the person's external attitude, actions and appearance.  We might like to think we have awesome poker faces, but most of us don't.  Like Miriam, how we appear to the outside world is often the result of what we're dealing with internally.  And how blessed are we that our tradition recognizes the value in taking the time to be alone - to remove ourselves - in order to work on our internal issues when necessary, so that we can be the "cleanest" version of our selves as we walk through the world.

This Shabbat, set aside a bit of time to be alone.  What kinds of internal issues are you looking to work on? What kinds of cooties are finding safe harbor in your life that you'd like to be rid of? What sorts of rituals do you utilize to symbolize letting go of the things dragging you down? In addressing these questions, recognize that the process of doing so is an inherently Jewish one, and can be traced all the way back to this week's double portion.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Sound of Silence

26 Nissan 5773 / April 5-6, 2013

In this week's portion, Shemini, we find Aaron and his sons concluding their weeklong celebration anointing them as the nation's priests. As we read this week, their first day on the job was anything but smooth.  Two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed by Divine strike-down for lighting "alien fire." The rabbis struggle with what exactly their sin was, with many suggesting that they attempted to do their job while drunk. Aaron, when hearing the news of their deaths, remains silent, and is instructed to not mourn their loss publicly.

Considering that Aaron has been Moses's spokesperson since they first approached Pharaoh in Egypt, it's quite powerful to learn of Aaron's silence. Perhaps he was in shock? Perhaps he was giving his brother (and God) the silent treatment? It seems a lot to ask a father not to grieve...

Later in the portion, we find Aaron's other sons Elazar and Itamar making a mistake as it relates to where they eat the special sacrificial portion dedicated for the priests. Moses confronts and chastises them.

I can't help but feel for Aaron in this situation. Your brother is a pretty big deal - the prophet credited with leading the nation out of bondage in Egypt. You're in a new job as the High Priest of the nation. And yet, you have no control over anything going on. Two of your sons are killed due to their ticking God off. The other two are now chastised by your brother for improper conduct. All of this takes place despite your supposed leadership role in overseeing your sons, the priests, and all of this takes place your first real day on the job.

It seems palatable that perhaps Aaron was so overwhelmed and out of his element that shutting down to the outside world and remaining silent was really the only way he could handle the situation without resorting to destructive behavior. We find no open rebellion or complaint by him at all.  I have to imagine, however, that whatever excitement or zeal he my have initially brought to his duties, that they were significantly tempered. How could he possibly remain excited to continue in a job he obviously had suffered such initial setbacks in?  It leads me to wonder: what is the true power of the human spirit?

Many of us encounter situations where we don't really know what to say or how to respond, such as the death of a friend's parent, witnessing a terrible car crash, or being humiliated at work by a boss. What we can and should learn from Aaron is that our tradition makes space for silence, and at times, even encourages it.

There are definitely times when we, as people, determine that remaining silent seems a much better choice than trying to respond in some way (or trying to figure out how to respond) to a situation, and there are also times when we shut down and are unable to respond out of shock. And it's okay. Really.

Aaron, the spokesman for our nation, remained silent.  I promise you that when appropriate, we have the permission to do so as well.

This Shabbat, make the time to listen. Resist the urge to immediately respond verbally to the situations you encounter. Recognize that sometimes silence is indeed golden, and that saying nothing is often better than saying anything at all.