Friday, March 27, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Tzav

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, (Lev. 6:1 - 8:36) can be best summarized as it is in the commentary “Torah Sparks” by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum: “Tzav is Aaron’s instruction manual, a ninety-seven verse to-do list dictated by God via Moses”. Detailed instructions are given for how the various sacrifices are to be offered, how the priests are to outfit themselves, and purify themselves before they offer the sacrifices on behalf of the people of Israel.

As it often does, the reading of Tzav coincides with the week preceding Passover, a festival which also comes with a detailed instruction manual.  We are commanded to remove leaven from our homes for eight days, which may entail thorough cleaning of the kitchen and the rest of the house, removing our year round utensils and replacing them with Passover items, buying, storing and preparing foods that we will use for the Seder and for the rest of the holiday.

Like us, Aaron and his sons must have been daunted by the magnitude of detail and the importance of the task at hand.  But still, “And Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Eternal had commanded through Moses” (Lev. 8:36).  They got it done.  

The Torah seldom delves into emotions, so we don’t know whether or not Aaron and his sons were so caught up in performing the tasks correctly that they could not experience the holiness of their actions.  However, we can certainly avoid that pitfall ourselves.  Yes, it is important to observe Passover to whatever standards we set for ourselves, but we need to leave room for the joy of this holiday of spring, this festival of liberation.  Let us not get so caught up in the cleaning, the cooking, the preparation, that we are too tired to experience the holiness.  

Friday, March 20, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Vayikra

                This week, we begin a new book of the Torah, Vayikra.  Also known as “Torat Kohanim”, “Instructions for the priests”, the book focuses on instructions for Aaron and his sons as they learn to perform the sacrifices that God has prescribed on behalf of the Israelite people.

                This week’s portion, also called Vayikra (Lev. 1:1-5:26) mostly consists of listing the practical components of the sacrifices in detail.  We might think that these words have little to do with our modern world.  The sacrifices we offer to God come from our hearts and minds rather than from our flocks and herds.  But while the concept of animal sacrifice may be foreign, the reasons for which our ancestors brought the sacrifices are entirely comprehensible.  Those outlined in this parashah are the shlamim, the offering of well-being, the hattat, for the unintentional commission of a sin, and the asham, offered for a sin of omission.  

                The medieval text Sefer ha-Chinuch asks why it is necessary for a person to make an offering for an iinadvertent act, and the text’s anonymous author reasons as follows: “Perhaps we must atone for inadvertent sins because the misdeed, though inadvertent, weighs on our conscience until we do something to atone for it.  Because verbal regrets do not strike us as adequate, we must give up something to show our remorse.”  This 13th century analysis of a ritual, as well as the ancient text that prescribes the ritual, shows that although times and rites may change, the human conscience remains remarkably the same.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Vayakhel-Pekudei

               This week’s Torah reading is a double portion, Vayakhel and Pekudei (Ex. 35:1 - 40:38) the last two portions in the book of Exodus.  The text repeats, almost exactly, the instructions that God gave to Moses for the building of the Tabernacle as Moses repeats them to the people of Israel.

                Moses calls upon the people to bring the materials that are needed for the construction of the Tabernacle, and they respond prodigiously: “All the artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came, each from the task upon which he was engaged and said to Moses, ‘The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done’. Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: ‘Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary’.  So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done”. (Ex. 36:4-7)  

                It is difficult to ignore the similarity of this overabundance with the account of the building of the Golden Calf in last week’s parashah.  The Jerusalem Talmud (Shek. 1:1) takes note, saying, “What a peculiar people! When solicited to build the Tabernacle, they give generously.  When solicited to fashion an idol, they give equally generously!”

                It’s just as well that there were no televangelists asking for money at the time of the exodus, or the Israelites probably would have given everything they had to them.  They are still too new to freedom, too new to God’s laws and too unsure of themselves to know what they are doing, and it will take most of the next forty years of wandering in the wilderness for them to gain a sense of who they are in relation to God.  In fact, we are still engaged in that holy task to this very day.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Ki Tissa

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, (Ex. 30:11 – 34:35) brings us to the end of God’s instructions to Moses on the building of the Tabernacle.  At the end of those instructions, “When He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18)  We then learn what the Israelites are doing in Moses’ absence.  When they see how long he is gone, they assume that he will not return, and ask Aaron to build a golden calf for them to worship. 
Only forty days earlier, these Israelites heard the voice of God intoning the second of the Ten Commandments, which forbade idolatry.  Now, thinking that Moses is gone and they have lost their conduit to God, they revert to their former behavior and build a sculptured image which they can worship and thank for their freedom from Egyptian bondage. 

Jewish law and tradition ranks idolatry among the greatest of sins against God.  But what is the actual definition of idolatry?  The Beit Yaacov, a Chassidic commentary by Rabbi Yaacov Leiner, as quoted by Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg in her work The Particulars of Rapture, writes:
“You shall not make for yourself any graven figure nor image” includes even God’s Commandments, if the form becomes more important than the vitality it expresses.  The relation to all objects, even the ritual forms of the spiritual life, can become fossilized, and therefore idolatrous.
We think that we are past the age of idolatry.  Who do we know who prays to idols of stone or wood or metal, and worships them as gods?  But according to Beit Yaacov’s definition, even the act of worship of the One God can become idolatrous if we focus on the trappings rather than on the essence.  This commentary calls on us to bring our whole selves, heart, mind and soul, to our relationship with God.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Tetzaveh

               This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Ex. 27:20 – 30:10) begins with the description of the ner tamid, the perpetual, or regular, light that burned in the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness. In the Torah’s instruction, the light is to burn “from evening to morning” (Ex. 27:21). In modern day synagogues, the ner tamid is an eternal light and it is kept burning all the time.  

                In his reflection on this passage in the Etz Chaim Torah Commentary, Rabbi Harold Kushner muses upon the frequent use of fire as a symbol for God. He writes, “…fire is not an object.  It is the process of liberating the energy hidden in a log or wood or a lump of coal, even as God becomes real in our lives in the process of liberating the potential energy in each of us to be good, generous and self-controlled”.  Kushner does not dwell upon what fire does when it is out of control. When controlled, fire can provide light and warmth.  When fire exceeds the boundaries of safety, it destroys and it kills.  

                We watch the nightly news with horror as the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria beheads foreign journalists, abducts Syrian Christians from their homes and kills them, and destroys irreplaceable ancient Mesopotamian statues.  These murderers claim to represent Islam in its purest form.  Rather, they are what happens when we allow the holy fire that God placed within us to burn unchecked.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Terumah

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah (Ex. 25:1 – 27:19), begins the instructions God gives Moses for building the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the first sacred space that the Israelites will have to worship God.  “And let them make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8).

In March of 2006, I was privileged to lead a group of college students to the Gulf Coast to rebuild houses destroyed by hurricane Katrina.  One afternoon, we went to New Orleans and visited Temple Beth Israel, the only synagogue completely ruined by the hurricane.  As we approached the building, I noticed, above the waterlines, that same verse in Hebrew.  We entered the building.  One of the students was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and he was very embarrassed, saying over and over, “If I had known we were going to a synagogue, I would have dressed appropriately.”  It was almost laughable.  The only really appropriate dress for that building was a HAZMAT suit.  It was a wreck.  Black mold covered the religious school posters.  All of its Torahs and sacred books had been taken away and were awaiting burial – seven Torah scrolls and over 3,000 volumes.  Velvet Torah mantles and prayer shawls, faded and streaked and matted with dirt, had been hung out to dry on the sanctuary’s railings.  We met with the president of the synagogue and two other members.  One of them had to wear a safety mask, because he had spent so much time cleaning the building during the previous six months that he had breathing problems from the mold.  And yet, the student who felt underdressed had sensed the holiness in that place, so palpable that there was no doubt in any of our minds that God still dwelt there, even though the accommodations weren’t ideal. 

The Israelites in this Torah portion are about to learn about sacred space.  God wants us to set aside a holy place to come to meet God.  And as the words of Exodus suggest, if we do create such a sanctuary, God has promised to be there.