From Yom Kippur, when we put aside our material existence by fasting and spending so many hours in prayer, we move within days to Sukkot. Sukkot is by contrast a very earthy, material holiday. There is the Sukkah booth itself and the plant material that makes up its roof. There are the Arba'ah Minim, the Four Species, as well -- the lulav (palm), the etrog (citron), the hadasim (myrtles), and the aravot (willows). Sukkot helps us take the spiritual awakening we experience with the new year and bring it toward our material lives.
According to the Mishnah, Sukkot is one of the four Jewish New Year occasions, when "we are judged concerning water." So many of the rituals of Sukkot involve water or praying for the winter rains. If you shake the Four Species together, it sounds like a rain shower!
Here is an explanation that builds on work done by Nogah Hareuveni, who founded Neot Kedumim, a nature preserve in Israel dedicated to biblical landscape and agriculture. (I think the interpretation is his, but since I can't find it written exactly this way I'll take responsibility if it differs.)
Dr. Hareuveni notes that the four species represent the only four different ways that plants can be watered. The palm is a tree of the desert oasis; it draws from deepest groundwater. The willows grow by a river, water constantly flowing on the ground. The myrtles require rain -- dew or the periodic floods that go through a dry stream-bed (known as nachal in Hebrew or wadi in Arabic). The citron is a cultivated fruit, requiring irrigation -- humans gathering and bringing water.
To the pagans living around our ancestors, each source of water came from a different source and could be traced to a different god. The Canaanites actually used the same word, baal, to refer to the "master" of their pantheon of gods, and to the condensation of rainwater on plants. In some texts, the waters of the deep are referred to as Mot, the god of death. These are the deep waters in our Genesis stories that originally covered everything and had to be held back to allow the ground to emerge, or that God released for Noach's flood.
But the Israelites came to understand that the four waters were one, and had only one Source. So they bound the four disparate species together into one bundle, to symbolize the oneness of our God. The Four Species are waved in all directions, indicating an understanding that the one Source of waters and life is present everywhere.
Water remains a basic need, even in our technological society. It makes up most of our body and the surface of our planet. Our life from day to day, and our future as a species, depend on water, and many conflicts in the world or within societies are about access to water. For all those reasons, water is a common metaphor in our tradition for God and for Torah. And when everything is in alignment, the prophets describe perfection as perfect waves or an ever-flowing stream.
My D'var Torah for Shabbat Chanukkah 5783 (December 24, 2022).
A question I often get around Chanukkah is: Is it true that all the candle hae to be at the same level, other than the shamash? Usually the question comes from creativity -- someone who wants to repurpose another item as a chanukkiah, or who has a new vision of the candles and their combination visually or symbolically or both. So for example, artists have asked me if they can make a thing with a spiral or a certain kind of zigzag and still call it a kosher chanukkiah. Growing up I never learned that this was an issue, but you hear the question a few times and you start to think it must be a thing.
Well, as a matter of principle in halacha (Jewish law) the answer is yes, you can have these kinds of chanukkiot! Though if you think you heard that Jewish law says “no” you’re not wrong, and I’ll get to that. The Jewish law books say first that you have to be able to differentiate each flame when you are looking at the chanukkiah. This is the opposite of a medurah, which in modern Hebrew is a campfire or a bonfire. Medurah in itself is cool, and in a medurah like a chanukkiah because you have a lot of flames, but with a medurah or a campfire they are jumbled up together and you can’t perceive each one because they are mixed up and move around. Anyway, one easy way to make sure you have a sert of distinct burning wicks, and not have it appear like a medurah, is to space them out in a sequence on the same level. That’s what the books of Jewish law actually say about the straight line. Personally I don’t really get the same level part, because if you follow the logic of the Talmud out each night representing another level of holiness, you should be able to set up the candles like a staircase or an upward ramp. The Ashkenazi tradition is to stick to the straight line but to me it’s like eating legumes on Pesach, so be Sephardi if you like and spread your candles out however you find intriguing!
What is this all about, the difference between a line of flames and a campfire? Why shold we care?
In the Torah in the Mishkan (desert tabernacle), and in the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem), there were oil lamps and a wood fire, both of which were always going day and night. Oil lamps we think of in connection with Chanukkah because of the ancient seven-branched menorah, and the Temple also had the ner tamid, the eternal light fueled by olive oil.
The fire on the altar reminds me of the burning bush, fire weaving and moving around through the scraggly scrub. One midrash says that the burning bush represents the suffering and the prayers of all the Israelites, and the presence of the Divine with them -- but as a whole, undifferentiated, all of their pain and groans and prayers jumbled together. Vast but trapped in place. In contrast to all that stood Moshe, a single person in that moment, not yet a leader; and the Divine, also singular, not yet in action to save them.
These ancient fires and lamps got me thinking again about this halacha about the differentiated lights. It’s not just about what you see on any given day: six candles, rather than a blazing fire pit with six or more sticks or branches somewhere in there. I think the law is also about perception across eight nights. It’s about the ability on the first night of Chanukkah to say this is one candle, the next night to perceive that these are two candles, and so on all the way to eight.
There is a difference between each candle, and there is a also a difference between perceiving one candle, and five, and eight.
Do you experience something different about the chanukkiah on different nights?
I really noticed this year on days 4 and 5 how different the chanukkiot looked by my window, compared to day 1 and 2. I mean Captain Obvious, I know -- but it’s gotten me to challenge myself about not looking at one as a means to two, not always looking at a couple candles in order to be excited about seven or eight. In my home, the effect is especially pronounced because we have several chanukkiot going each night; the effect of the change from night to night is dramatic. For me the meaning of these teachings about perceiving one, perceiving two, etc. is not to see two people in our community primarily as a strategy for connecting with a third one. How do we get ourselves toward appreciating each of the groupings in the Chanukkah story? Really appreciating just Judith or Matityahu in action; or just Yehudah Ha-Maccabee and his brothers; and just their small band; and their large force. I know I sometimes need to remind myself not to see small numbers of people just as inferior or miniative versions of larger numbers.
My colleague and classmate Rabbi Sue Fendrick once gave a talk in which she mentioned the distinctness of different numbers of people in Judaism.
Two people together are a chavruta, a study pair. There’s something unique about two people facing each other over words of Torah, with no one else to hide behind when your partner expresses and idea or asks a question. You experience Torah differently in a pair, differently than in a Torah service and even a small discussion group.
Three people make a beit din, a court of law. They can rule on a conflict over money and property; they can proclaim officially that someone has become Jewish. Three are enough to call each other formally after a meal in gratitude -- chaverai, n’varech! -- to say the blessing called Birkat Hamazon.
Ten of course are a minyan, enabling us to have a Torah service or say the Mourners’ Kaddish and respond. Ten defines a public according to Jewish law. If you do an act that is seen in the presence of ten or more and is particularly ethical and does honor to the Divine and our people -- a Kiddush Hashem -- that’s a bigger deal than if fewer were around to see it. And the same for Chillul Hashem, if in the presence of ten one does something particularly unethical and shames us or the name of God.
I think about the 208 delegates at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 -- that’s far fewer than make up this congregation today. So too the 23 on the ship that landed the first formal Jewish community in North America in 1654, in New Amsterdam.
Seven, I learned in group psychology, might be the ideal size of a committee or task force -- the point where the chemistry of introverts and extroverts, creatives and analyticals, has the best chance of combining a good end product with good feeling about the experience.
Eight is the extra on top of that seven -- it’s the number of covenant, the leap from the best of what people can accomplish together in our reality to something we might deem messianic.
Even one, in Judaism, is a kind of group. You may be solitary, but you are never alone. Moshe, alone at the burning bush, was with the Divine, and the singular Divine, Adonai Echad, had Moshe. The first candle of Chanukkah has the shamash, the fire that links them to someone else who stored the oil and planned for you to arrive, waited for you to make them less alone.
Jews today are conditioned in a good way to think of how the people in any given “here” can spread what we have -- but our weakness is to get caught up too much on who is missing. The Chanukkah miracle of the oil was meant to reframe scarcity as not just sufficiency, but abundance and overflowing. So too we should see whoever is in the room or around the table, in any number, as abundant and overflowing. You may by now be thinking of Margaret Mead, who could have been talking about each night’s chanukkiah when she famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
So part of the sweetness of the Chanukkiah is the chance to appreciate all the numbers we find ourselves in, the partnerships and discussions and services and protests and parties. The unique and distinct character of each group where we act and learn and reflect and grow. Each day of Chanukkah is a unique festival of lights.
My colleague Rabbi Fendrick closed the talk I mentioned with this beautiful last part from a poem by Marge Piercy called “The Low Road”, and it’s a perfect kavvanah (intention) as we look at our candles each night:
Two people can keep each other sane
can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation
a cell, a wedge.
With four you can play games
and start a collective.
With six you can rent a whole house
have pie for dinner with no seconds
and make your own music.
Thirteen makes a circle,
a hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity
and your own newsletter;
ten thousand community
and your own papers;
a hundred thousand,
a network of communities;
a million our own world.
It goes one at a time.
It starts when you care to act.
It starts when you do it again
after they say no.
It starts when you say We
and know who you mean;
and each day you mean
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov and Chag Urim Sameach!
A Good New Month and a Joyous Festival of Lights!
I am still trying to keep on top of my many channels, between this blog and the Tov! podcast and Temple Beth Abraham's site and blog, not to mention social media. (Not complaining!) I haven't put a link here yet to the many thematic Chanukkah-related writings I've got, some of them reposts from prior years and some of them new, whether it's my own thoughts about courage or links to others. You can scroll through all of that here, for now just on Beth Abraham's site and I'll get them up here eventually too. Also related is my reflection on science and religion through the lens/light of Chanukkah via Sinai and Synapses.
These are to me the best of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons from years past. I'm collecting them here because you find them useful to read and think about in Elul. They aren't in chronological or any particular order.
Hope In An Uncertain World (5777/2016)
What the Chanukkah dreidel can teach us about four kinds of hope.
Who Knows? (5780/2019)
How the story of Esther even more than the Torah can guide us to live in a world of mortal dangers.
How Good Do I Have to Be? (5777/2016)
With assists from the Green Monster, Pesky's Pole, Naomi Shemer and Reb Simcha Bunem.
Still Small Voices (5778/2017)
We are a community where many people have prayers they don't reveal out loud about the difficult things happening in our lives and families. How to be there even when we don't reveal or don't know what those prayers are.
Finding Purpose and Direction (5773/2012)
Figuring out your purpose, especially in up in the air times, or transitions in life or work.
Lost and Found (5779/2018)
When the pieces of life's puzzle aren't gone, but someone else has yours to give you back, or vice versa.
V.O.R. -- Vision-Opinion Ratio (5779/2018)
Fewer superficial reactions to public things, more visions -- how to find and speak about the things you are truly committed to, and quieting down about the rest.
Holy Impatience (5775/2014)
Some impatience is selfish, unfair expectations. Holy impatience is rooted in love, a concern for someone else who doesn't have the life or peace they deserve.
Helping Someone Else Change (5771/2010)
No one can change someone else -- but sometimes we can support other people in their changes. Starring a mitzvah in Leviticus and some social psychology research.
Why "Busy" has become the answer to "How are you?" and what we can do about it.
Moral Adventure (5776/2015)
Adventure isn't just for heroes and myths. Our own lives are different when we recognize them as moral adventures, and the people we go through life with as our fellow students and sidekicks.
Long Tables, Shabbat Meals (5772/2011)
Why long tables are better than round, long meals are magical, and Shabbat creates relationships different from friendship but no less powerful.
Back to Better Than Normal (5782/2021)
As we transition from the Covid-19 pandemic, the old normal is certainly not what what we want to go back to.
Being Present in a Digital Age (5774/2013)
How to make people and not devices more central to our daily lives.
Look Up (5780/2019)
In a cynical age, we need to focus more on looking up to people -- the everyday people in our lives, the people who need us, the best leaders we know.
Body Talk (5779/2018)
How to show others we really believe they are the image of God.
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This is based on what I said on Shabbat morning, August 27, 2022 at the start of the month of Elul. It was the day of a Bar Mitzvah and an aufruf (blessing to a couple about to get married)!
Usually I think of Elul as a time of introspection before we get together in a big way on Rosh Hashanah. But the past few years I’ve been thinking that it would be great to start the month leading to the ten particularly intense days with a dance party, a disco party! First we should celebrate that we’ve gotten here -- we should look at each other and who’s in this together with us and going to help us look back and look ahead. And wow, this past year having been what it’s been and the year before that, we ABSOLUTELY should start it with a party. And my dream came true and I didn’t even realize it when we scheduled Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah celebration and when Rachel and Joel told me the date of their wedding. So this is how it should be. A new month, that little sliver of moonlight that says to the shade: You are going away, we’re going to make our own energy here and we’re going to gather our powers together so we can make a new year.
It's been quite a year, and we need more than the three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to do our reflecting and our redirecting and our rebooting – our teshuvah, our returning. The spiritual recalculating on the GPS of our hearts. I don’t even know if a month is enough.
The point isn’t to come to services on the holidays. The point is to figure out what we each need from the next 40 days (really it’s more like 52!) – and what of the many offerings of spirituality and learning can support each of us:
I’ll send you daily e-mails with thoughts and ways to gather for conversation or learning or spiritual practice. But the point isn’t to read the e-mails! It’s to use them. It’s really simple: Use this month and the next for you, for the better life you’ve been thinking about having or creating. Use it to figure out your piece of making the world better -- boy do we need that.
Say thank you as many times as possible, in a world that doesn’t do that enough and where there’s plenty you’re not happy about. You don’t have to decide if the world is more bad than good, or maybe you have decided there is more bad now -- but just find gratitude every day and express it, out loud, to someone or to your own ears. That will ripple out. No one can change only out of sadness and anger. Not unless you can connect it to someone you love whose suffering is what powers your anger, your sadness. Not unless you can find a lighthouse ahead for hope, powered by someone you deeply appreciate.
This time of year is serious, but it doesn’t have to be solemn. That’s why it needs a party today, and at the end of the season on Simchat Torah we have another one! I am so happy we’re together, and thank you for listening to my prayers this first hour and saying Amen, even if you don’t know what all my prayers were. Thank you, even if you didn’t know that’s what you were doing.
So I hope you’ll tap into the energy of today, not just the energy of joy but of words of Torah in many forms, to help you launch into Elul and a month of individual reflection that’s good for you and good for us all when you do it.
We're deep into Season 3 of Tov!, my podcast about The Good Place and Jewish ideas related to teshuvah. You can find all the most recent episodes here, or type "Tov!" into your favorite podcast app.
Also, I have been logging in at 12:36pm Eastern time each weekday this Elul to teach and talk about some classic teaching about teshuvah, mostly Maimonides but other things maybe too. You can join here, or you can listen to the ones I've taped:
This is the D'var Torah I gave in the synagogue on Saturday morning, March 12, for Parashat Vayikra.
Most years I trot out the T-shirt about the Jewish calendar and the baseball calendar in March. You know it’s a kind of new year when spring training begins for major league baseball, usually around Purim, and it’s fortuitous that this was the week that the owners and players resolved their labor dispute and opened spring training! This Shabbat marks an actual new year in the Jewish calendar too. In Torah time, the start of the book of Vayikra picks up where Shmot left off, on the first of Nissan in the year after the Exodus. And as it happens, Parashat Vayikra was our first pandemic parasha two years ago, the first Shabbat when it was just me and the Sefer Torah on the bimah and everyone else on a screen.
I looked back on what I said two years ago on that Shabbat, and one year ago when this parasha came around, the first parasha of the second year when the vaccines were rolling out gradually and before Delta and Omicron. Vayikra is not an easy parasha or an easy book (i.e. Leviticus as a whole), but it has opened to me in new ways these past two years.
I have been struck by the wide, blank space in the scroll between the end of Sefer Shmot (Exodus) and the start of Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus). I’ve been struck by the cloud that engulfs the mishkan, the sanctuary -- which last week looked like the certain presence of the Divine Shechinah, the palpable close presence, and this week Moshe doesn’t quite know. I’ve been struck by the tiny letter alef at the end of the first word of the book, and by the offerings the Torah describes, the korbanot, which are translated as sacrifices but come from the word for closeness and coming close.
A blank space, a cloud, a small quite letter, a list of types of closeness-offerings.
The blank is a pause between a year of revolution and tumult and reconstituting, and recovering and repurposing things to make something sacred in the center -- and the next year.
The cloud around the mishkan is somehow both a good sign and a question mark. Last year I called it "cloudy with a chance of Torah." Is there some more Torah to guide us right now? Are we ready to go get it and hear it and use it?
The small letter alef, silent by itself but the letter that could unleash the flow of all the letters, all the names of the Divine and all the good words that can flow out into the world. The alef is the first letter of Anochi, I -- the I of I am Yah your God who brought you out of slavery, the sound of that voice speaking specially to each of us in the way we need; the I of I, of each of us as agents in the world, fully capable of being active builders and fixers, mirroring the Divine Anochi.
What if that letter is too small, what I am teetering on disappearing, what if the Divine voice is. The small alef yearns to be reinflated and reconstituted -- and it is as the book of Vayikra unfolds.
How does that happen? Not all at once. It happens through the korbanot, the closeness-offerings.
In the entire book of Leviticus, the people move not an inch forward toward the promised land, after they moved so far out of Mitzrayim (Egypt) in the book of Shmot (Exodus). That drives me a crazy, I said a year ago. Come on, if there were ever a need to see a promised land and get to a new place it’s now. If there were ever a need to take this Torah out for a spin, it’s now!
But although the people don’t move forward, they do move. They move by means of the specific korbanot. They move toward the center, and back to their tents. They move toward their leaders, and away, and toward each other, and toward those giving birth or those who have died. They reconstitute the alef and reinflate it by moving in specific ways.
The offerings we learn about are the olah, the completely burnt offering -- reflecting the feeling of burnout or the frustration toward things we wish we could destroy completely. The todah, the gratitude offering. The shlamim, the offering of wellbeing and wholeness. The chattat, the offering in response to falling short, to guilt and shame -- one person, a leader, a whole community.
These are the basic emotions of the start of the new year both in the Torah and for us, after a year of tumult and revolution and making new things out of our things
Vayikra says you can’t get to the promised land without perceiving these emotional responses, and moving in response to them. You have to use them as occasions to learn how not just to go somewhere new, but to get closer to each other and close to the center that holds us together. To make the cloud less cloudy and more Torah.
So I come close today to you and to this sanctuary with my own olah offering, reflecting on the ways I have been burnt out for a time during this past year and two years. I come close today with my todah, my gratitude offering, close to you and to this sanctuary of many sanctuaries. I am thankful for you who have come, today or many times, to hear my prayers and acknowledge them even when we’re not in the same room, to sing with me even when I can’t hear you or hardly can. Thankful to my family, for staying together and being good to each other -- and to the Divine for the chen, the unearned grace of having that in in my life. Thankful to everyone who has kept this community going, creatively and with whatever gift you could use to build a sacred place in a new way and specifically by your chesed, your caring for someone. Thankful to colleagues and lay leaders in the Temple, and the six clergy people in town I’ve come to rely on and have become closer to, who have helped me grow in my voice; thankful to rabbis and other colleagues around the country willing to become new partners.
I come close today, to you and to this sanctuary of many sanctuaries, with my shlamim, my offering of wellbeing, because I am overall well, and strong and energetic about my own life at age 55 and my sense of purpose.
And I do come today, close to you and to this sanctuary, with my chattat, with my offering of guilt and shame, for missing the mark and falling short. For not keeping connecting with enough of you who are here and others I don’t see. For not growing our chesed (compassionate work) from responding to needs in the moment to more people knowing who needs more connection. For not taking enough opportunities to teach the Torah of pikkuach nefesh, of what life and death decisions require of us. For not doing enough to bring the Torah I know to you, that would have made us feel more empowered in a topsy-turvy world, because Torah has always made people strong and capable when the world seems out of control. For not starting every meeting, no matter the topic, with how are you, and has anybody spoken to so-and-so lately. For trying these things but not sticking with them when others questioned their value. Those are my chattat offerings.
Each of us has an olah, a todah, a shlamim, and a chattat to bring close -- an offering around burned out, so thankful, wholeness, and guilt. We need to take a beat and articulate these, and bring them close to someone else or to this community. Bring them as you pray in Musaf, the part of the service that recalls and substitutes for the ancient korbanot (Temple offerings). That’s what we need so we can start reenlarging the alef, the I, and reconstituting our center, and removing the cloud that obscures the voice that wants to help us move toward our next promised land.
On this second pandemic anniversary, we begin a new cycle of Torah with Parashat Vayikra and this introduction to korban, to closeness. Which is what we crave. Not just a physical closeness but a real closeness, a communal closeness, more even than we had before. Two years ago at this time, the charge came in these words from Rabbi Yosef Kanevsky, which are as wise and important now as they ever were:
"...the very last thing we need right now is a mindset of mutual distancing. We actually need to be thinking in the exact opposite way. Every hand that we don't shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise..... Let's stay safe. And let's draw one another closer in a way that we've never done before.”
This was my D'var Torah for Saturday, June 19, 2021, Parashat Chukkat. The article I reference at the start is really good, in ways that somewhat connect to my theme and also jump off in another important direction.
I was in the middle of thinking about the parah adumah -- the red heifer with its potpouri of potion parts that would be very at home in a Harry Potter book -- when I came across an e-mail from The Forward titled, “Has Shabbat become just another form of #self-care?” In one corner is the idea that Jewish practices are good for us in a self-care sense, on secular terms -- we need rest, we need to unplug, we need not to let seven days go by without calming and resetting. In the opposite corner is the red heifer, the most inscrutable practice in all of Torah.
In Midrash B’midbar Rabbah, we learn that a Roman pagan asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai specifically about the parah adumah: "These rituals you do, they seem like witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, crush it up, and take its ashes. If one of you is impure by the dead, two or three drops are sprinkled on him, and you declare him pure?!" Rabban Yochanan said to the pagan, "Has a restless spirit ever entered you?" He said to him, "No!" "Have you ever seen a man where a restless spirit entered him?" He said to him, "Yes!" ..."And what did you do for him?" He said to him, "We brought roots and made them smoke beneath him, and poured water and the spirit fled." Rabban Yochanan said to him, "Your ears should hear what leaves from your mouth! The same thing is true for this spirit, the spirit of impurity...They sprinkle upon him purifying waters, and the spirit of impurity flees." After he left the rabbi's students said, "You got rid of him with a skimpy response, a thin reed. What will you say to us?" Rabban Yochanan said to them, "By your lives, a dead person doesn't make things impure, and the water doesn't make things pure. Rather, God said, 'I have engraved a rule, a chok -- I have decreed a decree and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as the parasha begins: ‘This is a chok [rule] of the Torah.’
To the Roman pagan, Rabban Yochanan says: You and I know that certain things work, and maybe what Jews are doing seems like magic to you but we’ve all got a common language of self-help. The red heifer is a kind of medicine; it makes us better. But to his own students, he says: There’s no explanation in this case, but we have to do it anyway. It is one of the chukkim, one of the inscrutable laws that are mitzvot just because the Divine has commanded, no other reason.
I do not think that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai believed that everything in Torah is like the red heifer, the parah adumah. Not everything is one of the chukkim, the impenetrable laws. But I admit I like his answer to the Roman. Not the outdated medicine part, but the idea that there’s a function to the practice that we could figure out, and it’s good for a person. In fact, in spite of what Rabban Yochanan says to his own students, Jewish tradition does try to interpret the elements of parah adumah potion -- the cedar, the hyssop, the scarlet -- to try to find a purpose for each element. Something for us to meditate on that will help us heal our souls or something that symbolizes how to become better people.
But at the same time, we have this phrase that is familiar from many prayers and the Torah -- chukkim u’mishpatim. In Jewish thought, chukkim are those practices that are or seem beyond our comprehension, while mishpatim are practices or rules that are socially valuable or valuable to our personal lives. Chukkim come first in this phrase -- the irrational laws before the functional ones. Some would say it's the chukkim that define religion as religion.
But trying to make most things in Judaism like the red heifer, something we do to prove that we can serve something other than ourselves -- that can lead in absurd directions and dangerous directions too. We here wouldn’t buy that. The Torah itself says later that other peoples look at Israel and our ways and say that only a wise and understanding nation could live in such a way. Wisdom, meaning wisdom to apply to life -- not just awe and obedience.
So, some Jewish philosophers have suggested that the Torah of revelation is a short-cut, because most of us don’t have the time or energy or wisdom to figure out for ourselves what is good for us.
And yet -- the problem with Shabbat as #self-care is that if we can explain Jewish practices always in terms of a purpose, is that really Judaism? Isn't that just looking back at ourselves? Surely we could design from scratch a weekly rest and even some rituals that give us rest, build community, and even move us toward kindness and justice that are more direct and easier, without the mumbo-jumbo and the details we don't get.
So where does that leave us, as far as chukkum u'mishpatim? Can we have both the red heifer and #Shabbat-as-self-care?
A big part of me thinks that if Judaism can be taught in terms of self-care -- dayenu. We certainly don’t suffer from a lack of self-care and grounding in our lives and this current world. If Judaism can be a vehicle for that, even if it’s for reasons that aren’t completely coherent intellectually, that’s not bad at all.
But my real answer comes sort of from the red heifer. It comes from magic -- specifically, the magic of Harry Potter world.
To me the genius of Harry Potter is not that it takes place in an alternative universe, although it’s true that Muggles can’t go to Hogwarts. To me, the big khap is that the magical world is layered on top of our world. If you are fortunate enough to have inherited the capacity for magic, you can see things others in London don’t see, and you have special powers too.
And my favorite locale in the universe of Harry Potter is Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. To get from the regular city onto the train to Hogwarts, you have to run into a brick pillar. It really is a brick wall, and you run at it and into it. It looks impenetrable -- like trying to understand the red heifer. But your propensity for magic, even before you are well-trained in it, allows you to get through it, to the train that will take you to the special school, where you learn where you fit into the magic world layered on top of the world most people see. Where you struggle with how to make the potions that work and rescue, and you complain about the teachers, and you wonder whether it all makes sense.
Judaism, all its practices and rhythms and even the ethics that you could pick up elsewhere, are a magical world layered onto our world. To get there does require flinging yourself at brick walls -- red heifers, practices that aren’t obvious, Hebrew words, sometimes Aramaic -- but when we do go at them full speed, we see that we are connected to a bigger story. Our daily lives, our friendships, our rivalries even, our powers are all connected to a bigger story -- the Torah story, the Exodus, the story of redeeming and completing this world. Every Shabbat is part of that story, every word of our Siddur is, every specific ritual is. They don’t all make sense one by one; yet each is a piece that whole tapestry.
Being part of that story involves taking care of ourselves. Because being the person or the people who deserve care and rest and joy is itself one of the main points of the story and of Jewish history. Because Shabbat rest and ritual celebration are what allow us to glimpse where the story is heading. Our individual acts and each piece of the Torah, even the strange parts, are part of a much larger book we are playing a part in.
So whether it’s the parah adumah, the red heifer, or Kashrut or Shabbat or the Hebrew language, fling yourself at the brick walls of Judaism. Believe that the grape juice at kiddush is a magic potion, more than just the sugary chemicals in it, and enjoy the sweetness too. Keep flinging yourself, and don’t settle for easy but incomplete explanations on this side of the wall. It’s not bruises or intellectual brick walls ahead, but a deep care for you, and special powers for you and us together. It’s not just sensible; it’s magic.