We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
On “The Good Place” Chapter 7 is the classic lying episode, and on the podcast Rebecca Rosenthal and I jump off from the Talmud’s analysis of white lies to talk about truth and relationships, how and when we tell people important truths, and how truth emerges between people not just by telling.
(Also the Klingon death ritual....)
The new episode is published!!! Listen and read the show notes here!
Rabbi Dan Ross and I co-host once again. On “The Good Place”, Eleanor tries both to keep and not keep her promises to Michael — and on the podcast, Dan and I trade stories of dog-watching gone wrong and explore why promising is such a big, Yom-Kippur-level matter in Judaism. (That's Dan below!)
That's Rabbi Sari Laufer, my partner for Chapter 5 of Tov!
"To Measure or Not to Measure" -- on “The Good Place” Eleanor is excited when she is polite for the first time without thinking, Tahani’s philanthropy doesn't score enough points with her parents or the algorithm, and Chidi doesn’t find pleasure in doing the most good. So on the podcast Jon has his first stomach ache and Sari Laufer (new rabbi on the team) helps us think more about where measuring goodness does and doesn’t make sense. Oh, and where intellectual vs. sensual pleasure fits in!
Check it out here or wherever you get podcasts!
On “The Good Place” Michael tries to guide Chidi and Janet toward new things, but it’s Eleanor who finds unexpected inspiration because of Tahani. So on the podcast, Jon Spira-Savett and Audrey Marcus Berkman explore reincarnation Jewish-style and who the teacher you need turns out to be.
Posted at 08:45 AM in Calendar, Education, Elul, Ethics, Foregiveness, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Spirituality, Study, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Torah, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
I've been wanting to get this down for weeks.... I’ve been very affected since March by Torah time – by how the cycle of reading the Torah in synagogue has mapped onto our experience of the pandemic since its one-year anniversary.
The first anniversary of the formal declaration of the pandemic and the massive shut-downs coincided with Jews’ reading the end of the book of Exodus and the start of the book of Leviticus. The Torah itself says that one year passed between the instructions Moshe received for the night of the Exodus, and the final assembly of the mishkan, the desert Sanctuary that would be a focal point for the Divine Presence. During that year in the Torah there had been war and thirst, a complete reorientation of the food distribution system to adjust to (i.e. manna), the new laws and covenant at Mt. Sinai, the in-fighting around the Golden Calf. Then finally a process of calming and reconciliation, and a collective project of building the “tabernacle.” Everyone gave something unique, with its own texture or color, from their life of that year – to be repurposed into a symbol of their unity. When the mishkan was finally assembled, the Divine Presence visibly infused it, with the cloud and fire that was going to lead the people ahead toward their new land and their new life.
That was what we read more or less on the first anniversary of the shut-down, as we were entering a new phase too – the ramping up of Covid-19 vaccination. I expected a turn toward dealing with the new ethical challenges of moving forward, the project of reconnecting and rebuilding a reality better than the one pre-pandemic.
But Leviticus opens with a cloud around the mishkan, and Moshe himself hesitating to approach it to hear these kinds of teachings. The cloud and fire do not in fact move forward. Something is not – was not ready.
Leviticus, the book that was the backdrop of our spring, is not actually a book of moving forward in the desert. And it’s not directly a book of society and ethical teaching, at least not for the first eighty percent or so. Leviticus does open with travel – but it does open with movement. It’s the motion of individuals coming one by one mostly, in a process the Torah calls korban or coming-closer, with offerings. People coming in closer, walking into the center, toward the cloud, with their offerings. Toward the cloudy place, with offerings occasioned by basic emotions – wellbeing, gratitude, guilt. Getting out and coming toward, to eat a sacred meal with a Kohen, to cleanse themselves of something, to burn up something completely and leave it behind.
Something got my attention in March, when I looked at the Torah and realized that it was telling me not to expect people to be ready to plunge ahead. Especially I shouldn’t expect people to be ready to engage in discussion about ethics and society fully just yet.
For a while, the Torah says n Leviticus, moving is just getting used to back and forth. It’s not one direction, from alone to together, from isolated to the Divine. It’s back and forth. Leviticus doesn’t command offerings from everyone on the same schedule. Yes, there’s some paying attention to right and wrong, sometimes you have to bring something in because of that. But mostly, we’re guided by ourselves, we know when to try moving. Closer and back out. The cloud and the fire are in the center and draw our eyes even when we’re still alone, to help us remember that there is something common even on the days we don’t bring anything. Do it like this for a while, move in your own directions, says the Torah for eighteen chapters, and then we’ll get back to ethics, and then we’ll try moving on together.
The commentaries on the opening verse of Leviticus focus on the last letter of its first word Vayikra. In the Torah scroll, the last letter alef is written as a small superscript. That alef has two dimensions. Its presence or absence changes the word from calling to happenstance. The letter alef signifies ani or anochi, “I” – which can stand for the ego in a strong sense or the Divine, “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Leviticus opens with a cloud around the tabernacle and a spiritual teetering between calling and being just tossed around, between a sense of our own “I” and not having it. Reclaiming what “I” feel like, who “I” am, is what a lot of us were doing as the pandemic hit its first year and we contemplated the next phase ahead. We were, and surely still are, disoriented. Leviticus gives that spiritual state a name and a picture and a pacing.
That was most of Leviticus, and it turned out to be not just accurate but for me soothing.
By the time the book of Leviticus turned to its code of ethics in chapter 19, and its social vision in chapter 25, things had in fact changed around us quite profoundly. The accelerating progress of vaccination in many places led just at this time to the CDC’s revision of its mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people. It was time to open the book of Numbers – the book of the march forward, the organization of people toward the battle for the new land, and the conflicts and delays along the way. But at least it’s the book of moving together, even if together is starting and stopping, and quarreling among ourselves.
Leviticus and Numbers share the perception that not everyone is spiritually ready to move in the same direction at the same time. But at some point, there is something you could call movement of the group, catalyzed by leaders or critical mass. Numbers acknowledges that deciding to move is hardly all there is. You’ve got plenty of opportunities to grind to a halt. In the Torah, these include questioning leaders and their motivations; people getting focused on immediate ease vs. longer-term goals; issues of justice and inclusion; people defining the end of the road in different ways. This last particularly struck me when we read about the tribes of Reuven and Gad who wanted not to go all the way to the new land with the other tribes, but settle where they were. To declare the journey and the fight were over. They and Moshe had it out, and eventually figured out a way for the tribes to work on setting up the common future together, even though tribe by tribe they would separate and live differently both economically and culturally. We should be so fortunate. In Numbers, some 38 years pass and if you read the book you can’t see where they went.
That’s more or less where we got in the Torah by early/mid-July. Now it’s time for Deuteronomy. What’s coming is preparation for the new year – the Jewish new year which starts this year in early September, as does the new school year. The new Torah year starts a few weeks later. Deuteronomy is about getting to the cusp of the new land, the future. It is a book of review of the teachings, going over them for the first time in a long time. At long last, Moshe gets to focus on the ethics and laws and teachings. He gets to talk about them, and also to remind people to continue to learn and study and talk about them from the moment they enter the new land. The time for putting that off – for delaying our ethical conversations, or pushing them to the side or to a small group of interested people – we’re being asked to consider that time over. To be fully human, ready to live, is also to be accountable ethically and intellectually and spiritually. That is what the Jewish new year is all about, and the intellectual explorations in Deuteronomy coincide in the Jewish year with weeks of spiritual introspection. And since this is hard any year, and especially this year, the rabbis of our tradition long ago paired Deuteronomy with (Second) Isaiah, with words of comfort and encouragement, with a welcome of people back to the Divine, back from exile toward home and each other.
I’m waiting to see how Deuteronomy maps onto the end of the summer. But I wanted to get this spiritual journal of the Torah cycle down now, because I am so grateful I had the Torah in this way these past few months. I’ve had more than the Torah’s specific teachings, each verse or each week – I’ve had this structure. It has helped pace me, and see the moment I’m in and some weeks ahead. I have always paid attention to the seasonal flow of the Torah readings, but this year I have seen in the Torah’s pacing through the desert so much I hadn’t seen before. I am grateful, and hope I’ll be attentive to the same things in the weeks and months ahead.
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This was my Dvar Torah on Parashat Pinchas from July 3, 2021.
ותקרבנה בנות צלפחד -- Vatikravna Bnot Tzelophechad, they came up close, the daughters of Tzelophechad son of Chefer son of Gilad son of Machir son of Menashe of the families of Menashe son of Yaakov, and these are the names of his daughters: Machlah, Noah, Choglah and Milkah and Tirtzah. Va’ta’amodna, and they stood in front of Moshe and in front of Elazar and in front of the tribal leaders and in front of the community at the entrace of the tent of meeting, and said...
ותקרבנה, ותעמדנה Vatikravna va’ta’amodna -- it’s important that they came up close and that they stood together, and it’s important to know their names and their back story even though the Torah is leave them and focus on a specific issue. I want to explore ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna v’ta’amodna, they came up close and they stood.
A few weeks ago, Marsha Feder and I spent an hour at the Bronstein Apartments, which is public housing a few blocks west of Main Street in Nashua. This is in the middle of my city and I drive there all the time now that there’s the Broad Street Parkway. I should say, I drive past there; I can’t really say I drive through there. Bronstein is on my way to my daughter’s middle school and it’s along my shortcut to the Court Street Theater or anywhere downtown south of the Riverwalk Cafe. But in thirteen years I don’t think I had ever walked the neighborhood there until now.
ותקרבנה vatikravna-- they came up close. The reason we were there, with Aron DiBacco of the Granite State Organizing Project, is because the Bronstein Apartments are going to be replaced with even more affordable apartments on the same site. About 50 are there now and about 200 will be there. 200 is more than 50, so that part is great.
If you work a few blocks away from Bronstein at City Hall, 200 affordable apartments is more than 50, and that’s great. I imagine that’s how it looks at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in DC, and it’s easy to see it that way if you are informed enough to read the local newspaper, or even attend a meeting of the Board of Aldermen or the Nashua Housing Authority.
But for the 48 families living there now, the project with the good numbers also means uprooting and dispersing a community. Disrupting patterns of getting kids to school, and relationships of helping each other out. Separating people from others you’ve gotten to know in a city or a country that for some is still new to you, who you can communicate with maybe if you don’t speak English well yet. It means finding a place to live, yes with assistance from the authorities which is being provided -- but it’s not easy to find a place in Nashua that’s right for a large multigenerational family, for instance.
So we went to talk to people up close, ותקרבנה vatikravna, to find out if people are getting what they need from the government. You can’t do this just by letter, or e-mail; it really requires one-to-one contact, up close, and even why would would I assume that someone would see me, a stranger, and open if I knock on the door? But going there and knocking is better than not doing that at all.
I won’t speak for Marsha, but in addition to talking to people, and for the most part being reassured by what I heard, I also saw a lot more by being up close. I met a mother of young kids, who said sure the city has helped them find a new place, but the prospect of packing and relocating the kids is daunting, and she was grateful someone heard that, even though none of us can do anything about it. Or perhaps we can; maybe the Interfaith Council should be there to help pack or schlep of keep the kids entertained on moving days. I don’t know.
I saw what the green area between buildings looks like, how bare it seems. It’s hard to put my finger on the difference between a nice patch of grass and one that’s not so inviting, but it’s there. There’s little flavor to Bronstein as it exists now; it doesn’t look like a place that’s home-y but I didn’t ask so who am I to say. One hour doesn’t really make for getting up close. You think of downtown Nashua as a place people walk around and walk through, but there are little physical suggestions like the black fence along Central Street that don’t exactly say walk through here if you don’t live here, on your way to the Allegro Dance Studio or the Crossway Church. Bronstein is just a few blocks from the river, but you really don’t feel like that walking through there on their way to the riverfront paths.
Somebody has to get up close and stand there, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, for a lot more time. You can’t make good policy if no one does that; you miss a lot of the picture that makes not just affordable housing but an affordable community. You end up saying 200 units is more than 50 full stop, and you don’t take account of the fact that living is neighborhood and relationships and culture, and those things have value. They have concrete civic value, public health value, economic value. You can’t just count on those values being maintained when the community is scattered for a time, and bouncing back when they return. Those values have to be integrated into the numeric equation of 50 becoming 200. To improve that policy, to make an increase on more than a numeric dimension at the same time, requires getting up close.
I have to find a way to get up close more, because for almost three years I’ve been working with other local clergy on affordable housing and even we have been largely about numbers -- adding 2,000 more units over a decade that a typical working person could live in without paying more than 30% of their income, and developing a city capital fund to spark more building on the order of five million dollars. I’ve been at a lot of meetings, some of them a few blocks from Bronstein, but none of them right there.
The part of our parasha with the five daughters of Tzelophechad is about an economic problem, related to land ownership and inheritance, a structural problem of discrimination against women. So Machlah, Tirtzah, Milkah, Choglah, and Noah come close and stand in front, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, and they present their story. Moshe had just right then learned about the distribution of property among families in the new land and the laws of inheritance. As a result of this up-close advocacy at that moment, Moshe went to God and God told Moshe to adjust the law because the five daughters had spoken honesty and correctly -- כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלׇפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ -- give them what they are asking. The midrash imagines that God says to Moshe: the law was not ready to be completed until they came up close to you and you saw up close what was missing.
The work of ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, of seeing up close, and advocating face to face with authorities, and standing, confidently and respectfully and together -- it’s hard work. Hard for those who have to ask for things they shouldn’t have to ask for, and hard for allies who want to stand by them. But without doing as the Bnot Tzelophechad did you can’t have good policy and good law. You can do the numbers but you can’t do community and you can’t do covenant that way, and then even the numbers will end up not working out right.
And I think our parasha heightens this insight by contrast with the opening story of Pinchas. Pinchas sees a problem, a crisis of idolatry and sexual immorality, and he jumps up, ויקם vayakom, and he takes matters into his own hands and he kills the people at the center of the injustice. He seems to be rewarded from God -- with a ברית שלום brit shalom, a covenant of peace, and a ברית כהונת עולם brit k’hunat olam, a covenant that his descendents will always be priests.
The midrash says two kinds of things about him. One is that the rabbis envy Pinchas, for being able to turn his outrage into effective activism that works in an instant. It actually seems to work. Pinchas is their secret fantasy. Especially as they were under the thumb of the Romans and other empires.
The other thing is that the rabbis are terrified of Pinchas. He needs a covenant of peace because he’s not any good at covenant. He needs to be forced to be a priest because otherwise he’ll be a dangerous, violent loose cannon and think every problem in society or Torah can be solved with force based on his own read of the situation in the moment. So the rabbis look at Pinchas and say: individual action, or violent action out of outrage, is a card you can play at most once in your lifetime. Then you require a covenantal approach even to what’s difficult and unjust in the here and now.
The rest of the time it’s the daughters of Tzelophechad, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna. That’s not about settling for gradualism vs complete solutions, but about hanging together, working together, exploring up close and telling stories and histories. It’s about trusting what happens when you come up close to people who disagree or to people haven’t seen it right yet, who have power. It’s about timing; the five women had a sense of when Moshe was ripe for their pressure, when he was starting to think about what they needed him to do more on.
And the impact of their work was broader than one law of inheritance. They weren’t actually just gradualists -- it is right after this passage that God tells Moshe his tenure as leader is up, and it’s time to find someone else. Moshe gets it, and he pleads with God to find the people a shepherd who cares for every sheep, who can account for every person. A leader who would know what the laws of property should have been even before the five daughters came to tell him.
So many of the hero stories we tell about change and activism are more Pinchas than Bnot Tzelophechad. But when we really look into those stories -- whether it’s the American Revolution, the Zionist movement, the civil rights movement -- it’s the daughters of Tzelophechad pattern we see everywhere. Let’s see and lift up those kinds of leaders. Let’s be leaders like that, on whatever plane we operate in. Let’s do that so we make better public choices together, and grow close and stand with each other as citizens in that process of ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna.
These were my words of Torah at the start of Temple Beth Abraham's annual congregational meeting on June 15, 2021. Though they refer specifically to that occasion in places, I think the Torah here is apt for all of us as we reflect on the past fifteen months and the transitions we in, each in our own way. I shared a version of this as a Shabbat D'var Torah the prior weekend.
It was taught among our early rabbis:
Rabban Gamliel said:
One time I was going on a ship, and I saw another ship broken apart
And I was in pain because of a brilliant sage who was on it
– and who was it: Rabbi Akiva.
But when I went up onto dry land, he sat and discussed in front of me a matter of Jewish law, halacha.
I said to him: My son, who lifted you up from the sea?
He said to me: a plank [from a ship] happened to come to me, and every single wave that came over me, I nodded my head toward it.
This story from the Talmud is a Jewish version and elaboration of the saying that we’re not all the same boat but we are all in the same storm.
Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva experience a storm in very different ways. Rabban Gamliel was on a ship that was safe, even though it was tossed around, seeing other ships that are wrecked, and knowing some people have been lost, and some Torah in particular gone.
Rabbi Akiva was thrown from his ship, and the way he sees it, it’s only by fortune that he finds a plank to hold on to. He says that he nodded his head toward each wave as it came. Some interpret this to mean that he lowered his head, so the wave wouldn’t throw him off his board. Some say he nodded, to acknowledge the wave and its power much greater than any he had – a power to harm him or to bring him ultimately to the shore.
Rabban Gamliel is the one who tells the story. Rabbi Akiva, he says, starts discussing points of Jewish law, which is presumably what the two of them used to do on dry land before. But Rabban Gamliel stops him, and asks to hear his story. I think Rabban Gamliel was worried about his friend and student. Because Rabbi Akiva hadn’t been one just to sit and discuss the rules on their surface. He had been one of the most creative sages, an activist, a spiritual master -- and Rabban Gamliel fears that Akiva is not all there.
It’s a hard thing to ask after a storm, when someone seems to want to go back to business as before and pick up what you used to do together. It’s hard because when Gamliel says who saved you, Akiva says: It’s not a who. I got lucky. This plank came. He doesn’t say whether he thinks it was God. He tells a story of having to bow his head low and relives that.
There might be some resentment between the two rabbis, let’s be honest. Why did you have an easier time through the storm? Why did you worry about me and my ship from afar and not come by to help lift me up?
And yet Rabban Gamliel gets Rabbi Akiva to make a kind of Freudian slip in Hebrew. Akiva calls the plank of the broken ship a daf, which also means a page. A page in a book, a book of Torah, a folio of Talmud; a page in the story of a life; a page of our history together as Jews. A page came to me and saved me, and from that page I could turn toward the enormous wave and nod. Rabban Gamliel helps Rabbi Akiva perhaps begin to see that the story of the storm is not the only story. It’s not even the only storm. It’s certainly not the only trial in Akiva’s life, this Rabban Gamliel knows, and together perhaps they can start to tell a story of how each in their way arrived at the shore, and where that story fits into the dapim, the pages and planks that build the story of both their lives, and of their common life.
We have all been in a storm, and I’ll speak for myself, some days I feel like I’m walking onto the shore and other days I feel like I am still in the storm. I talk to people among you each day, who report being on a ship or a plank or on the shore. From the ship I have been fortunate to be on – a ship of my own family, a ship of community and colleagueship among local pastors and national rabbis – I have seen other ships broken apart, and not all of those ships left planks for people to hold onto. We in our Temple community have lost – people have died this past year and not only because of the pandemic. We have lost 5 people at least in our congregational families to COVID-19, and about ten percent of our households have had at least one person sick, and at least ten percent of our households have experienced the loss of a job or income since a year ago March. And so many other losses, of stability and friendship and connection and wellbeing.
Our ships and our planks and our pages – what you had, what you found, what you held onto or made into something, what you remembered as a source of hope -- so many of these the past fifteen months. And there have been waves aplenty, not only of disease but around national leadership and equality in our land. I see the waves that Rabbi Akiva nodded at, as representing his realization that in a storm you see what the truly profound forces are, what is deep and powerful. Or maybe you get a glimpse, you feel it – and you talk when you get back to land.
For us as a community, it’s important to realize that people experienced this storm differently, and also that plenty have not reached the shore yet. Let’s be generous with each other – don’t make assumptions, about where someone else is at, whether they are ready to come out or come here or give a handshake or a hug. We will continue to be a hybrid congregation, and work hard at doing that well. There are conversations to have about halacha, about matters of law and behavior; and there are the joys of conversations we so want to resume, with the people here we have missed. But somewhere too is the conversation that Rabban Gamliel invited Rabbi Akiva to have – about what you experienced, what was hard, what you learned, what gives you hope. It’s not healthy to leave those behind. It’s not what Sages do, to skip that entirely – and I look out and see so many wise people here. So I hope we each get the Rabban Gamliel we need, who will listen to our story, and for someone else who was Akiva this year, you might yourself be Gamliel.
The purpose of our community and our institution is to be the ship and the shore, and even the plank and the page, through times that are stormy and God willing less so. Tonight we look at the ship’s sturdy hull and soaring sails, and chart voyages and landfalls that lay ahead. May they be good and safe and joyful, for you and for all of us together.
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.
I'm going to dip my toes into Clubhouse this week, and talk with anyone who shows up about the D'var Torah I promised to complete when I spoke last week. If you're on Clubhouse find my room "Help Me Write My Shabbat Sermon!" Friday at 1pm eastern time. Or feel free to read this and add your comments here.
I want to continue to delve into this passage from the Haggadah:
אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־עֲזַרְיָה הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְּבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ. יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַלֵּילוֹת. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ:
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said:
Look, I am something like 70 years old -- or, I am as though 70 years old
And I didn't merit to understand -- or, I didn't merit to persuade others that the law should be
That the Exodus from Egypt should be said at night, until Ben Zoma derived it from this verse:
"In order that you shall remember the day of your leaving the land of Egypt all the days of your life"
"The days of your life" means the days; "All the days of your life" adds the nights.
And the Sages [as a group] say:
"The days of your life" means this world; "All the days of your life" means to bring/to include the days of the Messiah.
So, who was Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah in his time, and how old was he really, and what is the difference between seeing the Exodus as a daytime or a nighttime story or memory.... These are literary and philosophical but also very political questions too. Thoughts?