Friday, May 5, 2017

Why Holiness Isn't Boring

         I used to think that reading about holiness in Leviticus was rather boring. That changed when I was able to reframe my relationship with the text after an in depth study of the first few sentences of chapter 19, also known as the holiness code.  
In Leviticus19:2 God tells Moshe: “Speak to the whole  Israelite community (kol adat) and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God am holy.” 
So what’s unusual here? We’re used to God telling Moshe to speak to the people of Israel but not to the whole Israelite community. That’s new. That’s inclusive – men, women, and children– everyone is included in the term community. 
Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom writes that this is the only place in Leviticus where the term eda occurs in what he called a commission speech - a speech with instructions that are to be heard by every responsible Israelite – and that’s enough to show its importance. 
Other commission speeches containing eda (another form of adat) occur in two places in Exodus: one regarding the preparation of the paschal sacrifice (Exodus 12:3) and another for assembling the building materials for the tabernacle (Exodus 35:1).
Milgrom goes on to say that the word eda “unambiguously means the entire people Israel … Its unique placement here underscores the importance of the prescriptions that follow: they are quintessentially the means by which Israel can become a holy nation.”
         The verse continues: “...and you, Moshe, will say to them, you [second person plural] shall be holy, for I, Adonai Your God, am holy.” 
         So why are we to be holy? Because God is holy. Yes, but what does that mean? We already know that the command to holiness for the people Israel is an inclusive one because it is being given to everyone. And the commandments that come after, commandments that tell us how to behave in order to be holy – to keep Shabbat, to honor one’s parent, tonnot worship idols– are given to us as a group.  The verbs that are used are in the plural.
One might think that such important commandments would be addressed in the singular to one person at a time, or if in the plural, than to small groups of people, not to everyone all at once.  Research suggests that the commandments are written this way to show that any Jew can attain the highest principles of Judaism, can observe the mitzvot and strive for daily holiness – that’s nicely egalitarian.               
         There are commandments that do use singualar verbs. One should note that those with singular verbs are specifically actions between people (bein adam l’chavero) whereas the actions with the plural verbs are related to actions that reflect on God (bein adam l’makom).
         In the commandment to be holy because our God is holy, the verb used is t’hiyu, which means, “you [in the plural] will be.”
         One way to emulate God is to be holy like God. How? We act in holy ways by fulfilling mitzvot that encourage godliness to the world. Our parasha brings us a little closer to figuring out how to do that – through inclusion and equality and the equal opportunity commission of mitzvot.

This dvar appears in the May 4, 2017 edition of the Washington Jewish Week. But it's based on a dvar I wrote years ago in Rabbinical School about holiness. I was prompted to revisit that dvar because of all the turmoil going on in the world today. Particularly in our country, in our government. 

I think it's important for us all to remember that we are put here to emulate the Awesome One Above through bringing acts of holiness into the world. Particularly in the face of insanity. And hopelessness. And craziness. It's the only way we can keep our own sanity and hope and integrity. 

Shabbat Shalom, 
Rabbah Arlene



Sunday, March 12, 2017

Purim thoughts 2017

Purim. A holiday when we wear masks and disguises. Our outsides get to take a break from all the posturing that it does on a daily basis. Our innermost selves are allowed to run riot for a day.

Is one aspect of ourselves better than the other? I don't think so. I think sometimes our insides and our outsides get mixed up and we forget what is real. We forget what is truth. And we forget just what is important enough to fight for even if the result is that we make ourselves vulnerable.

May this holiday of Purim remind us of the importance of acknowledging our core and give us the courage to make ourselves vulnerable - especially when we are fighting for something we believe in.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Is Seeing really believing?

Parshat Bo  Exodus  10:1-13:16  

While there is great truth to the phrase “seeing is believing,” we know that it is not a complete truth. For while it frequently takes witnessing something with one’s own eyes to integrate it into our psyche and believe in its authenticity, the belief doesn’t always kick in immediately. We see things and don’t believe them. 
On the one hand, skepticism is a healthy and necessary tool in life. On the other hand, however, we too often see things that are truth and our brains refuse to accept what our eyes are witnessing.
That’s what is happening in this part of the Torah. Pharaoh witnesses the awesome and terrible plagues and their impact on himself and his people with his own eyes. Yet it takes 10, each worse than the one before it, until he is convinced of the existence and might of the God of the Israelites. 
In his commentary, Noam Elimelech, an 18th century rabbi and one of the founders of the Hassidic movement, wrote that a Tzaddik, a righteous person, would need to see such wonders of the Creator only once and be impressed, ecstatic and understand. A rasha (a bad guy like Pharaoh) would need to be told over and over, by a Tzadik (in this case Moses), of God’s wonders and of God’s goodness, and even would forget once time passes. 
Such is the story in a nutshell of Moses, Pharaoh, the plagues, the release of the Israelites and the attempt to recapture them. Pharoah believes for a moment and denies reality once again.
This story is familiar not just because we tell it each year as part of the Torah reading cycle and then again at Passover. It is familiar because the moral of the story represents a universal truth. Seeing is not always believing, at least not at first sight, even for good people.  Along with sight we need to be convinced intellectually and experientially so that not only do we believe, but also remember that belief and lesson throughout our lives. 
The parsha ends by introducing us to tefillin (phylacteries) (Exodus 13:9). We wear the leather boxes and straps on our heads and on our arms and hands. They contain words of Torah and serve as a physical reminder of our belief in God, of our beginnings as a people and of the need to remember the important things in life and to teach and act on them in each generation.  
Abstract concepts such as the need for dignity, respect, acceptance and freedom cannot remain abstract if we remember and retell them on a regular basis. It is only when we live the lessons learned, when we become Noam Elimelech’s tzaddik, and not only believe but also actuate these lessons in life, that the negatives of history will not repeat. 

Table Talk:
1.  Tefillin are the ultimate aide de memoire, having physical, intellectual and philosophical aspects to them. Can you think of any other items or activities that function in a similar way? 

2. How does belief work in your life to shape the things that you do and are willing to go out of your way for?  

This Dvar Torah was published in the Washington Jewish Week Vol. 53, No. 5   2/2/17

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Be the One to Stand Up!

Ethics of Our Fathers 2:6

Hillel used to say: 
A brutish man cannot fear sin; 
an ignorant man cannot be pious, 
nor can the shy man learn, 
or the impatient man teach. 
He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise. 
In a place where there are no men strive to be a man. 

~~ Or, in words for today ~~

iIf there is no one willing to stand up and take responsibility,