God Bless You! – Shabbat Naso 5779 (2019)

Birkat Kohanim, the well known priestly blessing which lies at the heart of Parashat Naso, raises many questions. If God is the source of all blessing, why doesn’t God bless the people directly? If the priest who delivers blessing to the people isn’t the ultimate source of that blessing, what is her/his role? And what does conveying or sharing blessings with or to another person even mean?

A pair of teachings, both found in Midrash Tanhuma, aim to answer the first question.

It does not suit My dignity that I should have to bless My creatures [Myself]. Rather, I am handing the blessings over to Abraham and to his progeny, and so, whosoever they bless, I will back up his blessing, as it is written: “and be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2)

[Midrash Tanhuma, V’zot ha’Berakha 1]

And it came to pass, [on the day that Moses had made an end of setting up the tabernacle] – the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “In this world, I commanded Aaron and his sons to bless them, but in the future, I, in My glory, will bless them, as it is written, ‘YHWH bless thee out of Zion; even He that made heaven and earth.’” (Psalm 134:3)

[Midrash Tanhuma, Naso 18]

Similarly, Midrash Tanhuma explains the role of the priest.

“In this way you shall bless” (Numbers 6:23) – Speak [amor] to them [using the ‘full’ spelling, i.e. with a vav], thus meaning: Say to them, to the priests, that just because I have told you to bless the people Israel, this does not imply that you may bless them begrudgingly or hastily [b’angaria u’v’vehilut]; rather, you should bless them wholeheartedly, so that the blessings have power for them; and thus is it written amor lahem, using the ‘full’ spelling.

[Tanhuma Buber, Naso 18]

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Put these teachings together and you get a possible answer to my third question. By facing one another and desiring goodness for one another with a full heart, we get to bring a bit of Divine goodness into the world. Priests partner with God to draw down goodness, and, remember, we’re all priests. To bless one another is to increase the flow of love and compassion in the world. No wonder birkat kohanim is (perhaps) our oldest and most beloved prayer!

Shabbat Shalom!

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Get up, Stand up! – Shabbat Behukotai 5779 (2019)

An old time Hebrew children’s song, long a staple of Jewish summer camp and preschool, celebrates having one’s cake and eating it too. Sung while dancing in a circle, the song’s very few words are these: oo-gah, oo-gah, oo-gah, b’ma’agal nacho-gah (Cake, Cake, Cake, we celebrate in a circle!); nis’to’ve’vah kol hayom, ‘ad asher nimtzah makom (We’ll spin around all the day, until we find a spot); la-shevet, la-koom, la-shevet la-koom, la-shevet v’la-koom (to sit, to stand up, to sit, to stand up, to sit, and to stand up!). (Hear the best known version of the song here – https://youtu.be/TJ-MAHC4hgg)

Finding a proper place in which to sit (let alone knowing when to sit down) is no simple matter. Summoning up the courage to stand up (let alone when and how to do so) strikes me as even more complex.

 

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[Darren Thompson “Standing Sitting”]

 

Parashat Behukotai features a fascinating interplay of the same two verbs – la-shevet (to sit or to settle) and la-koom (to stand up straight). Behukotai’s central passage describes the blessings enjoyed upon walking in the Divine path and, at much greater length, the curses suffered as consequence of defiance and denial of that path. On the blessing side – ‘you will dwell (vi’shavtem) securely in your land’ and the culminating good: ‘I made you walk upright (kom’miyut)’.

At the other end of the passage, the curse section concludes with these horrors:

“Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest (az tish’bat ha’aretz) that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues. With no one pursuing, they shall stumble over one another as before the sword. You shall not be able to stand your ground (v’lo tihiyeh lakhem t’kumah) before your enemies, but shall perish among the nations; and the land of your enemies shall consume you.” [Leviticus 26:34-38]

An inability to stand up represents the epitome of cursedness. Standing tall (as my friend and teacher R Shai Held translates kom’miyut) connotes blessedness. At the end of the day, blessing and curse are a choice. Another old time song, this one courtesy of Bob Marley, completes the circle. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight! [https://youtu.be/X2W3aG8uizA]

  

Shabbat Shalom!

Let Freedom Ring – Shabbat Behar 5779 (2019)

“Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof Lev. XXV X.”

The Liberty Bell’s well known inscription is taken from Parashat Behar. In Hebrew – וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ (u’kratem d’ror ba’aretz l’khol yosh’veha). The key word is d’ror. The Bell, which is to say, the King James Bible, translates d’ror as Liberty. Interpreters, ancient and modern, offer up three possible meanings: ‘release’, ‘flow’, and ‘freedom’. Jacob Milgrom (Anchor Bible, Leviticus, p 2167) notes the connection among the possible translations. “One can easily see that the three meanings are related: whatever is released, flows and gains freedom. The first meaning, ‘release’, would be primary, with ‘flow’ and ‘freedom’ as its natural but secondary extension.

It’s worth noting that Behar’s proclamation takes place in the Jubilee year (yovel in Hebrew). Behar’s system of counting years (the Jubilee takes place in the 50th year of the cycle) culminates in a dramatic moment of emancipation. Our nation’s founders certainly understood the significance of the inscription, even if they didn’t choose it. Isaac Norris, Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, commissioned the bell in 1751; the inscription likely referred back to William Penn’s 1701 ‘Charter of Privileges’ and its grant of religious liberty of Pennsylvania’s people. By 1776, the bell’s role, already well established, was to ‘let freedom ring’. The Liberty Bell’s later adoption by the Abolitionist, Suffragette, and Civil Rights movements makes perfect sense.

 

The_Bell's_First_Note_by_JLG_Ferris

[Jean Leon Gerome Ferris The Bell’s First Note]

 

Milgrom calls Jubilee, ‘the priestly solution for economic injustice’, arguing that it ‘has become the rallying cry for oppressed peoples today’. Tamar Kamionkowski is less certain. ‘A key question about Leviticus 25’, she writes, ‘is what it envisions as justice’. Behar addresses ‘socio-economic inequalities’ but not ‘the particular vulnerabilities of women’ nor ‘protections for the poor in urban settings’ nor ‘closing the gap between wealthier and poorer landowners’. ‘Leviticus 25 never uses the terms “justice” or “righteousness”’ she concludes. Later prophetic voices offer much more forceful statements, Professor Kamionkowski reminds us, quoting in full the words of Zechariah (7:9-10): “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another”.

Zechariah (and Jeremiah and Ezekiel) may articulate the demand for justice more forcefully than does Leviticus 25, but Behar begins the conversation. Its clarion call to ‘proclaim d’ror’ resonates and inspires to this day. Especially when accompanied by the blast of a shofar and the pealing of a now famous bell. Let freedom ring.

Shabbat Shalom.

Blasphemy or Exclusion? – Shabbat Emor 5779 (2019)

The entire book of Leviticus contains only two narratives, and both are troubling. In Parashat Shemini, Aaron’s sons – Nadav and Avihu – bring ‘strange (or alien) fire’ to the altar and are incinerated in (apparent) response. This week, in Parashat Emor we read of a fight in the camp between a ‘half-Israelite’ (Israelite mother/Egyptian father) and ‘a certain Israelite’ during which the half-Israelite ‘pronounces the Name in blasphemy.’ At story’s end, the blasphemer is stoned to death by the whole community.

Who is this blasphemer and what’s his story? The early Midrash (Sifra Emor 14) provides a backstory in a few terse lines. “‘There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian.’ Where did he got out from? From Moses’ court, for he had sought to pitch his tent in the camp of Dan. They (the other members of the tribe of Dan) said to him: What right do you have to pitch your tent in the camp of Dan? He said: I am descended from the daughters of Dan. They answered that tribal portions followed the flag or house of the father. He appealed before the court of Moses and lost his case, so he rose and reviled God.”

 

Mother and Son c.1910 by Ambrose McEvoy 1878-1927

[Mother and Son, Ambrose McEvoy, 1910]

 

The blasphemer’s mother Shelomit bat Divri, is a daughter of the tribe of Dan. We never learn the blasphemer’s name. Brilliantly and poignantly, Wendy Zierler, building on the Midrash, proposes more backstory. (See her piece at http://thetorah.com/a-tribute-to-the-blasphemers-mother-shelomit-daughter-of-divri/) She presents the mother as a ‘struggling ex-slave and single mother who labored against all odds to raise her son and shield him from the prejudice of the surrounding community.’ Of the son, she writes, ‘he saw that he was a second-class citizen in a society of former second-class citizens, that he was not wanted among his would-be brethren.’ Our story, suggests Professor Zierler, is about patriarchy, exclusion, ‘bifurcated identity’ and injustice. In short, ‘a full-blown tragedy.’

I’m persuaded by Professor Zierler’s reading. The Torah’s story of the blasphemer comes to remind us of the human costs of oppressing and excluding others. As the singular narrative in a book whose laws focus over and over on the making of distinctions in the name of holiness, the tale of Shelomit and her son aims to teach us that while some separations promote purity and holiness, others pave the way for unnecessary and unjust pain and suffering. Emor, in its last lines, invites us to understand which ones are which. The blasphemer’s tale is the story of distinction-making run amok. It’s a lesson we badly need to learn.

Shabbat Shalom. 

 

Israel: Land & People – Shabbat Kedoshim 5779 (2019)

I have eretz yisrael on the brain these days. This has been the week of Yom haAtzma’ut, the 71st anniversary of Israel’s independence. And the parashiot (Torah portions) of this time of the year have a distinct focus on the land. Vayikra’s last five parashiot – Aharei Mot, Kedoshim, Emor, B’har, and Behukotai – articulate laws about the land of Israel no fewer than ten times. Evidently, Leviticus has eretz yisrael on the brain as well.

Kedoshim’s land of Israel verses  evocatively describe the relationship between land and people, a centerpiece of the Torah’s theology.

“When you enter the land and plant any tree for food…” [Leviticus 19:23] Sefat Emet, R Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (19th century), explains ‘that the power of planting has been given to the people of Israel. They are able to plant every thing, to join it to its root, by the power of Torah.’ The ‘religious task’ (R Art Green’s phrase) of the Jewish people is that of connecting each and every thing to its root, fulfilled by both actual and ‘spiritual’ planting. And to start, suggests the Sefat Emet, ‘we have to implant our own souls within their root.’ For Leviticus at least, the physical location of that root is in the land of Israel. As the Zohar puts it, ‘When they are united with the land, they are called a unique nation, but not when they are separate from it.’ [Zohar Vayikra 93b]

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The great Hebrew poet, Rahel (Bluwstein) gorgeously captures the connection in her 1926 poem ‘To My Land – El Artzi’:

I have not sung you, my land,

not brought glory to you name

with the great deeds of a hero

or the spoils a battle yields.

But on the shores of the Jordan

my hands have planted a tree,

and my feet have made a pathway

through your fields.

Rahel proclaims, in her way, that we indeed have the power of planting. I wonder if the tree she planted still stands a century later. I hope it does; next time I enter the land of Israel, I plan to visit.

Shabbat Shalom.

Homecoming – Yom haZikkaron/Yom haAtzma’ut 5779 (2019)

They waited for him to come home:
the trimmed lawn, the tree in its saucer,
the faded plastic chairs, the rusty
gate, creaking on its hinges.
Mother, brother, father, sister,
frozen in time: wilting, transparent,
bowed down with weight of days.
And then, when  suddenly he comes in,
everything begins to move, the lawn thickens,
the tree bears fruit, the plastic
chairs are scrubbed, the gate turns
and creaks, moving endlessly.
If only he would come in, come home.
The bubble of time bursts. The scarred heart
beats again. Slowly they go down
on their knees, lift their eyes
to him in grief, in gratitude.

[Elisha Porat “Homecoming” translated by Eddie Levenston] [Hebrew below]

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Elisha Porat’s poem, new to me, was shared last evening as part of a Yom haZikkaron commemoration at the Rabbinical Assembly convention in Montreal. For me, it powerfully narrates the annual intersection of Yom haZikkaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom haAtzma’ut (Israel’s Independence Day) as it beautifully captures the many layers and nuances of home and homecoming.

Porat’s poem describes waiting for a loved one to come home. Who is s/he? A soldier perhaps? A family member who has traveled far away and is now returning? The entire people (or a large part of it) coming home again? And does that loved one in fact come home? “Suddenly he comes in…” and just a few lines later “if only he would come in, come home.”

I write these words far from home. Sitting in a cafe at the edge of McGill’s campus, feeling strangely (and simultaneously) distant from, and deeply connected to, this day and its commemoration. In a few hours, our son, an Israeli by citizenship, service, and choice, will board a plane that will take him home. And in Israel, throughout this difficult day, people will visit cemeteries and one another, grieving over those moments, spread out over seven decades now, when a loved didn’t walk through the creaky gate of Porat’s poem.

Tonight, at dusk, the mourning of Yom haZikkaron gives way to the raucous celebrating of Yom haAtzma’ut. “You turned my lament into dancing, you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy” says the Psalmist. In one fell swoop, lament becomes dancing. Or does it? The deeper truth is that grief and gratitude (bekhi and hodayah in Porat’s words) happen at the same time, over and over again.

We pray that our loved ones, all of them, everywhere, will come home safely. And we grieve and voice laments without end over those who haven’t. “The gate turns and creaks, moving endlessly.” And we celebrate the homecoming of our people for “the scarred heart beats again.” On bended knee, “in grief and in gratitude.” Hag Atzma’ut Sameah! Israel 71! It’s coming up on time to dance.

שִׁיבה

:וְהֵם חִכּוּ לוֹ שֶׁיָּשׁוּב
,הַדֶּשֶׁא הַקָּצוּר, גֻּמַּת הָעֵץ
,כִּסְאוֹת הַפְּלַסְטִיק שֶׁדָּהוּ
.פִּשְׁפָּשׁ חָלוּד, צִירָיו שֶׁיִּבְּבוּ
,הָאֵם, הָאָח, הָאָב וְהָאָחוֹת
קְפוּאִים בְּתוֹךְ הַזְּמַן: קְמוּלִים
.שְׁקוּפִים, שָׁחִים מֵרֹב יָמִים
וְאָז, כְּשֶׁיִּכָּנֵס לְפֶתַע, הַכֹּל
,יָחֵל לָנוּעַ: הַדֶּשֶׁא שֶׁיִּצְמַח
הָעֵץ יִשָּׂא פִּרְיוֹ, כִּסְאוֹת
,הַפְּלַסְטִיק יִתְמָרְקוּ וְהַפִּשְׁפָּשׁ יִסֹּב
.יַחְרֹק, וְלֹא יַפְסִיק לָנוּעַ
רַק שֶׁיָּשׁוּב וְיִכָּנֵס: בּוּעַת
הַזְּמַן תִּפְקַע, לִבָּם הַמְצֻלָּק
יַחְזֹר לִפְעֹם. עַל בִּרְכֵּיהֶם
יֵרְדוּ לְאַט, אֵלָיו יִשְּׂאוּ
.עֵינַיִם: בִּבְכִי, בְּהוֹדָיָה

Between the ‘Days’ – Shabbat Acharei Mot 5779 (2019)

This Shabbat, we stand between the yamim – the ‘days’ that mark the contemporary Jewish calendar. ‘Yom’ haShoah – Holocaust Remembrance ‘Day’ – directly behind us, and ‘Yom’ haZikkaron/‘Yom’ haAtzma’ut – Israel’s Memorial ‘Day’ and Independence ‘Day’ just ahead. The plural of ‘yom’ is ‘yamim’ – days; we stand between the ‘yamim’ right now.

In Hebrew, the phrase has a double meaning. ‘Yam’ also means sea; hence ‘yamim’ are the seas between which we stand right now as well. Between the ‘yamim’ – days or seas – we get to reflect in both directions at once. Between-ness can be unnerving and unsettling; it can also exhilarate and inspire as it opens and invites new perspectives and different angles. Right now, we stand between the ‘yamim’.

Parashat Acharei Mot speaks powerfully to our unease at this time of between-ness. The ritual of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16) features a series of confessions and offerings brought to the altar by Aaron. As kohen gadol – high priest – Aaron plays the central role in the Torah’s version of Atonement Day. Aaron seeks ‘expiation’ first for himself, then for his household, then for all the priests, and, finally, for the ‘whole congregation of Israel’. The pattern is that of an ever widening circle of concern.

Aaron’s concern for himself quickly expands to take in concern for the entire people. The early midrash (Sifra, Acharei Mot 4:6) notices and emphasizes the sequence. “His own atonement comes before that for his household, and that for his household comes before that for all of Israel.” Initial narrow focus is meant to lead to widening one’s lens. Aaron starts with himself; the big point is that he doesn’t end there.

 

800px-Song_of_songs_Rothschild_mahzor

[Rothschild Mahzor, 15th century, Song of Songs]

 

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook describes a similar dynamic in his reflection on the four levels of song. “There is one who ascends with all these songs in unison – the song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the cosmos – resounding together, blending in harmony, circulating the sap of life, the sound of holy joy.”

The end of Pesah, traditionally observed, is that moment when all the songs come together. The songs of the Seder, the melodies of Hallel, the chanting of the Song of Songs and of the Song of the Sea, and, finally, the prophet Isaiah’s ringing song of hope for a future of peace and well being for all of humanity. Gunshots in shul in Poway, California shattered the ‘sound of holy joy’ this year. Then came Yom haShoah, and now, we stand, uneasily, in the space between the seas, the days between the ‘days’.

Dara Horn’s moving reflection, published this week in the New York Times, also explores the pattern of expanding concern pioneered by Aaron and the authors of Leviticus. Hear some of her words:  “As long as Jews existed in any society, there was evidence that it in fact wasn’t necessary to believe what everyone else believed, that those who disagreed with their neighbors could survive and even flourish against all odds. The Jews’ continued distinctiveness, despite overwhelming pressure to become like everyone else, demonstrated their enormous effort to cultivate that freedom: devotion to law and story, deep literacy, and an absolute obsessiveness about transmitting those values between generations. The existence of Jews in any society is a reminder that freedom is possible, but only with responsibility — and that freedom without responsibility is no freedom at all.”

Pesah, Yom haShoah, Yom haZikkaron/haAtzma’ut, and Parashat Acharei Mot combine to speak that very message. We are free; we are responsible. We sing (or aim to sing) all four songs at once. We focus our concern on ourselves and on the wider world. That’s what it means to stand between the seas, right in the middle of these days of holy joy, agony, horror, remembrance, and celebration.

Shabbat Shalom.