Stepping Out, Stepping In – Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5775 (2015)

ה֑וּא בָּדָ֣ד יֵשֵׁ֔ב מִח֥וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה מֹושָׁבֹֽו – “He shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:46)

The dynamic of the Torah’s purity system involves separation from the camp followed by re-entry and renewed inclusion. Stepping out and stepping in.

The Midrash attaches a powerful and resonant verse to this dynamic, the dramatic words of the prophet Isaiah – shalom, shalom, larahok v’lakarov – “Peace, peace, to the far and to the near.” (Isaiah 57:19) Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Yudan in Rabbi Aha’s name: This is the leper who was far and has become close. (Vayikra Rabbah 16:9) Stepping out and stepping in.

Ordinarily we read the stepping out part of the process as punitive, unfair, and negative. In context, the Torah’s system excludes one suffering from scale disease in order to protect the larger community and its purity. The needs of the many trump the sensitivity of the individual. Hence our unease with the Torah’s system of purity in general and the rules that fill this week’s parasha in particular.

The Midrash points toward a different perspective. What positive good might the individual whose “dwelling shall be outside the camp” find in this experience? To put it in Isaiah’s language, what is the shalom – the wholeness or peace – that one might encounter when stepping out?

The Sefat Emet, R Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, pushes the point in a provocative direction. “There are some who attain wholeness by drawing near and others who do so by distance.” Wholeness can be attained, experienced, encountered, by distance! That’s a startling and liberating idea. Alienation as a path to holiness. Shalom larahok – Peace to the far. The Torah of the leper, says the Sefat Emet, involves learning from the experience of distance. Separation is not just a painful reality experienced by all of us at one time or another. It’s an opportunity for growth and renewal. The Sefat Emet’s punch line rings true: God’s Divinity is not to be found only in closeness.

In the course of our lives, we step out and back in over and over again. What do we learn from the experience of residing outside the camp? And do we bring that special brand of wholeness for the distant with us back into the camp upon our return? Perhaps that’s the Torah of the life journey on which we each embark.

Shabbat Shalom.

Dig Deep, Listen Well, Be Human – Parashat Sh’mini 5775 (2015)

Opinions vary. Perspectives differ. Circumstances change.

A disagreement between Moses and Aaron sits at the heart of the heart of the Torah. The Talmud reports that ancient scholars known as sofrim counted all the letters, words and verses in the Torah. According to their accounting of words the two word phrase darosh darash – then Moses insistently inquired – is the exact center point of the Torah. That observation has a lot to teach.

Those words kick off the Torah’s description of a disagreement on a technical matter of ritual law between Moses and Aaron. Moses doesn’t understand why the Priests, Aaron’s sons, would have burnt a sin offering on the altar rather than consuming it as they are required to do. He questions them angrily assuming that they have erred, missing something essential about their work. Aaron responds with a statement of uncertainty and perhaps anguish. Given the tragic deaths of two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu, at the altar, Aaron and his remaining sons are unsure of how to proceed. The choice to burn the sin offering, rather than to eat it, was conscious and, given the circumstances, reasonable. Hearing Aaron’s explanation calms Moses’s anger; as the Torah puts it: And when Moses heard this, he approved.

I find it moving and inspiring that this enigmatic story sits at the Torah’s geographic center. It communicates a number of essential ideas and ideals, starting with the importance of deep inquiry. Moses sees something strange and perhaps dangerous. Yes, he’s angry (more about that in a minute), but still he inquires. The phrase darosh darash derives from the root for the word Midrash; deep exploration and searching is the order of the day.

The Midrash, interestingly, picks up on Moses’s anger in a beautiful way. Anger and clear thinking, suggest the rabbis, are incompatible. When Moses becomes angry, clarity about the law evades him. And as the Midrash points out, this isn’t the only instance. Moses is human, and from time to time he loses his cool. It’s understandable, reparable, and it has consequences.

The repair emerges from Moses’s ability to listen to Aaron’s explanation and to acknowledge his own mistake. The Midrash describes that process poignantly and with elegance. “And when Moses heard this, he approved, and he issued a proclamation to the entire camp of Israel, saying, ‘I made an error in the law, and Aaron my brother came and set me straight.’” [Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 13:1]

Dig deep, listen well, acknowledge error. Nothing obscure or enigmatic about that.

Shabbat Shalom.

Crossing the Sea – End of Pesah 5775 (2015)

Crossing the Sea

Pesah begins with the 10th plague and the actual Exodus from Egypt. It ends, seven days later (eight outside of Israel) with the crossing of the Sea and the start of the desert trek that will lead, in a few weeks time, to Sinai. Freedom doesn’t happen in one fell swoop; like all that matters, it is a complex (and drawn out) process, one that unfolds over time.

A week ago, re-enacting the experience of our ancestors, we left Egypt. Tonight/tomorrow we cross the Sea. What does that crossing, the capstone and culmination of this week-long festival, come to teach us? What does it mean to cross the Sea?

Isaiah 63 preserves a psalm of lament that yields up an intriguing hint. Here are some of its verses:

Where is God who brought them up from the Sea along with the shepherd of the Divine flock? Where is God who put in their midst the Divine holy spirit, who made God’s glorious arm march at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make a name for all time, who led them through the deeps so that they did not stumble – as a horse in the desert, like a beast descending to the plain? [Isaiah 63:11-14]

The very same “deeps” through which God led our ancestors at the Sea covered and drowned Pharaoh’s army and officers. To cross the Sea – rather than to drown in it – involves encountering those “deeps” (t’homot in Hebrew) and seeing them transformed into a garden-like plain. One of the Targumim (ancient Aramaic translations of the Bible) describes “perfumed springs of water and fruit trees and greenery and fine morsels” emerging through the now dry “deeps!”

The “deeps” of the Sea, I suggest, symbolize the life challenges and struggles that we all encounter. Making one’s way through them with patience and faith leads one to dry land, teaches Isaiah. May that be our experience as well. Safe and meaningful crossing and Hag Sameah to us all!

Paradox & Irony – Pesah 5775 (2015)

Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about paradox and irony. A recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina put something of a point on my musings. Nomi and I traveled to Charleston to celebrate our wedding anniversary and were taken by the city’s graciousness, beauty, and charm. That turned out to be the easy part. Grappling with Charleston’s history proved much more complicated.

Charleston, earlier than most places in British North America, promoted religious tolerance, emerging by the time of the Revolution as a religiously diverse society. The full range of Christian denominations – from Anglican to Huguenot to Catholic to African Methodist Episcopal – along with one of America’s earliest (and most beautiful) synagogues earned Charleston the nickname of ‘Holy City.’ Visiting those early churches and the synagogue remain one of the city’s leading charms.

The very same city, in the very same years of burgeoning religious freedom, was the primary point of entry for Africans sold into slavery in North America. Fully 40% of Africans ‘imported’ as slaves between 1680 and 1808, first stepped foot on this continent at the edge of Charleston Harbor. And after the international slave trade came to an end, Charleston remained a major venue for the auction and sale of slaves, a practice that continued to the very end of the Civil War.

Religious freedom AND slavery all together in one small place. Both stories, one uplifting the other horrifying, are real, true, and an essential part of the larger tale. And Charleston’s story, of course, is a microcosm of the larger paradoxes and ironies of America’s history. Seemingly opposite trends and ideals residing together in one space at one time. How can that be? And what do we do with it?

Pesah, I suggest, invites us into that uneasy space of grappling with irony and paradox. The central section of the Haggadah, known as magid (the telling), begins with these Aramaic words: ha lahma anya – “Behold, the bread of distress that our ancestors ate while in Egypt.” Those opening words already present a paradox. The ‘bread of distress’ – matzah – is also the bread of freedom, the food provision that makes the Exodus a possibility in the first place! Can it be both? By the end of the passage, the sense of irony becomes even deeper. “Today we are slaves; next year we shall be free,” reads the Haggadah. Hashata avdei, l’shana ha’ba-ah b’nei horin. We sit down to Seder as free people and begin by proclaiming that “today we are slaves!”

Grappling with paradox and irony is a signature piece of Jewish religious thinking. Our spirituality is built around the holding of competing truths and ideals, enabling and allowing them to stand in creative tension with one another. It is true that we are free. It is also true that we are slaves. Expanding the concept beyond ourselves as individuals, there is tremendous freedom in our world, and in many places and many ways slavery continues to exist as well. It may even be that we can’t understand or appreciate the one without the other.

Tonight, we sit down together to face the many ironies and paradoxes that mark our lives. That, it seems to me, is the hard work of freedom. How do we grapple with slavery and freedom living side by side? How do we recognize the existence of multiple truths without demanding of ourselves to choose one at the expense of another? How do we hear the different, and equally valid, questions of different children? How do we hold multiple ideals and commitments in our hearts without arrogance and without despair? Those are my four questions this Pesah. I invite you to dig deep in search of yours. There’s more than enough paradox and irony to go around.

Hag Sameah to us all!