Leading from Within – Shabbat Tzav 5776 (2016)

In this week of Purim and Parashat Tzav, I’ve been reflecting a great deal on leadership. Who gets to lead? How do leaders prove themselves worthy? What is the role of spectacle and performance in identifying and validating leaders?

The Book of Esther which we read this week is long on spectacle and performance. It reads as a farcical court intrigue, a spoof of a melodrama. Clothing, stagecraft, public pronouncements, and shifting identity (most notably Esther’s) all play a role in the story’s unfolding. By tale’s end, interior and exterior identities match, the Jews are saved, and the party’s on.

Parashat Tzav’s last section explores the intersection of public performance and leadership from a different angle. Leviticus 8 details the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests, a ritual already prescribed in Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 29). Its pomp and intricate choreography clearly mean to convey an impression much like the one described in the first century BCE Letter of Aristeas. “I emphatically assert that every man who comes near the spectacle of what I have described will experience astonishment and amazement beyond words, his very being transformed by the hallowed arrangement on every single detail.”

The details, however, are much more than smoke and mirrors. A number of key features of the ordination ritual, indeed, point inwardly, inviting us to consider the connection between spectacle and spirit. The blood of the central ordination sacrifice, the Torah tell us, is placed on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot (Leviticus 8:23), signaling the demand for integrity on the part of the priests. Ears, hands, feet are expected to align with one another. Inside and outside are required to match.

Esther and Tzav serve as a fascinating counterpoint to the just concluded AIPAC Policy Conference. I attended the conference on Monday and observed a great deal of spectacle and performance much of it generated by the four presidential candidates who spoke to us that day. While one could describe my experience as “astonishment and amazement beyond words,” not all of it was uplifting by any stretch. The choreography and stagecraft were impressive indeed, yet I came home still not really knowing who’s who. Writ large, I wish the ritual of AIPAC’s annual gathering, conceived of as an assembly of the whole community, found a way to better align ears, hands and feet. Esther and Tzav offer up the perfect blueprint.

Shabbat Shalom.

Purim & Esther in a World Turned Upside Down

Yasher koach to Hazzan Harold whose beautiful reflection yesterday morning helped all of us to grapple with the horrific terrorist attack in Brussels just a day before Purim. His wise encouragement, I know, helped us to join together last evening to celebrate even as we grieve. In the thought that follows I wish to advance Hazzan Harold’s broad idea a bit farther, if with a slightly different focus.

The biblical story of Esther, surely one of our tradition’s strangest books, is a farcical tale of reversals. As Esther begins, the villain enjoys unfettered power and unprecedented access to the king. By book’s end, he and his ten sons hang from a public gallows while his chosen enemy and his people reign supreme. The festival of Purim to which the book of Esther gives rise is, similarly, a celebration of a world turned upside down. One of its signal observances, the custom of drinking enough such that one no longer recognizes the distinction between blessing and curse, makes clear that Purim is meant to be one day out of the year when all bets are off.

For me, this year’s big question revolves around how to make sense of, and even celebrate, Purim when it feels as if the world itself has turned upside down. In the wake of the Brussels attack and in the context of a deeply unsettling presidential campaign at home, Esther’s upside-downness feels normal. Esther’s narrative arc arguably represents the way things are supposed to work. Good defeats evil, nice guys finish first, and all is well with the world. Read that way, Purim and Pesah (that other Jewish holiday later this spring!) tell much the same story. An evil adversary aims to oppress and destroy the Jewish people who, through a combination of miracles and resiliency, subdue the enemy and achieve freedom and liberation. We all know the wisecrack version: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!

A more serious minded rendering might go something like this. We face adversity in the course of our lives. By remaining committed to essential values and ideals, and with a little good luck, we have the ability to join with others in making our way through to a better place. My teacher Michael Walzer’s well known three part formulation regarding the Pesah story applies to the Purim narrative as well. “Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; ‘the way to the land is through the wilderness,’ (meaning) there is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.” (Exodus & Revolution p. 149)

We live in Shushan, a place where Haman can manipulate Ahasuerus into pursuing a policy of oppression and evil. It doesn’t have to turn out the way Haman imagines; much more attractive alternatives exist. And the way to get from here to there is by joining together with others of good will to insist on righteousness, justice and compassion. To my mind, such a set of ideals and our ability to advance and achieve them is abundant cause for celebration. Yes, the world out there seems upside down. Esther and Purim are here to urge us to get to work in setting it right again.

Hag Purim Sameah.

To Err is Human(e) – Parashat Vayikra 5776(2016)

Human beings make mistakes. It’s part of our nature. We miss the mark, we err, we make bad choices, we do the wrong thing, sometimes willfully, more often (I hope) inadvertently and unintentionally. The last section of Parashat Vayikra – chapters 4 and 5 of Leviticus – details both the phenomenon and its Biblical remedy.

The Torah gives us two versions of human error. The first, recited in Leviticus 4:27 (and in a few other spots in the chapter), describes inadvertent wrongdoing. An individual “does wrong inadvertently by violating any of the Lord’s prohibitive commandments and he feels guilt or he is informed of the wrong he committed..” Jacob Milgrom lays it out for us: “Inadvertent wrongdoing may result from two causes: negligence or ignorance. Either the offender knows the law but involuntarily violates it or he acts knowingly but is unaware he did wrong.”

Version two arrives in the words of Leviticus 5:17 in which “a person errs by violating any of the Lord’s prohibitive commandments without knowing it and he feels guilt…” a case of “an unconscious wrong, when the offender is unaware of both his act and his sin, when he only suspects that he has done wrong.” (Milgrom, Leviticus, p.228)

Negligence, ignorance, unaware, unconscious…the descriptive vocabulary is arresting and intriguing. I suspect many of us can identify; I certainly can. I wish I were less ignorant and significantly more aware that I usually am. Understood in that direction, the Torah’s cases of inadvertent and unconscious wrongdoing serve as an invitation to us to work on the awareness side of the equation. How do I increase my knowledge and expand my consciousness so that I’m less likely to miss the mark? On the ethical level, that’s Sefer Vayikra’s central challenge.

Ripped from this week’s headlines, an example. Yesterday, Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, testified before a Congressional committee investigating the water crisis in Flint. To be clear, I mean neither to condemn nor to defend Governor Snyder. A series of sentences in his opening statement, however, caught my ear. Here are his words: “I’m not going to point fingers or shift blame. There’s plenty of that to share. Not a day or night goes by that this tragedy doesn’t weigh on my mind. The questions I should have asked, the answers I should have demanded, how I could have prevented this.” Pretty good commentary on Parashat Vayikra!

Shabbat Shalom.

Feeling God’s Presence – Shabbat Pekudei 5776(2016)

A visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art this week provided the opportunity to spend time in front of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation, an 1898 canvas that was the first work by an African-American artist to enter the museum’s permanent collection. The visit to the museum was part of an Interfaith Center program that brought together religious leaders from a variety of traditions and communities to explore art as a way into deeper interfaith understanding and relationship. With two colleagues, one Christian and one Muslim, I got to sit in front of Tanner’s beautiful picture for half an hour of reflection and conversation.


Mid-conversation, I realized (and blurted out) that the pillar of light in Tanner’s painting was an image of the Divine Presence that reminded me of the one that appears at the end of the book of Exodus. “For over the Mishkan a cloud of God rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” (Exodus 40:38) Tanner’s pillar of light, I suggested, combined cloud and fire; his choice to present the Christian scriptural story in more abstract form made it possible for us to “read” his painting as a statement not only about Mary in that moment but also as a description of religious experience in its broader sense. Tanner’s Mary sits in God’s Presence. What does that feel like? What might it mean?

One of my colleagues commented that she felt that the painting invited her into the scene enabling her to feel that in the moment which we shared together, looking and talking and reflecting, she too was standing in the Divine Presence. The closing verses of Parashat Pekudei, which are the last words of the book of Exodus, similarly invite us into the scene, hopefully enabling us to feel, along with our ancestors, God’s enveloping Presence, represented by cloud and fire, in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

Inside = Outside – Shabbat Vayakhel 5776(2016)

The Disney/Pixar film “Inside Out” has been a favorite in our house since its release last fall. Its nuanced and very clever depiction of the inner life of an 11 year old girl named Riley feels true to life. One piece of the puzzle for Riley is the ongoing struggle to get the interior drama of her life to match up with a new set of exterior circumstances, among them a move to a new city, starting at a new school, finding and connecting with new friends. It takes work, Riley learns, effort that turns out to be ongoing.

Hidden in the blizzard of construction details that makes up Parashat Vayakhel is a feature of the Ark that conveys a similar message about the relationship between inside and outside. The ark, we read, is to be overlaid with gold, “inside and out.” (Exodus 37:2) The Talmud grabs that fine point to make its own claim about character. “Raba said: Any scholar whose inside is not like his outside, is no scholar.” (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 72b)

Maimonides, in turn, builds on the Talmud’s idea to make a far reaching set of ethical and behavioral claims. “It is forbidden for a person to engage in slick talk and flattery. One should not say one thing with the mouth while thinking something else in the heart, but the inner and outer selves should be attuned. That which is in one’s heart should correspond to that which one says with the mouth. It is forbidden to deceive people.” (Laws Relating to Moral and Ethical Character 2:6)

Watching the unfolding Presidential campaign, this past week in particular, has me thinking a great deal about saying ‘one thing with the mouth while thinking something else in the heart.’ In a week in which candidates have called one another con-artists, phonies, and frauds, it seems appropriate to wonder whether we really are committed to an attuning of inner and outer selves for ourselves and for others.

The Torah’s demand for interior and exterior consistency in the Ark, the actual centerpiece and focal point of the Mishkan, serves as an invitation to us to ponder and to confront the alignment of inside and outside in our lives. I hope our pictures look less like Presidential debates and more like Inside Out.

Shabbat Shalom.