Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Torah Portion Emor - Distinctions in Time and Space

I'm sure it's only because this week's portion is my Bar Mitzvah portion that such a profound teaching should appear within it. At least that's what I'm going with for now. Judaism has concern for drawing separations in order to highlight importance and concern. In order to better develop our skills at building relationships. Relationships between ourselves and the world around us, the people around us, and of course with God. Parshat Emor, the Torah reading this weekend, deals with two of the most fundamental systems by which Judaism draws such distinctions. The first system, which is dealt with in the various topics addressed in the beginning of the portion, deals with a person's inner ability to relate to world around him or her. That is the system of tumah and tahorah, of "purity" and "impurity". The second system, dealt with in the second half of the portion, deals with how we relate to time, time that is kodesh, "holy", and time that is chol, "secular" or "profane" or maybe just "not-holy." Both sets of terms can be challenging to understand and accept, particularly when we discuss them in English. "Impure", "profane" and even "not-holy" don't carry the best connotations in English. But by comparing them to each other, as this portion does, I think we learn better how to relate to them, and how they help us relate. We can perhaps better understand the second one relating to time. We all can imagine the special feeling that comes about on a holiday. The opportunities for a different way of being when we are with family, when we disconnect a little from the outside world. It's not that the outside world is bad (or that Shabbat or a holiday might be all good or that it's "easy" to make such days holy). In fact, I'm always inspired at Havdalah, the ceremony marking the end of a holiday and the beginning of "secular" time again, to try to take some of the experience of holy time with me into the rest of the week. Holy time and "Regular" time are necessary to each other and improve each other. The same, I think, is true with "purity" and "impurity". The terms in Hebrew don't imply anything about being good or bad, moral or immoral. One is expected to transition between both states many times. I think they are meant to refer to a state of preparedness or readiness for certain types of relationships or actions. And just as holidays and regular days help sharpen and improve each other (and elements of each may be found in the other) so too, do the states of "purity" and "impurity" function the same way in terms of our relationships with each. All the states of time and of being provide their own opportunities to connection to God and to connect to other people. And they also acknowledge the ups and downs that are natural to life as we live it. By having these two systems, and all of Judaism, to guide us, we are able to appreciate God's gifts, the value of our relationships, the potential in each of our days. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Death and Holiness Along Life's Path

More than most, our combined portions this week suggest to a question. Where are we going on this journey through life? What is the goal? And when it comes to religious belief, what is the religious meant to offer? Is religious meaning found in simply doing religious things, be they praying or giving charity? Is the reward in the deed itself? No doubt that is part of it, but I don't think it can be all. It certainly can't be all from the perspective of our first half our reading this week, Acharei Mot which picks up after the deaths of Aaron's two sons is a big lesson in the action being more than the sum of its parts. For if the action was its own reward, then why not let Nadav and Avihu do what they wanted if it was meaningful to them? There must be a greater something out there, whatever that might be, to which the two doomed priests' actions didn't measure up. And I think the second portion suggests that. Kedoshim - "Holiness" offers us the lesson that through right behavior and belief, thought and action, we can attain to the life of holiness, which we are famously told, is the state in which God exists. And what is that state? It seems, from the portion, to be a state of higher awareness for those around us - the world and its creatures. But more than this, it is also a wide-ranging system of how to properly acknowledge and interact with that world. When we want for a purpose, when we want to know "why", at least the path towards an answer is suggested by the lessons of this week's Torah reading. I invite your thoughts on where else the path leads and what we might find along it. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Battling Today's Blights

There are a number of Torah portions that are combined during the year depending on the needs of the calendar. This Shabbat we have such a combined portion, Tazria-Metzora. I think the rabbis may have particularly planned to put these two together because they spend a lot of time dealing with skin diseases and outbreaks of mold or some kind of infection in objects and houses. Better to get this all done in one week must have been part of the consideration for which two readings to combine. But even though these readings aren't perhaps the most exciting or about the most appealing subject, I think there is still a great lesson in them. The Torah and the rabbis saw in these outbreaks (the skin one is usually called leprosy but the Torah is probably describing something different here) a physical manifestation of a moral or religious short-coming. The house, the garment, the person, who became infected became so because something was wrong with what they had done or what they were used for, etc. The need to eradicate the outbreak was as much a health concern as it was a spiritual concern then. While I do not believe that people get rashes for gossiping or other moral failings, nevertheless I think there is something to making a connection between the physical and spiritual/moral/emotional worlds. We should be attuned to the ways in which our beliefs, our spiritual and moral health guide us in how we take care of and use our bodies and how we otherwise function in the world. And more than that, these portions should call on us to have concern for our brothers and sisters in need. The person who is homeless, the person in need of a job, the person who is actually ill - these are all people who are plagued with difficulties that no doubt will impact on their inner lives. Not that we should dare think they are being punished, we should still respond to their needs and do what we can to help them. I think we can reasonably see motivation to do that for others in these Torah portions. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Self-Pity, Responsibility, and David's Dancing

It's a troubling week of scriptural readings this week. The Torah portion, Shemini describes the deaths of two priests during their services to God. The Haftarah relates a similar story about a man named Uzzah who died while King David was transporting the Ark to Jerusalem. The story in the Torah seems somewhat easier to understand. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's two sons, seem pretty clearly to have done something wrong. They offered "strange fire". Just what that means is not so clear, but it was bad and they got punished because it was bad. In the Haftarah, the case of Uzzah is less clear. The Ark seems to slip and Uzzah reaches out to steady it. We are taught that his sin was to presume the Ark needed human hands to steady it as if the hand of God was not enough. But still, it is hard not to imagine being in Uzzah's place. Something seems about to fall, about to break, what do you do? You gasp and lunge to save whatever is about to break. It seems wrong someone should get punished for a natural reaction. I'm not sure I have an answer for why Uzzah dies but rather a suggestion for how to look at this story. Uzzah is not the main character of this story, King David is. And I think we are to look at the story through David's eyes. Throughout the story we see David wrestling with the responsibilities of leadership. Is he worthy to move the Ark? Is he acting the way a king should act? Is he acting for his own glory or for God's? These questions are implied or asked outright throughout the Haftarah. My suggestion is to consider Uzzah's death as David would have perceived it. As being his fault. He is reported to be distressed and afraid. And there is even reason to believe he was upset or angry with himself (by understanding verse 8 to be saying, "and David was angry towards David", vayichar l'David as opposed to the verse before when God gets angry where it is, vayichar ahf Adonai b'Uzzah, "and God became angered at Uzzah".) The good leader, or anyone in a position of responsibility, should on some level feel partly to blame, partly at fault, when people under their direction fail or make mistakes. But the person truly dedicated to their responsibilities will not wallow in self-pity or overrate their victimization. The good leader will make adjustments, make amends, and move on to do what has to be done, what is required of them. We see King David going through this process. Following Uzzah's death he leaves the Ark where it is (well, close by, at someone's house). David makes the incident about David. His pride, his fears, how he will be perceived by others - these win out even over a man's death and fulfilling God's job for David to do. Finally though, we see David take up his responsibilities and bring the Ark to Jerusalem. This happens when David sees the Ark bless the random man with whom David left it. It's not about being a king David sees, its about finishing the task. And in finishing it, David is filled with real joy for meeting his obligations to God and as a leader. And even when Michal, the daughter of King Saul, criticizes David for how he is singing and dancing in celebration of the Ark's arrival, David is not bothered, not hurt by it. He is fully engaged in doing what is right and not making it about himself. Does any of this explain why Uzzah died? Perhaps it doesn't. Or perhaps the text very subtly does. Perhaps Uzzah just died. Perhaps he was crushed by the falling Ark in a true accident. And perhaps the text, through its careful use of language is putting us into David's head, giving us David's take on what happened. As we have laid out above, it would fit the story of David's overall development and growth to see it that way. And so perhaps in the end Uzzah's death does turn out to be important. Because through confronting that death, David realized that even as king, it wasn't all about him. And that even when faced with setbacks and tragedy, the good leader does not give up (and certainly does not see himself as a greater victim than someone who literally died!) but addresses the mistakes, learns from them, and carries on. And in so doing comes to know a joy and satisfaction that come from a job well done. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson