Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Looking for What We've Really Lost

One of the best prayers is the prayer we have for finding a lost object. "A prayer for finding a lost object?" you might wonder, "what kind of a religion did I sign up for?" Part of what makes it such a great prayer is because it is not what you'd think. Here is the text: Rabbi Binyamin said, "everyone is presumed to be blind until the Holy One, Blessed be He, opens their eyes, as it is written, 'God opened her eyes [and she saw a well of water], and she went and filled the skin." God of Meir [Baal Ha-Ness] answer me, God of Meir answer me, God of Meir answer me. In the merit of the charity I am donating for the elevation of the soul of Rabbi Meir Baal Ha-Ness, may his merit protect us, may I find what I have lost. So I'll admit, the last half does get a little "magic-incantationy" but when you take it with the first part, you learn something else about how we should relate to what we've lost - and also what we think we've lost. In the parshah, Balaam the prophet is riding his donkey to fulfill the command of King Balak to curse the Jews. As he is riding, he has his famous encounter with the angel which initially his donkey can see but Balaam cannot. Only when the donkey speaks to him is Balaam able to see what is in front of him, "then the Eternal One uncovered Balaam's eyes, and he saw the divine emissary..." (Num. 22:31). It is one thing to look, another to see, and yet another still to be able to perceive the difference between things we have really lost, things we never really had, and things that never really leave us. We therefore overlook an opportunity if the Prayer for a Lost Object only comes across as a magic spell. If however, we view it in light of the passage in the prayer about Hagar or in light of the passage in this week's Torah portion, we see it as a prayer to really open our eyes and become conscious of all the unimportant things we worry so much about and we can instead focus on the things that are truly precious to us. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Benson

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Red Heifer, Emperor Julian, and Religious Meaning

Any Roman Emperor who wanted to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem is pretty okay in my book. Emperor Julian was one of the last Caesars to govern the whole empire before it was permanently divided in two, and the last who was a pagan (though we could argue about whether say the later Western Emperor Anthemius was also a pagan, but then we would not only not be giving a d'var torah anymore, we'd also guarantee that we were talking to ourself). And more than being merely a pagan, Julian was a sort of pagan-crusader, fighting against what he saw as the threat to civilization that Christianity had become after gaining official status. He sought to curb its excesses of power and its persecution of non-Christians by promoting a brand of religious tolerance for all forms of worship - hence his desire to see the Temple rebuilt. Julian's philosophy is beautifully captured in a quote about him. It speaks to a notion that I believe is very much true for the religious believer today: "The myths that shock the vulgar are noble allegories to the wise and reverent. Purge religion from dross, if you like; but remember that you do so at your peril. One false step, one self-confident rejection of a thing which is merely too high for you to grasp, and you are darkening the Sun, casting God out of the world.” I bring this up (it really is a d'var torah!) because our portion this week, Chukkat, contains the passage describing the offering of the Red Heifer. That such an animal had properties to render the impure pure after properly sacrificing it defines the term chok, from which we get the title for the portion. A chok is a law, but one for which there is no obvious, practical, reason, at least not in human eyes. Much of religion could fall into such a category, at least for many today. And certainly when we ask why the specifics of Jewish life must be thus and so, it is hard to avoid an answer that is of the "I told you so" chok, variety. But what Julian's view, and again it is the view of many religious people today, teaches to us, is that religion is more the palette of the artist than the toolkit of the mechanic. Religion colors our lives with more than just moral meaning. It should offer beauty, wonder, and mystery to us, and encourage us to love, debate, question and even doubt the details of this life we've been given. The Red Heifer teaches a valuable lesson to us. Not that religious people shouldn't question, but that that shouldn't be quick to throw out the symbols and stories that have guided so many merely because they don't seem to have the same appeal to us today. We should strive to embrace all the odds and ends and oddities that make up our religious tradition. Such a tradition is perfectly suited to living in the odd and irrational world in which we find ourselves. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Benson

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Do What I Mean - Pitfalls of Trying to Help

"Do what I mean, not what I say." One of my teachers was found of saying this when he knew that he had given confusing instructions or otherwise not quite gotten out in words the thoughts in his head. It was a funny little way to point out these common mishaps in communication that can sometimes, if not often, be the source of conflict in our relationships with others. Shabbat this week is also the minor holiday of Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month of Sivan. As such, we read a special haftarah for this occasion in place of the usual one related to the Torah portion. In the haftarah, taken from the book of Isaiah - we find an enlightening scene that points out to us just how necessary careful communication really is. Just having good intentions is often not enough if we aren't able to truly reach the other people with whom we interact. And not getting that communication right - if it is because of laziness or carelessness is a true disservice to those with whom we interact and a lessening of ourselves as well. In the haftarah, the story picks up with the Jews complaining (big news there). They seem to be upset because the news of their coming salvation from Babylonian exile has been delivered to them not with fiery trumpets and angels, but in the decree of Cyrus the Great. He allowed those people exiled from their homelands by the Babylonians to return to their homes as an act of clemency and celebration upon having conquered the Babylonians. As God speaks to Isaiah in the haftarah, it seems the Jews were unhappy, doubtful, unconvinced by this method of communication from God. God says about the Jews, "I called to them but they didn't answer, I spoke to them but they didn't hear." They just didn't get it that God sometimes (often, even) acts through the hands of human agents, and that it is up to us to perceive the divine even in such circumstances. But the big message, or at the least the one I want to focus on is not that. I want to point out that look how careful we have to be if even God can have trouble getting others to understand Him. He was acting in the Jews best interests, bringing to them salvation, and they couldn't get it. Now to my thinking, in the haftarah, the fault has to be with the Jews not hearing as opposed to with God not communicating well. But that does not get us off the hook. People are all too ready to overlook and miss that which is offered to them or said to them or done for their benefit if it is does not arrive in the way they expected. Rather than blame the person, we need to recognize our role in delivering that which we have to offer in a way that actually gets to the person. It should be part of our duty to act in a godly way. It should be part of our duty in taking others and their needs seriously. It should be part of our duty in taking what we have to offer others seriously as well. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Benson