Friday, May 18, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Behar-Bekhukhotai 5772–Scared of Leaves Redux

Just three years ago I wrote a musing for this parasha that beckons me to share it again so soon, with a little tinkering here and there.

It's familiar ground we've been over before. The postscript to the holiness code reminds us that we have free will, and that if we follow G"d's ways, we will reap reward, and if we are disobedient, then we will incur G"d's wrath. I'm not here to debate the relative merits of the "scare them into submission" or "obedience reaps reward" techniques. That's a discussion we've had, and can have again at another time.
This year, I want to grab a little piece of the text and twist it and reshape it to become a metaphor for our own times. Among the chastisements we receive for disobedience would be weakness of will and an abundance of fear. As the text says

וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִים בָּכֶם וְהֵבֵאתִי מֹרֶךְ בִּלְבָבָם בְּאַרְצֹת אֹֽיְבֵיהֶם וְרָדַף אֹתָם קוֹל עָלֶה נִדָּף וְנָסוּ מְנֻֽסַת־חֶרֶב וְנָֽפְלוּ וְאֵין רֹדֵֽף

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 from the sword, they shall fall though none pursue.

This is the fate that will befall the Israelites if they continue to disobey and spurn G”d. A wrathful G”d will beset the people with calamity after calamity.

Here, the driven leaf is an inconsequential thing. The slightest noise will send the people into a panic.

The image of that driven leaf appears again in Job, though in this case, Job sees himself as the windblown leaf, blown to and fro by G”d’s whimsy, already tortured and worn out. Job wonders if it is fair that an already tortured leaf should have additional tortures.

Will You harass a driven leaf? Will you pursue dried-up straw (Job 14:35)

I'd like to suggest the we (and I include myself in this) have come to a place in history where once again, the sound of a driven leaf is enough to send us fleeing, or send us into a panic. (And some of us are asking Job’s question as well. But more on that later.)

It stared years ago, and has been continually exacerbated. The cries of doom and gloom in the Jewish community have been reverberating for so long that they are beginning to sound like the boy who cried wolf. Yet they still manage to stir up panic. With each new panic, another set of suggested cures.

Our Judaism is dying. This will fix it.
Jewish education is in a shambles. This will fix it.
Synagogue memberships are declining. This will fix it.

Well, I've got news for all of us. Most of the suggested fixes haven't worked. (As a result, we become even more cynical about the next set of proposals.) Of course, they haven't worked based on the yardstick we have established. Maybe it's not the ideas, but the yardstick that is flawed.

While it may seem odd to want to return to a system in which, with each new King or Ruler, the measure of a foot or a cubit changes, there may be some ancient wisdom in that. We may be measuring our success and failures on the basis of feet or cubits from the previous dynasty.

At the drop of a hat, with the mere sound of a blown leaf, we set off in a panic to right what is wrong with Judaism. What's our hurry? It has taken us thousands of years to get where we are. Judaism has changed and evolved quite a bit over that time, and it no doubt will change just as much over the next few thousand years. Why are we measuring things in terms of weeks, months, years, or even decades, when we ought to be thinking much longer terms?

What we need are tools that will help us persist and adapt as necessary over the long term, not short-term fixes that will bolster our numbers. In some ways, Judaism is making the same mistake that has brought our economy to the brink of collapse, looking for the quick buck.

As I mentioned earlier, there are those among us who are voicing Job’s question – will G”d heap even more tribulations on our already weakened and windblown state of affairs? Yet feel the irony in this question. Here we live in an age in which the Jew has seen unprecedented success (though admittedly, the Jew has also seen unprecedented cruelty.) Yes, economic times are tough, and synagogue membership is in decline, and something appears to be ailing Judaism, or at least parts of it. (There is still continued growth in the orthodox world.) Nevertheless, one would think that, given our success, we would have all the means at our disposal to fix what ails us. To some extent, I believe that we do. We just aren’t allocating our resources the right way.

Of late, I've been quite the pessimist. I've become increasingly concerned for the future of Judaism. Am I being reactive to the sound of blown leaves? I am beginning to think so. Time to take a longer-term view.

My friend and teacher, Joel Grishaver recently wrote on his blog the article “Not All Hebrew Schools Suck.” He reminds us that we do have resources at our command, and he suggests that not all is as hopeless as many have suggested, a point with which I agree and I am making in this musing.) He also deals with the question of allocation resources. I commend his thoughts to you.

Though G"d provides a fairly long list of calamities that will befall us if we do not follow G"d's ways, in the end, G"d promises to remember the covenant made with our ancestors. Now that's thinking long term. Maybe it's time to stop being frightened at the sound of blown leaves, get out of panic mode, and take a good, long, hard look at what the futures holds, and how we might best be prepared for it. In the meantime, we should chill out a bit, get out of panic mode, take a deep breath, and move on. What better time for that than Shabbat?

Now is not the time of year to hear the voice of driven leaves. It is a time of rebirth and renewal. We hear the voices of newly grown leaves rustling. Take a moment this Shabbat to go and listen to the voice of the leaves, and be reminded that it is not something that should cause us to fear or panic. It is the sound of life. The sound of hope.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 (portions 2009) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

B'har-B'khukotai 5770 - Bad Parenting 301
Behar-Bekhukotai 5769- Scared of Leaves?
Behar-Bekhukhotai 5767-A Partridge in a Tree of Life
Behar-Bekhukhotai 5766-Only An Instant
Behar-Bekhukotai 5764 - The Price of Walls
Behar-Bekhukotai 5762 - Tough Love
Behar-Bekhukotai 5761-The Big Book (Bottoming Out Gd's Way)

Behar 5765-Ki Gerim v'Toshavim Atem Imadi
Behar 5763-Ownership
Behar 5760-Slaves to Gd

Bekhukotai 5771 - The Long Road Ahead
Bekhukotai 5765-I'll Take the Hard Way
Bechukotai 5763-Keri Is So Very...
Bekhukotai 5760-Repugnant Realities

Friday, May 11, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Emor 5772–Eternal Effort II: We Have Met the Ner Tamid and It Is Us

In 2001, I wrote a musing entitled “Eternal Effort.”  This year, I revisit my thoughts and expand upon them.

Emor is a parasha rich with text to ponder. In the past I've pondered 24:22 (one law for proselyte and native born;) 23:3 (wherever you live, it is G”d's Shabbat;) 24:19-20 (the restatement of eye for an eye;) and 21:17ff, the concept of mum-imperfection to discuss the subtle discriminations many of us face in life and society. (You can read these past musings at my web site )

This year, I focus on 24:1-4.

Every synagogue has one. The “ner tamid,” the “eternal light.” That concept comes from this parasha, in particular these words:

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב צַו אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַֽעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִֽיד: ג מִחוּץ לְפָרֹכֶת הָֽעֵדֻת בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַֽעֲרֹךְ אֹתוֹ אַֽהֲרֹן מֵעֶרֶב עַד־בֹּקֶר לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה תָּמִיד חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹֽתֵיכֶֽם: ד עַל הַמְּנֹרָה הַטְּהֹרָה יַֽעֲרֹךְ אֶת־הַנֵּרוֹת לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה תָּמִֽיד

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
2 Command the Israelite people to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. 3 Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. 4 He shall set up the lamps on the pure lampstand before the Lord [to burn] regularly.

It's a familiar term, ner tamid. We understand it these days as the Eternal light that burns in every sanctuary. Now that the Ohel Mo'ed, and it's replacement, the Beit Hamikdash, are no more, we equip our synagogues with these "eternal " lights. We're taught that the light signifies G”d's presence in these holy places. Rashi and the rabbis seem to favor this interpretation in reference to the ner tamid in the ohel moed and beit hamikdash. We've just carried the tradition on.

A closer inspection of the text reveals that the term tamid is used here (as it is elsewhere) to denote something done with regularity. The lights on the menorah in the Ohel Mo’ed were lit daily, and were not kept perpetually burning.

This rationalization of the presence of our modern ner tamid troubles me. Are we so weak-willed that, in the absence of G”d's direct action through miracles in the world (or at least our perceived absence of such miracles-but that's a whole other discussion for some other time) that we need this visual reminder of the presence of G”d? I may get lambasted for saying this, but how is this any different from a cross or crucifix hanging in a church? Our faith need not require such reminders. We have enough of them already-as outlined later in parashat Emor – the Shabbat and festivals.

No, I think we've gotten the idea of the eternal lamp a little mixed up. The lamps ought not to be reminders to us of G”d’s presence, rather they should be reminders to us of our obligations to G”d and our sacred communities. As they exist, as we have created them, they do not fulfill this function.

The problem is, our eternal lamps don't need us. We make them electric and they burn until the bulb blows out and the janitor replaces it. Or they utilize natural gas, or propane. Not much involvement on our part there, except to look at it.

But keeping a lamp continually lit, indeed, keeping the other lamps on the menorah lit, even if not continually, probably took a lot of olive oil. And not just any old olive oil, but pure (zakh) olive oil. And olive oil wasn't just something the people got from their local grocery. No, making that oil was a community obligation. And finding those olive trees in the wilderness? Now that must have been some feat. Quite the community effort, I imagine.

Once settled in haeretz, finding olive trees was probably a little easier, but it still took effort to collect the olives and press them for oil, and especially the pure oil required for this purpose, from the first pressings. And this, too, probably took the effort of many people. Fewer, perhaps, than when we were wandering the wilderness, and fewer and fewer every year decade, century, as the process became centralized and the province of particular craftspeople or families, as the ancient 1% built their personal wealth at the expense of the ancient 99%.

Today, there is no direct involvement of anybody except the janitor or shamash – our participation is what is missing. G”d, supposedly, keeps the lamp lit, but we all know the elephant in the room. The ner tamid is fueled not by G”d, but by electricity, or gas, and is tended not by G”d but by an employee of the synagogue. Yes, some synagogues have their ner tamid We’ve probably all seen a ner tamid that was not functioning, or goes out during a service. Perhaps we’ve been in one of those “let’s turn this place into a sanctuary” situations where a aron hakodesh is brought into a space, with an attached ner tamid that has to be plugged in. Sometimes, it even gets forgotten. (Or the irony of ironies, when it gets plugged in our turned on after services have started . Even if your congregation allows switches and electricity and instruments, etc. to be used on Shabbat, it is jarring to see a ner tamid suddenly turned on in the middle of a service, and not by Divine hand!

So imagine, for a minute, if you will, a olive-oil burning ner tamid in every congregation. Then imagine that every single congregant was required, at some point, to press olives and provide pure oil for the lamp to keep it burning, and tend to it. That's a lot different than simply seeing an electric light in the sanctuary. It connects the congregation, the community, to the sanctuary, and thus to G”d.

The eternal light is not the symbol of G”d's eternal presence among us, but rather a reminder of our community’s obligation to follow G”d's laws and praise and honor Gd. It's a symbol of what we are supposed to do, not a reminder that the One who we already know is always there is always there.

It's a reminder that we have to make an effort, an eternal effort, to acknowledge G”d, and serve G”d, and follow G”d's mitzvot. The flame that is kindled upon it is not representative of G”d's presence, but rather, representative of the work that we do to keep our part of the covenant.

It's our ner tamid. The symbol of what burns inside us. We are, each of us, all of use, a ner tamid. May this Shabbat be full of the light that burns inside each of us, all of us, and the light that shines upon us from G”d.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Emor 5771-B'yom HaShabbat, B'yom HaShabbat
Emor 5770 - G"d's Shabbat II
Emor 5767-Redux and Revised 5761-Eternal Effort
Emor 5766 - Mum's the Word (Redux 5760 with new commentary for 5766)
Emor 5765-Out of Sync
Emor 5764-One Law for All
Emor 5763-Mishpat Ekhad
Emor 5758-Gd's Shabbat
Emor 5759-Lex Talionis
Emor 5760-Mum's the Word
Emor 5761-Eternal Effort


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Friday, May 4, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5772–Don’t Forget That The Goat Goes Free

In our parasha, we read:

וְנָשָׂ֨א הַשָּׂעִ֥יר עָלָ֛יו אֶת־כָּל־עֲוֹנֹתָ֖ם אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ גְּזֵרָ֑ה וְשִׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַשָּׂעִ֖יר בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃

Thus the goat shall carry all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (JPS)

In reading this passage yet again, I was captivated by the phrase “eretz g’zeirah” which the JPS committee translated as “inaccessible region.” The goat “l’azazel” is sent off to this place.

We owe the modern translation of “azazel” into scapegoat to William Tyndale, an early Protestant scholar who, in creating his 1525 English translation of the Bible, based on the Latin Vulgate, rendered the latin “caper emissarius,” the Vulgate’s translation of “l’azazel,” as “scapegoat,” meaning the (e)scaped goat. Many scholars believe the word azazel is from the Hebrew root ayin-zayin-lamed meaning “to remove.” They speculated that the doubling of the root letters indicated an intensive, meaning “complete removal.” However, Hebrew scholars and Jewish interpreters as far back as the Aramaic Targums believe “azazel” to be the name of a fallen angel. In the Talmud it is speculated that the word comes from “az” – “strong” and “El” one of the names of G”d, also associated with the word “mighty.” Thus the goat is sent “to the strong and mighty” which could be a demon, a fallen angel, or perhaps a mountainous place – or perhaps G”d?

Or the goat “for complete removal” is sent to a place that is cut off, separated, infertile. (The Arabic “gezira” which we know in the form of Jazeera as in “Al Jazeera” can mean island or peninsula.)  All sort of fits together and makes sense, doesn’t it? Or not.

In the end, it’s sympathetic magic, isn’t it? Not all that different from the “modern” practice of kapporet or shlugen kapores which uses a chicken instead of a goat. Or, for that matter, all those bread crumbs for tashlikh.

The flowing waters carry away our sins, just as the goat carries away our sins – to an isolated, inaccessible place. Well, not entirely inaccessible – the goat is able to get there. And just how close does the “designated man” who leads the goat away come to this inaccessible region? Note what happens to the goat: it is not slaughtered, it is “set free” though one can dispute that translation, and read the Hebrew as “sent away.” again, subtle difference between being “set free” and being “sent away.”

It makes sense to send our collective sins away to an isolated, inaccessible place.  Or does it?

Over the years I’ve often been advised to put some troubling thoughts, or known sins, away in a box, to allow me to focus on living my daily life and moving forward. (It’s often referred to as a G”d box, a place to turn over those things we can’t control, to G”d, but it is also a place to put or regrets, our known sins, etc. so that they don’t constantly pre-occupy us.) It can be efficacious, but I’ve found, in the end, you always come back to the things in the box – you can only put them out of sight and out of mind for so long. They just have a way of coming back on their own, of escaping whatever box you put them in. Is there any place so inaccessible that our sins cannot return from it? Goats wander. Might not the goat return from whence it came? Our sins can and do return to haunt us, do they not?

I guess that’s a good thing. At some point we have to deal with our problems. We can’t just keep sweeping them under the rug or putting them in a box. One wonders – if the Jewish people had to deal with their communal sins regularly instead of consigning them annually “l’azazel” (or casting them away as bread crumbs, or placing them upon a chicken) then perhaps we might have learned not to be so stubborn, recalcitrant, and recidivist. (On the other hand, we have ritualized this annual sending away of communal sins, and we could have seen it as a reminder that, try as hard as we may, we always seem to have communal sins to put upon that goat.)

I’ve been known to criticize Christianity, in a knowingly and admittedly simplistic fashion, for how the permanent remission of sin wrought through the sacrifice of Jesus basically allows any Christian to get away with whatever they want. (In reality, Christianity’s concept of sin and forgiveness, both communal and individual, is not as simple as that.) The Jewish way is only nominally better, in that we only do it (find a way to remit sins) once a year instead of continually. We still get an out.  But wait, there is a crucial difference. The Jewish system differentiates between communal and individual sin. The biblical azazel ceremony is for communal sin, as are the rites we still perform at Yom Kippur. WE have sinned. WE have transgressed. Yom Kippur atones for the sins of human beings against their Deity, but for sins against one another, it does not atone.

Now there are checks and balances in the system, when it comes to individual sins. Literally and figuratively. Our deeds will be weighed on the Day of Judgment, we are told. So we really aren’t free to do what we please and expect no repercussions just because we have atoned. Yet, in the most simplistic understanding, I need only accept Christ as my personal savior to have all my sins remitted. A subtle but significant difference.

So just what is an eretz g’zeirah, and why is it a good place to send our collective sins?

The root gimel-zayin-resh means “to cut or divide.” As an adjective created from this root, g’zeirah could mean cut off, isolated, inaccessible, remote. Then we must ask from what is it cut off? In the nomadic and geographical context of our ancestors, it could mean it is cut off from a supply of water. That could also imply an infertile land. That fits right in with a place where the sent away sins will wither rather than flourish.

It could be cut off from access to other lands. Thus the later Arabic meaning of island or peninsula (though both of these are surrounded by water – an interesting concept – isolated, yet fertile.)

Annually sending our communal sins away on a goat to to such a place frees the community to keep trying to do better as a community. Considering how prone we are as a community to sin, we’d spend all our time asking for forgiveness and thus never have the time to do all the things a society needs to do, communally, for the benefit of the society as a whole.

Yet we can’t put them aside forever. If we keep making the same mistakes as a community year after year it is going to come back and bite us in the ass.

Another nice thing about sending our sins off to an eretz g’zeira, is that in this inaccessible, infertile, cut-off place, our sins won’t be nourished and grow. So when we finally have to deal with them, they won’t have grown larger and more difficult to overcome. In our fertile minds, in our fertile lands, it’s easy for our communal (and individual) sins to grow and multiply. We don’t need the additional burden of exacerbated sins from the past.

This is where I was headed when I started writing this musing. To find for me, for today, my best understanding of a “eretz g’zeirah.” It is a place where we can set aside our collective sins – the equivalent of that box.  Yes, they may come back to trouble us, and yes, we may need to deal with them at some point, but for the moment we can lives our lives without coming face to face with them each and every day, and having them grow bigger and worse in their absence.

Yet as I wrote and pondered, a more important thought took shape. The goat “l’azazel” is set free after performing its task.  So another lesson for me in all this is to remember that, whatever the vehicle is that we use to take away our sins to this inaccessible place, we spare the vehicle once it has completed that journey. That understanding alone should be enough to stop the atrocious practice of kapparot.

An “eretz g’zeirah” is a place for communal and individual sins to be set aside (for a while, if not permanently.) The scapegoat is a convenience, and easily abused.

Truth be told, sometimes we may use another human being as the carrier away of our sins-communal (as in scapegoats) and individual. We unload on others – whether clergy, friend, companion. It is important that we make sure that they, too, are set free once they have carried away our sins to an “eretz g’zeirah” for us. Something tells me that the goat somehow manages to continue living despite being left in that desolate, isolated place. Shall we not insure that our own societal (and individual) scapegoats fare no worse than the goat “l’azazel?”

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Akharei Mot-Shabbat Hagadol 5771 -  Ultimate Tzimtzum
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770 - Redux 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5769-Schroedinger's Cat 5769 (Redux 5761 w/new comments)
Akharei Mot/Shabbat HaGadol 5768  - Why Wait for Elijah?
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5767 - Insults Don't Weigh Anything?
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5766-Redux 5761 & 5762
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5764-Whither Zion?
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5761 - Schroedinger's Cat & Torah
Akharei Mot 5765-The Ways of Egypt and Canaan (revised)
Acharei Mot 5763--Immoral Relativisms?
Acharei Mot 5760-The Ways of Egypt & Canaan

Kedoshim 5768-Unfamiliar Spirits
Kedoshim 5771 & 5763 - Oil and Water
Kedoshim 5760 & 5765 - Torah for Dummies