This is the Way

This week’s Torah portion is Behar Behukotai. At the start of Behukotai we read:

If you walk in My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. ( Leviticus 26:3-4)

It seems clear enough that the Torah instructing us to keep the rules. What is the differences between walking and observing them? What are the differences between laws and commandments?

Sforno explains this:

laws- chukkot are like Royal decrees, something person has to be guided by if he expects his endeavors in life to prosper. The Hebrew expression describing the fact that one abides by them is called הליכה, “walking.”…The thrust of our verse then is as follows: “if you will conduct yourselves in accordance with the practical part of My Torah, i.e. the performance of commandments requiring deeds, and you will study these laws in order to understand their purpose and in order to give meaning to your performance of these laws, you will accomplish that you will deserve the description of being a creature which reflects “God’s image.” ( Sforno on Levitius 26:3)

We are instructed to study and try to understand the rules and also to just do what needs to be done. This resonates for me as to the very nature of הלכה, Jewish law- the way we walk.

This was elegantly written about by Deirdre Sullivan in her iconic This I Believe essay, ” Always Go to the Funeral“. There she wrote:

“Always go to the funeral” means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.

I really enjoyed how this idea has been explored in Disney’s Mandalorian. Beginning five years after the events of Return of the Jedi  and the fall of the Galactic EmpireThe Mandalorian follows Din Djarin, a lone Mandalorian bounty hunter in the outer reaches of the galaxy. He is hired by remnant Imperial forces to retrieve the child Grogu, but instead goes on the run to protect the infant and reunite Grogu with his kind. One of the things I love about the series is how it explores the creed of the Mandalorians. They are an exilic people trying make stay safe away from Madalor and make meaning in the universe. I relate to the way that they live in service of their duty. They do what needs to be done because, ” This is the Way”.

While it is not my favorite show I do relate to the ideas of walking Behukotai and the Mandalorian way. We too are an exilic people trying make stay safe in diaspora and make meaning in the universe. Just as some of the Mandalorians are devoted to keeping on their helmets, I always wear a Kippah to remind me of my duties. That is enough for now. I need to cook for Shabbat, because this is the way.

Being Enough: Rashbi, Lag B’Omer, and Covid

According to tradition Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, marks the death of the Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai). For this reason thousands go to Har Meron every year to commemorate his yahrzeit. Sadly last night, after what seems to be a collapse of a ramp and a stampede of people, over one hundred people were injured and at least 45 died at Har Meron. Even before this horrible tragedy I have been thinking about the Rashbi and this moment in history. The iconic story of the Rashbi and his son in the Talmud is a poignant frame to help us reflect on our protracted period of social distancing due to Covid and the prospects of emergence from isolation . (Shabbat 33b-34a)

At the start of this story, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is debating the merits of the Roman Empire with Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose. When the Rashbi’s harsh critique of Rome gets reported to the authorities, he is condemned to death. He goes on the lamb with his son Rabbi Elazar. At first, they hide in the Beit Midrash, but then they find shelter in a miraculous cave with a carob tree and brook. With their physical needs of safety and nourishment taken care of, the Rashbi and and his son spend the next 12 years immersed in prayer and study. After 12 years in isolation, Elijah comes to tell them that the emperor died and it is safe to leave the cave.

As we contemplate, what life might look like after Covid, the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar needs a closer analysis. The story continues:

They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai said: These people abandon eternal life of Torah study and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance. The Gemara relates that every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave. They again went and sat there for twelve months. They said: The judgment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts for twelve months. Surely their sin was atoned in that time. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Emerge from your cave. They emerged. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar: My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah.( Shabbat 33b)

For the Rashbi and his son, after spending 12 years in isolation the transition to society was not easy. It is hard to imagine that our reemergence after more than 12 months will go any smoother. Similar to the Rashbi and his son, as we come out of our caves we all have to reconcile the divergence of practices around Covid. Do we all mask or gather? We will not be keep the same standards. Do we understand that the process will be iterative? Will be get stuck being judgmental? Will we burn up our relationships as we reemerge?

What is our role with our children or students? We will both want to act out. As adults we need to give them limits. We also need to help them fail as they mediate this experience of reemergence. This story helps us communicate that this is not new. We will need to rethink how we discipline out children. We also need to understand that “time-outs” might not be so effective.

Their story of reemergence continues:

As the sun was setting on Shabbat eve, they saw an elderly man who was holding two bundles of myrtle branches and running at twilight. They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: “Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: “Protect the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease and they were no longer as upset that people were not engaged in Torah study..  (Shabbat 33b)

What about this man’s behavior that placates them? In a simple way he was able to wed together the life of learning (in the cave) and the real world ( plowing and sowing). The old man was able to show his understanding of the two versions of the commandment of Shabbat in a embodied practice. On a deeper level he was able to help the Rashbi and his son reemerge from society. What did they want to remember and protect from their life in the cave and their lives in the real world?

Covid has been and continues to be horrible. Many have died. In turn this has left so many to mourn them. Still more have been hurt physically, emotionally, and economically by this plague. For almost all of us social distancing measures have been difficult if not just annoying.

And for some of us, this time in isolation has itself been a blessing if not a miracle. Yes, balancing work and the kids has been challenging, but it has not been all bad. While we might feel guilty saying it, we might have enjoyed our time in the cave with our family/pod. Similarly, I might complain about the monotony of carobs for dinner again, but I love the time I save in not worrying about my wardrobe or commuting.

Focusing on what is worth remembering and protecting allows us to express the wisdom of the Rashbi. We have and are enough. We maintain an isolation because we have shame that we are not enough. Brené Brown teaches that a pervasive sense of shame makes many of us—particularly in America—feel unworthy of human connection. Why do we experience this shame? Because in this perfectionistic culture, most of us believe we’re “not good enough…not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough” to be worthy of love. So we can’t afford to let our guard down, become vulnerable, because letting others see us as we really are would mean we’d be rejected out of hand. Better to avoid emotional risk, avoid vulnerability, and numb ourselves to any pain we can’t escape, even if we ran away to a magical cave. 

We will only by happy with our re-emergence when have a renewed sense that we are enough.

After Death: Working for a Renaissance

This week marked the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. This is far from justice, but does give us a glimmer of accountability. This week also marked two weeks since my second vaccination. I am filled with gratitude and feel very blessed. This is my first glimpse of what life will look like post-Covid.

I was thinking about these things when reading the start of Achrai Mot- Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion. Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. (Leviticus 16:1-2)

What does life look like after death? After the death of his sons Aaron is instructed how he should show up for work. After something cataclysmic, how or can things go back to normal?

Looking back into history we see that after the Spanish Flu of 1918 things went back to normal. According to one article :

The Spanish flu virus was persistent and wiped out a huge proportion of the globe during its deadliest second wave in the autumn of 1918. A third wave came in the winter of 1919, however by summer of that year, very few cases were reported. Science journalist Laura Spinney has fervently researched the Spanish flu and analysed how it was concluded. She reasons that every pandemic is shaped like a bell curve as the pathogen runs out of susceptible hosts, therefore the Spanish flu ran its natural course. There could be a similar pattern for the current pandemic. So, what have we learnt from the 1918 pandemic? That preventative measures – however difficult and limiting – do make a difference in slowing the spread of disease. That no matter how developed a health care system can be, there will still be problems. Yet positively, we can see that pandemics do all come to an end. As 100 years ago, the nation basked in a euphoric ‘roaring’ 20s, we too will experience our own roaring 2020s.  ( Microbiology Society)

I keep asking myself will life post Covid look like the roaring ’20s or will we seek out another model? After the Black Death we had the Renaissance. That sure seems better. Is that a choice we can make?

Similarly, now that we have started the process of holding law enforcement accountable, will we do the hard work of making sure that we have a justice system that is just? There needs to be one system of justice for all us. People of color should not live in fear. What kind of work do we need to do to overhaul our justice system?

“After death” we should not opt for a return to normal, rather we should choose a renaissance of art, culture, medicine, and justice. I know that this is the harder choice. There is so much desire to go back to normal. The choice of a renaissance would mean a lot of work and we are all so tired of it all. A lesson taken from this Torah portion is that even “after the death” of his sons Aaron was told to go back to work. We should not take a beat to reflect, but we need to keep our eye on the prize. “After death” we need to work for a better life and not be satisfied with normal. In the words of Randy Pausch, ” Don’t complain just work harder.”

Complaining At Work Quotes. QuotesGram

Celebrating Our National Viability: Pesach Sheni

Recently I was learning a Mishnah in memory of a dear friend’s mother’ s passing. I got to learn the Mishnah Bechorot. There I learned a fascinating law:

If the firstborn son dies within thirty days of birth, although the father gave five sela to the priest, the priest must return it. If the firstborn son dies after thirty days have passed, even if the father did not give five sela coins to the priest he must give it then. If the firstborn dies on the thirtieth day, that day’s halakhic status is like that of the day that preceded it, as the obligation takes effect only after thirty days have elapsed. Rabbi Akiva says: If the firstborn dies on the thirtieth day it is a case of uncertainty; therefore, if the father already gave the redemption payment to the priest he cannot take it back, but if he did not yet give payment he does not need to give it. (Bechorot 8:6)

While there is some discussion about the particularities of the 30 days, it is clearly the age of viability. In a pre-modern civilization infant mortality rates were so high that it would not make sense to even mourn a new born who did not make it a month. Regarding the first born son a whole array of other obligations kick in after 30 days.

I was rethinking this in the context of Passover. This is when we learn Of the obligation to redeem being the Petter Rechem– first born. It becomes very important with the 10th plague with the death the first born. The symbolic national manifestion of this idea happens when we emerge from the Red Sea as a new nation.

This is front of mind today on Pesach Sheni. This holiday is the grand do-over for anyone who missed being part of the Passover sacrifice. Pesach Sheni takes on new meaning in light of our Mishnah in Bechorot. Today,30 days after our birth as a nation, we achieve a level of viability. In some cases ways our whole history as a religion has been a process of striving to redeem ourselves.

In light of our customs for Pidyon HaBen- this begs another read of Natan Alterman’s Silver Platter. Chag Pesach Sheni Sameakh

Defining the Problem: Be a Part of It

One of favorite quotes by Albert Einstein is:

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

We need to define the problem before you trying to solve it. This approach always saves time and energy, regardless of whether the issue is big, small, complicated or complex. And the time and energy saved increases with the number of people involved.

I got thinking about this in the context of reading Tazriah – Metzorah, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn the laws of tumah v’taharah, ritual impurity and purity. In particular we learn about Tzaraat (often mistranslated as “leprosy”). It is a supra-natural plague, which can afflict people as well as garments or homes. If white or pink patches appear on a person’s skin (dark pink or dark green in garments or homes), a kohen is summoned. There we read:

When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean. ( Leviticus 13:2-3)

What is the significance of the priest pronouncement? Time after time we need the priest to share his judgement of the situation. It seems weird. Either the person has the affliction or not, what is the relevance of the diagnosis?

In Kol Dodi Dofek on this notion of “pronouncing” , Rav Soloveitchik writes:

We know well how to ‎criticize, to look ‎for blemishes and to express opinions as self-styled experts. One thing, however, ‎escapes us, and ‎that is that the priest who pronounces defilement must leave the encampment to ‎be with the ‎afflicted sufferer so as to purify him. “And the priest shall leave the encampment … ‎and the priest ‎shall command” (Leviticus 14:3–4). ( Kol Dodi Dofek)

It is easy to find fault in things and be critical of people. It is profound to think that in our commitment to understand a problem we need experience deep empathy. In having to pronounce the problem the priest commits to being part of the solution.

Bertrand Russell said,

The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

It is important to realize that the lesson of the priests’ leadership is that they cannot be cold and distant thinkers. This model of leadership assumes that the solution needs empathy and support and not just thinking. We need to identify our own role in the problem and the solution to get to any change. That might take more than 5 minutes.

Chatelaine: Keys, Access, and Power

When I was a kid having more keys translated into having more power. You only had access if you had the right key. As a kid at camp it always felt that other people had access and control. Having a large key ring was a status symbol.

Is Carrying Too Many Keys Bad For Your Ignition? | Pro Locksmith

As many of you know I am nudnik for Dictionary.com word of the day. Recently the word was Chatelaine ( SHAD-e-leyn). Coming from French it means a set of short chains attached to a woman’s belt, used for carrying keys or other items. A Chatelaine is also a woman in charge of a large house. This word captures this image of power, control, and easy access.

Curiosity du Jour: Inside Out Handbags of Yore

Clearly this all comes to mind this Shabbat just after Passover when it is customary to make Schlissel Challah. Shlissel is Yiddish for “key.” Many people make their challah e either in the shape of a key or with a key baked inside. The custom is popular in communities that descend or have traditions coming from Poland, Germany, and Lithuania.  The are a number of reasons given for making this particular shape or style of challah.

For me it has everything to do with the Chatelaine. There is a natural progression from slavery, to freedom, to being the hostess with the mostest. Like Chatelaine the Schlissel Challah represents access, control, and power.

Broken and Holy Remnant

This last week during the Seder right before we did Yachatz my mother shared an experience she had growing up. It was not clear if it happened once or if it was actually an regular ritual growing up, but her father should share the names of all of their family members who were killed in the Holocaust. I found that very moving to do ritualize this memory. And while I doubt it was on purpose it seems particularly compelling to connect this to the activity of Yachatz.

So what is Yachatz? During this ritual we break the middle matzah on our Seder plate. There is no prayer recited. We recognize that, like the broken matzah, we are incomplete, not whole, and in need of redemption. We take the larger portion of that matzah and hide it way for later to be found and eaten as the afikomen. For we recognize that parts of ourselves are yet unknown. We are still discovering what makes us whole. For we recognize that more is hidden than revealed.

This year Yachatz changed for me. First I started thinking about Anne Frank and what it means to be hidden away. But unlike years past where I focused on the afikomen, this year I really focused on the piece that was left. Does this left over piece from the middle matzah represent us as the Remnant of Israel– שְׁאֵרִית יִשְׂרָאֵל?

This term denotes the belief that the future of Israel would be assured by the faithful remnant surviving the calamities that would befall the people as a result of their departing from the way of God. On the one hand the prophets foretold the forthcoming exile and destruction of Israel, and on the other they held forth the hope and promise of its survival and eternity. As Jeremiah said,

… and I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries whither I have driven them and will bring them back to their folds, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. Jeremiah (23:3)

After World War II the phrase the “remnant which survives” (she’erit ha-peletah) was applied to the survivors of the Holocaust. As there are less and less survivors left, what changes for the rest of us? What is the responsibility we carry as those that remain after the remnant is gone? This week I got that list of family members who were killed from my mother was filled with a sense of survivors guilt. On Yom HaShoah through the lens of Yachatz I realize how truly broken and holy we are.

Passover: A Love Song

Over the last couple of years I have been completely absorbed by Yishai Ribo‘s music. Ribo is an Orthodox Israeli singer-songwriter who’s music reaches across the religious divide in Israel and beyond. For me it started with Seder HaAvodah in which he retells the story of the High Priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur in a way that is completely touching and accessible. He has a way of taking tradition and making it relevant today. Ribo does not sacrifice depth to get his message to the masses. It is not shocking that I love his music.

I still love listening to Lev Sheli- My Heart. Here is a live version he performed with Omer Adam. Enjoy:

There is so much I have to say about the lyrics and music of this song. It seems appropriate on the occasion of the last days of Passover to share some more reflection of this song. In the middle of the song he sings:

My heart is split in two

Half of it is guilty, and half of it is for the sake of Heaven

Like a storm from the sea, it pounds

Like Miriam’s timbrel, it beats

And there is no cure in the world for the heart

Ribo masterfully weaves together language from BeShalach about the splitting of the Sea of Reeds to write a love song. The Israelites escape from Egyptians by walking through the sea on dry ground.  After this miracle the people sing the Song of the Sea and then Miriam leads them in her song with timbrels. Reading the lyrics in the context of Passover makes me ask a few questions. Is Lev Sheli a normal love song? Is it a song about someone expressing his/her love for a partner or an aspiration of divine love?

To explore these questions I wanted to share a Mishnah from Yadaim. There we learn about what is and is not in the canon of the Bible. Contact with a scroll of something in the canon would make your hands impure. There we learn:

Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai said, “I have a received tradition from the mouths of seventy-two elders, on the day they inducted Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria into his seat [as head] at the Academy, that The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes render the hands impure.” Rabbi Akiva said, “Mercy forbid! No one in Israel ever disputed that The Song of Songs renders the hands impure, since nothing in the entire world is worthy but for that day on which The Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Scriptures are holy, but The Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies! And if they did dispute, there was only a dispute regarding Ecclesiastes.” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5)

There was disagreement if Song of Songs was in the canon. Rabbi Akiva dismisses that debate. While some might think that Song of Songs is lascivious and a debase depiction of erotic love, Rabbi Akiva believes that it is the most holy.

Ribo’s Lev Sheli, like Song of Songs, celebrates human love giving a holy voice to the lovers yearning. In Lev Sheli Ribo describes that moment when he realizes that he has found his match. That moment is overwhelming. That moment was as rare as splitting the Sea of Reeds. Like Lev Sheli, Song of Songs is a love song associated with Passover. For Ribo and Rabbi Akiva human love is by nature half guilty and half for the sake of Heaven. Like Lev Sheli, Song of Songs also blurs the line between expressing love for one’s partner and an aspiration of divine love.

It is no mystery that Ribo is able to have a cross over hit between the religious and secular in that he has a cross over hit from the divine to the human. Now that is a popular love song. You might even say that Lev Sheli is a song of songs.  

Harari Revisited: On Baking and Liberation

The Men of the Great Assembly said three things:

Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence around the Torah.(Avot 1:1)

What does it mean to create a fence around the Torah? I was thinking about this in the context of all of the laborious preparations and limitations that we observe on the holiday or Passover. In the Torah we read:

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day, and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you. You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time. In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days. For whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a citizen of the country. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread. ( Exodus 12:15-20)

There seems to be a choice between cutting ourselves off from leavened bread or cutting ourselves off from the nation. To preserve our connection it makes sense to be extra stringent and put up fences.

This yearly activity of getting on the Atkins diet makes me rethink my relationship with wheat. Yes bread is the staff of life, but it is also part of my weight challenge. A few years ago I was thinking about our relationship with wheat while reading Yuval Noah Harari‘s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari surveys the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century. There Harari explores our relationship with wheat. On this he writes:

The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens. (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind)

I share this image to help us reexamine the taste of Matzah on Passover. Is this the image of liberation? On Passover we are acutely aware of the fence around the Torah. But, every time I look at a fence, a door, or a gate I ask myself, what are we keeping out and what are we keeping in. Maybe the whole process of removing leaven products from our domiciles is to liberate us from the slavery of wheat.  There is no going back to the hunter gatherer lifestyles, but at least we get to recline at the Seder, stretch out our backs, and reevaluate our relationship with wheat once a year.

The Historical Cooking Project : Ancient Egyptian Bread, by Miguel Esquirol  Rios

Recently I shared this idea with my friend Rabbi Steve Greenberg. He responded that one year he was with Rabbi Sperber for Passover. There he learned that in the ancient world Egypt was the source for luxury  baking and yeast. Bakery skill and ingenuity was born in service of the wealthy class of Egyptian society. If this is true, this disconnection from wheat might be part of a larger plan to depose despots who use their power to centralize control. And another good reason to cut out carbs. 

original post of Harari

 

 

Drawing Us Near: Korbanot and BBQ

What do you believe in? Can you articulate a statement of faith?

This is the central question of This I Believe. It is an international organization engaging people in writing and sharing essays describing the core values that guide their daily lives. Over 125,000 of these essays, written by people from all walks of life, have been archived on their website, heard on public radio, chronicled through their books, and featured in weekly podcasts. The project is based on the popular 1950s radio series of the same name hosted by Edward R. Murrow. I would encourage anyone to read or listen to these gems.

While I have really enjoyed most of them, one of my favorites is by Jason Sheehan. While people always swing for the fences when they share their creed, he went much closer to home. It makes me cry every time I listen to it. He really gets me in the gut. In short he writes about his belief in barbecue. To him barbeque is, “soul food and comfort food and health food, as a cuisine of both solace and celebration.” But his belief is not small or trivial. He goes on to say:

I believe that barbecue drives culture, not the other way around. Some of the first blows struck for equality and civil rights in the Deep South were made not in the courtrooms or schools or on buses, but in the barbecue shacks. There were dining rooms, backyards and roadhouse juke joints in the South that were integrated long before any other public places.

Barbecue - Wikipedia

I was thinking about this idea of barbecue driving culture this week as we start the book of Vayikra in which we outline many elements of the sacrifices of the Tabernacle. Sheehan says:

When I’m feeling good, I want barbecue. And when I’m feeling bad, I just want barbecue more. I believe in barbecue in all its regional derivations, in its ethnic translations, in forms that range from white-tablecloth presentations of cunningly sauced costillas, to Chinese take-out spareribs that stain your fingers red, to the most authentic product of the tarpaper rib shacks of the Deep South. 

There are many expressions of barbeque. Similarly, in the Mishna in Zevachim teaches that there were six reasons to offer a sacrifice:

  • (1) for the sake of the sacrifice for which it was consecrated
  • (2) for the sake of the offerer
  • (3) for the sake of the Divine Name
  • (4) for the sake of the altar fires
  • (5) for the sake of an aroma
  • (6) for the sake of pleasing God, and a sin-offering and a guilt-offering for the sake of sin.

The Hebrew word קרבן (korban), usually translated as “sacrifice” or “offering,” comes from a root meaning to draw near. Other peoples of the ancient Near East made sacrifices to propitiate their gods; the startling shift in ancient Israelite tradition was that sacrifices were understood not as a way of “paying God off,” but as a mode of drawing-near to God.

The ancient sacrifices were, like Sheehan’s vision of barbeque, a way to get close and draw near.

Sheehan’s faith is compelling because it is so visceral. He closes his piece by writing:

I believe — I know — there is no such thing as too much barbecue. Good, bad or in-between, old-fashioned pit-smoked or high-tech and modern; it doesn’t matter. Existing without gimmickry, without the infernal swindles and capering of so much of contemporary cuisine, barbecue is truth; it is history and home, and the only thing I don’t believe is that I’ll ever get enough.

While it can be hard to relate to the sacrificial world of the Tabernacle and then the Temple, as we see in Vayikra, I want to channel Sheehan’s excitement for barbeque. It really draws me near.


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