Tent of God

These days Yadid is a big 14-year-old who likes his alone time, but a few years ago he used to smother his sister Emunah with love.  I remember distinctly one time he asked me if I would let her sit with him on the ground. He proceeded to spread a blanket on top of her. Not having any of it Emunah pulled the blanket off of her head. But Yadid was not deterred so he asked his sister to join him in the  “Tent of God”.

I was thinking about this tender image when reading BaMidbar, this week’s Torah portion. In Torah portion we read about the census of the Israelites, the priests’ duties, and their configurations of tribes as they broke down camp to move.  The Tent of God was at the center of their world. We learn with a lot of detail how they encamped and traveled around the Tent.

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Even if they might smother each other at points, it is thrilling to imagine my children’s relationships evolve over the years. I would like to think that at the center of that will be an abiding love and desire to be close to each other throughout life’s journeys.

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What If God Was One of Us

In 1995 Joan Osborn released her one hit song ” What If God Was One of Us.” The song received Grammy nominations in 1996 for Best Female Pop Vocal PerformanceRecord of the Year, and Song of the Year. Written by Eric Bazilian (of The Hooters), the song deals with various aspects of belief in God by asking questions inviting the listener to consider how they might relate to God.  Here is her original vide:

 

All of these years later I have to admit that I still cannot forget the lyrics. The song goes:

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?

How would we experience the corporeality of God?

I was thinking about it while reading Behar Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion. There we read God saying, ” I will walk among you: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.” ( Leviticus 26:12) About this Rashi write:

 

I will walk among you— I will, as it were, walk with you in the Garden of Eden as though I were one of yourselves and you will not be frightened of Me. One might think that this implies: you will not fear (reverence) Me! Scripture however states, “but I will be your God” (Sifra, Bechukotai, Chapter 3 3-4).

I think it is interesting to think about the idea of reverence without being frightened.  Personally, I cannot even imagine the experience of the presence of God in my life. Thinking about these ideas open me to the divine potential of  the “stranger on the bus”.  It does not change my faith or struggle with the idea of God in my life, but it does improve my commute through life.

 

Invitation to Belong: Emor’s Recipe for Community

This week’s reading, Emor, discusses the laws which pertain to priests and the high priest, and various laws which relate to sacrifices. These are followed by a lengthy discussion of the festivals. The portion concludes with the story of a blasphemer who was put to death. It is interesting to me that if you look at all aspects of Emor as a composite we see a definition of community. We have a clear definition of the leadership of the community during the time of the Temple. We have the regulations for convening at the Temple. We even get to see the limits of the community with the story of the blasphemer.

This reminded me of the book Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block. In this book Block encourages a shift in our way of thinking about community so we can bring about the qualities of an authentic sense of belonging. There he writes:

The key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, and each meeting we attend. For at the most operational and practical level, after all the thinking about policy, strategy, mission, and milestones, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together? ( Community: The Structure of Belonging)

Block understands that creating and sustaining a sense of belonging is fundamentally about the experience of community, not about it’s formal structures and mechanisms.

The leader is the convener of these moments of belonging. It is amazing to look back and see how we evolved over time.  What is described here in Emor worked in the time of the Temple. It evolved into something completely different during the Rabbinic period of Jewish life. And as Rabbi Yitz Greenberg argues, we are transitioning into the next epoch in which we will need another kind of leader for us to cultivate the experience of belonging. Rabbi Greenberg puts forward a compelling argument that this next epoch will be defined by lay leadership.

In order for us to be successful in our third phase we will need to follow the Emor recipe.  We will need to define the role of these leaders. We will need to put forward a plan for our regular occasions to convene as  a nation. And yes, even if it seems painful. we will need to define our limits. If we do all of these things we will find a sense of belonging. You are all invited.

Listen to and watch Rabbi Greenberg on the 3rd Epoch of Jewish History

Separateness and Holiness: Technology and Chukat Ha’Akum

There are a myriad of commandments in Aharei Mot Kedoshim, this week’s double Torah portion. As a collection these commandments set out a holiness code for what it means to be Jewish. At the end of we learn of the commandment of Chukat Ha’Akum prohibiting imitating Gentile manners in their dressings and practices. There we read:

You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them (Leviticus 20:23)

This prohibition makes sense in my imagination of ancient tribalism, but modern life has created many dilemmas on what constitutes a violation. By design this commandment is relative to the environment in which we find ourselves.  Amidst this holiness code it seems like a clear drive for Kedusha, but less about holiness and more about separateness.

I was thinking about this challenging commandment when reading a New York Times article back in September 2017. In their article “In Amish Country, the Future Is Calling” 

Like our own, the Amish struggle with technology is an issue of Chukat Ha’Akum. Modernity and technology offer us both great things and pose real risks. Recently I had the opportunity to be at the Poeh Cultural Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico to learn from Stephen Tekaron-Hiarenkon Fadden, a gifted Native American educator. He wisely taught, “Don’t confuse communication technology with communication.” The answer cannot be to exclude technology completely or use it blindly.  The technology needs to serve the holy work of helping us communicate. We need to intentionally determine how we will preserve our Kedusha meaning both our separateness and our holiness. Ironically we have what to learn from our Amish and Native American brethren as to how to keep the prohibition of Chukat Ha’Akum .

 

 

Long Arc of Justice: II Kings and the Wall

In Tazria-Metzora, this week’s Torah portion we read about tzara’at, a skin ailment caused by sins. Similarly in this week’s haftorah we lear about four men stricken by tzara’at.  The backdrop of the story is that King Ben-Hadad of Aram besieged the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The resulting famine was catastrophic, reducing many to cannibalism. These four men suffering from tzara’at dwelled in quarantine outside the city. Hungry due to the famine they decided to approach the enemy camp to beg for food. They arrived only to find a deserted camp. The enemy deserted their encampment because they thought they heard the sounds of an approaching army. Despite being excluded the four men went back to the city and reported their findings to the gatekeepers who, in turn, informed King Jehoram. Though originally thinking that this was an ambush planned by the enemy, the king sent messengers who confirmed the miracle. The people swarmed out of the city and looted the enemy camp, thus breaking the famine and fulfilling Elisha’s prophecy.

The officer who was in charge of the city gates was himself killed by the rampaging crowds. There we read, “The people trampled him to death in the gate.” ( II Kings 7:20) The Talmud in Sanhedrin 90b assumes that the officer died because he doubted the prophecy of Elisha, but maybe that is not the whole story.   It is too easy to depict the officer as civil servant like a TSA agent protecting the city.  I offer you another reading here.

 

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Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister. In 1853 a collection of “Ten Sermons of Religion” by Parker was published in one of those sermons he wrote:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. (Of Justice and the Conscience)

In the name of keeping the inhabitants safe the officer kept the four men out of the city. He mistakenly thought that they represented a danger and completely missed the fact that they too had what to contribute. Yes people in the city were starving and afraid, but it did not help to keep these four men out just because they had tzara’at. Even if these men had sinned, it did not excuse the sin of the officer who kept them out. The officer was killed because the long arc of history bends toward justice.

Reading this haftorah makes you ask a number of questions about our current political situation. What is going on in our country? What are we so afraid of?  Who are we excluding? Will we be judged well if we build a wall with Mexico?

One Dance: Multiple Intellengence

Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, starts on the eighth day, following the seven days of their inauguration of the Tabernacle. Connected to this theme we see in the Haftarah the image of King David dancing and whirled with all his might as they brought the Ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the City of David to inaugurate its new location. While he was rejoicing his wife Michal was disgusted by what she perceived to be David’s completely demeaning to the office of the King.

There we read:

David went home to greet his household. And Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today — exposing himself today in the sight of the slavegirls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself!” David answered Michal, “It was before the Lord who chose me instead of your father and all his family and appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel! I will dance before the Lord and dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem; but among the slavegirls that you speak of I will be honored.” ( II Samuel  6:20-22)
Michal was discussed with David and claims that he embarrassed himself. In return David lashed out at her rubbing her father’s down fall in her face. At the core of their disagreement is a discussion as to what is the proper conduct.
I cannot stop thinking that Michal and David’s dispute was rooted in their having dramatically different ways of experiencing the world. Did Michal and David have different Intelligences? First proposed by Howard Gardner  in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, he wrote that there are different modalities that people take in the world. Over time Gardner’s list of  different modalities grew to include:
  1. Musical-rhythmic and harmonic
  2. Visual-spatial
  3. Verbal-linguistic
  4. Logical-mathematical
  5. Bodily-kinesthetic
  6. Interpersonal
  7. Intrapersonal
  8. Naturalistic 
  9. Existential 
Is it possible to imagine that David had Musical-rhythmic and harmonic and Bodily-kinesthetic intelligences while Michal had Interpersonal intelligence? Why is so hard for us to empathize with people with different intelligences?
Realizing this I thought if we better understood the different modalities we might get along better. Maybe if Michal and David understood this they could not have had this fight. Check out this new resource called How we Learn and Make Meaning  that I developed on understanding the Multiple Intelligences with some Jewish context.

Not Passing Over Empathy

The central commandment of  the Seder is to experience liberation from slavery in Egypt. We learn in the Talmud:

In each and every generation one is obligated to see themselves as if they went out from Egypt, as it says “And you shall tell you child on that day, saying: Because of this, God did for me when I went out from Egypt.”(Exodus 13:8) Therefore we are obligated to offer effusive, beautiful praise and thanksgiving to the One who performed all these miracles for our ancestors and for us (Pesachim 116b)

But how could be ever experience something that happened to our ancestors thousands of years ago. Fundamentally this commandment is to experience. And if that was not hard enough we also have to find a way to communicate empathy to the next generation. 

When thinking about this commandment I see a real risk that we miss the mark on empathy and become satisfied with sympathy. What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? If you have not seen it I suggest watching this short and great video by Brené Brown on the distinction between empathy and sympathy

When you sympathize with someone you can take notice their pain, but you only empathize when you actually sit with people in their pain. You can never take away someone’s pain, but you can connect with them.

I think not as we start the last days of Passover I pause to realize that empathy is not just a lesson of the seder.  These last days commemorate our salvation at the Red Sea. Having just been liberated from slavery, our ancestors found themselves witness to the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. One can only imagine their elation. And actually it is our commandment to imagine that elation. On this the Gemara says:

The Holy One, blessed be God, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked.  For Rabbi Shmuel ben Nahman said in Rabbi Yonatan’s name: What is meant by, “And one approached not the other all night”? (Exodus 14:20)  In that hour [When the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea ] the ministering angels wished to utter the song of praise  before the Holy One, blessed be God, but God rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would you utter song before me! (Sanhedrin 39b)

The Egyptians slavers are finally getting their just due, yet God experienced no pleasure in the process. Rejoicing in someone else’s suffering is just wrong. And on another level this Gemara is asking us to empathize with God as the Creator. On a deep level in its totality Passover is a process of growing in our capacity to empathize with others if not the Other.  In light of this it seems that empathy might be the key to getting a group of slave from Egypt to ascend to Sinai to receive the Torah. From start or finish the Torah is about doing gemilut hasadim– act of loving kindness (Sotah 14a). What is an act of loving kindness beyond sitting with someone and empathizing with them?

It is interesting in this context to realize that the purpose of Passover is to ensure that we sit with people in their situations and do not just pass over them.

 


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