Archive for the '3.01 VaYikra' Category

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 Over 125,000 of these essays, written by people from all walks of life, have been archived on their website, heard on public radio, chronicled through their books, and featured in weekly podcasts.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.

Men Who Lack Conscience

I was struck this week when reading Vayikra, this week’s Torah portion, about the power of words. There we read:

Or when a person utters an oath to bad or good purpose—whatever a man may utter in an oath—and, though he has known it, the fact has escaped him, but later he realizes his guilt in any of these matters—when he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, he shall confess that wherein he has sinned.And he shall bring as his penalty to the Lord, for the sin of which he is guilty, a female from the flock, sheep or goat, as a sin offering; and the priest shall make expiation on his behalf for his sin. (Leviticus 5:4-6)

Can you imagine a time when people took their words so seriously?

This reminds me of a song by Lauryn Hill. It is crazy to realize that is has been almost 20 years  since Lauryn Hill released her debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. All of these years later the music and lyrics from this album are still floating around my head. In the song, Forgive them Father she sang:

It took me a little while to discover
Wolves in sheep coats who pretend to be lovers
Men who lack conscience will even lie to themselves
A friend once said, and I found to be true
That everyday people, they lie to God too
So what makes you think, that they won’t lie to you?

Always worth listening to it:

Sadly we are living in a time in which not telling the truth is normative. It is crazy to realize how much our President has no value for his actual words. You must watch Trump exposes Trump.

I do not think that telling the truth is a partisan issue. I am terrified to think how much will be sacrificed.

Politically Incorrect: Trump and VaYikra

There is a lot of talk recently about the limits and challenges of being politically correct. Being PC describes language, policies, or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump has said:

I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.

One could claim that being PC is just a thin band aid on top of  much larger societal problems. Even if Trump wants to pull off this band aid, he has offered no cure for the festering wounds underneath. In fact it seems that the opposite is the case. While Trump’s bluster is clearly resonating with a large group of frustrated Americans, his politically incorrect speech is inciting violence. How is this a cure? Worse than the blind bigots who support him, Trump is a shrewd opportunist who will try to harness their anger and fear for his own benefit. Sucked in by his promise of “Making America Great Again”, this school yard bully will default on these empty, meaningless, and self serving promises leaving his supporters even worse off.

 Image result for anti trump swastika
I was thinking about about this in the context of Vayikra, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:
or if any one swear clearly with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man shall utter clearly with an oath, and it be hid from him; and, when he knows of it, be guilty in one of these things; and it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that wherein he has sinned; (Leviticus 5:4-5)

When Trump swears that he will “Make America Great Again” he is being a politician making empty oaths. When his hateful rhetoric incites violence and he is unable to confess his responsibility, Trump has sinned. David Brooks has opined in the New York Times that Trump is unfit to lead. There he wrote:

History is a long record of men like him temporarily rising, stretching back to biblical times. Psalm 73 describes them: “Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. … They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance.” ( NY Times 3/18/16)

Maybe Trump is right that this country has a big problem in being politically correct. But a true leader knows when you put away the political for what is correct. The end of civility and the rise of violence is inexcusable- we need to work in earnest to solve the problems beneath the surface- not just stoke those fires for personal gain. These underlying issues are real and need our attention. To be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time for Trump.

 

Educational Philosophy: How Do We Start Learning Torah?

Earlier this year Yadid came home all excited that they were learning a Mishna at school that we learned together. Not shocking, it was from Elu Metziyot. There are a few reasons that it is customary to start learning Mishnah with Elu Metziyot, but one is assuming that teaching children the laws of lost and found will start them off with a real life application and lifelong framework of personal responsibility. I was thinking about that this week when we start reading Vayikra, the book of Leviticus. It is choked full of rules regarding korbanot sacrifices. About Vayikra the Midrash shares it imagination of educational philosophy. There we read:

Rav Assi said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure studied the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.)

I understand why people might think that the story of Genesis is too nuanced to be a young child’s initiation to learning. But, just because we are not starting off with the Garden of Eden does not mean that we should start off with all of the blood and gore and guts of Leviticus.

The word “korban” (sacrifice) derives from the word that means “that which is brought close.” Bringing a korban was not just the process of giving something up to the Tabernacle or Temple, but the process of becoming closer.  Maybe this is what we need to be teaching out children.

Education is not about the blood of the sacrifices or for that matter any of the data. It is about relationships and making those connections. When I add that to starting the Mishnah with  Elu Metziyot it starts to make real sense. Relationships and responsibility are the basic building blocks of  menschlichkeit. Education is not just about knowledge; it is about wisdom.

Closer to Revelation

This week we start reading Veyikra, the book of Leviticus. It is choked full of rules regarding sacrifices. You could understand why it seemed strange to learn the Midrash when it said:

Rav Assi said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure studied the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.)

I understand why people might think that the story of Genesis is too nuanced to be a young child’s initiation to learning. But, just because we are not starting off with the Garden of Eden does not mean that we should start off with all of the blood and gore and guts of Leviticus.

The word “korban” (sacrifice) derives from the word that means “that which is brought close.” Bringing a korban was not just the process of giving something up to the Tabernacle or Temple, but the process of becoming closer.  Maybe this is what we need to be teaching out children.

Education is not about the blood of the sacrifices or for that matter any of the data. It is about relationships and making those connections. Education is not just about knowledge; it is about wisdom.

As the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said, “it is learning in reverse order, a learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life but the other way around: from life…back to the Torah.” Revelation is not limited to something that might or might not have happened long ago at Sinai, but it is something that is happening in the learning experience itself today.   So too korbanot, this drawing near, is not limited to the sacrifices, but needs to be about making connections. Now more than ever relevance is a prerequisite to revelation.

– This blog post is written in honor of the wedding of Daniel Infeld and Rachel Ross

Simpler Times

Tzav, this week’s Torah portion,  is full of more sacrificial laws. As I discussed last week, Leviticus seems too removed from our modern realities to seem relavent.  This Shabbat is also Parshat Zachor, in which we recall what Amalek did to us as we were leaving Egypt. We read this every year in preparation for Purim. Haman is assumed to be a descent of Amalek. Thinking about Purim makes me always think about how I chose to educate my children to the history of antisemitism. Do I really need to teach them about all of this? The destruction of the Temples and all of the existential crisis throughout our history. They are just children.

While very few of us truly yearn for the return of sacrifices in a Third Temple, it is hard not to covet what seemed to be simpler times as described in our Torah portion.  It seems that things were so much easier at that time as compared to the layers of memory, pain, and suffering we have accumulated over history. While I realize that our lives are much better now, it seems that things have just become so complicated.

This week I have been reflecting on the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear meltdown in Japan. Nuclear energy came to Japan in the most destructive force to date in the form of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While this technology is incredibly destructive, it is also clear that given our current energy needs we need to realize the benefits of nuclear generators. But, as we have seen this week, there is a real risk. While we know that we cannot go back in time, again it is understandable that we might yearn for simpler times. What will the Japanese tell their children?

Best Introduction

Yawning is associated with tiredness, lack of stimulation, and boredom. Yawning has an infectious quality. Seeing a person yawning, talking to someone on the phone who is yawning, thinking of yawning, or just reading this week’s Torah portion can trigger yawning. This week we start the book of Leviticus, which is full of all of the sacrificial laws. In the 21st century it seems hard to connect.

You can imagine my being perplexed when reading the Midrash when it says:

Rav Assi said that young children began their Torah studies with Torat Kohanim, Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure studied the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.)

As a parent and an educator I think a lot about how I will help my children and other people learn. What is the appropriate narrative for our children to enter into a life time of learning Torah? If we as adults are bored by these sacrificial rules, is there any hope for my children? It seems strange to bet the Jewish future on Leviticus.

Maybe our children are just not so pure anymore. Has modern media tainted their purity? Can Torah learning compete with all of the stimulus that surround the lives of our youth? While our holy text discuss ancient wars and allude to an afterlife, you can understand someone saying that learning Torah seems boring compared to Warcraft or Second Life. While there are some educators who have kept Torah learning compelling, I still doubt that our children are “impure” or that starting off with Leviticus is  putting our best foot forward.

Excluding the ultra-Orthodox (who are not reading my blog) most of us  are happy that our education is not run according to Rabbi Assi from the above mentioned Midrash. But in many ways it is. In Ezekiel we read:

Thus says the Lord God: Although I have removed them far off among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet have I been to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they are come. (Ezekiel 11:16)

The Talmud Megillah 29a comments that “a little sanctuary” refers to the synagogues and study halls. Despite the fact that few of us would try to get our children excited about Jewish life by starting them off by learning the intricacies of the Temple service in the next PJ Library bedtime book instalment, we still have prioritized the synagogue as the portal for Jewish life. While it may or may not be our ultimate goal (a discussion for another post) can we at least acknowledge that for a many Jews claiming that this “little sanctuary” is the best introduction to Jewish life is as relevant as our Torah portion.  Yawn, now you can stop reading this post and go back  to the pure bliss of distraction on your computer.

Welcome All Newcomers

This week we start reading the book of Leviticus. It is fraught with information about sacrifices that can seem meaningless to the modern person. This week I wanted to focus on one section to see if we could learn something relevant to our lives. We read that when a leader sins, he brings a he-goat as a sacrifice (Leviticus 4:22-26). But a commoner is charged to bring a she-goat or a lamb in the same circumstance (Leviticus 4:27-35). What is the purpose of the commoner and the leader bringing two different offerings? What is the reason that we allow the commoner to bring either a goat or a lamb?

To explain this I wanted to share with you a great custom I heard a couple of years ago quoted in the name of Danny Siegel. Synagogues put out two color cups for their Kiddush receptions after services. The Rabbi announces that all new comers are invited to partake of the blue cups so that all of the people with the white cups know to whom they should introduce themselves. This custom allows the community to be welcoming, without forcing the newcomers to feel like outsiders; you are always welcome to pass and take a white cup.

Similarly, in our week’s portion we read that the commoners could have the option of which sacrifice they wanted to bring. In either case, the priest would know they were outsiders, but it need not be as public. They could choose to pass and bring a goat.

It seems to me that we, the leaders of our community, sin all the time by not being inclusive to newcomers. All too often, when we make an effort to bring people in, it has the reverse effect of indicating them as outsiders. I invite you to join me in finding new ways to make people feel welcome in our community.  Surely, there is no great sacrifice in making our community more inclusive.


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