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How do you say Treason?

How do you say treason  in Russian? Evidently the answer is “измена- IZMENA.” In Hebrew the word is ” בגידה- BEGIDAH.” It has the same root at BEGED- meaning clothing. So in many ways the act of treason is figuratively the act of being a turncoat, changing closes to move your agenda forward. 

I was thinking about all of this in wake of a comment made by John O. Brennan the  former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from March 2013 to January 2017.  Recently he tweeted:

Brennan seems to know a lot about national security. I would trust that he knows the definition of treason. 
So the better question is not how you say treason in Russian or Hebrew, but how do you say treason in Republican? Our republic depends on their patriotism.  We can only hope that they act on in before it is too late.

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The Trump Holy Bible: Lessons from the Red Heffer

At the start of Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moshe and Aaron to instruct the Israelites regarding the ritual law of the Red Heifer (פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה‬) used to create the water of lustration. The cow was to be without blemish, have no defect, and not have borne a  yoke. Eleazar the priest was to take it outside the camp, observe its slaughter, and take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the Tabernacle. The cow was to be burned in its entirety along with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff. The priest and the one who burned the cow were both to wash their garments, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. The ashes of the cow were to be used to create the water for purification from having had contact with death.

It is noteworthy that all other communal sacrifices were of male animals, but the Red Cow was of a female animal. Rabbi Aibu explained the difference with a parable: When a handmaiden’s boy polluted a king’s palace, the king called on the boy’s mother to clear away the filth. In the same way, God called on the Red Cow to come and atone for the incident of the Golden Calf. (Numbers Rabbah 19:8)

To me this parable is relevant in at least four ways to the horrid events from this last week when the Trump administration took to separating children of immigrants from their parents. On the most basic level, this Midrash suggests the sense of connection between a mother and her child. Just as the Red Cow has to clean up for the Golden Calf, children cannot be separated from their parents. On a second level it points to the fact that it will take a miracle for this administration to cleanse themselves  of their sins. Ain’t no magic burnt dust going to help them at this point. Thirdly we need to have more female leadership to clean up Washington. I am having trouble believing that a female commander-in-chief would have suggested this idea.I might be wrong about the gendered assumption, but we do need to clean up our government.  Finally this use of this Midrash comes to point that you could take almost any proof texts from almost any where to prove almost anything you want. AG Sessions will be damned by any God he believes in.  Immorality is immorality, it has no place to hide behind religion or scripture.

 

Emil Fackenheim Day

It was recently brought to my attention that yesterday was being 6/13 was a Mitzvah Day of sorts in our Gregorian Calendar. I will take any excuse to reflect on our collective accountability to keeping these 613 commandments.  If that is the case, that would make today 6/14 Emil Fackenheim Day.

Fackenheim was a professor of philosophy who researched the relationship of the Jews with God, believing that the Holocaust must be understood as an imperative requiring Jews to carry on Jewish existence and the survival of the State of Israel. He was always saying that continuing Jewish life and denying Hitler a posthumous victory was the 614th commandment.

I consider remembering Emil Fackenheim today a win.

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The Other Foot: Shimshon and #metoo

In Naso, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the laws of becoming a Nazir. The Nazir is someone who  takes a vow to “consecrated” or “separated” themselves. This vow means that they need to abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins, and eating or drinking any substance that contains any trace of grapes. It also means that they are going to refrain from cutting their hair on one’s head. The final aspect of this vow is that they cannot become ritually impure by contact with corpses or graves, even those of family members.

It is not at all surprising that the haftarah coupled with this Torah portion is the origin story of Shimshon, the most famous Nazir in the Bible. Shimshon is not a normal Nazir in that he has superhuman strength. He also not a particularly good Nazir in that he appears to break his vows, by touching a dead body (Judges 14:8–9) and drinking wine (he holds a “drinking party”, in Judges 14:10). Lucas Cranach d. Ä. - Samson's Fight with the Lion - WGA05717.jpg

What is not covered in the origin story is the tragic end of his life. His immense strength to aid him against his enemies and allow him to perform superhuman feats came from his hair. Shimshon was betrayed by his lover Delilah, who used the secret of the origin of his strength against him. She ordered a servant to cut his hair while he was sleeping and turned him over to his Philistine enemies.

Delilah’s betrayal of Shimshon is an interesting foil for us today. As a nation we are reflecting on bringing sexual misconduct to light. The #metoo movement has surfaced the many situations in which men have used their power to take the hidden strength from women. For their pleasure men have compromised women and as a society we have been complicit in not making room for their voice. How do we all understand the power we have and the power we might take? As a man I read the Haftarah this week with an eye to asking myself to put the this shoe on the other foot.

 

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.

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

U’Rechatz: Our Matriarchs, #metoo, and Purification

Just after we start our Seder with Kiddush over the first cup of wine we do U’Reschatz– we wash our hands. While it is Jewish law to wash one’s hands and say a blessing before eating bread, or Matzah in our case, in this situation it is not the case. We are not about to eat the Matzah and we do not make a blessing. In the time of the Mishna it was common practice to wash one’s hands before eating moist food. That said, why should the Seder be different from all other nights that we would bring back this blessing-less hand washing?

I believe that on a mystical level the opening of the Seder is a reenactment of our entering the Temple to perform the Passover sacrifice. In some ways this hand washing speaks of this transition into holy time and space. Similarly in the time of the Mishkan when the Cohen would enter he would find the Kiyor, the Laver or Wash-basin, with which he would wash his hands and feet before performing the Service. At the end of the book of Exodus in Parshat Pekudei we learn about the construction of this Kiyor. There we read:

He made the Kiyor of copper and its copper stand from the mirrors of the women who gathered at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” (Exodus 38:8)

What is with these mirrors? Why did it matter that it came from the women? Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma to answer both of these questions. There we read:

The Israelite women owned mirrors, which they would look into when they adorned themselves. Even these [mirrors] they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the Mishkan, but Moshe rejected them because they were made for sexual temptation. The Holy One, blessed be God, said to him, “Accept [their mirrors], for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.” When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, the women would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then the women would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands desire and would copulate with them, conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: “Under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song 8:5)…(Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 9; Num. Rabbah 9:14)

In this magnificent Midrash Moshe objects to using mirrors to make the Kiyor because the mirrors  were lascivious. God responds that this is his most precious gift because it lead to making another generation. Amram and Yocheved are two of these slaves who conceive Moshe under the apple tree. The most fascinating part of this Midrash is that God does not deny that the mirrors are sexual. God just rejects Moshe’s premise that being sexual is a bad thing. Positive sexual encounters are the inception of liberation. These sex toys were exactly what God wanted him to make the implement that will be used to cleanse the Cohen as he prepares for the sacrifice.

In the era of #metoo it is important to pause at U’Reschatz. As we are entering into the conversation of liberation we need to think deeply about the misuse of power. Our society is long overdue a deep reflection on the insidious and nefarious use of power for sexual gratification. How might we cleanse ourselves of this evil?

If sex is about coercion, submission, and is not mutually enjoyable it is lascivious and dirty and has no place in the Mishkan. This kind of interaction seems like slavery. But if we learn the lessons of our matriarchs in Egypt sex can be mutual, consensual, sensual, and playful. Sex can be liberating, purifying, and take a central space in the Mishkan. Slavery made the Israelite slaves forget how to look at each other. Like the leaders of the #metoo movement, our matriarchs had to teach their partners how to engage as equals. This act of intimacy led to their liberation and ultimately to the divine encounter at Sinai. On a deep level revelation is the highest form of intimacy.

The central commandment of Passover is that in each and every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt ( Pesachim 116b). This year when my children ask me about U’Reschatz I will not talk about sex toys in the Mishkan. And at the same time if I ignore the issues brought up by #metoo I will not fulfill my pascal obligation. Firstly I will take the time to share with them the wisdom of all of our matriarchs. When take the time to share stories of our male and female role models it is easier for the next generation to value  mutuality and respect. I will also take the time to talk about the centrality of consent and the importance of being playful with those you love. We all need to be liberated from unwanted touching and lascivious behavior. I have no doubt that this conversation will be a purifying.

-Inspired by article by Rabbi Tamara Cohen in EJP

 


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