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Friday, 9 July 2021

Mattot-Mas’ey Sermon 2021 – Unintended Consequences

In this week’s double portion of Mattot-Masei, we see the people preparing to enter the land, and clarifying the borders of the territory and how cities are to be used. Forty-eight of the cities are to go to the priests, and six of them shall be designated as cities of refuge. These cities of refuge are places where a person who has killed someone may flee to avoid retribution by the victim’s family. Some translations say that the murderer should flee to a city of refuge, but it’s absolutely not a murderer – it’s someone who accidentally killed another person with whom there had never been enmity in the past while performing a legal activity. For example, our portion continues that if a person pushed someone without malice and they died, if they threw an object without premeditation and it hit someone and they died, or dropped something without seeing the victim before they dropped it, then the unintended consequences of their actions mean that they’re partially liable but not liable enough to deserve the death penalty (Num. 35:22-23). Later in Deuteronomy (19:5), we learn of another specific example of such killing – when a person is chopping a tree and the blade comes off the axe and kills a person. In such a case, the unintended consequence of chopping a tree is the ending of a human life, so just as with the stone or the accidental nudge, the person with the axe has to flee and atone in a city of refuge, and has to get there before the family of the deceased find them and kill them out of revenge.


Both the Mishnah and Talmud, the two major law codes that followed on from Torah, address many similar situations, for example, what happens if a person is throwing stones from one place to another and a person walks into their domain and is killed by a flying stone? What if two people are playing catch with a stone and one misses the catch and is killed? Should the person responsible whose actions had the unintended consequence of someone else’s death go into banishment, flee to a city of refuge, or face criminal proceedings?


Interestingly, at the end of this week’s double-portion, we read of more unintended consequences. Last week, Cantor Lianna spoke of Zelophehad who died with five daughters and no sons, meaning that there was no-one to receive his inheritance. The daughters entreat Moses to give them the inheritance instead. Moses asks God, who says that their plea is just and that they should receive the inheritance. The law is changed and from that point on, if a man dies with no sons, the inheritance goes to his daughters instead. But…. there’s an unintended negative consequence of that change in the law. Part of the laws of inheritance were to keep property within each tribe, and tribal identity was patriarchal. Women could marry someone from any tribe since they didn’t own property. So, the change of law for the daughters of Zelophehad created an unintended problem. If a daughter who has received inheritance marries someone from another tribe, the property goes to that tribe and doesn’t stay in the tribe it originated from, thereby diminishing the inheritance and the tribal property. Moses hears the unintended consequence and rules that no property may change from one tribe to another, so the daughters of Zelophehad marry their cousins to ensure that their inheritance stays in the tribe.


This is often touted as an example of ritual creativity and of defending the rights of women within the context of a strictly patriarchal society. Others see it less positively and express concern that the freedom given to the daughters of Zelophehad by God in last week’s reading are limited by Moses in this week’s. My focus tonight is on a differing viewpoint, though - on the reality of unintended consequences, because even God did not foresee the consequences of God’s ruling last week! That’s quite extraordinary. The law from God did not work in the human realm, the people complained, God changed the law, then the people complained that the change created new problems. Theologically speaking, I think that’s remarkable. This is God who grows and learns with us, God who makes mistakes. I find something very refreshing in that. If nothing else, that gives us permission to forgive ourselves for the unintended consequences of our actions – if God can’t always foresee the unintended consequences, then it should be okay when we don’t, either. That doesn’t mean that we should be reckless or thoughtless, of course, but it means that everything is a work in progress and it’s incumbent upon us not to react aggressively to a negative unintended consequence. This goes back to the cities of refuge – who is the person seeking refuge from? From the family of the deceased who are looking for revenge. Torah just accepts that as a perfectly normal human response, but why? Why not focus on the opposite, especially since this was not deliberate murder. But maybe that’s the point – maybe Torah is presenting us with two differing models of unintended consequences, and showing us that we have a choice in how to respond. We can respond with anger, or we can respond calmly by changing the system around us.


I appreciate, though, that that perspective speaks of privilege. When the unintended consequences repeatedly wear someone down, I can understand anger. Our lives of luxury have definite negative consequences for others around the world. We may not know the specific consequences of each individual act, but we do know the unintended consequences of our lifestyles, and most of us, myself included, do very little to change those lifestyles to minimize those consequences, because of the comfort of privilege and because of how difficult it is to avoid those consequences to someone half way across the world in a globalised capitalistic society. There are other unintended consequences of our choices, such as perpetuating racist or sexist social structures, for which perhaps sometimes the response needs to be calm change and sometimes needs to be rage. I understand and appreciate that. But what we’re talking about here, though, is not systemic social structures or the consequences of how society is set up, but, at least with the cities of refuge, we’re talking about the immediate, local unintended consequences of one’s individual’s actions.


According to our tradition, even those individual actions can have enormous unintended consequences. The most famous example of that comes from Talmud, Tractate Gittin (55b), in the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. A wealthy man means to invite Kamsa to a party, but the wealthy man’s servant accidentally invites Bar Kamsa, the wealthy man’s enemy. Bar Kamsa turns up to the party, and the wealthy man orders him to leave. Bar Kamsa begs not to be humiliated in front of the man’s guests, offering to pay for his food, then offering to pay for half of the total expenses of the party then even offering to pay for the entire party. The wealthy man is adamant, though, and Bar Kamsa is forced to leave the party. But there were Rabbis at the party and Bar Kamsa is so angry at them for not defending him that he visits with Caesar and says that the Rabbis are planning to overthrow him. Caesar is skeptical as to whether or not this is true and sends an animal to be sacrificed by the Rabbis. On the way to the Rabbis, though, Bar Kamsa knicks the animal, thereby blemishing it. The Rabbis reject the sacrifice, which Caesar then sees as proof of rebellion, which leads to the Romans destroying the Temple and exiling the Jews. All of that was the unintended consequence of delivering a party invitation to the wrong person, or the unintended consequence of being a terrible host, or the unintended consequence of not defending the honor of someone being embarrassed. Seemingly small decisions can have enormous negative consequences. Bar Kamsa responses with anger, just as Torah expects families to respond in the case of accidental death. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can respond as the heads of the clan of Gilead son of Makir do, and try to resolve the issue because, as I said before, if God Almighty didn’t foresee the unintended consequences of something, we need to allow ourselves and others an opportunity to address the negative consequences of something they said or did.


There is real irony in terms of unintended consequences when it comes to the law of cities of refuge. A person must stay in a city of refuge until the High Priest dies. At that point, it is said that the person has atoned and then they may leave the city of refuge and the victim’s family have no claim against that person. What’s the unintended consequence of that ruling? That everyone in the cities of refuge are hoping that the High Priest will die quickly! Mishnah (Makkot 11a) addresses this, saying that the mother of the High Priest provides clothing and food for those in the cities of refuge so that they think favorably of her son and don’t pray for his early death! So… a law that says that the inhabitants of cities of refuge go free when the High Priest dies had the unintended negative consequence of the mother of the High Priest having to supply six cities’ worth of people with food and clothing! In other words, even Torah sometimes doesn’t see the unintended negative consequences of its own laws.


So, this week’s Torah portion and its subsequent commentaries remind us of the need to consider the consequences of our actions, and also give us permission to forgive ourselves for not foreseeing all the unintended consequences of everything we say or do, because even God and Torah don’t foresee all the negative unintended consequences. It also gives us permission to express frustration at the negative unintended consequences of the actions of others, but particularly extends an invitation to us all to be forgiving of the unintended consequences of the actions of others. And, ultimately, it gives us a theological insight, an opportunity to relate to God in times when we make mistakes, a chance to find God not just in perfection but in the inevitable imperfection of human life. So, may we use this week’s Torah reading as an opportunity not to lament our mistakes but to learn from them and to connect with God through them, and let us use it as an opportunity to respond kindly to the mistakes of others and to connect with God through them as well. May such moments be ones not of rage but of forgiveness, understanding and true connection, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 18 June 2021

The Returning Exiles Sermon – June 18th 2021

As I mentally prepared for our first full Shabbat back to services, I found myself wondering what the overriding metaphor of this moment would be, and the theme of returning from exile seemed most appropriate. Exile has been the predominant metaphor of Jewish existence throughout history – the Babylonian exile, the exile from the land after the destruction of the Second Temple, the exile of God in Jewish theology, exile from countries all around Europe throughout the Middle Ages due to expulsion after expulsion. The precariousness of Jewish life, the fragility of Jewish existence, has been a constant theme, until the modern age when Jewish communities finally felt established and safe. The COVID-19 pandemic upended that and once again made us all exiles, from our community, from each other and from our usual way of life. For perhaps the first time in our lives, we have had a taste of the trauma of exile.


The other day when my interfaith colleague Rev Harry Eberts from First Presbyterian and I spoke on the radio, we discussed chapter 3 of the book of Ezra, which describes the emotions of returning from exile. It describes the mixture of joy and sorrow expressed by the people. Joy is obvious – the return to community, the return to a physical minyan, the return to a sense of sacred place, to a physical centering of the community. But sorrow? Why would there be sorrow? In the Book of Ezra, that sorrow is due to people remembering the way things once were and feeling a sense of profound loss at what once was and can never again be. Some of our members still express that concern of the new way of life, and the impossibility of ever fully returning to what once was. More than that, though, there are some who feel loss in our community as we return to on-site services. Last Friday, for example, one member of our regular Zoom worship community shared an impassioned reflection of what they will lose when we return to physical services. For 65 weeks, we have held online services, most of which have been on Zoom. In those services, we have prayed facing each other – seeing each other’s faces, we have not had to look down at a siddur and then up again at the community because they were all together in one view. We formed an intimate community within the community, a close group of companions travelling through the pandemic together, helping each other through the darkest times on a weekly basis by studying together, praying together and socializing online together. My hope is that in the coming weeks, we can hold as much as possible onto that sense of intimacy socially and spiritually, together. For those currently following online, please know that even though you may not be physically with us, you are still an essential part of our community, and the journey we have gone on in the past 15 months will be one that I always treasure.


My mind therefore goes to the Torah portion of Nitzavim, to the covenant with God. Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai – you who are standing here this day before the Eternal your God. (Deut. 29:9). But who else does this passage specifically mention? V’lo itchem l’vad’chem anochi koret et hab’rit hazot v’et ha’alah hazot, ki et asher yeshno poh imanu omeid hayom lifnei Adonai eloheinu, ve’et asher eineinu poh imanu hayom. Not only with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath with those who are standing here with us today before the Eternal our God…. but also with those who are not here with us today. (Deut. 29:13-14). Jewish tradition has always understood “those who are not here with us today” as future generations from that Biblical moment, but today it means something else – it means those who are not able to be with us physically today because of their differing risk to catching COVID-19, even post-vaccination. The last 15 months has created two differing prayer groups under the umbrella of our Temple Beth Shalom community. One is comfortable with in-person services… indeed has been craving them and has found online worship isolating, the other is comfortable watching services in their PJs while sipping margaritas on the couch. And, of course, there are many people in-between, some of whom were planning on coming this evening but once we relocated indoors due to the heat realized that they could not attend.


When this pandemic started and we moved totally online, many Rabbis asked the question – how are we going to bring people back once the pandemic is over? The answer most people gave was that people will rush back because they’ll have so profoundly missed each other. Now I realize that the question assumed that the return to in-person services and the end of the pandemic would happen at the same time, but that’s clearly not the case. There is still a pandemic, we are still living in a pandemic, there are 100 new cases in our state every day, people in this state die from this pandemic every day. The pandemic is not over, and so we are here this evening not because it is over but because we are the lucky ones. Most of us present this evening are, on the whole, the healthy ones who have been vaccinated and for whom the vaccine is effective. We here today have now therefore been given an awesome, essential responsibility – to reach out to those who are not here physically with us today, to be compassionate with those present who do not want to hug or shake hands, to give space to those who still have much to fear from this pandemic. This moment has the potential for extreme compassion…. a demand for extreme compassion, a chance to see that not everyone is as lucky as we are, a chance for us to listen without judgment and with love to the many differing responses to this pandemic expressed in our community.


One place I saw that listening and love perfectly represented in our community over the last few months was in the Reopening Committee, the group of people who are responsible for us being able to even be here this evening. In that committee of deliberately widely varying opinions, members listened to each other, learned from each other, and compromised. These members meet for hours every week, and communicate via innumerable emails, to try to balance the widely varying needs of our community members. It is thanks to Wendy Steinberg, Marlene Schwalje, Debby Stein, Edward Borins, Carol Tyroler, and Robin Roffer, that this evening’s in-person service could happen at all. These people have exemplified what is now so essential in our community – listening and learning, compassion and compromise. These members heard all the voices in the community and responded appropriately. We owe them a debt of thanks.


This pandemic has been physically and psychologically exhausting for most, if not all, of us. We were confronted with immediate traumas – the sudden loss of physical presence of friends and family, the debilitating feeling of isolation, the realization of the precariousness of life. In time, other traumas came to us – the loss of trust of unknown others leading to the fear of the stranger, and even the shock of discovering that the social contract is less robust than we may have hoped and that some people will bend or break rules for their own benefit while ignoring the potential risk to others. Perhaps when we think of Ezra 3 and the people who wail at the loss of once was, we can empathize, and we need to be especially careful over the coming months to help each other come to terms with the trauma of the last 65 weeks.


And yet, we have remained connected. Many members have said that they have never felt so connected to our community as in the last year. Ecclesiastes says (3:4) there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. It turns out that those are not differing times, but the same time, and that time is now. As much as we pay attention to the trauma of the last year, so, too, we have so much to celebrate from the past year. We celebrate the staff and volunteers of our community who have just kept going despite everything thrown at them, drawing on extraordinary reserves of energy, willpower and love to keep our community members connected. We ran online Torah breakfasts, book studies, and two Tikkunei Leil Shavuot, both of which ran long into the evening despite us all being oyzgezoomt. We created online services and meditation sessions, online (and, in the most urgent of cases, in-person) pastoral visits. The Preschool, the Religious School and the Youth Group continued. We ran online events, including speakers from all around the world. We spent almost every evening one week in a virtual tour of Israel. We organized It Takes A Village to connect younger and older members of our community and to support kids through the long summer. We held weekly online Havdalah services. We sent out a reflection on a mishnah from Pirke Avot every day for months. We started the Pre-Shabbat messages on YouTube. We ran a Racial Justice Circle and connected with other events around the world that challenged and empowered us. Our members created stunning liturgy for the unique High Holy Day services and for our Pesach S’darim, which were watched by hundreds more people than ever before. We maintained a presence in the Interfaith Leadership Alliance, helping create memorials for New Mexicans who had died from the pandemic. We joined with the Jewish Federation in their cross-communal rituals for Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzma’ut. We restarted the Conversion Course, now attended by more people than in the last seven years at least. We brought in more new members. We even had a New Member Shabbat that was catered in the new members’ homes. We held the community’s first totally online bar mitzvah ceremony. We finished an extraordinary Strategic Plan and started implementing it by creating new committees and by running a hiring process which has resulted in our hiring of the wonderful Cantor Lianna Mendelson as our new Cantor-Educator. We have done all this and so, so much more. And throughout these last 65 weeks, whenever one of us faltered from exhaustion or sickness, someone else from the community would step up instantly. Aaron Wolf and Fred Milder stepped in to lead services, Scott Nadler, Dana Densmore, Ziva Gunther and Rachel Kowarski led Torah study, Ellen Zieselman stepped in to lead the Religious School, Meredith Brown stepped in to lead the B’nei Mitzvah program. Countless members provided meals to those in need, especially to those suffering from short- and long-term effects of COVID-19. These are some of the many examples of communal love and support that we have seen repeatedly throughout this pandemic. What we have learned since March of 2020 is that a pandemic is like an amplifier, bringing out everything that is truly within, so angry people became angrier but loving people became more loving. Our Caring Congregation therefore became more Caring. Our supportive extended family became even more supportive. We were tested hard by this pandemic, but we did not crack… if anything, we became stronger and even more extraordinary. Tonight, we celebrate the strength of our community to endure, and we commit ourselves to taking care of everyone in our community in the coming weeks and months as well.


So, whether or not everyone in our community could join us physically today, our being able to reopen services on-site is miraculous. When we give praise and thanks today, we do so not just for the wonder of our community, but also for the wonder of the healthcare professionals and all the essential workers who have sustained us and brought us to this occasion. We give thanks for the technology that has enabled us to stay connected through this time, and we excuse the technical glitches as moments of normalcy in a sea of miracles. We give thanks to the staff in our community, those who started the pandemic with us and who are no longer working with us, as well as those who are still with us. Their dedication to this community has been extraordinary. We also give thanks to those who have supported the staff of the Temple – the volunteers, Board members, and Exec members who have not only held us through this most extraordinary time but who have helped to develop our community at the same time. One of those people I must single out in particular – our Temple President Michelle LaFlamme-Childs - who has been a rock of support, a calming voice, an empowering leader, a confidante and friend. The members of our community will never know how much Michelle has done over the last year for us all, but I promise you it has been absolutely mind-blowing.


Speaking personally, there were times in the last six months in particular when the burden of this pandemic was too great, when the weight of the community combined with personal challenges was too much. It was during those times that, like Aaron and Hur in the book of Exodus (17:12), I was supported the most by this loving, extended family of Temple Beth Shalom, the rock of stability and love upon which I could rest and be refreshed. The members of this community held my arms up high when I did not know where to find the strength to do so. As we write the history of our Temple, I truly hope that this chapter is remembered as one of connection, of support and of love because that has certainly been my experience of it.


Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem – You who stand here with us today, either physically in our Sanctuary or with us online – you now look out at a land flowing with milk and honey… you now see in front of you a time of opportunity and reconnection. This is the moment – “this is the hour of change.” (q. Leah Goldberg, p.31, Mishkan T’fillah). This is the moment of celebrating how lucky we are, to be members of our wonderful community at this unique time in history. This is also the moment that makes demands of us, to reach out, to care for those still in need in our community. It is, therefore, a moment of celebration and of simultaneous responsibility. It is an awesome moment and it is a moment that I know we will embrace.


For over a year, we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23:4) and God and community have been with us. May God continue to guide our steps forward, guide our community forward. May God comfort us as we confront the trauma of exile, inspire us to reach out to take care of those not here with us today, and be with us as we celebrate our extraordinary return to our extraordinary community, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 11 June 2021

Divine Authority and Tyranny (Korach 2021)

Yesterday, an annular eclipse helps those who have lost track of the Hebrew date, because eclipses always happen on a new moon. So, how might we connect the new moon with Korach, the apparently rebellious priest after whom this week’s Torah portion in named. The answer is in the Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah (2:8-9). In order to declare the new moon, and thus the new month, witnesses needed to appear before the court. In this Mishnah, two witnesses came to the Rabbinic court at Yavneh and said that they saw the moon in the east on the morning of the 29th and they saw it in the west in the evening. Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri said that they were false witnesses. However, Rabban Gamaliel accepted their testimony, assuming that they had just made a mistake with their morning sighting. Two more witnesses came along and gave a differing testimony – that they saw the moon in its proper time. However, the moon did not appear to the Court as predicted but Rabban Gamaliel nonetheless accepted their testimony. Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas said that they were false witnesses. He asked, “How can they testify that a woman has given birth when, on the very next day, her stomach is still up there between her teeth?” In other words, how can we say there’s a new moon when no-one can see the new moon? Rabbi Joshua said to him, “I can see your position.” In other words, Rabban Gamaliel, the head of the court, has accepted the testimony of the witnesses who, it turns out, are false witnesses. Rabbi Joshua agrees with Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas who challenges how the court – specifically Rabban Gamaliel – came to accept false testimony. So, then something fascinating happens. Rabban Gamaliel turns to Rabbi Joshua and says, “I decree that you come to me with your staff and purse on the Day of Atonement which is determined in accordance with your counting.” Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas has provided a challenge but instead of answering that challenge, Rabbi Joshua has furthered it, essentially starting a group of people who have challenged Rabban Gamaliel’s authority. So Rabban Gamaliel’s response is to tell Rabbi Joshua that if he counts the calendar differently, he should demonstrate his apparent rebellion publicly. Is it rebellion, though? Yes, Rabbi Joshua is questioning how Rabban Gamaliel’s method for examining witnesses, but is it an innocent query or is it open mockery of the leader of the court? It could be read both ways. Rabban Gamaliel takes it as publicly questioning his authority, so he reacts by showing strict authority. Whether it was intended to be rebellious or not, Rabban Gamaliel’s response turns it into a rebellion that must be ended.


Rabbi Akiva finds Rabbi Joshua greatly troubled and explains that everything that Rabban Gamaliel has done is valid because Torah says “These are the set feasts of the Eternal… which you shall proclaim” (Lev. 23:4). Whether they are in their proper time or not, the key is that God has given authority to the Rabbis to proclaim the calendar. Akiva, ever the peace-maker, then went to Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas and said, “If we’re going to take issue with the court of Rabban Gamaliel, we have to take issue with every single court which has come into being since the time of Moses to the present day.” He quotes the book of Exodus which talks of “Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel…” (Ex. 24:9) “Why,” he asks, “have the names of the elders not been given? To teach that every group of three elders who came into being as a court of Israel are equivalent to the court of Moses himself.” We assume that Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas is calmed and accepts the authority of Rabban Gamaliel to determine the dates of the festivals because when the court decrees them, that’s when they are, even if the calendar doesn’t match totally with what is in the sky.


Next we read that Rabbi Joshua took his staff with his purse in his hand and went to Yavneh, to Rabban Gamaliel, on the Day of Atonement according to his counting. In response, Rabban Gamaliel says to him, “Peace, my master and disciple – my master in wisdom and my disciple in accepting my rulings.” What Rabban Gamaliel saw as a rebellion has now been contained peacefully.


In our Torah portion, Korach challenges Moses, God’s emissary, the man who speaks with God, the man who literally glows with the Divine Presence. His challenge isn’t one of subjective rulings – is it the new moon or not – but a challenge of authority. Korach says that Moses takes on too much because all the people are holy, not just Moses. Essentially, he’s saying that Moses is no better than anyone else. That, of course, stands in complete contradiction with the word of God, since God clearly states at Sinai that only Moses can come up the mountain and that anyone who even touches the mountain shall die. God also says that no-one can see God’s face and live but God nonetheless lets Moses see God’s back, a privilege not granted to any other Israelite. So Korach’s challenge is one against not just Moses’ authority but actually against the whole structure of the Jewish community. Judaism sets up a community which has specialists – the priests were the specialists in sacrifice and the Rabbis are specialists in deciding halakhah, Jewish law. Rabban Gamaliel is the supreme specialist in the court, so questioning his decision-making ability is essentially like questioning God.


This, I believe, is what leads to the perceived rebellion – divine authority that supports human decision-making is inherently dangerous, since human beings are flawed. It is clear that Rabban Gamaliel made a mistake with the witnesses but the system that was established gave divine approval to his mistake. It made the incorrect correct. That’s very difficult for those who want a court with no mistakes, like Rabbi Joshua, who was clearly right to ask his question about the correctness of the decision. It’s not rebellion to question a leader’s terrible decision, and to ask how that can be enshrined in law. What’s fascinating is what else happens – after Rabban Gamaliel seemingly humiliates Rabbi Joshua with the demand regarding the date of Yom Kippur, their colleagues are so shocked by Rabban Gamaliel’s behavior that he is ousted as the head of the court! Although he is later returned to his post once he and Rabbi Joshua are reconciled, there continues to be a power-sharing agreement moving forward.


When people believe that they act on divine authority, their leadership can easily slip into tyranny. Nonsense laws are backed up with humiliation aimed at anyone who dares to disagree. In some sense, we see this same phenomenon with Korach as represented in Midrash. For example, when Moses tells the people that God instructs them to wear a blue tassel on their clothing so that it catches one’s eye and we remember God’s commandments, Korach asks what to do if their entire garment is blue? The Rabbis suggest that Korach asks these questions because he’s a trouble-maker, but I cannot see him that way. I believe that Korach sees divine authority being directed through one man, who is clearly very flawed, and who therefore tests the problematic system. It’s not that Korach rebels against God – he rebels against Moses because he is the only arbiter of divine authority.


The end of the Korach story is humiliation. Talmud (Bava Batra 74a) says that there is a spot that Rabbi bar bar Hana visited where he heard Korach cry up from the ground the words “Moses and his Torah are true, and we are liars.” That’s not fair. God tells the Israelites to be holy (Lev. 19:1) and Korach says that all the people are holy. That’s not a liar. He says that Moses has taken on too much, which is exactly what Moses’ father-in-law Jethro said back in Exodus 18(:14). Korach says that God is in the midst of the people. Well, that one’s a stretch – God is clearly centered around the Tabernacle. But once the Second Temple is built and then destroyed many hundreds of years later, the Rabbis end up saying essentially the same thing as Korach does in our Torah portion – that God is not focused on one specific location. If anything, then, Korach is a visionary. But he is humiliated just as Rabbi Joshua is humiliated, because any system that claims divine authority can easily tend towards terror and violence against anyone who disagrees with it.


Moses was flawed and Rabban Gamaliel was flawed. Moses ends his life without being able to cross into the Jordan because of his failure. Rabban Gamaliel ends up in a power-sharing arrangement because of his failure. That, I believe, is a wonderful lessons for all leaders – that if you think you came to this position because you’re perfect, you will end up failing. And this can, indeed, be a lesson for everyone – to hear those who would disagree with us without accusing them, to learn from their questions about how we may be wrong, to embrace humility, to be less certain of ourselves.  For some of us that’s more of a challenge than for others. But a religious community that tries to encounter God is not the same as God – we’re not perfect and that’s the point. We learn from our flaws instead of pretending that they don’t exist.


So, may God be with us as we embrace our imperfection, as we celebrate the opportunity to learn and grow from our interaction with others. May we embrace being questioned and challenged. And may we all question and challenge each other with love and respect, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Shelach Lecha Sermon 2021 - At the Border of Change

Earlier this morning, I led a service from the Bimah in our Sanctuary. It was the first time I had led a Shabbat service there in a year. The last time I did so, it was to a totally empty Sanctuary. I knew that many members were watching online, but the Sanctuary itself was totally empty and it was an extremely lonely experience. I returned to the empty Sanctuary for the High Holy Days because the internet connection at our home wasn’t reliable enough. Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre and all the way through Yom Kippur I led services to a totally empty Sanctuary. There were moments in those services when I sang and my voice was the only sound in the entire room, and it was incredibly moving for me personally to fill a sacred space with my own voice. There was an immediacy between me and God that I have only felt a few times before in my life. At the end of the Yom Kippur services, once the Ne’ilah service finished, once we had wished shanah tovah to everyone, once I ended the online streaming and was left alone in the Sanctuary, though, I started crying. It wasn’t just due to exhaustion or stress, although there was certainly much of that at that time. It was fundamentally because of the loss of essential human interaction during a time when human interaction is so necessary. Yes, having my rendition of sh’ma koleinu fill the Sanctuary was powerful, but can never be as fulfilling as leading a service with a community. A one-to-one connection, a moment of I-Thou in our Sanctuary between God and me is something to be treasured, but it doesn’t compare to sharing sh’ma in a minyan, because we don’t celebrate festivals alone. The Jewish community experiences time communally, and observes special moments in that time – Shabbat and the festivals – communally.

For just over a year, we’ve been streaming services on Zoom which allowed members to see me and have some sense of shared festival experience, although I could not see them because I had to focus on the slides. Over the last year, leading Shabbat services went for me from a shared journey to a weekly presentation of Jewish spirituality, enabling others to experience something that I could not. My spiritual role shifted from guide to presenter, from spiritual artist to professional sacred space holder, from companion to enabler. That’s why I genuinely want to return to in-person services so that we can share something spiritual together once again. At the same time, though, I’m nervous. I’ve got so used to leading services in my slippers from the comfort of my couch or my study that the transition to a new spirituality is nerve-wracking. For this morning’s Preschool Shabbat, I chose to force myself across that boundary, which was especially helpful as a taster of things to come since in two weeks’ time, we open up in-person Shabbat services for those who want to return physically.

With that in mind, I want to share my experience of Preschool Shabbat this morning. The first thing that struck me was when one of the older kids walked into the Sanctuary and said, “Rabbi Neil, I haven’t seen you in a long time.” I felt seen and so valued and had forgotten how wonderful it feels to be seen by members of a loving community.From the get-go, I was amazed that I remembered all of my shtick – all of my jokes and songs that I do with them – even though I haven’t uttered them for a very long time. When we lit the Shabbat candles, my voice broke a little and I had to hold back tears because we sang the brachah together and we were engaging in Jewish ritual together when for so long for me it has been a solo performance. I didn’t realize how much it had hurt my soul to not hear others praying along with me. When it came time for challah, I took a piece and tucked it into my mouth under my mask but the kids had to wait until lunch to have theirs. Suddenly, that communal act of breaking bread together not being able to happen reminded me that we are still in a pandemic and that coming back to services will feel profoundly different.

Once the Preschool kids left the Sanctuary I had a momentary pause. I was in shock. It was nice but it felt a little odd. It was returning to the old but in a new way. It was a return, but only partially. It was communal prayer for the first time in a year, which felt transformative, inclusive, shared, communal, and supportive, but it was also distanced, changed, and limited. I had finally experienced the wonderful but disjointed reality of an in-person pandemic prayer service. What I needed, and what I’m really going to start working on over the next two weeks, was a transition ritual, a ritual of return. I mentioned this a few weeks ago, but now it has become even more relevant.  

As I started to consider this ritual, I remembered this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha. In it, the Israelites send twelve spies into the land of Canaan, the land of milk and honey, the land that was promised to them by God, and yet they are too terrified to move forward. The challenges facing them overwhelm them psychically. Their report back to the people is called “evil” by the Torah, because it strikes fear into the people and they yearn to go back to Egypt, to the worst of places, simply because it was familiar. The entire people become demoralized by the account. In response, God tells Moses that the entire people will be wiped out and will start again with Moses, but Moses argues that that cannot happen. He gets it. It’s not about the community leader. It’s about the people, some of whom are ready to go into the land and some of whom are not. In the end, most of them are banned from entering because of that hesitation when the time was right. Immediately regretting missing their window of opportunity, they rush to make amends and pour into the land where they are soundly defeated by the inhabitants because they’re not prepared.

This Torah portion helps me prepare the ritual of return in a few ways. It needs to acknowledge fear of change, fear of personal harm, trepidation of crossing the threshold, that some people will feel. It needs to hold those who remain on one side of the border while others cross over. It needs to acknowledge that it is not good for a prayer leader and the prayer community to be physically separated. It needs to acknowledge the transition of the prayer leader from nebbish with a Powerpoint presentation back to emissary of communal prayer. It needs to acknowledge a physical and psychological divide that was forced upon our community and that also needs to celebrate that it is slowly going away.

Like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, we are near the border of a transformative change. We won’t rush in blindly but we’ll also not yearn to go back to the worst out of fear of change.  Together, we will find a balance. May God help us as we search for that balance, together, as a community, and let us say, Amen.


Friday, 14 May 2021

Praying and Working for Peace in Jerusalem, May 14th 2021

 As far as I have learned, in 1875, Rabbi Avraham Ashkenazi and Rabbi Meir Auerbach acquired some land from Arab sellers.  In 1946, shortly before Israel’s War of Independence, two Jewish non-governmental organizations moved to register the deed with authorities in what was then British Mandatory Palestine. In 1982, the Palestinian residents of the property – including the parents and grandparents of some of the current occupants – signed an agreement confirming that the Israeli NGOs were the rightful owners. In the early 2000s, these two Israeli non-profits sold the land to the Nahalat Shimon organization. The Palestinians occupying the dwelling were nevertheless allowed to continue living there and enjoyed “Protected Residents” status. However, by law, the tenants were required to pay rent to Nahalat Shimon. It was only after the Palestinian residents refused to do that, and instead illegally expanded the property and rented out spaces to third parties, that Nahalat Shimon initiated eviction proceedings. Before going to court, the Jewish owners of the property and the Palestinian residents almost came to an out-of-court settlement but the Palestinian Authority threatened the Palestinian residents with violence if they agreed to a compromise. It therefore became an intractable legal issue of squatters, and had to go to court.

You may not have heard of this. Instead, you made have recently heard from Reuters that “Jewish settlers backed by an Israeli court have taken over some homes” in Sheikh Jarrah, or may have seen Associated Press reports that “dozens of Palestinians are fighting attempts by Israeli settlers to evict them from their homes.” You would not be alone. What is actually a landlord/squatter issue that only came to court because of pressure from the Palestinian Authority for the Palestinian residents not to cave to Israelis has become a narrative of Jewish settlers stealing Palestinians homes. Such a claim, which I believe is demonstrably false in this case, doesn’t arise from a vacuum, though. Many American Liberals, good people who are honest about their own country’s history of ethnic cleansing and systemic state-sanctioned racist violence, view everything in the rest of the world in similar terms. World history is viewed through the lens of American history, which is sometimes a useful way to look at things but is sometimes reductive and unhelpful because in so doing, it misses the uniqueness of the non-American experience. Not all of human history is American history expressed in differing locations. I am starting to think that guilt experienced by contemporary Americans for profiting off a society that was created through the violent oppression of indigenous people is then transferred to Israel, the only other state with which such people have a personal connection. Israel is then condemned in the strongest possible terms for any acts of violence against Palestinians, while Palestinian violence is excused as being understandable or even justified – Palestinians viewed like Native Americans are then seen as justifiably resisting white colonialist expansion. Such a comparison is deeply problematic that I believe reveals an American experience totally removed from life on the ground in the Middle East. I appreciate that this opening analysis of liberal Jewish American responses to the current crisis is challenging, but when such people, whom I believe are absolutely well-intentioned and good people, talk and organize 100 times more about human rights issues in Israel/Palestine than they do about human rights issues in the whole of the rest of the world combined, and when they demonize Israel using language that they would never consider using for any other country in the world, including those which commit far worse human rights abuses, I think it’s important to explore why. The Rohingya crisis which started in late 2017, in which more than 740,000 Muslims have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape the military’s demonstrable ethnic cleansing, and which still continues today, American liberal Jews are essentially silent about that. Countless human rights abuses particularly towards women in Saudi Arabia have occurred for as long as I can remember but nobody speaks about them perhaps because to do so might threaten the oil supply that powers American society. China’s brutal oppression of over thirteen million Uyghurs that we all know is ongoing produces hardly an objection from the American Jewish community, perhaps so that we can all enjoy cheap Chinese products. In Kurdistan, the rights of millions of people have been taken away, facing indiscriminate arrest from Iraqi authorities. So why is it that American Jews are so silent when tens of millions of Muslims worldwide are oppressed, and focus only on the suffering of Muslims living in Gaza and the West Bank in a situation that is far, far more complex and nuanced than any of those I just mentioned? What I’m not saying, by the way, is that there aren’t serious human rights issues in Israel - of course there are. Israeli society is demonstrably inequitable towards non-Jews, particularly Arabs. Despite the fact that this particular instance in Sheikh Jarrar is not about settlers evicting Palestinians from their homes, last year Israel reached its highest rate of home demolition in four years, with over 560 Palestinian homes destroyed, displacing over 750 people. Plans for the annexation of the West Bank were openly advanced by Bibi Netanyahu. In response to Hamas’ clear war crime of firing 187 unguided rockets that targeted Israeli civilians last year, as well as their campaign of launching incendiary balloons, Israel once again limited food and medicine going into Gaza, blocked access to Gaza’s territorial waters for Palestinian fishermen, and slashed fuel imports to Gaza’s power plant, in an unequivocally immoral form of collective punishment. So, I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate for people to comment on human rights issues in Israel, but I do believe that regimes that violently oppress their minorities all over the world must love the fact that the world community obsesses about human rights issues in Israel and hardly pays attention to it in other oppressive countries, even ones that demonstrably engage in active campaigns of genocide.

And it’s not just the focus that is problematic to me, it’s the vitriolic language used about Israel as well. I’ve heard all too often this week, including from Jews, that Israel is a colonial project that is the root cause of Palestinian suffering, by being not only an aggressive militaristic nation, but a genocidal, deliberately child-murdering, undemocratic, racist, apartheid state that is either largely or totally responsible for the violence in the Middle East, and furthermore I’ve heard it repeatedly said that indiscriminate violence towards Israeli civilians – our fellow Jews - from rocket attacks to terror bombings even to full-blown historic invasions, is justified or at least understandable due to that narrative about Israel. As disturbing as that narrative (which I am confident I could refute every single point) may be, what is also so upsetting for me is the outrageous aggression that regularly accompanies that narrative. I have been told that I challenge that false narrative of Israel not because of facts but because of my white, male Ashkenazi privilege, or because I want to keep conservative Temple donors, or because I’m a coward too afraid to be a real leader. After I explained to someone in a very left-wing social media group how Jordan, other Arab nations and how the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are also the cause of so much Palestinian pain, I was told to “F*** off with that colonialist bullshit.” People in that very left-wing group then asked if “Zionists and genocide deniers” like me could be permanently banned from the group. I got in touch with the admin of the group, who is Jewish, and asked if I would be banned. He said that Zionists are not all banned, but decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Here are my problems with all of this. Firstly, nothing is achieved by reductive soundbites that work well in tweets and social media posts that frame deeply entrenched and complicated political situations as one side good, one side bad, or one’s sides violence is abhorrent while the other’s is understandable. I would go further and say that not only is nothing achieved by such statements, but the dialogue that could be used to help bring about peace and understanding is muddied by such simplifications. Such statements don’t work towards peace, they just seem to reveal the speaker’s righteous indignation in the face of a situation far more complex than they want to accept. Secondly, shutting down nuance, deliberately ignoring facts that challenge the overly simplistic narrative, shouting down or trying to humiliate or shame anyone who dares to disagree with the prevailing false narrative about Israel that is so popular in liberal circles… all of those things turn people away from that liberal narrative and make them resent liberalism. I posted one article on Facebook and a colleague in England said that even though he agreed with it, he was too scared to post it. That is not a good look for liberal discourse.

This week I have learned more about my fellow Jews than I have about the conflict between Israel and Hamas – and I say it that way deliberately because this is not a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, despite so many people saying it is. Israel is a deeply flawed country, an absolute beacon of democracy and human rights in the Middle East compared to every nation around it, but yet still with a long, long way to go before it is an equitable and totally moral country….. very much like America has a long, long way to go before it is an equitable and totally moral country. Seeing how many Jews conflate Hamas’ violence with Palestinian violence has been disturbing. Hamas, to be clear, is a rabidly antisemitic genocidal terror group whose charter includes the statement that “there is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad” and that “initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.” Hamas will never want peace. It only wants Palestine from the river to the sea, and there is only one way to achieve that. The fact that I have seen that vision now repeated in liberal circles this week shows how normalized Hamas’ genocidal plans have become in so much liberal discourse. The Hamas Charter also says that, and I quote, the Jews “were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there….They were behind World War I, when they were able to destroy the Islamic Caliphate, making financial gains and controlling resources. They obtained the Balfour Declaration and formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world.” It even says, and think just how disturbing this is, that the Jews were “behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments, and paved the way for the establishment of their state.” That is Israel’s neighbor, who seized control of Gaza and who have ruled it with an iron first ever since, murdering anyone who dares to disagree with them or even anyone whom they suspect may disagree with them, using their people as human shields and poisoning the minds of their children with disturbing anti-semitic propaganda. That is why I am so troubled when so many liberal Jews condemn Israel far more than they do Hamas. I’m not saying that this current conflict is totally Hamas’ fault, either, though. As far as I have learned, this most recent conflict was not the result of a specific act of Israeli aggression, but a combination of at least 7 differing factors:

1) The incompetence of an underfunded and unguided Israeli police force who have been left to fend for themselves by the essentially moribund Israeli government for years, and therefore lacking any strategies or human resources to respond to anti-Israel protests, to stopping violence between Israelis and Arabs, as well as lacking any sense of a PR disaster when arresting Hamas extremists engaging in riotous protests from within one of the most famous mosques in the world,

2) The need for the Palestinian Authority to attach an Israeli-oppressor narrative to a simple tenancy dispute to make themselves relevant again in the face of both the Abraham Accords which demonstrated that the rest of the world, particularly the Arab nations, are fed up waiting for the Palestinians to work towards peace, and also in the face of the Palestinian Authority’s declining popularity amongst Palestinians that even led to Mahmoud Abbas cancelling an election that he thought he might lose,

3) Iran once again testing the new American President through its puppet organizations like Hamas, as they have done a number of times across the region for the last few months,

4) Hamas seeing that the Ra’am party was about to join the majority in the Knesset for the first time ever and knowing that the best way to stop such enormous progress that demonstrates that violence isn’t the only route to Palestinian liberation is to cause Israelis to distrust Palestinians again, leading Hamas to stoke up violent protests, including the one in the Al-Aqsa mosque,  

5) The rise of Israeli ultranationalism that has its roots in the ever-increasing poverty in some areas of Israel and which has been widely tolerated by right-wing politicians for years for their own political benefit, a racist, violent nationalism which seizes on every act of Palestinian violence against Israelis, from rocket attacks to attacks on settlers or civilians, as proof of Palestinian intent to destroy their people.

6) The radicalization of many Palestinians by Hamas in the face of an Israeli state which constantly reminds those Palestinians that the law does not treat them equally.

7) The total lack of an Israeli national strategy to work towards peace caused both by repeated elections leading to internal political deadlock, and also caused by a lack of intention in creating such a national strategy due to Israel having no-one to speak to for peace as a result of the deep unpopularity of the Palestinian Authority and the clear genocidal intent of Hamas.

There are, of course, many more factors, but my point is that we cannot work for peace just by pointing fingers at one side, we cannot work for peace by seeing every international incident through the lens of American history, and we definitely cannot work for peace by trying to silence or shame those who try to reveal the nuance of every situation in order to try to find the unique solutions to that unique situation.

More than that, though, a time of conflict such as this is not a time to pick sides, to condemn, to hunker down in entrenched views, or to become intellectual extremists. Screaming from afar “This is your fault” while people die isn’t a humanitarian response and it isn’t going to change anything. Tikkun Olam is not found through blame. A time of conflict like this is a time to be compassionate to the victims on all sides. Magen David Adom is the only emergency medical service in the region that treats both wounded Israelis and wounded Palestinians. If you really want to help this situation right now, if you genuinely want to be an agent for positive change in people’s lives, you could actively support them. That would be infinitely more helpful than expressions of internet rage.

More than that, there are specific people and specific groups in the region on both sides who benefit from Israeli/Palestinian division. The more we take sides, the more they succeed. So, we must do everything in our power to stop responding with blame and instead to start reaching out to the overwhelming majority of people in the region who just want peace. So, for example, yesterday hundreds of Jews and Arabs gathered on a bridge outside Abu Gosh, a town on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, to show cooperation and shared humanity. I believe that such actions are infinitely more helpful than ranting on social media about who is to blame. Crises such as these are times when we should be actively supporting organizations that bring people together, like Creativity for Peace or the Aravah Institute. Israelis are on the whole good people and Palestinians are on the whole good people. The overwhelming majority of them want a two-state solution. Despite the aggression and intransigence of their leaders, most Israelis and Arabs get on very well with each other. But that’s not a narrative that keeps people tuning into news stations, so it’s not one that is regularly shared. But I believe that especially during times of conflict, that should be our narrative. We should be highlighting stories of cooperation. If we are to condemn, we should condemn all who resort to violence on all sides. We should never excuse violence, we should never justify violence, and we should not be defined by violence. We should look forward to a time when all who cause loss of life shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks (Is. 2:4). We should pray for the peace of Jerusalem - a just, equitable, realistic peace that addresses pain on all sides, so that all who love Jerusalem be secure. We should pray for peace within her walls, for the sake of all people and for the sake of the house of God. (Ps. 122:6-9). We should pray that God Who creates peace in the highest brings down peace upon us and upon all Israel. And we should accompany our prayers with actions that bring peace to all. May God guide us in our endeavors, and help us to work toward a just and long-lasting peace, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 2021 – Encounter at the Boundary of Pardes

 In our double-portion of Acharei Mot – Kedoshim this week, God says to Moses (Lev. 16:2) “Speak to your brother Aaron, that he should not come at all times into the Holy within the dividing curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, so that he should not die, for I appear over the ark cover in a cloud.” God places a limit on access to the Divine. This isn’t the first time that God has done so – back in Exodus 19, God warned Moses to erect a boundary around Mount Sinai so that the people do not touch it and die. As I spoke about last week, this is very much because of the danger of closeness with God. That danger is not just expressed in Torah but even in Rabbinic literature (Tosefta Hagigah 2:2, Bavli Hagigah 14b, Yerushalmi Hagigah 9:1), such as the following short story about pardes – Paradise:

Four entered pardes — Ben AzzaiBen ZomaElisha ben Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiva. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; Elisha ben Abuyah looked and apostatized; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.

This isn’t a story of four untrained Jews – these are four Rabbis who seem to peer into the unknown, who apparently try to peel back the mystical coverings protecting us from Divine danger. Of the four, three of them suffer – one dies, one goes mad and one becomes a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva is untouched. It’s a terrifying narrative. It seems to be saying that the closer one draws to Divinity, the more likely one is to be harmed.
So, what does that mean for the rest of us, for those of us who are not Akivas?  Do we not get the Premium Divinity service – do we only get access to God-lite? And why are they even trying to plumb the Divine depths when God is very clear in Exodus (33:18) that “no one may see Me and live”?
At first glance, it may seem that this story is merely trying to elevate Akiva to the level of Moses, or perhaps even above it, thereby justifying Rabbinic interpretation of the Revelation originally given to Moses. Indeed, this isn’t the only text to do so – in Tractate Menachot (29b) in Talmud, for example, Moses asks God why letters in Torah need crowns and God explains that Akiva will arise in the future to explain laws upon laws just on those ornaments alone. Akiva can teach more from the law than Moses himself! Moses dares not look at the fullness of God, whereas Akiva has a different experience. Moses’ experience is far more passive – he hides in a cleft in a rock and God’s glory passes by, whereas Akiva enters and departs Paradise. Of course, God and Paradise are not the same thing, and it would be problematic were we to conflate the two. However, Rashi says specifically that Ben Azzai dies in this story because he gazes at the Presence of God, which Moses was warned not to do. So, Pardes is a place where one might experience the fullness of God, meaning that Akiva’s entry into it is extraordinary.
What is Pardes? It’s a Persian loan-word meaning “orchard,” and is generally taken to mean Paradise. Rabbinic literature also plays on it as an acrostic, though, to represent the four differing ways of reading a text – P’shat (literally), Remez (allegorically), Drash (metaphorically), Sod (mystically). Pardes is all of Jewish interpretation. To truly see Pardes, one sees how to interpret everything. No wonder Ben Zoma goes mad! That’s too much knowledge for one person. And no wonder Elisha ben Abuya becomes an apostate, because the more one learns, the more one single misinterpretation can cascade down into a totally skewed mindset.
With all this in mind, we need to reread our story to realize an important difference between the three Rabbis who suffer and Akiva….
Four entered pardes — Ben AzzaiBen ZomaElisha ben Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiva. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; Elisha ben Abuyah looked and apostatized; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.
Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Elisha ben Abuya all look but Akiva enters and departs - Akiva does something different to the other three. If Pardes is taken as all of Jewish learning, three Rabbis learn objectively from a distance, whereas one learns subjectively from their own lived experience. If Pardes is taken as a place of being, as a place of encountering the Divine, the three Rabbis lift the veil to look beyond, whereas Akiva actually crosses from the realm of the finite to the realm of the Infinite and back again. Three Rabbis are limited by the boundary, whereas Akiva encounters and crosses the boundary. He doesn’t stare objectively from a distance, he doesn’t study what is beyond - he lives it. He knows he cannot live it fully for that is not his realm, so he enters and then he leaves. We, therefore, can be either like the Rabbis or like Akiva in this tale. To quote Buber’s I-Thou, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Elisha ben Abuya all relate to Pardes on an I-It level, on the level of distant objectivity. That is the level that is actually dangerous, because it separates us from real experience. Akiva, on the other hand, crosses over and experiences - just as the High Priest in the Tabernacle is allowed to cross the boundary - albeit only at certain times and in certain ways. The boundary between the human and the Divine, between the finite and the Infinite, keeps us safe, but it is not intended to keep us out forever, but merely to guide us safely into the realm beyond and, importantly, to guide us back home. It serves as a warning to those who are not ready to enter, and also as an invitation to enter only for those who are prepared. The boundary is not a prohibition, it is a place of reflection and potential encounter, a place to ask ourselves if we are truly ready to cross over. For we have to cross over, we cannot gawp from afar dispassionately and objectively, for to do so would not be a genuine experience of the Divine.
So, we prepare ourselves as the High Priest does before entering the Holy of Holies. In every moment of our lives we face the boundary between the finite and the infinite. At every moment, we are asked the question Ayyeka – Where are you? (Gen. 3:9) – are you now ready to cross over the boundary and truly experience Me?  At that moment of crossing over, perhaps only then can we truly fulfil one mitzvah expressed in this week’s Torah portion – k’doshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem – Be holy, be distinct, be separate [from this limited existence] for I, the Eternal your God am holy, am distinct, am separate [from this limited existence] (Lev. 19:2).
This Shabbat, then, may we take tentative steps toward the boundary of existence by reflecting on ourselves and by preparing ourselves spiritually. May we not participate in Jewish ritual and study from afar but up close, with all our heart and all our soul and all our might. May we prepare ourselves to enter the inner chamber (Avot 4:16), so that may God delight in our steps (Ps. 37:23), and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 16 April 2021

Tazria-Metzorah Sermon 2021 – How To Return from Impurity


This week’s Torah portion hits me on a rather emotional level. At first glance, it’s a double portion focused on impurity – from that of childbirth or from a peculiar disease known as tzara’at, which is a scaly affliction that affects both people and inanimate objects, even houses. On a superficial level, this reading is about exclusion, about determining who has to be quarantined away from the rest of the camp. Today, though, as we’re starting to discuss how we might return to physical activities like services and educational sessions in the Temple, it reads very differently.

Yes, I appreciate that in order to relate this week’s reading to our current predicament that I have to rather gloss over the concept of impurity from childbirth. To do so is not to ignore that part of Torah, which I believe demonstrates once again Torah’s concern about uncontrolled blood loss. The difference between the blood impurity of childbirth and the impurity of the carrier of tzara’at, though, is important – the mother can only transfer impurity where the carrier of tzara’at can transfer the disease itself. It is almost as if Torah is talking about levels of risk of transference, and my focus this evening is on that second level.

Last year, when I spoke on Tazria-Metzorah, I spoke of the loneliness of enforced isolation, an isolation that we were all still somewhat in shock about at the time. I spoke of the fact that Torah doesn’t inform us what to do while in isolation, it just tells us when to isolate and when one can come out of isolation. Torah’s interest is not on individual people but on the entire people, on the camp, so what a person does in that time of isolation is essentially up to them. Last year, I spoke of the three stages of isolation – shock, acceptance, and return. Shock is what we experienced in March of 2020 when we suddenly had to all isolate, acceptance is what happened in the months after, and now, as more and more members of our community are vaccinated, we start to consider return.

I recently read someone asking why God chose to use just one group of people – the Levites – are priests… why create an exclusive club and thus a hierarchy between the people? Many people, including early Reform Jews, abhor the concept of priesthood for its notion of intermediaries between God and the people, for the idea that some people could be more elevated for special service than others. I don’t see that. To understand why the priests were needed, we have to go back to preparations for the Revelation at Sinai, in Exodus 19. There, God informs Moses to put up a boundary around the mountain so that people do not touch it and die. In the following chapter, the people are so terrified of God’s awesomeness that they ask Moses to speak to God on their behalf, saying, “Do not have God speak with us or we will die” (Ex. 20:19). Later in Torah, in the portion of Shemini that we read only recently, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer an improper fire and are immediately killed. Since God is beyond the human realm, the closer one comes to God, the closer one comes to danger on a human level, in other words, closeness to God risks human death. A rather trite comparison might be electricity – it is awesome, powerful, it illuminates our lives, but if we touch it, we risk death. God’s realm is not the human realm, so to draw close to God means to risk losing contact with the human realm. So, the priests are not there for control, they are the safety specialists – they’re the people whose specific task it is to allow the people to draw as close as possible to God without getting dangerously close.

I understand, of course, that Rabbis aren’t priests, especially now there is no Tabernacle or Temple to which people might regularly bring sacrifices. Nonetheless, as our community starts to explore how we might slowly return to activities in the same physical space, I find much sympathy with the priests in this week’s reading, especially when it comes not to blood impurity but to disease impurity. The priest is responsible for balancing sacred concerns with physical concerns. They want to bring the person back into the camp but they have to be absolutely certain that there is no risk of contamination of the larger community. This is not an issue of control or hierarchy, it’s an issue of public safety. The priest, who normally protects the individual from sacred danger by drawing too close to God, suddenly finds themselves protecting the entire community from physical danger. Their sphere of responsibility has widened enormously, in a similar way to how the High Priest atones on behalf of the entire people on Yom Kippur. I wonder – and I realize I may very well be projecting onto the text here – if the priest is afraid of the harm that might come from their decision if their assessment is wrong in any way? Perhaps that’s why the text goes into so much detail as to how to make the observation – so that the priest is guided through that awesome and terrifying process. In a similar way, I guess, that’s why Temple Beth Shalom has a Reopening Committee that is addressing how we all might return physically – so that the responsibility does not fall on one person.

The reality is, though, that I am afraid. I’m afraid of us coming back together and people not being able to sing in services or hug one another for a long time, resulting in them being really excited to return and then actually really disappointed at how services feel for a while. I’m afraid that we’ll take precautions but still become a source for someone in our community getting sick, or worse. And at the same time, I’m afraid for something that Torah does not concern itself with – with the feelings of extended isolation and loneliness of members of our community. What the priests have in this week’s reading, and what I feel at the moment, is a sense of awesome responsibility, in terms of awe being that reverential feeling of fear and wonderment.

That feeling of awesome responsibility cannot limit action, though. At some point, the priest has to make the call as to whether or not the person must stay physically away from others or whether they can return. That is where I believe this week’s reading is incredibly sensitive, because after the assessment and the decision to let someone return, Tazria-Metzorah provides a ritual for returning to the community. I’ve started to wonder about this. When we return to Shabbat services, what will our ritual be? It needs to be more than a Shehecheyanu. We’ve become so used to ritualizing behavior around the wearing of masks or social distancing that we need to be sure that that’s not our only rituals around prayer. In this week’s reading, (specifically Lev. 14), the person returning brings two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson wool  and some hyssop. An extraordinary ritual follows that includes presentation of a guilt offering and a sin offering on behalf of the person returning to communal life. Torah specifically then says, “vichiper alav hakohen v’taheir – “thus shall the priest atone for him and he shall be clean” (Lev. 14:20). Would we, as we consider returning to the community, need to bring a guilt offering, a sin offering? Do we need atonement?

Maybe there is a place for a guilt offering and a sin offering, for the times when we did not socially distance, for tolerating a society so unequal that when the pandemic raged through this country it was devastating for certain communities and not those we lived in. Maybe we would need something in place of a guilt offering and a sin offering for the times when we secretly did not keep best practice, did not stay socially distanced, either for us individually or, as on Yom Kippur, on behalf of all those in our community who erred in this way. And what would it mean for atonement to be made for us? The root of the Hebrew word atonement is return, return to the right way, return to connecting with God, return away from previous modes of behavior. A ritual of return is surely necessary. Perhaps it would include washing of hands as we walked into the Sanctuary, a ritual of cleanliness but also a ritual of washing off the past. I have yet to create the ritual, but our Torah reading this week definitely demonstrates what I profoundly feel at the moment - the importance of some kind of ritual of return.

Once again, during the pandemic, the Book of Leviticus has revealed itself not to be a dry list of hierarchical responsibilities and arcana rituals but, rather, a text that is extremely sensitive to balancing the physical and spiritual needs of the community in the face of contamination and even death. What it shows us is that the return to the physical community must be done very carefully, in measured ways, and accompanied by some kind of ritual of return that allows us to express physically what we are feeling as we slowly transition from isolation to community.

The first phase is isolation – shock – was sudden and we were unprepared. The second stage – isolation – was extended and difficult. Now we slowly and carefully approach the third stage – return. So, may our return to physical community be loving, be deliberate, may it acknowledge and help work through our differing fears, and may it ultimately help us return to God