This week, our Torah portion contains the opening chapters of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus. In Leviticus, we will generally be taking a hiatus from the engaging narratives of Genesis / Breishit and Exodus / Sh'mot . . . and we will take up the narrative again in a few months when we embark on the book of Numbers / Bamidbar.
In the meantime, we will immerse ourselves in a book of the Torah that is refered to in our traditional sources as "Torat Kohanim" . . . basically an instruction manual for Aaron and his descendants, the Israelite priests / kohanim. What kind of sacrifices need to be brought to the Mishkan / the Tabernacle? Who shall bring those sacrifices? When?
The Kohanim function with the absolute authority of God behind them and their role in the community is established by birth: Aaron, his sons, their sons for all generations constitute the priests, the kohanim of Israel.
Rabbi Stephen Parness
Rabbi Marc Bloom
The Torah sets out parameters for priestly behavior and dress. Unique garments were created embodying the sanctity of their tasks.
The artist's rendering above is based on the descriptions in the Torah of the garments and accessories worn by Aaron and the High Priests who followed him.
Today's rabbis look a lot different ... and the roots of our office are also very different.
Rabbi David Rosen
Rabbis, as you see from my photograph above and the photographs of my three immediate predecessors at Torat Yisrael, come in all shapes and genders. We have no garments which embody the sanctity of the tasks we perform. We wear kippot and tallitot as do the members of our congregations because our role is not established by birth, we are not the descendents of anyone chosen by God.
In fact, the roots of the rabbinate can be found in something of a populist revolution beginning in the last century or so before the Common Era. Through the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem, the priestly caste had evolved into a sort of Israelite aristocracy . . . a closed circle with an essential power base, the Temple and its sacrificial cult. To be a priest, a kohein, your father had to be be a kohein. That was the only way in.
In houses of study around the Land of Israel, scholars were gathering to study the Torah and ask existential questions about the nature of Jewish practice in an economy and a cultural setting that was fundamentally different than life in the wilderness during forty years of wandering. These sages began to ask a question that we are still striving to answer today? "What is our 'best practice' as Jews in this time and this place?"
Unlike the kohanim, the only thing you needed to become a rabbi, one of these sages, was a good head on your shoulders, the willingness to study Torah with an open mind and a profound commitment to the survival of the brit, the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
These are the roots of the rabbinate which I share with Rabbi Parness, Rabbi Bloom and Rabbi Rosen . . . it has nothing to do with who our fathers were, it has nothing to do with being invested with esoteric divine powers like a priest . . . or a pope . . . it is about dedicating our lives to keep alive the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. And that, my friends, is a privilege.
As our e-mail inboxes and snail mailboxes flood us with advertisements of Labor Day Sales and we makes plans for one last long weekend before we settle down to the serious work of the academic year, the fall, work responsibilities and the High Holidays, I think we should take a moment to contemplate the origins of this week's long weekend:
As one might expect, the institution of Labor Day in the United States coincides with the growth of the labor union movement at the end of the 19th century. The US Department of Labor website
"Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."
The first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City. Ten thousand workers marched in a parade from City Hall to Union Square. Within a year or two, the celebration of American labor was moved to the first Monday of September and was marked by parades, speeches and picnics for laborers and their families to enjoy a rare day off together.
As this photograph from Labor Day, 1909, documents, there was a core commitment to the labor unions and concern for American workers from within the Jewish community. We are proud to associate with famous American Jewish labor leaders like Samuel Gompers and Rose Schneiderman.
The roots of Jewish activism on behalf of the rights and wellbeing of workers can be found in our two-thousand year-old rabbinic tradition, drawing from the inspiration of the Torah. Specific halachah / Jewish law dating from the first centuries of the common era specify that workers must be paid in a timely fashion and that their conditions must reflect those that are generally acceptable at the time.
Work is understood in our tradition to serve as a means of establishing security, self-esteem and a sense of responsibility for society in general. Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies (Conservative) at the American Jewish University writes:
"...according to the rabbis, work is essential to personal development and to achieving religious depth and meaning. Through work, humans assume their places in the social order as active agents, like Adam. Work is a pathway to personal health, a conduit to greater understanding of Torah and of faith, and a mechanism through which one ultimately leaves a mark on this world. For a person's work to achieve and maintain this degree of personal and religious meaning."*
Rabbi Peretz's reference to Adam goes back to the passage in Breishit/Genesis in which God informs Adam that he will now be responsible for producing his own food "by the sweat of his brow." From this moment, humanity is transformed from God's "sheltered pets" in Eden to independent, responsible beings, creating and maintaining a social order, a system of justice and equity, developing ever-sophisticated means of producing food, clothing and shelter . . . which engage us to this day.
These are trying times for workers around our country, and in Rhode Island in particular. As so many of our neighbors, friends, colleagues find themselves out of work, our appreciation for work and its significance in our daily private, family and community lives grows.
These insights and appreciation have deep roots in our tradition. Rambam/Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah, a thousand years ago:
"One is at a high level if he is sustained by the efforts of his own hand, a characteristic of the pious of early generations. In this he merits all the honor and good of this world and the world to come, as it is written. "If you eat by the work of your hand, happy are you, and it will go well for you." (Tehillim/Psalms 128:2). Happy are you in this world and it will go well for you in the world to come."
I hope you will join me in a prayer that by Labor Day 2013, everyone in our community will know the deep satisfaction of "eating by the work of their hand . . . "
*"Social Justice and the World of Business," Walking With Justice, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, 2008.
In this week's double parasha/Torah reading, we begin with the aftermath of a tragedy . . ."aharei-mot"; after the death of Aaron's sons . . .
The tragedy is recounted, not in the immediately preceding parasha, Metzora, nor in the parasha before that, Tazria, but in the third parsha preceding this week's reading, Shemini. It is there that we read a perplexing event: Aaron sacrificed the animals, then lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. Then Aaron and Moses went inside the Tent of Appointed Meeting. When they came out again, they blessed the people, and the glory of God revealed itself to all the people. Fire went forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted for joy, and fell on their faces.Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire into it and placed incense upon it. Then they brought before God strange fire that God had not enjoined upon them. Then fire went forth from before God and consumed them and they died before God.
Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God said, 'I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire peoples.'” Aaron was silent.
How can we possibly understand and integrate into our understanding of Judaism a God that kills two young men who display spontaneous love and devotion to God?
It is in this moment that we confront an essential difference between the Israelite religion described in the Torah and the rabbinic Judaism our people have practiced for 2000 years: The Israelite religion of the Torah was cult of sacrifice led by an oligarchy, a dynasty of priests. From Aaron to his sons, to their sons . . . . until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, Israelite service to God was channeled through a series of sacrifices of various categories mediated by and facilitated by the kohanim, the dynastic priesthood. For all the information provided in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus about the conduct of the sacrificial system, there was esoteric knowledge that was shared only with successive generations of kohanim. This was a hierarchical system structured in a society that shared certain assumptions about the service of God and the relationship between the people, the priesthood and God.
Nadab and Abihu broke those esoteric rules and it may well be that the story of their death was meant to be a cautionary tale to subsequent generations of kohanim who might seek to create their own traditions beyond the bounds of priestly disciplines.
The rabbinic Judaism we practice today is the result of a revolution: the Judaism that has evolved and grown and reflected the real-life commitments and passions of Jews around the world for 2000 years was born of discussions by scholars in houses of study 2000 years ago. Around those tables were Jews of all backgrounds, rich and poor; Jews of all categories, kohanim, levi'im and plain Israelites; tradesmen and merchants and men (yes, men) of independent means. The only path to advancement was your learning, not who your father was, not how much money you had. The learning was guided by a number of principles: all opinons brought in humility and faith are equally important and worth preserving; we respect and name those who have contributed insight and learning to our tradition; learning is accessible to all who seek it.
In the world of rabbinic Judaism there is no punishment for spontaneity in devotion, there is no rejection of creativity and honest exploration of our tradition. It is the rise of rabbinic Judaism, born in the discussions of the Mishna, Tosefta, Midrash and Talmud that is responsible for the fact that Judaism is alive, well, thriving and evolving to this day. We look back at the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu with compassion and self-differentiation . . . their actions today would have brought them closer to a God who has grown with us instead of condemning them to death.