After taking something of a narrative hiatus in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus (which serves as a handbook for kohanim as the rules and roles of the sacrificial system are put into place and issues of ritual purity and impurity are defined) we are picking up where we left off at the end of the book of Sh'mot/Exodus. In other words, we are "bamidbar" . . . we are in the wilderness. Specifically, still camped at the foot of Har Sinai.
Here we see Moshe as camp bus counselor (count the kids as they get on the bus at camp, count the kids when they got off the bus at the amusement park, count the kids when they get back on the bus back to camp . . . ): God turns to Moshe and instructs him to conduct a census, a head count. "We're breaking camp, packing up, and continuing the journey through the wilderness, Moshe, so make sure you know how many people you've got before you leave."
Then God delivers instructions further instructions for Aaron and his sons, the tribe of Levi: "At the breaking of the camp, Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the screening curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. They shall lay a covering of dolphin skin over it and spread a cloth of pure blue on top; and they shall put its poles in place. . . .Then they shall take a blue cloth and cover the lampstand for lighting ...they shall put it and all its furnishings into a covering of dolphin skin, which they shall then place on a carrying frame . . . Next they shall spread a blue cloth over the altar of gold . . . " (Bamidbar/Numbers, Chapter 4)
The act of packing up is also of significance . . . all the accessories that had been so lovingly crafted in order to initiate the sacrificial system connecting God and Israel are now to be packed up as well, and very specific instructions are given to the tribe of Levi concerning how that packing was to be done.
Just a few weeks ago, we at Torat Yisrael packed up the sacred accessories that had enhanced our worship in Cranston for 60 years: our sacred scrolls, the white high holy day mantles, the eternal lights and the different sorts of prayer books and bibles we read, the Torah crowns and shields and pointers, the memorial plaques and dedication plaques, the ark curtains and doors and the building full of mezuzot as well . . . . It was a jarring sight to watch these iconic items taken down, wrapped up, packed into trucks and transported to storage. I had a strong sense that the kedushah, the sanctity, of each piece was being wrapped up along with the item itself. These objects cannot be reduced to mere "things." They are infused with the sanctity of their roles as they cover the scrolls, point to sacred words, adorn the Torah, reflect God's light in our places of prayer.
Just as the tribe of Levy mindfully wrapped up those items preparing to leave Sinai, we have mindfully wrapped and stored our items in anticipation of the day when our new synagogue building will be dedicated. Then our Torah scrolls, our Torah pointers and crowns and shields and mantles will be unwrapped and brought into their new home. Then their kedushah will be released from its wrappings and will be free to infuse our new sacred space with the holiness of our Torah and our kehillah k'doshah, our sacred community.
"If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him--sojourner or resident--and he will live with you." (Leviticus 25:35)
This past Wednesday, I attended the fourth annual Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty Conference. Each year at this conference, we receive the most up-to-date statistics available on Rhode Island's poor: adults and children. We also are given the opportunity to learn from experts in the field of fighting poverty in order to make more effective our own state-wide efforts.
This year's topice was: Why Are People Poor? The Systemic Nature of Poverty in Rhode Island. A panel of three leaders in the fight against poverty on the national level spoke: Reverend Peg Chemberlin, Immediate Past President of the National Council of Churches, Rabbi Steve Gutow, President and CEO of The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Imam Mohamed Magid, President of the Islamic Society of North America. Reverend Chemberlin's presentation included encouragement to act despite the prevalence and the momentum poverty has gained: "Pick something and do it. Don't be overwhelmed. Have a work plan."
I learned Torah from Imam Magid: He taught a midrash from the Muslim tradition in which a poor man comes to Abraham. Abraham asks the man, "Do you believe in God?" And the man responds, "no." "In that case," answers Abraham, "I cannot feed you." The man turns away and God says to Abraham: "I've fed that man for forty years even though he does not believe in Me. I send him to you for one meal and you turn him away?" Abraham ran after the man, apologized and invited him to a meal. The poor man turns to Abraham: "You say God sent you to run after me to apologize to me and to feed me? That is a good God. I will believe in such a God." Imam Magid challenges us: "If you want to say you believe in God, show me what you have done to take care of God's creation!"
Rabbi Gutow shared with us the shocking trend that poverty is decreasing in the developing world and increasing in the developed world. In other words, it is in the societies with the greatest resources that the numbers of those living in poverty is increasing. Rabbi Gutow concluded: "The world will be a better place if we do this work. The world will be a worse place if we don't do this work."
I am sickened by the realities of poverty right under our noses here in Rhode Island: In 2010, there were 142,000 Rhode Islanders (14% of the population) living in poverty. The poverty level is defined as around $11,000 of income per year for a single individual and approximately $18,000 dollars of income per year for a single parent and two children. Of those living in poverty, 43% were living in extreme poverty . . . which means people living on an income less than half of the poverty level figures above. In 2010, there were 42,221 children in Rhode Island (19% of our State's children) living in poverty.
This week's Torah reading, all the force of our tradition, God's expectations of us, all compel us to do more than read about the poor. We cannot click our tongues and make compassionate noises. We must all act. I invite you to contact me if you are ready to move beyond heartfelt compassion to action.
In the meantime, here are two opportunities for involvement:
Join the Interfaith Advocacy Project and become a Legislative Ambassador. You will be trained to be an effective advocate, you will learn about Rhode Island's legislative and budget processes and about poverty-related issues being considered in the current legislative session. Contact Reverend Donald Anderson, Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches if you have the time and the communication skills to take on this kind of role.
Sign a petition. The federal government is seriously considering cutting funding for SNAP, the newest food stamp program for families. This is happening at a time when more and more vulnerable citizens are losing their food security (literally not knowing where there next meal is coming from). A third grader recently told her teacher that she did not have breakfast one schoolday morning because "it wasn't my turn." Please follow this link and add your name to mine: www.bread.org/snapworks.
This week's parashah/Torah reading concludes with a review of the liturgical calendar as determined by God and conveyed to the Israelites through Moses. Shabbat and the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are described. God declares: אלה הם מועדי / eileh heim mo'aday / there are My festivals.
Today, we mark the beginning of each of God's festivals with a blessing over wine. This blessing is called "kiddush" / קידוש which is based on the Hebrew root קדש which is the basis of every form of the word holy. As we raise the kiddush cup and recite the kiddush blessing for the festival, what are we saying?
In the course of this blessing, we praise God for sanctifying us through God's mitzvot (v'kidshanu b'mitzvotav / וקדשנו במצותיו). Holiness is added to our lives as we fulfill the mitzvot, the commandments that are part of our brit, our covenant with God. Holiness is great . . . but it's a little obscure. What does it mean to be holy, to seek to integrate holiness into our lives? A great subject for a future blog!
What are these festivals of God for? Why has God invited us to God's festivals? Our kiddush blessing goes on: Lovingly have You given us the gift of Festivals for joy and holy days for happiness... Here, embodied in the most ancient, enduring holidays of our tradition we are, in essence, invited to party with God! There are My festivals, says God . . . and I want you to come! We stand with wine in our hands and acknowledge that these holy days are given to us as days of joy and happiness to share with God.
Remembering the exodus from Egypt at Passover, reliving the revelation of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot, revisiting the experience of wandering through the wilderness at Sukkot . . . the kiddush blessing shared by all these festivals reminds us that, as theologically significant as these moments are, these moments are meant to be joyous. Like anniversaries and birthdays, the festivals give us the opportunity to gather together in community and relive great moments with God: "remember when?" Remember how relieved and grateful we were when You released us from slavery behind? Remember how awed we were to stand together and commit to Your Torah at Sinai? Remember how You got us through forty years of wandering even when we complained? Those were the days! Those days are our heritage!
It's not a festival, a party, a celebration of great moments for God if we're not there to celebrate, too. Even God can't party alone. Our recitation of the festival kiddush is our acceptance of the invitation to rejoice with God. Amen!
Our next opportunity for celebrate a festival with God is Shavuot, beginning at sundown on Saturday, May 26th. If you'd like to practice singing the festival kiddush with it's special melody, click here for a special online lesson on our TY website!
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.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.