Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
The Leviticus:8 Project
Aaron came forward to the altar and slaughtered his calf of sin offering. Leviticus 9:8
As many of you know, I had a long career as a pulpit rabbi – just about 35 years. That’s a long time in the adult life span, and when I look back on it from this perspective, I am surprised at something that should not surprise me – especially since I said it with some frequency. Incremental changes over a long period always create a major shift. It is true of my physical existence, it is true of my belief system and it is certainly true of my conduct as a rabbi (but not only as a rabbi).
When I retired from the congregation, I felt a sense of relief that I did not anticipate. The tightly defined schedule of duties that spoke for my days, and most especially my weekends, suddenly dissipated. It’s not that other expectations did not take their place, but the Jewish life I had cultivated as a younger man that led me to the rabbinate had incrementally slipped away from my control, and as my continuing evolution as a believer proceeded in one direction, my continuing evolution as a practitioner steadfastly remained defined for me by the schedule of services, the calendar of programs, the prescribed responses to others’ life cycle events and the demands of the institution for human and financial support.
As the tension between the two increased, I became more and more stretched between the two influences which can most simply be described as why I believed and how I believed. And I have no doubt that I might have found ways to experiment and change my public practices – the congregation was very accommodating – but my expectations of my own public role were the biggest obstacles to that change. It was not an indication of a lack of confidence as much as a sense of responsibility to my role as a conserver (after all, I am a Conservative rabbi) of the tradition.
I wonder if this is a modern problem that results from a world of choices that did not exist in ancient times. What sustained leaders like Aaron who, for years at a stretch, performed prescribed rituals with precision and without variation? Even if he had the thought that things might be more effective or efficient or engaging with a little variety or modification, he was obligated as High Priest to come forward to the altar and slaughter his calf, just as he was instructed.
There might have been a time earlier in my life when I believed that if Aaron had nicked the neck of the offering a little, or had sprinkled blood to the other side before the prescribed side, or had taken one too many or one too few steps that the ritual would have been ruined. I am not such a literalist – I merely appreciate the art of meaningful and tested choreography. Now, I am not so strict – so machmir, as the word is in Hebrew. There are some practices I still believe have veto power. (Though I made exceptions for married or engaged couples, two necessary halves of a whole, I still hold to the notion that only one person should be called to the Torah at a time rather than the “gang honors” that put the honorees above the singular voice of the reader of the sacred text.) But mostly I have come to understand that there are often different paths to the same destination, and that integrity can be measured more ways than by behavioral metrics.
The luxury of relinquishing my previous responsibilities allows me to say and do what current leaders must weigh more exquisitely. Leaders who embody deep respect and credibility (usually qualities bestowed by others and not presumed by self) can risk change without as much suspicion and resentment as those who are perceived as wrecking balls. The late former King of Jordan came to Israel to pay a condolence call when a disturbed Jordanian soldier killed Israeli Jewish schoolgirls at a peace monument, kneeling before the bereaved mothers in a very unkinglike gesture; the criticism was minor. The current Prince of Wales abandoned hopes of ascending to his mother’s throne when he married a divorcee for love.
Currently, the President of the United States is a man who is a disruptor. Setting aside agreement or disagreement with the value of the changes in policy and practice he has instituted, increasing numbers of Americans feel unmoored from the otherwise dependable conduct of the officeholder. Republican or Democrat, combat veteran or civilian, southerner or northerner, former Presidents seemed to adhere to certain conventions – call them rituals or unspoken expectations – that allowed transitions from Commander-in-Chief to Commander-in-Chief to proceed with confidence. Aaron would not be High Priest forever, but for as long as someone occupied the office, when the time came he would come forward to the altar and slaughter his calf of sin offering. Changes in the conventions of conduct were only as acceptable as the person making them and the case that could be made.
I don’t know whether I admire or object to the self-regard that enables some leaders to make changes that suit them without much concern for the people who feel the impact, practically or emotionally. But now that I am on the receiving end, I know I was right to exercise restraint when I was a leader, and right to step away when my enthusiasm for the status quo began to wane.
The Leviticus:8 Project
He put the breastpiece on him, and put into the breastpiece the Urim and Thummim. Leviticus 8:8
Albert Einstein famously proclaimed that he did not believe God played dice with the universe. As with all such pithy sayings from famous skeptics – especially ones that seem to reveal an unexpected feature of an internal landscape – a lot of people of faith have built cathedrals on this unusual reference to religious belief from the paragon of science.
Einstein’s religious skepticism (or, perhaps more accurately, disbelief) is not contradicted by this observation. He did not not believe that God “played dice with the universe.” Rather, he did not believe that “God played dice with the universe.” It was his way of rejecting the emerging field of quantum physics which posited unverifiable exceptions to the laws of physics to which his theorems adhered. He was willing to stalk an uncertain outcome, but not with uncertain methods.
I don’t want to claim an expertise on Einstein beyond what I have read in various biographic profiles. But I am pretty comfortable in affirming that he was a casual atheist. That is to say, I think he saw no particular harm in a belief in God as long as it had no consequence for the immutability of science (and perhaps other formal disciplines). If you want to argue that point, take it off-line, because that presumption informs what follows.
Just because Einstein was not a believer in God did not mean he was without his spiritual side, if you are willing to understand spirituality as an openness to awe, or what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” Awe is a recognition of the stunning improbability of our place in the universe, including our individual places, our collective place and the very existence of our planet. I think that responses to awe fall into two general categories: appreciation and fear. Appreciation causes people to come closer to be immersed in the source of that awe, whatever it may be. Einstein and Heschel each rushed headlong into the embrace of radical amazement. Fear makes people build artificial constructs to prevent being swallowed by what they do not understand.
Ironically, the reaction of each looks superficially the same. It is easy to identify how the fearful among the secularists and the pious have built a wall to deny the other, and each identifies the other side as the greatest threat to life as we know it. Those who claim that religion is responsible for all the world’s ills are correct only if the data is not subject to the same methods of inquiry on which they rely. Those who deny climate change and life-saving medical procedures and the common DNA of all human beings are forced to forego not only the knowledge of science, but the wisdom that can flow from it.
Perhaps less obvious is how the appreciators in each camp are similar. Each seeks understanding, and if integrity is intact, each seeks understanding from whatever source presents itself. Yes, like Robert Frost imagined, each arrives at a fork in the road and chooses one to pursue. Perhaps, as a result, they have little or no contact with travelers who made the other choice. In the end, each path leads to the other side of the wood. It may be my prejudice as someone who tries to live in this camp, but I suspect that the those who eschew fear and travel with appreciation would be glad to see others emerge in the meadow beyond – even if it meant the hard work of discovery was not concluded.
Among my very favorite authors is Alan Lightman, who teaches both physics and writing at MIT. He has written wonderful speculative fiction informed by his appreciation of the stunning improbability of our place in the universe. I had the opportunity to interview him once; I accused him by the evidence of his behavior of being an adherent of the essential tenets of Jewish tradition. We were sitting in front of an audience at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which may have influenced his response, and he acknowledged my framing of his lifestyle and his writing with an affirming and flowing response. Pressing my luck, I asked, “Do you ever pray?” His answer was more succinct: No.
It was Dr. Lightman’s book Einstein’s Dreams that brought him to my attention. It is pure fiction, not including the references to Einstein’s early job and the circumstances of his life. In it, he posits a series of dreams about the nature of time and the worlds that result from small differences in time’s essence.
I was so enamored of it that it informed my High Holy Day messages after I read it. (Also, I prayed.) It was as if someone tossed a message from the other road through the wood that landed at my feet.
Not being a High Priest (or even a low one), I never would have qualified to wear the embroidered breastplate. As such, I never would have had cause to encounter the Urim and Thummim, probably best described as the dice of the universe with which God played. Maybe if I had more of a vested interest in maintaining the wall of fear, I might have tossed the Lightman book back over the brush. What a tragedy that would have been for me. The road might have led me to the meadow, but I probably would have turned around when I got there if I didn’t like what I saw.
I’d like to think, however, I would have reached for the dice. I would have given them one last shake and returned the favor to my fellow traveler on the other path heading for the embrace of truth.
Reprint: AVANT ET APRES LE DELUGE
I share with you a column from a couple of years ago, unfortunately relevant today.
…the waters then receded steadily from the earth. At the end of one hundred and fifty days the waters diminished Genesis 8:3
There is no such thing as an inconsequential flood. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or that time the water hose to your washing machine burst while you were on vacation. The waters steadily recede, and after some time they diminish. But the aftermath is a mess.
The first couple of years that we were married, my wife and I lived in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. One winter there was an overabundance of rain and my cousins who lived in a house perched mid-way down a mountain found themselves in the path of the run-off. Not only did the water invade their home, but it caused a “pop-out,” which is a baby mud slide. (I think it is called a pop-out because it reassures people that they are not about to reenact the last days of Pompeii.)
It wasn’t two days before the sun was out again, but it was a week before the house dried out and it took a crew of workers days of shoveling to remove the heavy mud that covered half of the roadway between the front door and the hillside.
A flood is not like filling the sink with water and then opening the drain to let it out.
There are other kinds of disasters that result from a sudden imbalance of nature. They, too, create consequences that long outlast the event itself. But I have a particular interest in floods for two reasons. First, the verse above comes from the story of Noah’s ark. And second, one of my kids has devoted her education and career to helping people who have been effected by floods. It is sacred work because it saves lives and it saves the quality of lives. At various times she has been dispatched to New Orleans after Katrina, to Cedar Rapids after the river escaped its banks, to New York after Sandy and even to smaller communities dealing with persistent water problems that need an engineered amelioration. She has done this work on behalf of the United States Congress, a government contractor, a major university and, these days, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In other words, mostly the federal government and its supporters.
Reading the story of Noah (and likely other flood epics), it is easy to come away with a sense that the waters rise and then they fall and shortly thereafter everything returns to normal. We can be lured into believing that the highlights reel that makes up the narrative tells the whole story. The ark settles on Mt. Ararat, the dove brings the olive branch, everyone exits the ark and Noah plants a vineyard – on to the rest of the story.
But, in reality, people need a lot of help after a flood. They need to get rid of absorbent material (furniture, rugs, clothing) before it molds. They need to know if the wooden doors, drywall and flooring in their home will continue to provide a safe environment. They need to determine if the ground beneath home and business will support the weight of the structure. They need to get food, clean water and power safely and accessibly. They need to access medical care – both usual and emergent.
The finest hour of public service is when it is helping the vulnerable who rely on government in times of need. And in order for the government to shine in those times of need, it must be prepared before the needs present themselves.
I could make the same argument for police, fire, National Guard and park rangers. And EMTs, and public health officials. And building inspectors, product safety inspectors, public works inspectors. And educators, social workers, rec center staffers. And you can continue the list. All of these people are expendable until they are not, and then they are indispensable.
These services are paid for with tax dollars. While the keepers of the public trust have a special responsibility to steward those funds well, it is not the case that the goal of good government is to allow people to keep as much of their money as possible. Bottom-line politics appeal to people who have never had a flood – or who don’t remember its aftermath.
A country is more than an economy, and its government is one that invests in the resources to protect its citizens and advance its values…before the flood.
The Leviticus:8 Project
So, too, the priest who offers a man’s burnt offering shall keep the skin of the burnt offering that he offered. Leviticus 7:8
Every business has a vested interest in keeping need alive. It is something of an irony for almost every endeavor. There are obvious needs that require little cultivation – hunger, for example – less-critical needs that nonetheless sustain themselves – fashion comes to mind – and other needs which have been invented to create a market – professional sports qualifies.
And then there are needs that have been addressed and eradicated. What does the successful endeavor do when it has met the need and eliminated it?
Hardly anyone remembers the origin of the March of Dimes. When President Franklin Roosevelt’s polio became general knowledge, neighborhoods organized around his call to find a cure for the disease that afflicted millions. Mostly mothers marched from neighbor to neighbor collecting dimes to support research. It worked. The causes of polio were discovered. A vaccine was developed. And incidents of polio became few and far between.
But in the meantime, an organization had been formed. And never mind that the disease had been eradicated. And never mind that collecting and processing a dime cost more than ten cents. The charity reinvented itself – many times. Today, the March of Dimes is devoted to preventing premature birth.
Compare that approach to the organization called Freedom to Marry. It was formed to promote marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Formally chartered in 2002, though initiated in 1993, the ability of two people of the same sex to marry was a matter of settled law thanks too a Supreme Court decision in 2015.
At that point, having achieved its goal, Freedom to Marry dissolved. It still has a web site to tell its story, and its founder, Evan Wolfson, puts the lessons in social change he learned to use for other causes, but the need was met and so the business closed down.
I am a member of the demographic that watches the evening news. As such, I know what ailments I am expected to have, almost every one a condition I never heard of until a drug was developed to cure it. I don’t doubt that these are real medical conditions, but the commercials make me nervously set up an office visit every time my leg is restless, I have momentary trouble taking a deep breath, or I can’t remember what that drug developed from an ingredient originally discovered in jellyfish is supposed to treat.
It’s not just older people who face this dilemma, and it’s not just physical needs that are being cultivated by people who want to offer a remediation. In technology, transportation, education, home maintenance, finance and even entertainment, every age cohort is facing a roster of needs defined for them by others who want them to secure the cure. If I sound a little cynical, I am.
My jaundiced eye is not yellowed by contemporary marketing alone. There is a guilt industry that has been operating for thousands of years, originated by the foundational documents of faith traditions. The basic premise of almost every such tradition, including my own, is that human beings have betrayed their potential for goodness and fallen out of favor with God. Ritual behaviors are prescribed to mend the rift – sacrifices, professions of shortcomings, pilgrimages, prostrations, submissions, self-denial.
I won’t argue that, left to our own devices, humanity would rise to the occasion and create a wonderful world. We have thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. But I will argue that religions have a vested interest in making the case for guiltiness. Some argue that we are all sinners. Some contend that goodness is attained by fasting and prayer. Some demand a denial of the pleasures of this world. Some require a recitation of shortcomings even if we are not currently culpable.
But who benefits from these demands? In the verse above, it is the priest. He gets to keep the skin (in addition to a share of the meat) left over from a guilt sacrifice which only a priest may offer. Two thousand years after the sacrifices came to an end, it is clergy of every kind who have taken the role of the priest. We are employed to make the case for being a better person by making the case that everyone needs a savior, a month-long fast, a daily confession or some other inorganic practice to be in right relationship with God. And no one ever reaches that level of right-ness for very long.
I look forward to the day promised in every faith tradition when the mission is accomplished and there is no longer a need for guilt. I hope when that moment comes – may it happen soon – our faith traditions will have the wisdom to declare victory and follow the example of Freedom to Marry. I worry, though, that the guilt industry is so good that we won’t let an effective organization go to waste.
The Leviticus:8 Project
A handful of the choice flour and oil of the meal offering shall be taken from it, with all the frankincense that is on the meal offering, and this token portion shall be turned into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to the LORD. Leviticus 6:8
The sense of smell is often relegated to secondary status among the others. But it has two characteristics that set it apart from sight, hearing, taste and touch. First, smells tend to linger even after the stimulus has been removed. And second, smell can trigger memories with more profundity.
That former quality is no surprise. You know that when something acrid or pungent invades your airspace the scent seems to take up residence inside you nose even after the wind blows it away or you leave the site of the source. It is not permanent, fortunately. But it is persistent.
The latter is a staple of realtors around the country. Many of them I know bake chocolate chip cookies just before an open house to trigger warm associations with prospective buyers. A friend who was particularly adept at caring for an incapacitated friend said she would often fry some onions around 4:00 in the afternoon so that returning family members would have a sense of something on the stove. And an entire industry has grown up around removing some odors and introducing others as aromas.
When my eldest child was in kindergarten, she demonstrated this idea. We were expecting company on a Tuesday night and my wife had cooked a special dinner and baked a dessert – something generally done for Shabbat dinner on Friday. My daughter walked into the kitchen from outside, took a sniff and said, “Hmm. Smells like Shabbat.”
There is a scent I no longer smell because, well, it was a short-term and long-term danger. Back in the day, in the fall we would rake the leaves from our yards into the gutter and set them on fire. They wouldn’t flame, but they would smolder indefinitely until turning all to ash and washing away in the next rain. I loved that smell, and if I got a whiff of it again, I immediately would be on my Schwinn in the crisp autumn air cruising along the tree-lined streets between my school and my house.
I read once that our sense of smell was the latest to develop such sensitivity. According to the article, personal hygiene of the kind that is now so obsessive was a much more casual affair in the days before plumbing and Palmolive. Noxious odors were masked when they got overbearing, but the day-to-day stink of physical labor was familiar and unnoticeable.
That’s not to say that little Rivka didn’t enter the tent on the Tuesday that the tribal chief was visiting and say, “Hmm. Smells like Shabbat.” Some smells were probably always like that.
The pleasing odors of the altar were probably pleasing to the people at least as much as they were presumed to be pleasing to God. Some combination of wood and fat and fragrant spices lingered once sniffed and likely spurred a reminder to be conscious of the divine presence that dwelled in the Tabernacle. There were no cookies to bake or onions to fry, but the familiar aromas certainly were reassuring too those who felt physically or spiritually on the outside wanting to come in.
The persistence of an unpleasant stench, similarly, still carries with it an automatic repulsiveness. We know to avoid sewers and garbage heaps and the like. (And don’t ask me to take a whiff of curry – not my thing.) We have taken this sensation alone and turned it into a term of judgment. We never say, “You feel, you sound, you taste,” or “you look.” But even when no actual odor is involved, telling someone that they smell, stink, reek, or are redolent delivers an immediate message of disapproval.
These days there are whiffs of stenches past emerging from certain kinds of politics. They linger in the nose and remind us of memories we hoped to forget. They stink.
But every now and then, even in moments of grief and loss, the scents of better times waft through the air, set loose from an altar in a chapel or church. Pleasing odors. Happy memories. Smells like better times.
EXPIATION -- Leviticus 5:8
The Leviticus:8 Project
He shall bring them to the priest, who shall offer first the one for the sin offering, pinching its head at the nape without severing it. Leviticus 5:8
I was chatting with a new friend of my generation about the changing circumstances in which we live. I am a rabbi, though out of the congregational setting after more than 35 years, and he is a pediatrician. Each of us acknowledged that certain practices that were deemed perfectly ordinary and even advisable when we were close to the beginnings of our careers are now completely redefined.
I have tracked gradual increase of space and the gradual decrease of privacy between me and people who sought my counsel. A hug, even in public, is no longer innocent. Pastoral counseling, which remains privileged and confidential, must provide for immediate interruption if either I feel or my visitor feels the need. And I am not sure what to do with the instructions I received in seminary from the Freudian psychiatrist who taught us always to ask people about their sex lives. (He is dead a dozen years, so I don’t mind admitting that I rarely followed his advice.)
My friend has a more complex situation than I. As children approach adolescence their need for privacy makes having a parent in the examining room uncomfortable; a stranger as a third-party chaperone has its own complications. Conversations about gender identity, sexual activity, domestic abuse and even pronouns are both more necessary and less simple than ever before. Even turn-your-head-and-cough is a fraught instruction.
He and I each have discussed this dilemma with people in our children’s generation, people who are more “woke” than we claim to be. Each of us has heard some version of reproof that what we find so difficult to change in our practice and behavior never should have been a part of that conduct in the first place. I will acknowledge that there were behaviors I considered flirtatious or seductive when I was dating that I understand now were demeaning and disrespectful with the benefit of hindsight. But what about behavioral conventions that had no (conscious) element of the inappropriate attached?
The whole section of Leviticus from which this verse comes deals with people who realize after the fact – sometimes long after the fact – that they have violated a law or convention. Maybe they forgot what they had done or maybe they just weren’t paying attention, but something or someone comes to remind them that they have (religious word warning) sinned. The spiritual bruise of the act has never healed, even if it has faded.
Bringing an offering to the priest helps to rectify the situation. The two birds are the offering of someone with modest capacity – not enough to afford an animal, more than enough to afford a measure of flour.
But how do I address the unconscious sins of my past? Unlike at least some of the men caught up in the #metoo awakening, it is fifty years later that I understand that “pick up lines” were not as much the innocent love call of the hormonal teenager as a manipulative attempt to scratch an itch. Unlike brother clergy lately in the news, it is twenty-five years later that I consider that wrapping my arms around a distraught congregant (of any age or gender) might have been considered as much assault as comfort. And only recently do I hear “ick” beneath the laughter at some of my humor.
How do I become an agent of healing, for others first and then for myself?
I have the luxury of retirement. I can attend to my own social behavior going forward without the challenges that my doctor friend faces in his sacred profession. I can reflect on whether incidents I remember from long ago, now in a different light, demand that I seek out people who may or may not be as baffled by circumstances as I am.
Yet, I admit that despite my complete aversion to the restoration of Temple sacrifice, there is something comforting in a process of expiation that acknowledges it is never too late for healing. Where do I bring my two doves?