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.
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.
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?
The Leviticus:8 Project
He shall remove all the fat from the bull of sin offering: the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is about the entrails Leviticus 4:8
I have a friend who is morbidly obese, so much so that I am startled every time I see him because I cannot hold in my brain his size. Some time ago we had lunch and I asked him if he was alarmed by his weight. He told me he was not because he never saw himself as fat. He said he had a fixed image of himself since he was a teenager of more usual proportions and that’s what he saw when he looked in the mirror or thought of himself.
I was fascinated by that response, but only recently understood it viscerally. I was skinny at 16, but fifty years later, I most certainly am not. And worse, I carry most of the extra weight right up front. Pictures of me taken in the last number of years show ample reason why my granddaughter asked me, during her mother’s recent pregnancy, if I had a baby in my tummy, too.
Mostly, I don’t see it in the mirror, probably because the direct frontal view I have when brushing my teeth or shaving allows me to see the svelte teenager that is still the source of my body image.
But there is no getting around it – almost literally – that in the midsection, I am fat. Adjective or noun, that word is morally neutral, but in common usage it carries a negative judgment. If it didn’t, we would not have so many euphemisms for it or spend so much time and effort addressing it. Certainly, there are serious health considerations to schlepping around excess poundage, but so many cultural references disparage fat that it is hard to hear a description without hearing a judgment.
I alternate between resolve and despair about my shape. When buttoning my pants requires a yoga position or squirming into my car in a tight parking spot soils my shirt, I become determined to lose whatever I must to eventually melt that belt. (I know you can’t choose where to lose, but sooner or later it will be my belly.) When facing a particularly delectable dessert or a chance to join a friend for a drink, I tend to rationalize the inevitability of my condition. At the moment, I am making slow progress. I won’t say in which direction.
It does not make me feel better to notice that so many people around me have wider girths than I carry. Some of them, I suspect, are in the same place of denial as I am. The expansion of the American physique is well-documented, even as airlines and theaters try to squeeze more revenue out of narrower seating.
The fat that attaches to certain internal organs was, under whatever system governed the sacrifices, not considered edible. Instead, it is used to create the sweet-smelling smoke of the altar. In that sense, it is not really a sacrifice – there was no particular value to it. That which had worth was preserved and used to sustain the priests and their families.
I imagine this context affirms both of my attitudes toward the current condition of my body. There is no worth to the fat. It would be sweet to divest myself of it and to return to sizes of suits and jeans that I remember from my earlier days.
But the fact is that I, like my friend, still recognize what is of real value. The younger and more vital forms of ourselves still reside inside these larger versions. Being able to understand that the fat may obscure the sight of our teenage bodies but not the spirit, not the dreams, not the delights is essential to living well today.
That’s not an excuse to ignore the health risks that come with being overweight. But it is a caution against despair. Fat is extraneous. It is neither inevitable nor definitive.
This physical lesson is a spiritual one as well. There are all sorts of behaviors, beliefs and neglects that have encased our better selves in unnecessary and probably unhealthy disguise. But if, by remembering the good person at the core, we can learn not to fixate on what is neither inevitable nor definitive, with or without the excess poundage we can live a good and happy life.
The Leviticus:8 Project
and lay his hand upon the head of his offering. It shall be slaughtered before the Tent of Meeting, and Aaron’s sons shall dash its blood against all sides of the altar. Leviticus 3:8
I work in an office with a floor-to-ceiling window that, at the moment, overlooks a construction site. (I post many pictures of it on Facebook, if you are interested.) Among the machines that are there solely to distract me is a giant version of an immersion blender. Its purpose is to churn the ground in preparation for the excavator to scoop up the dirt, which is then trucked away. Inevitably (so far), the blender hits water and the hole it is digging fills with mud. When the operator pulls it out, it is caked to the point of dysfunction, and two guys dressed in rubber aprons hose it down until it is once again gleaming white. This is one of the jobs the ten-year-old inner child in me wishes he had.
Construction is dirty business. That seems self-evident as I type it, but all my childhood memories of books like Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel and toys with Tonka stenciled in stylized letters never prompted the question, “How do you keep this stuff clean?” The blender is pristine at the end of each day, having been sprayed clean any number of times. But someone has to clean up all that mud.
Bill Cosby (if it is permissible to use his early work) put such words in the mouth of Noah. “Have you looked in the bottom of that ark?” he screams at “the Lord.” “Who’s gonna clean up that mess?” It is a one-time dilemma in the story – the giant ship rests atop Mt. Ararat awaiting discovery by contemporary adventurers and authors of speculative best-sellers.
I am thinking about these messes because of the focus on the biblical verse. Not for the first time and far from the only time the blood of various sacrifices is dashed all around the altar and, presumably, everything and everyone in splattering distance. Who cleans up all that blood?
There is a quaint teaching in the Talmud that suggests that a number of miracles were the norm in the Tabernacle and the Temple – no flies in the slaughterhouse, the meat never spoiled, the rain never extinguished the fire, and so on. But it says nothing about the disposition of what was, unquestionably, lot and lots of blood and other liquids that ran from the various offerings. Holiness is a very messy business.
I work nine blocks from the White House and about two miles from Capitol Hill. It has always been the case, but no time more than the last two years, that the workings of our government – the constructing of policy, the transporting of legislation from bill to law, the bloodletting of political rhetoric – leave an awful mess. We the people are usually presented with something shined and unsullied as the result, but the process of doing the necessary work of government involves necessary dirty work. Governing is a very messy business.
Is it in some measure a blessing that we have been subjected to the specter of mess-making by the current crop of electeds, appointeds and candidates? No matter what you think of the outcome, the detritus of what has been dug, dumped and dashed has revealed in technicolor what we have previously decided to overlook. Our fascination with constructing the edifices of our society, of rescuing ourselves from catastrophe and of making ourselves feel righteous must be cleaned up. Who’s gonna do it?
I am pretty sure that the answer is we the people. The combination of bombast and bigotry that has forced us to choose between outcome and process has left its field of debris between us as we rushed to either side. If we are to reclaim the middle space, then it is time to put on the rubber aprons and pick up the hoses and start washing away what has accumulated. We need to sweep away the disparaging nicknames and vulgarities and bald-faced lies. We need to scrub the exaggerated criticisms and disrespect for the office and mockery of frantic and frustrated people trying to do their jobs.
That’s not to say we should accept the mess as inevitable and unavoidable. Just as the animal sacrifices evolved into the much more hygienic practice of prayer and the construction lot will become a spotless office building, we have the ability to expect more and elect more. We can lift disagreement above mutually assured destruction, or, as my friend Greg Weiner described the approach of James Madison, embrace persuasion, openness to persuasion, empathy and reasonableness.
By late afternoon, a peculiar peace settles over the construction site. The workers have locked the gates. The machines are clean and quiet. The holes are a little deeper and the materials for tomorrow’s work are organized outside the field of activity. Tomorrow will inevitably be a mess – but only a necessary mess. In the end, because someone cleaned up today, it is possible to imagine just a little bit more progress tomorrow.
The Leviticus:8 Project
When you present to the LORD a meal offering that is made in any of these ways, it shall be brought to the priest who shall take it up to the altar. Leviticus 2:8
I have long been a fan of ritual. It is almost worth being religious just to be able to perform the rituals connected with a faith tradition. The prostration during Muslim prayer, the administration of communion during Christian worship, the devotional positions of Hindu spiritual practices, the choreography of Jewish liturgy – all of these engage the participant in a larger endeavor. The Jew who waves a palm branch on Sukkot/Tabernacles joins not only with fellow worshipers in seeking salvation but occupies the same space and movement of Jews across time and geography. The Roman Catholic who genuflects enters a specific point in theological history that is renewed with every such action.
Ritual can be rote behavior, of course. But when it is imbued with meaning by community and practitioner alike, it adds depth of life and reinforces the values that produced it in the first place.
Such ritual is not the sole purview of religious communities, as I hope is obvious. For example, the presentation of the national anthem before sporting events is meant to connect the honorable endeavor on the field of play with American values of excellence and fair play. No wonder there is such strong reaction when someone tampers with the practice. It is the custom of fans at Baltimore Orioles games to loudly emphasize the exclamation that begins the last lyric (Oh!) as an expression of their enthusiasm. Os fans love it. On the other hand, it has become the custom of some professional athletes to take a knee or absent themselves for the Star-Spangled Banner. Some fans don’t appreciate it. Messing with ritual is dangerous and uncertain business.
The most important ritual in American society is voting. Yes, it has a practical function – it is how we elect our leaders – but it also reinforces the message that democracy requires participation. If they threw an election and nobody voted, there would be a vacuum we would be unable to fill. I know that sounds appealing to some folks these days, but the fact of the matter is that voting is as much for the voter as it is for the, um, votee.
The old guy in me still wishes we had big clunky voting machines and one-day voting. That’s because I love the pageantry associated with showing up at a familiar place transformed for the occasion – a school gym or fellowship hall – and presenting myself to people I know who have been elevated to official function. I have to state my name, present my proof of identity, carry the sacred card to another citizen-official to receive my ballot and, alone with my conscience, indicate who I think is best suited to make decisions on my behalf. It was more fun and visceral to flip indicators and pull a big lever to register the vote, but even that little “beep” and LED flash that accepts my paper ballot these days carries with it a satisfaction that I am responsible for the preservation of the Union. And the validation that is offered by yet a third neighbor-certifier – a round sticker attesting that “I VOTED” – makes me feel as proud as when I didn’t cry during my tetanus booster and got a sticker for bravery.
It is still critical to vote, and maximum participation is important enough that the accommodations for early voting and same-day registrations make logical sense to promote a more representative outcome. But it is not the outcome alone that is the purpose of an election, any more than it was the sacrifice alone that was important in Biblical times. The sense at a particular moment that the infrastructure of meaning depends on the individual is essential in the ritual. For all the pomp and circumstance, forgiveness is not mine unless I step forward for communion. For all the recitation of sacred text and witnessing of the moon, the pillars are not strong unless I fast, pray, donate, confess and make pilgrimage. For all the astronomical dependability of sunrise-sunset, shabbat does not enter my home unless I light the candles. Yes, the priest has to take my offering to the altar, but not until I present it to him.
And on election day, the entirety of the infrastructure exists for my sake. I bring what is of worth, something only I possess. Others are awaiting my arrival, preparing my way, accepting my offering, validating my decision. I have dignity in casting that vote, and for my participation, all previous derelictions of civic duty are excused (well, maybe not felonies…).
I think that’s what it means to have sacred meaning. It is not necessarily about something other-worldly or even spiritual. It is about capturing the moment of meaning that cannot be fulfilled without each of us and all of us.
There is an election coming up soon – no matter when you are reading this. Don’t miss it.
The Leviticus:8 Project
And Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall lay out the sections, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar. Leviticus 1:8
My father and both of my grandfathers were businessmen. That is to say they owned and operated small businesses. My father’s business was office supplies and furniture. My mother’s father was an independent plumber. My dad’s dad, good with his hands, worked in a number of businesses and eventually manufactured shower curtain rods.
None of their children followed them into their businesses. My sister joined my dad’s business for a short time, but it was not her preferred destination. One aunt tended to the administrative end of the plumbing business, but she had no interest in pipes and sewage once it closed. Everyone else went in completely different directions.
I know people in my generation – men, mostly – who were expected to follow their parents – fathers, mostly – into the family business. Sometimes it was a liquor store or a car dealership or light manufacturing. Sometimes the business was a profession – medicine or law, for example. And any number of the people who graduated from seminary within in year or two of me were themselves following their fathers into the family business.
The notion that we can choose our careers in life is relatively new. Sure, there was some manner of choice before the rise of universities and trade unions, but if your family ran a farm, so did you. If your family traded textiles or imported spices or herded livestock, then you did, too.
Could I have lived my life laying pipe or selling file cabinets? Maybe yes and maybe no. The grandfather I knew (the plumber) not only loved the work he did, he managed to find practical applications of it outside of faucets and drains. I have written before about the sukkah (booth) he designed and built for our holiday observances from galvanized pipe, but he was also an invaluable adviser when I decided I wanted a waterbed in the second-floor bedroom of a house I rented; he calculated the weight of the thing by the dimensions I gave him over the phone and then suggested I put it on the first floor (I didn’t). When I asked my father whether he would ever give up the business he devoted 35 years to, he said he had no particular affection for the products, but he loved being in business, bring all sorts of separate parts together to form a working whole.
I would have been stuck in either job. I might have been good enough, but I always would have dreamed of something else. I suspect my three kids, none of whom wanted to be a rabbi, feel the same way. The closest any of them has come is my middle daughter who went to college four blocks from where I was ordained…in a completely unrelated field.
Yet here is the instruction in the Torah, directly from the Author, that determines the roles of Aaron’s sons. Aaron went into the God business and the boys (four at this point) are apprenticed to lay out the sections of the offerings according to the plan.
Were they enamored of this special role that their father played and tickled to be high-priests-in-training? Or did they bear the presumption that their lives would be structured for them with resignation and a touch of resentment? We have no way of knowing. And, frankly, asking the question may even be a little presumptuous in and of itself.
My late friend Corky thought he would enter his father’s business and, after college, spent some years laying out the sections of the offerings, so to speak. In the end, for many complicated reasons, it did not work out. I learned only recently, decades after his unexpected death, that it was a devastating blow to his sense of direction in life. He could no sooner imagine himself not in his father’s business than I could imagine myself in my father’s business.
Here is one thing we do better than our Biblical ancestors: mostly, we do not determine our childrens’ future for them by insisting that they follow in our footsteps. Corky’s father and mine both encouraged their children to find their own calling. My sibs serve the Jewish community as professionals, as my dad and mom did as volunteers. Corky’s brother is a doctor, as are two of my first cousins. And we have attorneys, academics, artists, administrators, animal caregivers and one cousin who seems to have been gifted with the entire generation’s ability to fix anything.
But nobody who went into the family business.
The Exodus:5 Project
and place the gold altar of incense before the Ark of the Pact. Then put up the screen for the entrance of the Tabernacle. Exodus 40:5
It is not the first time I have been weary to my bone with America. Paul Simon captured the national fatigue in “American Tune” in 1973. I was in college, having barely escaped the draft (lottery number 19) and facing the worst economy in my lifetime just as I needed to look for a job. Richard Nixon was president, irreparably sullied but not yet certain to be impeached. We thought we had reached the end of the dream. High up above my eyes could clearly see the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea.
A few more years of frustration were followed by Ronald Reagan. I won’t enter the debate about his political philosophy, but there is no denying he brought back the American dream. Maybe it didn’t dawn on me until the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics, when Lionel Richie presided over the Church of Unbridled Joy and the athletes danced arm in arm all night long, but the spirit of America had been restored. It took ten years, but we could be enthused about our country again, enjoying the vibrant debates among people of divergent opinions and convergent values.
And where are we now? It is nearly thirty-five years later and once again when I think of the road we’re traveling on I wonder what’s gone wrong. No one is happy; even the people who believe they are in charge and making decisions can’t go out for sushi without being accosted. People who gather for inspiration in middle America wind up laughing at cruel jokes about yesterday’s heroes. And I think that if it were really possible for the Statue of Liberty to sail away to sea, she would be encouraged to do so.
Is it over? Not by a long shot. When you are as old as I am (OMG, I cannot believe I wrote those words) you have a point of reference for despair. No story worth telling ends in the middle.
The Book of Exodus powers through an inspiring and challenging time in the early history of the Jewish people. The titanic struggle between the adopted prince of Egypt and his oppressive adoptive brother is filled with high drama and great promise. The Israelite people, muted by slavery, find their voice and then use it to complain. Small kindnesses and great miracles populate the narrative. A profound set of instructions on how to live the good life emerges from a barren wilderness. Betrayal, forgiveness, betrayal again and forgiveness again. Heaven and earth touch.
And then, the action stops. The book is overtaken by the excruciating detail of the construction of the Tabernacle. Commentators have spilled oceans of ink finding meaning in hooks and curtains and the counting of cubits but face it – unless you are an architect or a fashion designer, this is really boring stuff. Has the power of the story come to an end?
It sure seems like it. Wading patiently through ephods and fire-pans, we finally come to the denouement of the book: put up a screen at the entrance. The end. Strength, strength and more strength.
Is it over? Not by a long shot. The tone of the Torah changes in each of the three books ahead, the drama returns, and what seemed like a comprehensive moral code in Exodus is expanded to a global mandate of peace and righteousness in upcoming sections of the upcoming books.
That screen sure feels like an anticlimax. It is not much of a payoff, kind of like the shambles our government was in during the 1970s or 2018. I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered, don’t have a friend that feels at ease. Who will lead us out of this morass and lift the dreamers from their knees?
I can feel 65-year-old Jack Moline shouting back across an adult lifetime to 21-year-old Jack Moline not to give up. What lies behind the screen is fulfillment, good times, renewal and inspiration. Right now, tomorrow’s just another working day and I’m trying to get some rest. But soon, we will rejoice. All night long.
This column concludes the Exodus:5 Project. Thanks for sticking with me. I am taking a few weeks off before I start these weekly columns again, but it doesn’t mean you won’t hear from me. Meanwhile, look ahead to the Leviticus:8 Project, coming soon to an inbox and Facebook page near you.