Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Thoughts as we complete the book of VaYikra

So, this week is Parshat BeHukotai, the last Parsha of the book of VaYikra. Chazak Chazak, VeNitchazek!

As a professional Jewish educator, I am acutely aware that too often this is the book that many members of our community know the least about. The stories of Bereshit and Shemot – from the story of Creation through Moshe and the crossing of the Red Sea and the Ten Commandments are usually part of people’s general knowledge as are the stories of rebellion found later in Shemot and through BaMidbar. Devarim is the review lesson – whatever we did not pick up earlier we repeat here, and of course the source of the Shema. But VaYikra – come on, Kohanim, purity of community, the Mishkan and its use for Karbanot (sacrifices), forbidden relationships, and so forth…. Too many of us put on the snooze button around the Parsha of Terumah after all of the good stuff in Shemot and don’t wake up until after this book has passed.

So, I want you to join my Let’s Revive Interest in VaYikra campaign! Read on.

Consider this – so many years ago, children studied this as the FIRST experience of Torah learning. Can you imagine that?! Why would that be? So, I think I can encapsulate all of the reading I have done related to this phenomenon in three words ….. TO TEACH DISCIPLINE! Yes, I know, many consider this to be a dirty word, maddening to many and trivial nonsense to others. But, we need it, really!

Remember in our wonderful democracy, discipline can make the difference between giving time to all for everything they need to say and propose (though remembering that 100% of the people will NEVER be 100% happy 100% of the time) and chaotic anarchy! Discipline may limit ME a bit but it will also give me a certain security and grounding that will enable the fulfillment of important goals and desired outcomes for us, or WE!

VaYikra, this is the book in the middle of the Five Books of the Torah. Parshat Kedoshim (chapters 19 – 20) is the Parsha right in the middle of the Five Books of the Torah. And lo and behold, VeAhavta LeReacha Kamocha – Love your neighbor as yourself – is the teaching right in the middle of the Five Books of the Torah. So, how exactly do we begin to do this – to love, accept and appreciate others? We do it through discipline, that’s how!

This is the book in which we learn about all types of Ritual Purity. We learn about Kashrut, you know that system of laws that allow us to eat food that is permitted to remind us that we are to enjoy the products of our environment within a DISCIPLINED context. We learn about health matters and the “isolation” of those that have certain growths on their skin. Remembering that this was BH (that is Before Hospitals), this notion of isolation which may not sound like loving that neighbor so much is really about keeping all healthy. One of my students many years ago, when learning this Parsha – that was a non-leap year so this was Tazria-Metzora – remarked that he understood why those with leprosy were isolated. He explained that maybe this was to protect those that were sick and suffering from the disease from the looks and ridicule of others (this was in second grade, so he was thinking of coming to school with chicken pox and how horrible this would be for him never mind the infectious issue!). A most interesting notion to be sure. Now, clearly we are given all types of reasons for these rules, many of which are Chukim, which are the laws that fall into the category of “I am G-d and I said so!” That being said, we are given many laws throughout VaYikra governing how we are to function in our economic dealings, how we are to act in our marital relations, how we are to interact with others, what we are to eat, and so forth. These laws DISCIPLINE our actions and limit excesses, which is NOT a bad thing. Remember as Jews, we do NOT take vows of chastity, poverty, humility and not speaking. We speak, we have intimate relations, we speak, we eat and drink, we speak some more, we wear nice clothes, and of course we DEFINITELY speak LOTS. So, the point of VaYikra is to remind us that these actions are fine as long as we do not overdo what we do!

Now are you ready to join my campaign? The sign up sheet will be following shortly!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Amalek: Some New Thinking about an Old Problem (with thanks, as so many other times, to Brian)

First, my disclaimer! I am a strong adherent of the philosophy and well articulated dictum expressed in the book of Kohelet, namely “there is nothing new under the sun.” When we think we observe something new, it really already happened and perhaps we just were not paying attention (Kohelet, chapter one). So before I even begin with my newly formulated observation, I must assume that it is out there and in here, and I just forgot or lost it on the RAM (there is so much there!).

So, with that being said, Brian and I were learning last evening. We are in the middle of Shmuel Aleph (Samuel, Book I) and we are learning Perek (chapter) 15. Here we are … with the war against Amalek and the very clear instructions to destroy ALL that is Amalek – you know, just like we are taught in Chapter 25 of Devarim/Deuteronomy and as we read on the Shabbat before Purim to remind us of this age old enemy and its presence in our lives throughout history.

So, the text explains that the Jewish nation under the leadership of Shaul/Saul was to utterly destroy all that was Amalek – man, woman and child – and not take anything with them when they were done. That is, they were to, as instructed in Devarim, chapter 25, to obliterate them from the face of the earth.

Now, many of us have a hard time with such texts and such instructions. For example, I have friends who DO NOT read the verses of Megilat Esther that explain the destruction that the Jews instituted after they were saved. How can we, wonder many within our ranks, teach our children such abject hatred? Don’t we much prefer to focus on the very middle of our Torah – which we just read this week, by the way - (Five Books of Moshe) that teach us in Chapter 19:18 of VaYikra/Leviticus to “love your neighbor as yourself?’ And further, don’t we go ahhhhh when reading the explanation that the words “your neighbor” have the same root as the word “bad” in Hebrew? And don’t we just quell so much our stomachs are about to burst when we read that we are to love each person as our self, both the good and the bad that is in each of us, for as human beings, we need to and indeed have both and should recognize that factor about all wonderful human beings created by G-d?!

So, how do I understand the texts about Amalek and the punishment that, by the way, comes to Shaul/Saul as a result of this infraction of the rules? How am I supposed to not bristle at the notion of continuing generational hatred of Amalek, much less be sure who that is?

Is there a conflict here? You bet, I always thought…. But this morning I woke up and thought, Perhaps “lo kushia” as we read in Gemara. Maybe there really is not a problem per se or a contradiction here. And now imagine you were sitting with Brian and me at our kitchen table with our books and texts open and discussing….

The war with Amalek is G-D’S WAR and we are to implement it whether or not we like to. The question is not do we agree; the question is how do we make sure we are doing this correctly and appropriately? Why is this G-d’s war? So, to begin to understand this we have to go back to what precisely Amalek did. They struck from behind and this sneak attack was on our weakest members of community as we were traveling through the desert after leaving Egypt. What cowards we might say! But G-d has MUCH MORE to say about this.

G-d created all people and all nations. That is one of the many reasons our scholars explain that the story of Bereshit/Genesis begins with the Creation of the world and it takes us a few Parshiot and more than a few chapters to even get to what could liberally be called the beginning of the Jewish story. Further, before we get to that we read about Dor Noach – the generation of Noach where there was so much horrible abuse of each other that the land itself had become corrupted and ALL had to be destroyed by a flood. We are taught that G-d steps back at this point, and says something to the effect of “Maybe I am expecting too much from this being I created.” We will not have whole scale flooding again (though in our own current situation, this image has been evoked for all of the obvious reasons).

G-d is quite clear on how we are to treat each other as the Torah continues – we are not to abuse human beings, we are not to embarrass each other for G-d created each of us and in doing so, we embarrass The Creator as well as The Created! We are taught within our own community that we are to take care of the widow, the orphan, or G-d will kill us and then our wives and children will need others to take care of them (Shemot/Exodus 22: 21 – 23). This is stated in the context of our code of civil law as indicated in Parshat Mishpatim. Amos for his part shows how all of the other nations have not acted as G-d wishes and NEITHER has Israel; because of this all will be punished.

So, what do we do with all of this? Brian and I decided that what Amalek did was wrong as a “crime against humanity,” a phrase we reserve for specific types of horrific deeds that are undertaken against the innocent, the vulnerable, the needy one who is looking to us for help. THIS IS precisely what Amalek did that was wrong. They did not engage in honest battle but destroyed G-d’s vulnerable ones just because….. And this war was now G-d’s war, not ours any longer. Think, for example, of when a case of murder is not brought by the injured party but criminal charges are filed by the government on behalf of society. This may be what G-d was doing – telling the Jewish people to eradicate this type of abuse in our society. We should NOT have compassion or look back when those that are vulnerable and innocent are the victims. The one who makes them victims is not deserving of our compassion and G-d commands us to remember this! This may be the meaning of Zachor et Amalek/Remember Amalek, and what they did to you…. to you and to all of mankind.

Well now, at least I feel better thinking of it this way.