Tuesday, April 21, 2015

PARSHAT SHEMINI 2015 ESHEL Parents’ Retreat

Please note that this D'var Torah was presented this past Shabbat to the parents of ESHEL, the Orthodox LGBTQ Inclusion Community. Please note that there are minor changes for the purpose of this posting and that while the message was "keyed" for a specific audience, it holds relevance for us all. Have a great week, all!

Shabbat Shalom! How wonderful it is to be in this special and intentional space for the third year in a row. What a beautiful, enlightening and empowered Kehilah this truly is. It is always an honor to be included in this gathering. At this moment, I would like to share a few words of Torah with you, my Kehilah.

In Parshat Shemini, which we just heard a little while ago, we continue with the detailed explanations of the sacrifices and the high level of specificity of instructions provided by God to Moshe, Aaron, his sons and the nation. At this point this explanation is about the inauguration of the Kohanim and their taking of office, so to speak. After the detailed instructions are followed, we come to part of the process of the consecration of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim, culminating with this verse:

9: 24 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces.

Immediately after this, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, offer their own fire, which is not such a great idea, as we well know.

9.1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.

It is then at this point that the laws of Kashrut as we know them are given in Perek Yud Alef.

How do we tie these three elements together and what does their connection indicate for us in our lives today generally as well as the lane in which we all specifically walk?

To begin this discussion, we acknowledge the joy that the B’nai Yisrael must have been feeling as their leaders, their Kohanim, and place of gathering are all given more profound meaning in their lives. We get a clear sense of what is at stake in verses 5 – 6 of Chapter 9, when we read that:

5 And they brought that which Moses commanded before the tent of meeting; and all the congregation drew near and stood before the LORD. 6 And Moses said: 'This is the thing which the LORD commanded that ye should do; that the glory of the LORD may appear unto you.'

At the same time this joy is mixed with a tinge of sadness and loss according to Sforno and others, for this solidifies the need for a central dictated place of Kedusha that would also potentially limit the degree to which the B’nai Yisrael would communicate with and feel the presence of God in their midst. Nonetheless, as Nehama Leibowitz acknowledges that the people who have already exhibited the need for concrete and tangible elements, may very well ask “How will we know what this is and when it has happened, that the glory of God is amongst us?” She then teaches the notion that G-d will be sanctified in the midst of the people and in this special place; and that God will be BROUGHT into this space by proper actions and intentions is to be emphasized. So here we see an admixture of joy, loss, questions, and needs met as well as a clear potential for empowerment through intentionality.

It has been suggested by Sforno that the fire of God at the end of Chapter 9 indicates that the nation, that is the B’nai Yisrael, was now unified in a central mission and place and in so doing – and as some point out, this is the true miracle – would be forgiven by HaKodesh Baruch Hu for the long ago misdeed in selling Yoseph; while Aaron was forgiven for his misdeed in allowing the Egel HaZahav to be constructed. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that the lesson of the Egel was poignant both for the people and for HaKadosh Baruch Hu – namely, reinforcing the need of the B’nai Yisrael for a tangible place in which they could associate the presence of God, suggesting that while the limits are acknowledged, the needs of we limited humans are met as well by God. Sacks and others often talk about this aspect of our relationship with God and God with us – God’s meeting our needs and reformulating and refining, if you will, the context of the relationship that God continues to have with us.

Precisely at this point we turn to the offering of Nadav and Avihu. How do we address and interpret the fire that Nadav and Avihu offered? Note that in our text their fire immediately follows that which is sent by God. Could this have been an honest response, an attempt to indicate closeness to God? This thought has been entertained by several of our commentators, including Rav Aron Tendler, in more recent years. Nadav and Avihu were after all separated from the rest of the nation and given a place of honor early on, as we read in Exodus 24:1 and 9:

To Moses [God] said, 'Ascend to God, you, and Aaron, and Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders of Israel, and they shall prostrate themselves from afar ...' Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders arose.

So they were set apart, yet look at their reaction and compare it to that of Moshe Rabbeinu when he first saw the fire of God at the Burning Bush. Moshe hid his face and moved back; Nadav and Avihu responded with their own fire to that of God. The Midrash teaches that Aaron’s sons missed the opportunity to react appropriately to God and show the humility and awe that the presence of God was to instill; rather they tried to “equal” the action of God. This was never meant to be the model of observance for us as members of the Jewish nation and our relationship to God – this reaction that seems to say “Look at me and how far I can go.”

But this does not really help for this is not the only time that sacrifices were offered without specific instructions from God. Noach, Jacob, David, and Yitro are just some of those who offered sacrifices to God at moments of awe and personal epiphanies. So what else could it have been?

In Masechet Pesachim, we learn that there are five elements to offering of sacrifices so that they will be accepted. These elements are (a) who is offering the sacrifice; (b) where the sacrifice is offered; (c) the details of the sacrifice that is offered; (d) the proper timing of the sacrifice; and (e) the proper intentions of the sacrifice. In the discussion in Pesachim, we learn that even with following the myriad of instructions and restrictions and details related to the who, where, what and when elements of the Karbanot, if the proper intentions are not evident, then the entire sacrifice can very well be rejected.

Perhaps, posit several of our sources and teachers including Bar Kapara and Rabbi Yishmael as well as Midrash Rabbah 20.10, this is what the problem was with Nadav and Avihu. Were they inebriated at the time they offered their sacrifices; did they feel that they were so special they could create their own experience and negate that which was ordained by God; in short, were their intentions less than honorable and humble, becoming of those who serve God? Could this have been a result of their self-perceived exalted position in the community? If this is so, the words of BaMidbar Perek Yud Bet ring true, when God states that Moshe is indeed such a humble servant and that there has never been another like him. This is not to say that he was above making mistakes or errors, for surely that happened, but rather we are to consider his intentions. So we are still left with the question – Were the intentions of Nadav and Avihu honorable and correct or not so?

I find it fascinating that the laws of Kashrut come on the coattails of this text. It is known in general history that when there are signs that a society is falling apart, becoming undisciplined or losing its moral compass, we add rules. Think of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the amendments and the continuing plethora of codicils that are continually added to the tomes of law that govern this country as an example. Think of the layers of fences that have been continually built around the Torah and its laws to ward off that process as well. Could this be one of the ways to interpret this ordering of the Torah in our Parsha?

Clearly, the wording of VaYikra 11: 44 – 45 seems to provide this sense of understanding:

44 For I am the LORD your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy; for I am holy; neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moveth upon the earth. 45 For I am the LORD that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.

We are to remember that it is not just the details of what we do but the reason behind the details that may be God’s alone to comprehend fully. Here we may not understand all of the specifics of Kashrut and the features that Kosher animals must have and the resulting system of laws that are so central to our daily lives. Nonetheless, when we have questions or doubts, there is a process we go through – maybe some “fences” to contend with – a process that perhaps eluded Nadav and Avihu regarding their very possibly well-intended response to God.

Intentionality is everything. How do we function in our dictated religious spaces while responding the best we can in ways that are acceptable and appropriate given the confines of the dictates of Torah Law and practice? How do we work within the system and not outside of it, while accepting its correctives as the reality of our very human history plays out? How do we, as seen in this Parsha, join the human and specifically Jewish dilemma of confronting that same admixture of joy, loss, questions and needs met as well as a clear potential for empowerment through intentionality in our lives?

Specifically how do we help our children negotiate those dictates and practices when they are challenged due to their being gay? How do we help them find answers and approaches that will validate who they are and allow them to function within the parameters of the limitations of being human to which we are all subject? How will we help them on their “derech” and to maintain their somewhat altered path, without going too far, as perhaps Nadav and Avihu may have, for whatever reasons? How will we show them the continued love for and satisfaction from living a Jewish life that is as rich and complicated as the laws of Kashrut themselves?

Here is, I believe, our sense of purpose and what makes this community so special. We rejoice in our Jewish celebrations and spaces as we see in the beginning of this Parsha. We do not take the problematic route of Nadav and Avihu. We do observe the additional dictates that are set out for us. We also work to find continued and enhanced meaning for us and our children and all in our community in ways that are acceptable and motivated by the most honorable of intentions. For me after decades of being dedicated to Inclusion as a core principle, and as a proud mother of my Jewishly committed children, I feel that this is truly a wonderfully encouraging and hopeful moment in time for us, our children, those we love and care about and our larger community.

Shabbat Shalom!

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