Vayikra: The Book of Life

If you were asked to re-organize the Books of the Torah, and to put the most important one in the center, I wonder which book each of us might choose out of the five.

  • Would you pick Breisheet / Genesis, a book about God, the universe, and the beginning of the Jewish people?
  • Would you pick Shemot / Exodus, a book about liberation from slavery and freedom, and the Sinai covenant?
  • Would you pick Vayikra / Leviticus, a book that is primarily about animal and vegetable sacrifices, dietary laws, bodily flows and other priestly concerns?
  • Would you pick Bamidbar / Numbers, a book about the development of a people into a nation, ready to live on its own in the land?
  • Would you pick Devarim / Deuteronomy, a book about love, loyalty and law?

I may be going out on a limb here, but my gut tells me that Leviticus might be towards or at the bottom of the list. [Show of hands?…crickets]

If that is the case, why then does this book stand in the center of the Torah, in a physical location that suggests great spiritual importance?

Take a bird’s eye view of the first two books of the Torah for a moment.

Breisheet could be seen as a book about incarnation. God’s word creates the universe, which becomes the setting for the unfolding human drama, a process of selection that ends up focusing on one family, Avraham and Sarah, and their descendants, the seed of an entire nation. The book concludes with that family’s descent into the womb-like crucible of Egyptian slavery.

Shemot could be seen as a book about birth and liberation. The labor-like pains of the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Sea of Reeds, and the birth of B’nai Yisrael as a free people, who at the beginning of their eighth week of freedom enter into a covenant with God. Much like a Brit Milah.

Vayikra then could be seen as a book about life. Both are filled with tensions: beautiful and at the same time messy, complicated and yet systematic, filled with both life and death, blessings and curse, holiness and impurity, heath and disease, joy and grief, creating unity and at the same time drawing distinctions between different domains of life.

Vayikra calls out to us.

Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches that:

“We become feeling alienated, distracted, complacent, blind to what is essential; deaf to the music at the core of the silence; numb to the mystery that dwells at the heart of this life.”

Vayikra calls us to bring ourselves back to see the world through the lens of holiness, to bring ourselves close to the community again and stand before God:

“to come into harmony, balance, connection and intimacy with the God who has freed us for this love, and not only to return, but to establish for ourselves a system of continual returning.”

The korbanot were our way to continually return to God, in times of joy, guilt or sadness. The korbanot engaged our whole bodies, all of our senses, to witness the power of Life and Death, sharing a sacred meal in God’s presence.

This system of continual returning has been gone for centuries, and the Rabbis tell us that prayer now takes its place. Can the world of prayer fully replace the world of the Mishkan? Do we taste prayer? Smell it? Feel the blood? Hear the music and the silence? See the shadow of death and the spark of life? Do we leave prayer feeling as unburdened as we would have upon leaving the Mishkan?

Our challenge is to make Jewish life today as vibrant and multi-sensory as life in the Mishkan, as vital, compelling and rich. So that when we sit down at a Shabbat meal, we feel that God too smells the savory smells from the meal. So that when we come together at a celebratory meal, we feel that connection to the Divine that we would have in the Mishkan.

May we have the strength, creativity and passion to create for this generation a Jewish life as filled with life as the generation of the Mishkan, and may we continually strive to maintain our connection to holiness and the divine.

Az Yashir – The Reconstitution of Freeze-Dried Prayer

Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael et hashirah hazot vayomru leimor: Ashira ladonai ki ga’o ga’ah…

Thus Moses and B’nai Yisrael sang this song: I will sing to the Eternal, for God has done mightily.

On this Shabbat Shirah, I have been wondering why we call this day “Shabbat Shirah.” After looking into this matter, I have found that this week’s Torah reading gets to the core of a question that I often hear: Why pray?

It is a good question, and it gets to the heart of what Shabbat Shirah is all about.

Lately, I have been reading the book “Starting with Why,” by Simon Sinek, who has a good TED talk on this topic. In “Starting with Why,” Sinek begins with the assertion that most people do things in response to two main questions: “What do I do?” and “How do I do it?” Most people don’t act based on the most important question: Why? Why do I act?

The siddur, the Jewish prayer book, which is an evolving body of work, gives us a lot of What? and How?, but what we need is to get back to Why?

Why pray?

A major part of my personal journey as a Jew and as a human being has been my ongoing relationship with prayer, and in particular Jewish prayer. It is not something that I was taught how to do as a child, and then just kept on doing, like tying my shoes or riding a bike. One thing that I have learned is that prayer is about much more than the skills to do it or the performance, saying the words correctly, as fluently and often as rapidly as possible. Much more.

Tefillah, Jewish prayer, is one of the pillars of Jewish life, and has been for thousands of years. Worship in Jewish life has undergone centuries of revolution, evolution and development. What we have today is a far cry from the animal, grain and oil offerings of our ancestors, which they offered in both Temples in Jerusalem for centuries.

We have in our hands this siddur, our prayer book, a document whose various components span thousand of years, with texts and sources that go back to our earliest moments and memories as a people and as a human species. The passages range from the practical to the sublime, written in stunning beautiful Biblical and later versions of Hebrew. The ideas and values enshrined in these pages represent some of the most profound religious thinking that humanity has ever created.

All of this is well and good, until one comes into a sanctuary, picks up a siddur from the back of the room (because that is what we do), opens it up, and is supposed to do something with it. But what?

When we encounter the siddur, what often happens is that we are confronted with a sea of words, swimming across the pages, half in a language that almost none of us speak, let alone can read with serious comprehension, and the other half in a translation that may or may not speak to us today.

The good news and the bad news is that the siddur is not prayer. The siddur does not contain tefillah. To rephrase an old koan, if a siddur is opened in a forest, with no one around, is anyone praying? Of course not. Better yet, if there is someone in a forest, who is praying with all their heart, mind and soul, but does not have a siddur, are they praying? Of course. Is that Jewish prayer? It depends.

There is something in the relationship between the one praying and the siddur in hand, a symbiosis. Authentic Jewish prayer involves a relationship, the interplay between the individual and the siddur.

Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi thought of the siddur as freeze-dried prayer. Like freeze-dried coffee, it has almost all of the ingredients of tefillah/davening/prayer: the words, the ideas, the thoughts, feelings, and hopes, but it is all missing one final component: hot water.

I suppose that one could take a spoonful of freeze-dried coffee and just eat it, but something tells me that the experience would lack many of the qualities of a hot cup of coffee, with steam rising and the aroma wafting out of the mug. One could also sip a nice big mug of hot water from a mug with nothing else in it, but again, that would lack many qualities of a cup of coffee.

The siddur needs something to come along and activate it – to make it live again, to make the words on the page come alive, and dance in our hearts, minds and souls. This ingredient is who we are in this moment.

In rabbinic terms, we call the parts that are freeze-dried, (the What and the How) –  Keva, meaning all of the fixed forms and details about Jewish prayer – everything from the times, the body movements, down to the words. The hot water (the Why) – is Kavannah. What Jewish prayer needs is the hot water, the Why, the Kavannah.

There is one word in this week’s Torah portion that is perhaps the best one word summary of what kavannah is all about: Az, Thus. Such a short word, but it is no small word. The Rabbis see in this word a great deal about the meaning of prayer.

Rashi sees in this word, not an introduction to the Song of the Sea, but rather a word that creates a bridge between the experience of the past and the moment of the Song. He comments that: “Az / Then” when Moses saw the miracle, he decided that “he would sing.” What Moses brings to his song, which becomes the song of the entire people, is the full impact of the experience that they have just gone through. In this case, it is the quintessential experience of walking through the Sea of Reeds.

Nachmanides adds another dimension to the the word Az/Thus.

“It is a phenomenon of language that a narrator places himself at whatever point in the story he wants: sometimes in the present, “Then Israel sing this song,” as if they were singing in front of him; sometimes in the future, to confirm that something will happen by treating it as if it already has.”

Nachmanides sees Az as the worlds’s smallest linguistic time machine. When we read the Song of the Sea, we become the narrators, and place ourselves in that moment in time, and it is if “they were singing in front of us.” I would take it one step further and say that when we become the narrator, we also become Israel-in-that-moment and we are the one who cross the Sea of Reeds, and we are the ones who step into the experience of the Exodus.

And at the same time, Az also points to this moment and to the future, and confronts us with the question of what this moment from our past has to say to us today. How have we experienced the Exodus in our days and in our lives? Perhaps it is a personal exodus from something that enslaved us during the week. Perhaps it is the passing of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Perhaps is anticipating an Exodus for the Jews of France from a year filled with fear and hate.

Az is the bridge between the experience and the song. Az invites us to enter into our own moments of liberation, the exuberance of knowing that a period of oppression and pain has come to an end, and that you are now taking the first steps into the rest of your life, and to bring them into service, and then to sing, as they sang, as we sang at the edge of the sea. This is what Reb Zalman means by adding the hot water to the freeze-dried coffee. It is the interplay between our lives brought as an offering into the service and the siddur that leads to the song.

Az reminds us to bring our all of our own experiences, be they joy, gratitude, regret, liberation, grief, worry, hope, into the moment of tefillah, to this place, and to sing, with our whole bodies, like the psalmist says: Azamra l’elohai b’odi / I will sing to God with my Od. The rabbis understand Od to be the wholeness of the self, one’s entire being. This sanctuary is a place that we make safe to be ourselves, to bring those experiences in, and to sing.

Another dimension of Az is that it reminds us that every part of the siddur came from someone’s immediate experience, either an individual or a group. In some sense, the siddur is an elaborate game of Jeopardy. Every part of the siddur is an response, an answer. Our task is to discover the Az, the experience that led to the expression of song. What are the stories behind the songs? What is the memory, the feeling, the recollection, or the direct experience that led to that prayer. What recovery from illness led a rabbi to compose the blessing that thanks God for the miracle of the human body’s functioning? What experience near death experience led someone to compose the blessing Mechayei Meitim, which thanks God for reviving the dead? Once we discover those stories behind each tefillah, we can then find our own similar stories, our own Az, that connects us to the siddur. Az is the pouring out of the soul into the freeze-dried words of the siddur. When we find our own sources of heat, light and light, our own hot water, our own kavannah, we bring that tefillah back to life. And then we sing!

To answer the question: Why pray? To pray is to embrace every moment and aspect of life as sacred, to see in all of those moments opportunities to serve. We pray because we are alive.

Shabbat Shirah Shalom

Shabbat Shirah: The Stirring of Liberation

Why us this Shabbat called Shabbat Shirah? We sing all the time, whether it is Shabbat Shirah or some other occasion! Why is there a Shabbat with the special designation “Shabbat Shirah”?
One possible answer is that it is called Shabbat Shirah because we read both the Song of the Sea AND the Song of Devorah. Both of these ancient songs come from the earliest layers of the sacred Torah, and are each layed out in brick-work patterns in the traditional sources.
But we come across the Song of the Sea in the daily siddur? For those who daven as part of a daily or regular practice, the Song of the Sea is there to be sung every morning! What makes this particular occurrence of the Song of the Sea special?
According to the Netivot Shalom, when we read the Song of the Sea, at the time when it occurred in the narrative’s timeline, that awakens a calling out, a k’riah. Now that we are still in the throes of winter, it is the reading of this passage that awakens the feeling of the time of year. When we rise, and chant/sing the Song of the Sea this Shabbat, it awakens in each of us that feeling of spring, liberation, and freedom. The illumination of Pesach is awakened within us, like a seed that has been implanted in the earth all fall and winter, and is now beginning to stir and break through the outer shell and starting to grow.
This phenomenon of liberation and growth is brought on by the reading itself. This awakening, this full bodied prayer is what is meant by Shirah.
May we all come together on this Shabbat, and sing with all of our bodies, holding nothing back, and feel the beginning of the Exodus stirring from deep in our souls, and expanding out into the world around us.

When Ten Is Not Enough

This past Sunday morning, I was counting people as they entered the sanctuary. 4. 5. 6. 7. OK, since it was now 9 a.m. and we had seven people in the room, that was enough to begin our regular Sunday morning service. People often roll in a bit late on Sunday. No worries. Even if I had to skip a couple of parts to the service as we anticipate ten people arriving, that’s ok. As long as we get ten by the Amidah, we don’t skip much, and we will be able to include Mourner’s Kaddish, which is for some people the reason why they come. But, this is the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Many people are saying final farewells to out-of-town family this morning, and I have an inkling that we will be hard pressed to make ten.

We begin. Morning blessings. 8. 9. Verses of song. And then the tenth person comes in the room. Oy. Ellen has been working on her conversion to Judaism for almost two years now, and is taking a long time because of her commitments to school and career. I am the second rabbi she has been working with. My advice to her was to do what she can for now, get as involved as she can, and when she is able to and wants to make more time for the study and engagement I am asking of her, we can move the process forward. I don’t see her too often. She came to tashlich during the High Holidays, I met her Jewish boyfriend, and she has come to an event here and there. During one of our conversations, I asked her about her anxieties about the conversion process. One of them was the fear of doing something wrong and not having any idea that she was. This is a completely reasonable fear, one that many native-born Jews have as well.

What enters my mind at this moment as Ellen walks in the room is that despite the face that we have ten people, we don’t have a minyan. For those of you who do not know, a minyan is a group of ten or more people over the age of 12 (for women) or 13 (for men). In Orthodox or non-egalitarian communities, this is limited to men. And when I say “people,” I mean Jews, either by birth or by choice. So even though we have ten people in the room, we do not constitute a minyan.

However, since Ellen is only marginally known at best to most members of the community, no one in the room knows that she is not (yet) Jewish, except for me. There really is no decision to make here. I know what to do. It is only the presence of ten members of the community (yes, that means Jews) that enables us to do a full service, to publicly as a community praise the Creator of the Universe, the Holy Bountiful One with particular prayers. I omit a hatzi kaddish, a bridge between sections. We skip Barkhu, which is the formal calling of the community to begin praying together. We do a private Amidah, rather than an expanded public one where we see ourselves as beings integrations of both human and divine. We skip Full Kaddish, which asks for our (public and private) prayers to be received. In the end, we skip the Mourner’s Kaddish. And all of this is increasingly a curiosity to the people in the room. They have no idea why we are doing this abridged service. I did have options. I could have paused and said to the room, “Hey, I know that it looks like we are a minyan, but really we are not because of Ellen, who has not yet completed her conversion.” I can’t do that; it would mortify her.  I decide to carry on with the service, and to pray for one more person to enter the room. Just one more Jew. I could make a call or text someone. Since I am the one leading the service, I don’t feel at liberty to make a phone call or even to text someone to get to the shul ASAP. The pause would have singled her out all the same. So I decided to trust that the people who have gathered there this morning know that I can count to ten, and that I know the people in the room.

Still, I ask myself, “Why not do a full service? Even though she has not completed her conversion, Ellen has clearly expressed the desire to cast her lot with the Jewish people. I have personally witnessed her sincerity and dedication. Here she is on a Sunday morning, coming when she can, doing what she can do, to become more involved and more engaged. Why should I not count her in the minyan?”

“Good question,” I reply. Then I answer myself, “Because there is halachah, Jewish tradition, which I understand to be a concretization of our core values and theology. Whereas I value every human being as being made in the Image of God, no matter who they are, I also understand that the Jewish people have a unique commitment to each other and to bringing the world a little closer to the ideal, bit by bit, day by day. Becoming part of that covenant is a powerful statement about one’s role in the world, and we have a process for bringing people into the covenant. In fact, some people in the room have undergone the conversion process themselves. In the room, is Jeanine, who underwent that process years before, and is now one of our most beloved members and teachers in the congregation, and in the room is Jack, who underwent that process with me a few years back, and now comes to Sunday morning minyan every Sunday, and in the room is Tim, whose wife Lisa is going through that process with me right now. To include Ellen in the minyan would not only violate the process of conversion, but would also trample on the years of study and action that these other people have undertaken. This is an easy question to answer, but the fallout is hard to grapple with.”

As we move through the mysteriously shortened service, I wonder: Why does the presence of a non-Jew, also a being created in God’s Image, not make it possible to fully praise the Master of All Worlds? Are they less than us? Are they so Other that people are being denied a full Sunday morning service? So Other that people are denied the opportunity to say Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of a deceased loved one? I know in my hear that they are not less than, but that they are different, and that different is not a bad thing. Drawing distinctions is one of the core practices in Jewish life.

I am praying for that eleventh Jewish person to walk in to the room. But it’s Thanksgiving morning. There is no religious school in session to grab a teaching assistant from. There is no one in the office to call down to help make a minyan. There are just the ten of us praying together in the sanctuary.

We end the service, and I am sure that there are questions. I pray that people just trust that I know how to count to ten and that I know how to count a minyan, which are not always the same thing. Then someone asks, “Why did we do a shorter service? Why did we not say Mourner’s Kaddish?” I wish that the person had asked me the question quietly on the side, but now there is no avoiding the issue. I gently answer that this morning, we had nine Jews in the room, and Ellen who is not yet Jewish. I almost don’t use her name, but it would have been obvious who I am talking about, even without the name. I see Ellen’s eyes look up at me. How is she feeling in that moment, that moment when it becomes clear that they thought that you were Jewish, and now realize that you are the person in the room who was different, not enough, who was less than, who was not one of us, and kept us from fully praising God’s name. Ellen made a beeline for the exit in what I read was embarrassment (and I am likely wrong on this, but not sure), and I would not blame her one bit if that were the case.

I have been sitting with this tension since that moment Ellen left the room. How do we balance the particular and the universal? We are all made in God’s Image, every human being, no matter what race, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation, no matter what. Yet, Jewish particularity is important to me, in that actively living as a member of a covenant is one of the most important facets of my life. Ellen is in between. Not them and yet at the same time not yet one of us. For a variety of reasons, I know how hard it can be to live in shades of gray, and not have the comfort of absolutes.

I emailed Ellen to reach out to her, to discuss her experience of Sunday morning, whatever it may have been. I hope that we can use the experience to depend her appreciation for the covenant that she is in the process of embracing.

May it be God’s will.