Archive | October, 2012

When everyone is human, everything is personal

29 Oct

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day:

Today we look at B’midbar, Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 – the opening of the Book of Numbers, the book we call B’midbar, “In the wilderness”, in Hebrew. The census of the Israelites for the sake of taking account of their military capacity takes place in these opening chapters.

One of the key verses to this reading comes at the very beginning:
Num. 1:3 …you are to count them (for battle) according to their forces, you and Aaron.

Moses and Aaron must encounter each of the men they count.

We can only enter into the terrible prospect of war when we encounter the people that may die as unique individuals. For that matter, we should only enter war when we attempt to encounter the people we oppose as unique individuals as well.

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Realistic Theology

23 Oct

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day:

Today we look at B’chukotai, Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34 – two chapters, almost, with the first focused on the outcomes of following or not following God’s commandments, and the second on the rules about vows, concluding with the last verse of Leviticus:

These are the commandments that Adonai commanded Moses for the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

As rationalists, we often bristle at the idea that following commandments would result in blessings and not following them would result in curses. Reward and punishment theology seems unrealistic at best, we even have a Biblical book arguing against it entirely – the Book of Job.

So how do we learn from these texts?

When we follow reasonable practices that help us get along with each other better, when we treat the planet better, we will likely find our lives turn out better. Following a social contract creates better society. Noticing that certain practices hurt the environment, and in turn our livelihoods and fates, and then changing our behavior, leads us to a better life for all.

Our theology should support demands for improved behavior, without threatening supernatural rewards and punishments.

Avoid idolatry and avoid materialism

21 Oct

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day:

Today we look at B’har, Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2 – rules of economic fairness – forgiveness of debts; as well as rules about allowing land to rest on the seventh year. The text sums up the intent of these laws in the final lines which remind the Israelites that they serve God, who freed them from Egypt, and that they should make no idols and observe the Sabbath.

Materialism is a form of idolatry. When we claim to own a thing or a person or the land we allow the ownership to rule us. Giving up on that ownership, making rules about it that are fair, and reminding our selves on a regular basis that all belongs to the universe and not us, frees us from being bound to our possession of things.

Remembering that only the infinite is worthy of worship helps us focus on the values that create a better world. Observing pauses like Shabbat on a weekly basis, and the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, allows us to regain a sense of priorities greater than focus on what we have and don’t have.

Everyone Gets Equal Treatment

17 Oct

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day…it’s back, after the High Holy Day hiatus.

Today we look at Emor, Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23 – rules about relationships, for priests, including an ostensibly offensive rule for the priesthood, quoted here:

Lev. 21:17 Speak to Aaron, saying: A man of your seed, throughout their generations, who has in him a defect is not to come-near to bring-near the food of his God.

This limits the participation of the Levites to those who are born with no defects whatsoever. A student from our synagogue who only has nine toes read this section for his Bar Mitzvah, and started out understandably outraged.

Reading on, we discovered a way, perhaps to rehabilitate the text, in a small way:

Lev. 21:22 The food-offerings of his God from the holiest holy-portions, or from the holy-portions, he may eat;

Allowing Levites who are prohibited from participating in Levitical work, namely the maintenance of the Temple and the sacrificial system, to nonetheless eat from the food that the Levites receive as their donation shows the inherent concern for fairness even in ancient Israelite society. After all, these disabled Levites were also barred from other employment in the community, just like any other Levite, and so they needed to receive sustenance from somewhere.

While physical limitations may make certain jobs unavailable, no one should be left out of the basic needs of social welfare.

Thank you to Benjamin Meyerson, the Bar Mitzvah student, who helped come up with this insight.

Celebrating Vulnerability on Sukkot

2 Oct

From Sukkot Worship on Monday, October 11, 2012 – 15 Tishrei 5772

Our pilgrimage festivals seem to follow a natural pattern:

Passover – celebrate freedom

Shavuot – celebrate the giving of Torah

Sukkot – if we were to complete the pattern, we should be celebrating the arrival in Israel, the completion of our journey.

Instead, we celebrate our vulnerability – we celebrate the sources of our sustenance – how the planet provides for us through harvest and shelter, and how fragile all of that is.

Seems strange, as the finale of a three-part series – freedom, wisdom, vulnerability – this is something of a let down.

Yet, this may be one of the central keys to Judaism.

When we arrive in the Promised Land, when we complete the journey, our history has just begun. We do not celebrate a final sense of redemption in this world. We are not a people who believe that our work will be, or has ever been, complete.

Instead, we choose, as the most celebratory of our three primary festivals, to take in the harvest, eat, drink, and be satisfied, for a moment, while still knowing that the seasons will yet change again, and there will be more work to be done.

We do not have a holy day that marks completion, instead we sit in our temporary structures on Sukkot, happy to have brought in a good harvest, and see how fragile it all is. We notice that our completion is momentary.

Sukkot sends us a fundamental message about the nature of life. As we have come through our seasons of inspiration, our celebration of the creation of the world on Rosh Hashanah, and our deep time of repentance on Yom Kippur, Sukkot gets us back to the everyday – our needs being met by the earth, and our need to reconnect with those physical needs. We live in the desert forever – we do not reach completion. We get through the desert with the blessing of the bounty of our harvest, when we are lucky to have enough, and through the blessings of our communities coming together to share that harvest and make sure we everyone shares in our bounty.

Fragility, vulnerability, life as wanderers – this is life. As Jews we recognize it and celebrate when we succeed at living with it, as well as the need to make sure we don’t ignore it.

May this year be one where we live well with our fragile world, and guard against the hazards it brings by coming together to bring each other blessings of sustenance.