Like other Torah topics including sacrifice, slavery, and creation, Leviticus's preoccupation with skin disorders offends many, prompting outrage and elaborate comparisons to historical examples of horror and immorality. And like those earlier topics, it's as if people aren't reading the Torah, but are projecting their own sensitivities -- an inevitable part of the hermeneutical circle of reading, but one which tells us more, sometimes, about the reader's sensitivities than about the Torah message. I discuss prominent, recent views of Tsarat skin disorders that sees in the Torah the judgmentalism of the insensitive medical establishment, the insensitive observer of a transgender individual, even the Nazi, and I counter with the fact that these readings fail to see the main point of the "out of the camp treatment" being the reintegration of these individuals back into the camp through the declaration of full purity by the head priests/kohanim. This changes everything. If anything, the Torah is providing a fairly obvious example of universal health care --paid for by public tithing-- right before our eyes. Why can't we see it (in a section all about seeing)?
Using David Brooks' essay on the importance of the Exodus story to the moral clarity of America's purpose, I address what the seder is really about. Once the satire of the opening is out of the way, it's all "Maggid" from there: the "oral telling of OUR story" in order to make us Jews, in order to tell us what our purpose is. Freedom without purpose is idolatry.
In this sermon, I analyze the opening of the seder (and conclude with a short tribute to a close friend, Holocaust survivor and Woman of Valor Rae Harvey.)
Reclining at dinner, drinking wine, and getting to eat karpas , a Greco-Roman appetizer, is freedom? Seriously? The first part of the seder is a wicked satire that mocks the fool's answer to the central question of the Seder, "What is freedom?"
The Jewish answer to "What is freedom?" is that Freedom is about What You Do With Your Freedom. How you answer that question depends on Your Story, your Maggid, from mitzrayim to a chance to use your freedom. Only the person who identifies with oppression knows that the real answer to the seder's central question is: "Real freedom is the freedom to serve God."
The first, basic step of Kabbalistic enlightenment --the one Moshe took approaching the Burning Bush-- is that the meaning of God's name reveals God's true essence: "Becoming." But how can the "nexus of being and nothingness" be the true reality we live in, have faith in, perceive, and live by? How can the solid ("amen") be found in the changing, and how can the soul live with a mind that depends on illusion, limits perception, and fosters an ego that identifies itself with the mind's false greatness? If you can forgive the sound quality of the faulty microphone on my new expensive smartphone, this lesson addresses the fundamental message of an adult understanding of Judaism, of God's name and our initial enlightenment to it.
At bedtime recently, my six year old daughter asked me, "Daddy, who are our ancestors?" It was not one of those profound-sounding questions that really isn't: rather, it was a thoughtful and sincere query after watching a show about a Latina girl learning about her ancestors. "Who are ours?" she needed to know. In this Tu B'Shvat presentation, I show how i connect to our ancestors by going back through the Seven Species of the Land of Israel, presented in the Temple, which go back further to the lives of our shepherd ancestor Hebrews (patriarchs and matriarchs), and then even farther back to the ancestral memories of the first few chapters of Genesis, of the gatherer humans of 3000 BCE to 9000 BCE in the Tigris-Euphrates region with their figs, grapes, and olives. Our ancestors evolved, living in harmony with Creation, by living off of the bounty of trees. And we should, too.
While we can always make mistakes reading into the Torah something in the current news, and vice versa, we also cannot shy away from the invitation of profound synchronicities, like the fact that we in synagogue read about the "new king" being inaugurated as the women protest, as something very similar (with a million women) is happening outside the sanctuary walls. When we bring our minds to modern application or comparison, we bring our commentators and our critical thinking skills. I bring three "Rashi's" or traditional interpretations of our parashah. First, Exodus or "Shemot/Names" starts with the names of individual Hebrews, not a collective term like "the Hebrews," because God calls us to see actual individuals when we make generalizations about groups, rather than, like Pharoah, making generalizations only. Second, the new king does not ackowledge the contributions of the invidual Hebrews, their patriotism, and their hatred of the enemies of Egypt despite coming from those regions. And third, that in his fear mongering that the Hebrews are essentially refugees from the Syrian area-- and therefore will "join with" those enemies of Egypt to bring down the country-- Pharaoh actually weakens his country so much that his own prophecy comes true, first in the plagues and then, generations later, the resulting weakened Egypt falling to those (Assyrian) enemies from the north [who destroy and exile the Israelites as well].
We think of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt as "the enslavement," but didn't the Egyptians own slaves prior to that (albeit of a different kind)? I look at a Rashi which places the "enslavement" (or en-serf-ment --same word in Hebrew) of the Egyptians by Joseph as the middle step in two enslavements, first Egypt's everyday slavery -- in the ancient world slavery was the inevitable consequence of unpayable debt-- and second the reactive enslavement of the Israelites as the supposed cause of Egypt's decline. I see a parallel in American society from our initial enslavement of Africans and African-Americans to our recent reactive blaming of our decline on people of color rather than on our own national debt and lack of future planning. I make that case while remembering the close relationship of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as recorded by Heschel's daughter, Susannah.
After killing the Egyptian, witnessing Hebrew on Hebrew injustice, and fleeing Egypt for an under-the-radar life of a shepherd-for-hire, Moses confronts the third of his three searing experiences of injustice: the bullying of Midianite shepherd girls by the boys. "And he rises to their defense." What is the significance of this third archetypal step? How has his life led up to his moment, and how does this moment continue to define it? How does it, and his marriage, shape not only his life but his imminent enlightenment at the Burning Bush?
(Something to think about before Hanukkah's gift exchange...] I read Abraham's penchant for gift giving and hospitality --and his contrasting refusal to accept a discount from the Hebron locals for the prime burial cave-- through the lens of French-Jewish sociologist Marcel Mauss's book The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, his landmark study of the centrality of gift giving in tribal societies. (The book became highly influential on French literary theory, and Mauss himself was the founder of the French Academy for Sociology, along with his famous uncle and mentor, Emil Durkheim, also Jewish, whose Elementary Forms of the Religious Life --which focuses on religion as a community, not a faith, phenomenon-- is still a required classic in the field of religion today.) What's the difference between systems of gift exchange and of money/barter exchange? What different obligations are involved? What does it mean to accept a gift, even today? What cost is there to chasing sales and Black Friday discounts? And how does this relate to the Lubavitcher Rebbe's comment that "Abraham knew that nothing comes for free?" (Comments from participants have been edited out as they were not picked up by the microphone.)
[Posted in honor of Thanksgiving] We all say we should value gratitude more and express it, but does saying words of gratitude really mean you're grateful? Of course not! So how do we actually practice gratitude, which is a form of mindfulness? How is this mental state incompatible with a life tethered to electronics? I explore these themes drawing from the Siddur, and from the books "The Gifts of Imperfection" by Brene Brown and "Alone Together" by Sherry Turkle.