We are experiencing synchronicities with the Torah: the locust plague, the sheltering in place of the 9th and 10th plagues, the 10th plague which is simply plague itself, the Torah telling the Nasi (president) to make expiation for his sin, now the Seder -- blood on the doorposts of the 10th plague so similar to the red cross painted on the doors of homes quarantined during centuries of European plague-- with mathematical models predicting infection and death during the Pesach holiday as the Seder commemorates sheltering in place. Are these signs? What is apocalypticism? Is it the dubious book of revelations, wars of Gog and Magog, the end of times, some infantile Nostradamus notion of Bible prophecy,? Or could it be something different, hinted at in the final Pesach-preparation (Shabbat Hagadol) haftarah of Malachi (predicting ruin if we aren't caring for those at or below the poverty line) and suggested by the Torah curses themselves: signs that the human societal structure we consider totally normal is off and therefore can crumble at a plague (which shows the weakness of our man-made social system)? Is what is happening "revealing" ("apocalypse") how broken and arrogant the system we take for granted truly is, and how it's the poor who end up suffering the most?
The beginning of Leviticus spells out a fourfold process of bringing order to society and keeping at bay the threat that chaos can invade and tear our system to shreds. The fourfold process involves the expiation of sin, a process that adds two middle steps of relationship to God and to oneself that is often missing from our typical American formulation. I am used to the model that skips the whole notion of sin: rather, society works because if you break the rules you get punished, and that fear of being caught --along with a system of punishment-- brings Order. The two middle notions that the Levitical process adds in between action and punishment is "consciousness that one erred unwittingly" and "realizing that one's erring has consequences on the anonymous others within the System." That allows one to "take in new information" and then GROW. Those are the middle steps of relation with God. It's only, as Leviticus chapter 5 explains, when you take in new information but you are so attached to your own ego that you don't witness to it, that you arrive at the step of punishment. (For example, if you receive information that you previously underestimated the virus or need for types of precautions or measures, do you admit the consequences of your unwitting sin prior and then witness to this new information, or choose your ego over God?] It is the Levitical explanation of unwitting sin and then expiation through growth and acknowledgement of consquences on others that our political leaders are avoiding today. Instead, our Nasi's (President, some governors and congresspeople) are attached to their own sense of perfection, they deny God, refuse to grow, and refuse to witness to new information, fostering chaos over order. What plagues do practically and theologically is to explose the weaknesses in the System, and allow chaos in. Our Nasi is inviting it, just as the Pharoah narrative describes and the Levitical sacrificial system explains.
Shalom Bayit And All Getting Along Sharing a Small Space During Pandemic: Lessons from Judaism and From Counseling
In this Zoom presentation, I share ideas for creating new balance ("Tiferet") in reconstructing our home systems when conflict, a sense of failure, miscommunication, mess, and frustration can arise when many are sharing a small space. There is a handout that goes with this called "Shalom in the Home During Social Isolation" which can be found by clicking here:
The first parashah that accompanies this novel period of social distancing has lessons to teach us in how to best use the time we now have returned to us.
The parashah begins with the command that a (naturally antimicrobial) copper-brass laver of water is placed in the central courtyard of the tabernacle and that the Levites must wash their hands between every interaction of service lest they die. Synagogues today incorporate the adapted features of the Tabernacle with the exceptions of the incense and the laver. We have restored the laver this week with the large bottles of Purell. How apropros.
Ki Tissa continues with the completely out-of-order story of the Golden Calf. Why doesn't this pivotal story about idolatry -- idolatry is when we put our money, time, and spiritual resources into the wrong areas-- occur way back when it actually happened, before the revelation at Mount Sinai?
Because we needed what has happened since, all the activities of building the portable sanctuary, the practices of renewal during Shabbat, the visions of divine Service of the Levites... to give us a context for understanding what the opposite of idolatry is.
And these activities give us ideas for how to use this time of crisis for a renewal of our relationship to time.
One of the halakhot of the Torah service is "Ein Midalgin ba-Torah," one may not skip [words, verses, or chapters] during the Torah reading." Underlying this strict practical rule is an important value: we must pay attention to all verses of the Torah, even uncomfortable ones, like those about slavery. In this sermon, I relate this principle to Exodus chapter 21, which includes rules about slavery rather than eliminates it; and then I look at a Bible that actually did skip verses, the so-called "Slave Bible." I will leave it to the listener to hear which verses of chapter 21 (and elsewhere) were included as appropriate for those enslaved by the British to fund the empire through sugar plantations, as I also compare the phenomenon to the 1619 Project's recent article "They sold human beings here."
In Exodus chapter 19, there is a swirl of mixtures and transitions of singulars and plurals in the Hebrew that don't translate into English. Here, I take you through them --even for those with no Hebrew knowledge-- and show how they tell the hidden meaning of what "community" really means at our "marriage covenant" to God at Mount Sinai. How do we go from our Jewish identity as associated with family and heritage and affiliation [the words "House of Jacob" and "Children of Israel" and relating to the "Elders of Israel"] to a Jewish identity as a community [which proceeds from the former phrases to the intermediary stage of "each individual of the nation" and finally to the phrase "nation" by itself? They are very far from the same thing, as Exodus 19 shows us. And then how does the Sinai Revelation reinforce the pathos of the situation by immediately reverting from God's "voice" [kol] to the revelation of the Decalogue as "voices" [kolot]? How do we put aside ourselves as kol --a homonym of two different words, one for "each individual of [the nation]" and "voice [of God"-- as an individual hearing the voice God sends to us but not to others-- in order to be a single nation?
What may just be the oldest section of the entire Bible? The Song of Deborah (in the Book of Judges), the ancient altar song about the prophetess Deborah uniting the Israelite tribes to attack and defeat the Canaanite king at Hazor, which is a archaeologically verified. She was known as "The Mother of Israel." As Jews, we do not have a Father of our Country, we have the Mother of our Country. What is her story arc? How would it be taken today? I put this powerful truth (that she is real, that the song describes real events, that we actually have the history of the Mother of our Country) up against the reflections of actress Brit Marling (of the TV show "The OA") in her piece in the New York Times called "I Don't Want to Be the Strong Female Lead" in which she reflects on the absence in our culture of a genuine female story arc that is strong, real, and not emerging from a male stereotype. I offer Deborah as our answer. [Footnote: When I teach that Deborah tells Barak she will get the credit, I am going with the plain meaning in that verse, not the narrative surprise (perhaps a later addition) later on that it turns out to be Yael.]
The planet is in the midst of the worst locust plague in 70 years. Why locusts as the plague beginning Parashat Bo in Exodus? What do they signify? Here I continue the implications of the theology of God's name explained in the previous podcast. Those implications are that in order to address the truth of interconnectedness of our system, we must act collectively, and not live with the illusion that individual actions can combat the illnesses in our system. Individual actions, while admirable, do not cure cancer, solve poverty, heal the environment: the locusts teach us that thinking an individual can stop a locus plague shares in the same illusion Pharaoh had, that an individual can control the system. That is the opposite of recognizing God. That's the theological message of the plagues, and of their implications.
Judaism has long been in a theological crisis. Under the shadow of classical Christian supernaturalism and American evangelicalism, most Jews tell me they don't believe in God because they believe in scientific explanations of Biblical narrative instead. In this sermon, I take this on directly, arguing that the Torah juxtaposes the revelation of God's name as God's essence (in Exodus chapter 6) and the 10 plagues to make a theological point that most of us would agree with: God's essence is the interconnectedness of everything natural and human. The "scientific" explanation of the plagues (which I draw from a 2019 Time Magazine article by Olivia Waxman) is the demonstration of God's essence as the interconnectedness of all natural and human systems, and the massive chain reactions that occur when we throw them out of balance. (In Kabbalah, Moses's revelation was of God's essence as Tiferet, ultimate balance.) The hardening of hearts --not atheism-- is actually the very definition of avoiding connection to God because our normal mindset is to only see one effect from one cause, rather than radical disruption of systems. (For example, we might see one toxic spill leading to one or two bad effects, rather than leading us to see the chain reaction to the endocrine system disruption of millions of people, which itself leads by chain reaction to massive upheaval in our natural-human systems. The reaction, like the plagues, goes on and on, but we are resistant to see it. Our hearts are hard because we don't want to follow the chain of effects beyond one or two.) Please note that I extensively use the articulation of this from a short essay by Bill Shackman from the Conservative Yeshiva's Torah Sparks.
Moses, having been raised by a team of women, "goes out" to experience the world of men when he becomes a teenager. He experiences fighting and injustice, and when he looks "to and fro" to see if any man is going to do anything about it, sees that no "man" is willing to step up. So he steps up himself. He then sees two Hebrew men fighting, one the aggressor and the other the victim, and he tries to engage them in conversation to stop the behavior. But like a male locker room, rather than talk at all, they (even the victim!) threaten him. The world of men does not allow for a conversation about abuse, dehumanization, and changed behavior. So he must flee to Midian, where he then "rises up" in action to stop a group of young men from harrassing young women. Though clearly 1) Moses knows what justice is, and 2) Moses is not afraid of action, just a few verses later 3) Moses says he is incapable of articulating either in words. (This might indicate what the revelation of Sinai will be, by the way.) This is remarkably similar to the recent book of Peggy Orenstein, who argues that young men today 1) know how they should be treating the world of women, 2) know what actions are the right ones, but 3) lack any language for explaining it all, for explaining what it means to be in the world of men (especially in any positive sense), and why they won't "rise up" in their lockerrooms or social groups to stop other boys from spreading offensive pornographic memes, sharing misogynist jokes, or encouraging conquests of women. Such young men would have to risk their social capital, and even when willing to, don't have the language to persuade against the self-images of masculinity. Like the Hebrew men threatening Moses for even beginning a conversation about their wrong, abusive behavior, Moses goes out to the world of men, sees the problems (including the treatment of women), but then tells God he would never be able to articulate true masculinity or the need for changed behavior in the world of men.