Making Oneself Holy

For the past 3 weeks (or longer) we have been getting ready for the holiday of Passover. We have searched our pantries, couch cushions and cars for the smallest sign of chametz. Kitchens have (or are being) kashered for Passover, with our non-pesadika utensils being put away and our Passover utensils being brought out. Why are we doing this-besides driving ourselves mad? I would argue this is not about doing “grunt work” but rather about making ourselves holy.

Let me use an example from this week’s Torah portion to demonstrate. Leviticus Chapter 6 Verse 11, in describing the mincha sacrifice, reads “all male descendants of Aaron shall eat it. It is an everlasting law for your descendants from the fire-offerings of God. All that touches them shall become holy.” To what is the ‘All’ referring? The common understanding, exuded by Rashi is that the ‘all’ refers to other sacrifices. Any sacrifice that becomes comingled with the Mincha sacrifice will have the same status as it. Now you might be asking me “So what?” Well, the commentator Hizkuni, from the 13th century France understands the all as referring to each person. According to his interpretation, anyone who touches the Mincha sacrifice will become sanctified unto God, much like a Kohen or Levi will become sanctified for Temple worship. Ibn Ezra extends this to also apply towards the hatat (sin-offering) and the asham (guilt-offering).

This might seem strange to us-after all how can a person change his/her status? In Biblical times there were different levels of purity. To serve in the Temple, make a sacrifice or even to eat certain foods, a person had to be in a state of ritual purity, achieved through immersion in a mikveh. One needed to refrain from sexual relations, avoid eating certain foods and avoid contact with insects or with corpses to maintain a state of purity. What is fascinating to me about the Mincha offering is that (with Hizkuni and Ibn Ezra’s readings) it can directly influence a person’s state of holiness.

Our ancestors offered sacrifices not just to appease God but to bring about positive changes from within them. The sacrifice changed the state of being of the giver, elevating him/her to a higher level. That is precisely the purpose that prayer is supposed to serve for us. Prayer helps us raise ourselves from the mundane level of the everyday towards heavenly heights, having us yearn to reach God. In fact, throughout the Kedushah, which means “holiness,” we rise on our feet five times so as to reach God. We gather here twice a day each and every day for minyan to have our state of being changed for the better, to ultimately elevate ourselves as a result of our yearnings before the Creator. However, I would argue that the everyday tasks that we do, such as cleaning our kitchens for Passover, fulfill the same purpose: shaking up our everyday comforts and conveniences; the foods that we eat, the plates and silverware that we use and the patterns by which we live our lives, and that it does so in order to raise us up to a higher spiritual level.

As we continue to prepare for Passover, I would like us to realize that as we clean our kitchens and remove Hametz, we are doing holy work. For eight days, we remove everyday staples from our lives and strive instead to reach a higher level of purity. The rabbis say that Hametz, by virtue of its being “puffed up” by rising in our ovens, symbolizes our “puffed up” egos. By removing it from our homes and from all of our possessions, we also strive to remove that which makes us arrogant. Passover is a holiday about elevating our level of holiness, putting aside our “me, myself and I” and striving to do what we can to serve God and our religious community. May we reach new heights this coming Passover. Karina and I wish each of you a Hag Pesach Kasher V’Sameach, a happy, healthy and kosher Passover.

Sacrifices: Their Modern Day Meaning for Us?

The concept of animal sacrifice can be very difficult for us.  How can we relate to this animal bloodbath which occurred on the altar as “a sweet savor for God?”  Many have interpreted the word “l’karev,” to sacrifice, by its other meaning, to draw near.  Through this lens, sacrifice is viewed as our ancestors’ opportunity to draw close to God, much like how we view prayer in the synagogue.  Others view sacrifice in the sense of “giving up,” as the animals sacrificed were given from the Israelite flock unto God.  Through this the question is asked “what are you willing to sacrifice?”  Not to invalidate either of these approaches, but I think there is merit at examining sacrifice as the slaughter of animals, observing how the prophets and some rabbis grappled with this and finally seeing if we can connect to this topic.

First of all, the act of animal slaughter detailed in VaYikra is a ritual that when acted out enabled the Israelites to find holiness in their relationship with God.  As former JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch said, “Ritual is a way of giving voice to ultimate values.  Each of us needs a sense of holiness to navigate the relentless secularity of our lives.”  While Chancellor Schorsch was not arguing for a return to the sacrificial ritual, he (as well as I) finds value in being able to demonstrate our faith in God through the active performance of rituals.

An example of this that is dear to me is doing birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing, on Yom Tov. I remember being wrapped in my father’s tallit as a child and listening to words of the kohanim, reveling in the holiness of the moment.  Similarly, when we act out the sacrificial service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur (the Avodah Service), I feel sanctity in saying the words of the High Priest and in prostrating myself on the ground.  Perhaps if we had a way to ritually remember the sacrificial service without arguing for its return it could be something to which we would more easily connect to rather than a foreign act from another time period.

That being said, I feel it is totally legitimate to have discomfort with sacrifice, and this discomfort goes back to prophetic times.  In Isaiah 1:11, the prophet says in the name of God, “What need have I of all your sacrifices? … I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.”  Instead of sacrifice, Isaiah asks the Israelites to “learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice, aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, and defend the cause of the widow.”  Similarly, in 1 Samuel 15, Samuel admonishes Saul, saying “Does God delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to God’s command?  Surely obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams.”  While these quotations do not deny the importance of sacrifice, they make it secondary to doing the other things that God wants us to do.  Both Isaiah and Samuel are calling into question the sacrificial rite’s being of primary importance, demonstrating that even in the biblical age there was a lack of comfort with sacrifice as the main act of Judaism.

Two medieval rabbis also struggled with the notion of sacrifice.  Maimonides, who lived from 1135 to 1204 in Spain and Egypt, was uncomfortable with the people offering a sacrifice “of sweet savor” to God, as this makes it seem like the Israelites were feeding God, who would go hungry without their gifts.  Abravanel, a 15th century Portuguese and Italian commentator, said that God never intended for the Israelites to give sacrifices but after the sin of the Golden Calf, God realized they needed to connect with something tangible instead of an abstract, transcendent deity, so the sacrificial system was formulated.  Abravanel is demonstrating that God does not need our sacrifices but we need to sacrifice in order to feel God’s nearness.  Similarly, one could argue, as Abraham Joshua Heschel did, that in our age, God does not need our prayers but we need to pray in order to connect to God.

I like Abravanel’s point because he shows how sacrifice was giving something of yourself (i.e. one of your animals) so that you could form a closer relationship with God.  Sacrifice was undertaken by humans in order to make God more imminent and personable in a world where God is often felt to be remote and aloof.  I am not in favor of a return to animal sacrifices, yet I find comfort in the fact that our ancestors created a ritual to enable them to reach out to God through doing what they felt was pleasing to God.

A lesson sacrifice can teach us is to continue to develop our own rituals to create meaningful connections to God.  For some of us that ritual could be attending the weekly Shabbat service at the Jericho Jewish Center.  Some might create a ritual of daily mediation, reflection and relaxation, yet a significant ritual for others might be doing regular community service and social justice to make the world a better place.  While reading the descriptions of all the different guilt, thanksgiving, well-being and sin offerings, let us think about what we can do to actively pursue a stronger relationship with the Almighty.  If you do not believe in God, I would urge you to ponder how you can create stronger relationships with those around you in building community, as sacrifices were also meaningful in bringing our ancestors closer together during their holiday pilgrimages to Jerusalem.  May we read the Book of VaYikra with thoughts of developing rituals that will enhance our connections both to God and to those around us.

Two States or Not Two States: The Bibi Question

I was very surprised to read in the morning news that Bibi Netanyahu now backs the two state solution, in large part because I don’t believe him. Netanyahu reconciled this with his previous statement of “No Palestinian state on my watch” by saying that a Palestinian state will not come about until “circumstances change” and there are “real negotiations with people who are committed to peace.” I believe most readers, like me, see this as a two-faced approach: say one thing to get the right-wing voters to support you getting reelected and another once having the majority of Knesset seats to try to do damage control with the United States. Yassir Arafat was the primary master of the “two faced approach” and while he used it for far worse purposes than Netanyahu (after all he told his people to commit Jihad and drive the Jews into the sea!) I am nevertheless uncomfortable with this approach. I truly believe that Netanyahu, like many politicians, will say whatever it takes to get elected rather than speaking with authenticity and sincerity.

Let me be clear that I still believe Netanyahu is on target with Iran and that only harsh sanctions will get Iran to change its ways. I supported Netanyahu speaking before Congress despite the resistance and icy cold response by the Obama administration. At the same time, I think Netanyahu’s double speak with regard to the Palestinian state is harmful to Israel and will ultimately hurt him. The left and much of the center already did not trust Netanyahu and now will do so even less. The right, some of whom switched their vote for Netanyahu after he proclaimed “No Palestinian State on my watch,” are likely now having second thoughts about their vote. While manipulation is at times necessary for all politicans, no one likes someone who goes back on his word three days later.

I congratulate Netanyahu on his victory and am glad in the sense that he’ll be tough on Iran but concurrently I am concerned about the future of US-Israel relations with Netanyahu in power (I am also concerned about its future with the Obama administration in power). I also disagree with the scare tactics that Netanyahu uses-in particular to vote to counter the Israeli Arabs who were coming out to vote “in droves.” There are many legitimate threats out there but an Israeli Arab democratically voting for his Prime Minister is not one of them. Now that the election is over I pray that Israel can be united in its quest to move forward for a better future rather than being preoccupied in the negative campaigning and sinat hinam of the past couple months.

No Palestinian State on My Watch

In a last-ditch attempt to win right-wing voters away from Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, Bibi Netanyahu forcefully proclaimed there will be no Palestinian state on his watch. He also spoke in Har Homa, across the green line, stating that without that city there would be a “Hamastan” established in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu is clearly desparate for last second voters as recent polls have shown him behind the Zionist Union party of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.

While I happen to agree with Netanyahu on Iran, I’m starting to feel that regarding the election Netanyahu is using scare tactics without offering a viable alternative. True there is no viable Palestinian peace partner, but to boldy proclaim that there will be “No Palestinian state” no matter what without offering a viable alternative as to what there will be will not, in my opinion, sway the majority of Israeli voters. The right-wingers are already committed to Bennett and Lieberman, the left-wingers want a change and those in the center will most likely vote with their pocketbooks for a change in the Israeli economy as opposed to concerns of national security.

Late this afternoon we will see what the verdict is. Keep in mind, however, that even if Netanyahu’s Likud does not have the most seats, he could remain in power if the Zionist Union is unable to form a coalition. I remember too well 2008 when Tzipi Livni’s Kadima had won the most seats but she was unable to form a coalition, so Netanyahu stayed in power. If Netanyahu is able to form the coalition, the status quo, for better or worse, will remain in effect. This means no negotiations, a hard line on national security and a struggling Israeli economy for everyone who is not rich.

The Significance of the Red Heifer

When I think of the red heifer I think of the former kosher restaurant in Washington DC that I did not have a chance to attend.  I also think of a cow that will be slaughtered, have its ashes mixed with water and sprinkled on someone’s forehead to atone for his/her sins.  This is the function of the red heifer that we read about in the Bible and on which I focused an extended portion of my preparatory year of rabbinical school with Masechet Hagigah.  Why do we have such a tradition and why do we repeat it every year in the third of the four special Shabbatot before Pesach?

In Numbers 19:2, we read about the taking of “a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.”  This cow would be slaughtered, and its ashes would be mixed with water and then sprinkled on the person who committed the transgression.  That person would then be atoned for his/her sins.  It was reserved for the most serious sins and also for someone who had become טמא (impure) due to exposure from a dead body.  This concept is difficult to take in an age where many of us do not wish for a return to animal sacrifices and can hardly fathom sprinkling ashes on someone as a means of atonement.

Why does this concept of the red heifer matter to us?  After all, with the destruction of the Temple, we all are considered טמא.  The red heifer does have great significance to a group who would like to create a third Temple.  As shown in the recent TV series DIG, such a group is working on genetically engineering red heifers in order to make priests טהור (pure) so that they will be able to resume their sacrificial functions.  So far every heifer that has been created has had a blemish making it unfit to be used for sacrificial purposes.  It is only a matter of time, however, before there will be a creation of an unblemished red heifer at which point they might take other steps towards ensuring that their dream of a Third Temple becomes a reality.  For these people, the red heifer is not some metaphor or abstract concept but a tangible entity that can be used in a reactionary move towards Temple times.

For most of us, the idea of restoring the Temple and returning to sacrifices is undesirable to say the least.  However, I believe we cannot ignore this idea, as uncomfortable as it might be for us.  We need to come up with a modern theology for understanding the role of the red heifer in order to counter the traditional idea that it is needed to restore us to a state of purity.  To do this, I would argue that we need to determine what the red heifer means to us.  Perhaps it means a society where everyone is judged as pure and where we can all be at peace with one another.  Maybe it is the ideal to which we want to aspire, especially considering the existence of a red heifer is a rarity.  For some of us, the red heifer might symbolize the entity that is most precious and valuable to us, as that is what it was to our Israelite ancestors.

Whatever the case may be, it is crucial that we ascribe some significance to this creature which has its own special Shabbat devoted to it.  It may not have the literal significance that it had for our ancestors or that is still has for some Jews but since it is in our holy corpus it must be imbued with some form of meaning to us in the present day.

We have examined a topic that is troubling to some of us, the red heifer, which was used to purify those in the greatest states of impurity.  This animal still has much meaning for fundamentalists in Israel, who are working on engineering red heifers for the creation of the Third Temple.  We looked at different meanings that the red heifer can have for us as liberal Jews in the modern day.  It is understandable that some of us might still prefer not to address the red heifer altogether either because it is so foreign to the form of Judaism that we practice or because it does not seem relevant.  Nevertheless, I feel that it is important to develop a way that the red heifer fits into one’s Judaism, even if it is strictly metaphorical, because it is a part of our religion and we come across it year after year.  May God give us the insight to figure out a personal connection to this valuable piece of our tradition.  Ken Yhi Ratzon-may it be our will to do so.

Police Brutality

I have not previously entered into the foray of accusations of police brutality, stemming from Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Though I was appalled by both deaths and the subsequent acquittals of the police officers, I did not personally speak out-other than doing a moment of silence before a congregational sermon. Seeing that there was recently another incident, resulting in the death of Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin, I have decided to speak out.

I am angered by the fact that men of color are being killed by police officers (or by vigilantes as in the case of George Zimmerman) who are being acquitted of any wrongdoing. It makes me feel rightly or wrongly that we have not come so far from 50 years ago, when African Americans were beaten with billy clubs on a march from Selma to Birmingham to protest their being denied the right to vote. While each of the cases I cited (as well as all the numerous others of police brutality) should be examined on an individual basis, there is clearly a disturbing pattern: black men dead, white officers acquitted. I feel strongly that our justice system must be examined as well as our training of police officers. I strongly believe an element of race enters into officers’ treatment of the victims and this must be eliminated.

At the same time I am incensed by the murder of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu solely because they were police officers. These men were victims, killed in the line of duty, and outrage needs to be expressed at their murder.

Unfortunately I believe that the era of police brutality (and the subsequent retaliation) is not going away any time soon. It was a hot topic when I was in high school forensics (Speech and Debate) in 2000-2002 and unfortunately not much has changed. I respect the police officers who keep me safe each and every day, yet I am aware that many African Americans do not have the same positive relationship with police officers, being pulled over in racial profiling and at times being needlessly detained. I pray that we work every day to repair the tarnished relationship between police officers and those who they serve.

Hillary Clinton’s Email Account

As a rabbi I have the necessary 3 e-mail addresses: one for work, one for my rabbinic network (RAVNET) and one for personal use. I also have an old e-mail address that those from college and my time at JTS use. Now I exclusively differentiate between my work and personal e-mail addresses but in my previous job I used them interchangeably. In light of the news about Hillary Clinton doing work business on a personal e-mail account, I wonder if my previous behavior was ok.

Why did I use my accounts interchangably? The same reason Hillary Clinton did: out of convenience. I am not the most technologically advanced person and I did not know how to upload my work e-mail address on my mobile device. I was shown, however, how to receive my work e-mail on my personal e-mail address, and I did so. Therefore, when congregants contacted me when I was out of the office, it forwarded to my personal e-mail address, and I replied to them using my personal e-mail address. Now I wonder if this was proper behavior or if I should have notated it, waited until the next time I was in the office and replied to it then.

As many friends and congregants can attest to, I am (unfortunately) addicted to my phone and to e-mail, and I reply to e-mails as soon as I am able (sometimes too soon, without thinking out the possible ramifications of what I am writing). Thankfully now I can access my work e-mail on my phone and reply from that address. However, if I was unable to do so, would it be a problem to reply from my personal e-mail? Is it a breach of work protocol to do so, even if I was just replying to work business rather than (G-d forbid) some covert, clandestine operation? Was the fact that Hillary Clinton was using a personal e-mail address for work a problem in and of itself, or is it only a problem if she was using it for covert government business?