Limits of Rationalism (5777/2017)

God tells Moshe: people will bring offerings: cattle, goats, sheep, birds, grain. Make sure Aaron and his crew know how to prepare each kind for the altar! After giving those instructions, God explains which circumstances require which offerings (Parshat Vayikra, Exodus 1:1-5:26).

And here, medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides throws in the towel. It’s true, he says, all of Torah’s instructions are given with good reason. And careful thinkers can discern many of those reasons. But we need to know what kind of reason to look for. Sometimes it’s best not to analyze the rationale for every instruction. Instead, try to understand the purpose of a set of instructions.

Take the offerings, for example. Animals are precious, edible, and biologically close to human beings. Thus, animal offerings teach us to give, feed others, and confront mortality. But why offer two bulls for the new month, seven sheep for Passover and two birds for healing? Don’t even go there, Maimonides says. You’ll enter a maze of questions, hypotheses, symbolic interpretations — and you’ll never find your way out.

This week, I read an essay on religious pluralism by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. All human beings, says Greenberg, are created in the image of God. Thus, each person deserves to be heard when they speak about their Creator.

Of course, Greenberg continues, many understand their view of God as absolute truth. But absolutists can dialogue. Because absolute truths have a limited range, plural absolutes can exist. How does this work? Imagine reality as a line marked with numbers 1-10. Some truths may be absolute with respect to, say, points 4-6 only — within a particular range of times, places, and cases.

So I tried Greenberg’s thought experiment. I understood not to take it literally. And yet. Maimonides’ cautions flashed through my mind. When sharing theologies, must we be so specific? Should we aim at an integrated God theory? Award each tradition a percentage of the scale? Quantify our respective insights into absolute truth? No, no, no, and no! Because that’s a maze we would never exit.


Why a Sheep? (5773/2013)

Jewish scholar Lawrence Hoffman says simply, “symbols symbolize,” i.e., they mean different things to different people. Psychologist Carl Jung says that symbols are helpful tools, like telescopes, showing us ideas we can’t quite put into words.

You probably know the symbolic meaning of the zroa, the bone or (for vegetarians) beet on the Seder Plate. The zroa symbolizes God’s outstretched arm, as well as the lamb of the Passover offering. But what does the lamb symbolize?

Torah reports that the night before the Exodus, the Israelites were instructed to slaughter a lamb in religious style, eat together with everyone included, brush their doorposts with lamb’s blood so none of their firstborn would die in that night’s plague, and testify of these events to their children.

This week’s parshah, Vayikra, describes the why, when, and how of animal and vegetable offerings. For a few offerings, a sheep — ewe or ram — is always preferred. You should offer a sheep if you were called to testify in court but did not; or suddenly came upon an animal corpse but forgot; or touched someone ritually impure but forgot.

So, in both stories, sheep remind you to testify, help protect you from a brush with death, and help reset you when you have been tainted by something upsetting. But how do sheep work this magic? Do they help us see something we can’t put into words? What characteristics do they have? What role do they play in Torah?By offering them on the altar, were our ancestors celebrating or negating their characteristics? Many of our most beloved ancestors were shepherds – what is their legacy?

What does a sheep tell us about the meaning of Pesach? Symbols symbolize – enjoy this Seder discussion topic!


Purification through Compassion (5772/2012)

Leviticus chapter 5 teaches that someone brings a chataat offering when they overhear a curse, witness a crime, learn about a crime, touch a corpse without knowing it, or blurt out an oath.

Some commentators translate chataat based on its use of the root cheyt – sin – and understand it as a “sin-offering.” They focus discussion on cases where the curses, oaths, witnessing, and contact with death are associated with misdeeds. For them, offering the chataat is part of the process of atoning for a crime.

Others translate chataat based on its function of helping to remove ritual impurity. In the Levitical system, ritual impurity is associated with psycho-spiritual discomfort when boundaries are suddenly violated. These commentators understand the chataat as a “purification offering.” They recognize the fear that can result when we see or hear terrible things, blurt out words that come from a hidden part of us, or suddenly realize that we have come into contact with death. For them, the chataat is part of the process of self-understanding and release.

From this second perspective, the chataat is a gift of compassion from the cohanim (priests) to the people. The chataat offers an opportunity to pause, reflect on the upset, and let it go. Without such a pause, fears may be held secretly inside and compound over time, moving us to attack ourselves as well as others. The cohanim recognized the importance of witnessing the troubles of others, helping them come to self-knowledge and providing rituals that restore stability. From them we can learn some new tools for compassionately support people in our lives.


Finding our Aleph (5771/2011)

The first letter of the Torah is a bet, for Bereisheet, beginning. Bet is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Some say Torah ought begin with the first letter, aleph. Where is the aleph?

One answer: Torah begins with a silent aleph: the aahhhh of divine spirit flowing into a new world.

Another answer: The aleph has migrated from the beginning of Torah’s first book to the beginning of its third book. The first word of VayikraLeviticus is vayikra, “and God called.” The last letter of that word is aleph. Traditionally, Torah scribes write that particular aleph extra small. Crammed in at the end of the word, the aleph looks as though it floated around the Torah until it found a cozy place to nestle.

Early midrash teaches that God created the world with a deep preverbal wisdom. This wisdom is a kind of “primordial Torah.” The aleph summarizes and represents this wisdom. Kabbalistic teachers add that our entire physical and psychic life is an expression of primordial wisdom, because it is all a play of Divine energy. Hassidic teachers conclude that “finding the aleph” is a metaphor for reclaiming our ability to connect with God.

Parshat Vayikra describes priestly techniques for spiritual practice and spiritual support. Spiritual practice helps us know ourselves, increase our empathy, develop our conscience, and recognize the presence of higher ideals. A prayer for each of us, and especially for people around the globe in positions of great responsibility: may we soon find our aleph. 


Food for Body and Soul (5770/2010)

Parshat Vayikra: First God calls to Moshe from the tent of meeting.  Then we get a detailed introduction to exactly how the priests should manage the sacrifices.  Finally we get information about when and why someone might bring a sacrifice.  To put it in a different way: first comes the invitation, then comes the setting up of the food, then comes the actual interaction.

The Mishkan is like “God’s Kitchen,” where all your problems are solved over a meal.

If you have a special joy to share, you bring a zevach shelamim, a well-being offering.  If you fixed a problem but still feel bad about it, you bring an asham, a guilt-offering.  If you feel creeped out by something uncanny, or if you need to deal with something hideous in national current events, you bring a khatat, a purification offering. The priest takes your offering, gives you something to eat, and disappears your problems in smoke. Parshat Vayikra teaches that a good meal feeds both body and soul.

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) invites Jews around the world to join this week in a “Global Hunger Shabbat,” and to learn about social injustices that contribute to global hunger: ecosystems shattered by poorly managed building projects, government policies favouring large corporate food imports over local farming, economic marginalization of women even in areas where they are primary food growers. AJWS encourages us to join the “food sovereignty” movement that supports local farmers in becoming self-sufficient. Join YAC, OrShalom’s Young Adult Community, in taking seriously this initiative for study and action.


Getting Closer (5769/2009)

The Hebrew word korban means “something that brings us closer.” The English word “sacrifice” comes from a Latin “something that makes us holy.”

Our earliest sages of the Talmudic era knew the system of korbanot well. They knew that the olah offering was a constant reminder of God’s presence; the zevach shelamim was an expression of gratitude; the asham was a donation to the public servants as part of atonement for a crime; the khataat was a means of restoring inner and communal emotional balance after a difficult event. When the rupture of national disaster made it impossible to offer korbanot, our sages reminded their students that prayer and good deeds can accomplish exactly the same ends.

In Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam (Moses Maimonides) teaches that the replacement of korbanot with prayer and good deeds is not essentially a response to a national emergency. Actually, it is a natural evolution. God instructed the early Israelites to approach God and perfect themselves through korbanot because korbanot were standard practice in the ancient Near East. The Israelites could do this inner work in a way that was integrated into the life of the region. Over time, people learned that the korbanot were a tool of spiritual growth. They came to realize that prayer is a more direct way to achieve this growth.

The movement towards God and the evolution towards holiness continue today, as we find new ways to bring meaning to prayer, and increase our commitment to mitzvot. May today be the first day of the rest of your long life of closeness and holiness.


Moshe’s True Name (5768/2008)

From the Yalkut Shimoni Midrash Collection:

Vayikra el Moshe – God called to Moshe (Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1)

Midrash teaches: Our biblical poets call Moshe by many names, corresponding to his origins and his many accomplishments.

Levi: his family name.

Tuvia (God’s goodness): his birth mother saw that he was a beautiful baby.

Moshe (drawn out of the water): as his adoptive mother, Pharaoh’s daughter, named him.

Yekutiel (God is my hope): he helped people hope in God.

Chever (the connector): he connected people with God.

Avishocho (my father conversed): he inspired prophets to converse with the Holy One.

Yered (the one who brings down): he brought the Torah down to the people.

Avigdor (father of limits): he placed limits on the Israelites’ behaviour.

Avizanach (my father neglected): he kept people from neglecting God.

Shemaya (Hear, God!): God heard his prayers.

When God spoke to Moshe, which name did God use? Torah tells us: “God called to Moshe.” Why this name? Because that is how Batya named him when she drew him out of the water. Who is Batya? Batya means “daughter of God.” By birth, she was daughter of Pharaoh. In her actions, she was a daughter of God. She collaborated with a family she did not even know and helped them save a baby.

Thus our sages teach: all of Moshe’s life accomplishments pale in comparison to the accomplishment of his adoptive mother, who took a risk to save the life of a single child.


The Call (5767/2007)

Creatively adapted from Sifra, Rabbinic Midrash on Vayikra

He called [vayikra] to Moshe!  God spoke to him from the tent of meeting. (Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1)

The mystic teaches: A person receives divine revelation in five stages: (1) God calls without words.  (2) A person pays attention. (3) God speaks words. (4) The person meditates on the message.  (5) The person is changed.

The scholar asks: How do you learn from Torah that God calls without words?

The mystic answers: Each time we see the word vayikra (he called), God first calls and then speaks.

The scholar persists: How do you know that people must take time to meditate on God’s word?

So does the mystic: With only a single exception, every white space in the book of Leviticus is followed by the words vayidaber Hashem (God spoke words).  Each time Moshe wrote down words from God, he had to pause and reflect before moving on to the next speech.

The scholar wonders: How do you know people are changed by God’s call?

The mystic observes: Usually when the Torah uses the word vayikra to describe God calling to someone, the person’s name is called twice.  For example, “Moshe, Moshe!” “Avraham, Avraham!” Each person is one version of himself or herself before reflecting on the call, and another version afterwards.

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