Tag Archives: Bible

Opting out is not an option!

This week’s parashah, Va-Yeishev, opens, “And Jacob settled in the land of his father’s soujourns, in the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 37:1)

Jacob aimed to return to the land of his father in peace. Following his dramatic dream of angels going up and down from earth he prayed: “…if I come back in peace to my father’s house…” (Genesis 28:21)

Rashi, one of the classic Medieval commentators imagined God’s response to Jacob’s settling: “Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they seek to settle in peace in this world?”

Doing the work, wrestling towards greater meaning and more righteous communities and society – these efforts can exhaust us even as we know we must continue them.

Even Jacob, named Israel the God wrestler, hoped that his struggle would end, that he could settle down and finally rest. Jacob’s life reminds us that the work to build and maintain family continues even as our families mature. As Jacob longed to settle, his adult sons misbehaved without his leadership, and his family spun out of control.

Let us rally each other to continue to make the efforts, to continue to strive. We continually discover the wisdom to help us do the work as long as we continue to wrestle.

A Jewish Take on a Superstorm

The world is not fair – while Abraham seems to argue for fairness in the treatment of Sodom and Gemorrah, still Lot needs to flee the disaster with his family. Bad things happen. Storms happen, and people run from storms, stay hunkered down in storms. What separates the fortunate on the Upper West Side of Manhattan from the less fortunate in Staten Island, or in Cuba? As Jews we stand up and argue with the unfairness of the universe and then we put our hearts and souls into reaching out to those in need, those who suffer the worst of the storms. We hurl our anger at the sky, and then bend our minds and backs to the tasks at hand – rebuilding, repairing, and making anew.

We progressive Jews hesitate to use parts of our Torah that vex us, like these verses from Deuteronomy, part of the Sh’ma in other prayer books, and words that we have omitted from ours:
Deut. 11:13 Now it shall be if you hearken, yes, hearken to my commandments that I command you today, to love Adonai your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your being:
14 I will give forth the rain of your land in its due-time, shooting-rain and later-rain; you shall gather in your grain, your new-wine and your shining-oil;
16 Take-you-care, lest your heart be seduced, so that you turn-aside and serve other gods and prostrate yourselves to them,
17 and the anger of Adonai flare up against you so that he shuts up the heavens, and there is no rain, and the earth does not give forth its yield, and you perish quickly from off the good land that Adonai is giving you!

We don’t like these words because they equate good and bad behavior with good and bad natural events. We prefer the perspective from the Book of Job, that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, and we can’t explain it at all.

And yet, is that really the case?

When we act as a community to prevent difficulties – to provide care for those who need it, and food for those who need it – we create a society in which there is less suffering. Our actions do shape our communities – actions and outcomes are connected.

When we work together to build sound foundations, to respect the ecology that provides our resources for food and shelter, we interact with a planet that treats us with some of the respect that we treat it.

We don’t have to look at God as responding to behavior when we recognize that we live in a society and on a planet in which all things are connected. Each of us plays a part in the whole, and we sink or swim together.

When everyone is human, everything is personal

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.

Realistic Theology

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

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

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.

Aim for holiness in the New Year

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at K’doshim, Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27 – the holiness code, a list of behaviors that Jews identify as fulfilling the verse that appears early in this reading:

Lev. 19:2 Speak to the entire community of the Israelites, and say to them: Holy are you to be, for holy am I, Adonai your God!

Jews tend to read this section as describing how God intends us to be holy – namely by adhering to these standards. The verse serves as an introduction to the behaviors and rituals that follow.

This says that holiness is not other-worldly, not some distant divine essence. Rather, to be holy is to be distinct – to separate ourselves by following paths of good actions. To be holy is to distinguish our behavior, just like creating holiness for a time or space is about setting aside that time and space as special and different from other events and locations.

On this Day of Repentance, that starts this evening, let us all try and find some way to distinguish ourselves. May we make this year one where our actions bring holiness into the world.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we all be well-inscribed for the New Year.

Leviticus Says Nothing About Homosexuality

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30 – the offerings required of Aaron, including the one for all of the sins of the Israelites on the Day of Atonement, prohibitions against hunting, and a host of laws about prohibited relationships.

After that long list comes this text, used frequently, usually by non-Jews, in current times:

Lev. 18:21 Your seed-offspring you are not to give-over for bringing-across to the Molech, that you not profane the name of your God, I am Adonai!
22 With a male you are not to lie (after the manner of) lying with a woman, it is an abomination!
23 With any animal you are not to give your emission of seed, becoming-impure through it; a woman is not to stand before an animal, mating with it, it is perversion!

Considering that verse 22, the often quoted anti-homosexual prohibition does not come in the area preceding it, about prohibited marriage relations, we can infer that the notion of two men or two women living together and building a family wasn’t seen as an option in ancient Israelite society. Furthermore, the placement of this practice in the area of religious and behavioral abominations also places it outside the norms of regular community life.

Since today we see that same-sex families are just as healthy as their heterosexual alternatives, and that supporting people in forming families is one of the main purposes of a religious society that advocates healthy partnered relationships over promiscuity, we can understand this text as prohibiting something else.

Some evidence points to this prohibiting a form of worship where the priest would dress as a woman and have sex with the worshiper. We can certainly see that such a cult of prostitution would be against the ethics of Ancient Israelite society, and would be a much more accurate fit to what this text might prohibit.

As reasonable religious people we should use our reflective time of year as an opportunity to reconcile the principles we aim to live by with how we read our texts as well. Fairness and compassion, as well as the promotion of healthy families, demand that we must be for total inclusion of the diversity of sexual and gender identities.

Bodies are sources of holiness too

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at M’tzorah, Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33 – ritual impurities around mysterious skin conditions (not leprosy, BTW), and ritual impurities around sexual relationships.

What’s the deal with the impurities? What kind of superstitious mumbo-jumbo is this?

Let us depart from the judgmental attitude towards cleanliness in English. All of the impurities mentioned in this section, and the procedures around them, could happen to anyone, and do happen to almost everyone – they are normal results of human existence. Impurity is not a critique, but a rhythm to life, living, and the appreciation of our physicality.

How we cycle in and out of different moments in life is worth noting. When we come into contact with the sources of creation via intimacy we ought to take note in some way. Recognizing the sacredness in such acts by washing before and afterward and treating our actions as full of impact seems like a good corrective in a society where all too often sex and sexuality get easily demeaned by disrespectful access and treatment.

We find great meaning in the connection between our bodies and relationships. At this reflective time of year, let us aim for better and more respectful physicality.