Monthly Archives: May 2017

An Early Start

When the temperature spiked this week from 45 to 90 degrees, it threw me off a bit. As if in a dream, I started packing for the Cape, our annual summer destination. This, in turn, activated a lot of signals to my hippocampus, awakening memories of what comes along with the Cape.

At the beginning of every summer for close to 40 years, I contemplate the upcoming new year.  I ponder so many different things. I think about my life as a pond with concentric ripples fanning out. The first circle is my immediate reality: my body, my choices. Next are my wife and kids, my relatives and oldest friends. Then comes my temple family, the people I work with professionally, and the congregation I serve. And then there’s the more diffuse local, regional, national, and international issues that involve and intrude on my pond, like a thunderstorm or a cool breeze or a blizzard, depending on who’s doing what where.

This is the pond into which I jump every day. But in the heat of these last few days, I’ve started to especially examine and reexamine the waters, as if Rosh Hashanah were around the corner. I’m not complaining – after all, a little extra time spent in reflection mode can’t be bad.

But it does make me wonder: what’s this world coming to? And what am I coming to? Surely with age comes an acute sense of limits and finitude. But just as certainly, with age comes wisdom. In fact, the book of Psalms, 90:12, suggests that acknowledging mortality leads to wisdom. “Teach us to number our days, that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”

Yes, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to everything – except God – and maybe the multiverse. As spring edges to summer, as summer pushes towards Fall, there is this sense that a personal account checking is in order. It’s time to explore our blessings and challenges of the past year and how we have responded to them.  What kind of connections have we made? What connections have we broken?  It’s a time to reflect on the fact that we live in relationship to each other and all the earth. And it’s a time for honest reflection, forgiveness, celebration and healing.

I know, I know. I’m a little bit early. I’ve put away the summer clothes box and the Crocs. But I’m stuck with this looming sense of urgency ignited by the weather. I think I’m going to stick with it, see where it takes me.

Rabbi Eliezer taught “Repent one day before your death.” His students said, “Rabbi, how is that possible if one doesn’t know the day of one’s death?” To which Rabbi Eliezer responded, “Aha! Making amends and being in spiritual balance is not something to put on layaway! It must always be in your mind and heart.”

The rabbi has a point. What matters most, in the end, is not how many toys we have collected. What truly counts is to be wholeheartedly clear that, at the end of the day, we have done our best to do the right thing. How to be clear? That’s the work. And now that the heat has activated the High Holy Day prep syndrome, I’m on it. As Rabbi Eliezer indicates, it’s always the right time.

Shabbat Shalom


A Perfect World Somewhere

The book of Leviticus describes the sacrificial cult as ordained by God and supervised and executed by the priests and the Levites. The cultic slaying and skinning of animals, the draining of their blood, consuming the offering, burning the rest, offering up various birds and grains, and so forth, are all exhaustively discussed. There are lots of details regarding methodology.
I’ve always wondered: what must it have been like in the temple courtyard, animals braying, altars burning, people leading oxen and goats, carrying cages of birds and baskets of fruit and grain? The answer is that… there is no answer. There are no descriptions of the sacrificial cult. When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70CE, not a thing was left behind. It was obliterated to show the Jews as well as the rest of the world, that Roman gods were stronger than the Jewish God.
As I read Leviticus these days, I’ve come to wonder: was there ever a sacrificial cult? Or was the whole thing a projection of a perfect world, where sin can be removed, where a contaminated body and soul can be cleansed, where atonement is possible? In a world of uncertainty, did our ancestors find peace in a series of stories and images that “guaranteed” God would hear them and accept their offerings?
World of uncertainty surely defines where we live today. Anything that might assuage anxiety about the unknown would be so useful. I listen to the news as I always do. This week, despite all of my reading,  I have no idea what’s going on. Who is in charge? Who is guilty? Who is innocent? Should I be worried about 1) the Russians 2) the North Koreans 3) the Chinese 4) ISIS 5) Hamas 6) the FBI 7) the President 8) the Left 9) the Right 10) etc. Someone, please! Assuage me!
In the perfect alternative Universe of Leviticus, you offer up a sacrifice without blemish. The priest does the sacrifice on your behalf. God receives it. Done. It’s all in God’s hands. Everything is clear. There is no uncertainty.
Well, I’ve got some news. God does not control us or our fate in this world. God cannot change the way of any human being who refuses to ponder their choices. I believe that God loves us, implants within us the capacity for love and faith and compassion and nurturance. But God does not install spiritual fog lights in our souls. God can help us define the way to be, but cannot clear the way for us.
The perfect world has a sacrificial system. It has clear, absolute answers. We have prayer. We ask God to give us strength and resilience. That God can do. But the transaction happens, not on an altar, but in our hearts.
This is a crazy Universe, far from perfection. God roots for us, for all who seek peace and reconciliation. It is not an option to passively sit it out. Every minute counts. There is no sideline.
I dream of a perfect world. It isn’t about animal sacrifice or priests making offerings on my behalf. In my perfect world, it’s about human understanding, it’s certainty that we are, all of us, in accord, accepting our unique capabilities even as we unite in common cause over what we share. It may be that my perfect world is as far away as was the world of Leviticus. But I will never cease to talk about it and dream about it and share it with you and with God: in prose and music and prayer.

What Counts

We are at the time of the counting the Omer, in case it slipped your mind. I know. You’re scratching your head and wondering what this is all about. Here’s the text citation: “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach when an omer [approximately 9 cups] of grain is to be brought as an offering [to the cohanim in the Jerusalem Temple], seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16) [It’s also the beginning of the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates when we received the Torah].”
You may ask, “Why does God ask the Israelites for a measure of grain for 50 consecutive days?” The answer, a wise and enduring answer as we ponder the Torah, is “We just don’t know.” Perhaps it was a sign that the spring grain was that significant. God wanted to declare its centrality by featuring it so prevalently.
Originally there wasn’t even a link between the Omer offering with Passover or Shavuot other than proximity on the calendar. But the rabbis are always looking for connections, always trying to link events to form one meta storyline. Counting the Omer has become a primary nexus point between Passover and Shavuot.
There is another question I have, one that pushes Jewish practice – mine individually, and ours, collectively – is, “Why do we continue to acknowledge this ritual by counting up, every night, at the end of services?” This question leads us to a deeply existential confrontation. If after the year 70CE, there is no more temple where sacrifices were once offered up, why is it so important to acknowledge the Omer tradition? In fact, why bother?
I know asking, “Why bother?” is a slippery slope when it comes to examining ritual practices. But this one is so arcane that it cannot be ignored.
The Reform movement was born when people began questioning ritual observance, wondering why certain practices were required. They began asking why men and women couldn’t sit together. They asked why to keep kosher. They wanted to know why they couldn’t have beautiful instrumental music in their synagogues. They wanted to know why being Jewish felt restrictive and constrictive.
To be a Jew is to inherit a long and complicated tradition, filled with astonishing twists and turns, monumental change, push back and blowback. The archetypal traditional Jew, Tevye, sings about tradition and stalwartly stands strong with it. But even Tevye, buffeted by change and loss, wonders what the true price is to hold onto a tradition that no longer fits, no longer makes sense.
Some may consider it sad, or even heretical, to relegate long practiced ritual to the dust heap of history. But if it no longer serves its purpose, if it becomes a mindless, rote procedure, then why bother? There is so much to celebrate in our tradition. There are so many ways that being Jewish challenges us to step up and be truly present. There are so many ways to access the best of our Judaism. Wouldn’t this be the right time to find new paths to God and to community?  Instead of worrying about remembering to count the Omer, doesn’t it make more sense to remember to bring to the temple some non-perishable offering to the Jewish food bank, Family Table?
For our tradition to be worth something, it has to mean something.