Judaism - Torah

Our Long-Nosed God – Parashat Vayikra

Despite my family’s French heritage, I’m not what you would call a sophisticated wine drinker.

I enjoy a glass of red every now and then, I know the difference between a Malbec and a Cabernet, and I’ve even recently rediscovered that white wine has its merits. But if you asked me to pair a wine with a dish for dinner, I would be totally lost. I can’t really discern overtones from undernotes, and I certainly have no idea why someone would want to drink a wine that is described as tobacco-like.

Having said that, I do know something about some of wine’s other well-known characteristics. If you have you ever come home after a long day of work, exhausted; perhaps stressed the tasks still remaining to be done, and poured yourself a glass of wine to help alleviate some of that stress, then you know, as I do, that a glass of wine can be quite relaxing.

Now I’m not advocating that we all turn to wine to solve all of life’s problems. But if you are familiar with this experience, I want to say: congratulations, you’re in good company.

Even the Creator of the universe, our rabbis teach, knows the value of a relaxing glass of wine.

Whoever becomes more relaxed after a glass of wine, says Rabbi Hanina of the Talmud, has an element of God within them, since God acted similarly after smelling the sweet aromas of a sacrifice. (BT Eruvin 65a)

Remember the story of what happened to Noah after the flood?

Noah and his family emerged from the ark, and Noah offered a sacrifice to God. The sweet aroma of the burnt offering rose up to God, and, our rabbis tell us, God was relaxed, and said: I won’t ever again curse the ground because of humanity” (Gen. 8:21).

It’s as if, after a particularly stressful day (of nearly wiping out humanity) God sits back, inhales the sweet scent of Noah’s sacrificial offering, and just… mellows out. The smell of Noah’s gracious offering is just as potent as drinking a glass of wine.

This pleasing sent – a ריח ניחוח – is a frequent motif throughout the Torah. After Noah, it appears a total of sixteen times in the book of Leviticus, which we begin reading this Shabbat. And it will appear seventeen more times in Numbers. In total, God is pleased by a ריח ניחוח thirty-six times throughout the Torah! God, clearly, likes to kick back and relax after a hard day of being the Master of the Universe!

But what is it about the ריח ניחוח that acts so potently upon God?

Have you ever smelled a scent that acted upon you immediately? In particular – have you ever smelled a scent that spirits you away to another place, triggering ancient memories?

Marcel Proust was one of the first to suggest that smell is the sense most linked to memory. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust writes:

“When nothing else subsists from the long-distant past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell… of things remain poised a long time, like souls… bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”

The scent of musty corridors of an old building triggers for me vivid images of exploring the cellar of my Great Aunt’s house as a five-year-old, trying to find the deep-freezer, so I could pick out an ice-cream treat.

When I smell my scented beard oil, I am immediately whisked away to my grandparents’ house in Hamilton, Ontario, and filled with memories of playing pine-walled home where my father grew up.

And every autumn, the smell of biodegrading leaves and fresh mud takes me back to years of playing in the farm fields where I used to go to school.

What do your memories smell like?

God, we are taught, also responds emotionally to scents.

“The sense of smell, in the Holy [Hebrew] Language,” writes Rabbi Moses Mendellsohn, “corresponds to the power of memory in the soul, for the idea of memory is the remaining impression in the soul, after the tangible experience has passed. That is the unique property of scent… one which will provoke the desired memory before God.”

I wonder what God is thinking about when smelling the pleasing scents of the ריח ניחוח?

One idea is that God is remembering the promise to be compassionate toward humanity that God made to Noah.

There’s a great clue to this: in the Torah, we learn that one of God’s attributes is ארך אפיים – which we usually translate as being “slow to anger.” You might be familiar with this from Rosh Hashanah or other chagim, as we recite a list of the thirteen attributes of the Holy Blessed One.

But ארך אפיים doesn’t literally mean “slow to anger,” it actually means “long-nosed”! Why does the Torah have this imagery of God with a long nose?

Perhaps because it is through this metaphoric nose that we arouse God’s compassion. A longer nose equals more smelling power!

It’s a powerful, very human metaphor: God’s patient, gentle attitude toward us is triggered in a way remarkably familiar to us – by these powerful, pungent scent-memories that Proust spoke of.

The ריח ניחוח are the result of what we call sacrifices, but the English word “sacrifice” is not an adequate translation. In Hebrew, they are called korbanot – which comes from the root “to draw near.”

Just like scents can bring us remarkably closer to past memories, the ancient Israelites’ sacrifices were an attempt to get closer to God, to arouse God’s compassion, and remind God of memories of our covenantal relationship.

We don’t offer sacrifices anymore. But we still live in covenant with God, and we still want God’s compassion. And we still emit things into the world.

The things we send out into the world – both literal and figurative – can have both creative and destructive power.

You might think about this environmentally: is what are we emitting sustaining the world, or harming it? Is it pleasing, or polluting?

Or you can think of it emotionally: does the attitude we send out into the world create room for others to draw nearer, or does it close off?

You could think of this spiritually, as our ancestors certainly did: are the prayers and blessings we offer to God perfunctory, or do they come from a place of serious intention, of a desire to elevate our spirits and brings us closer to the holy and the transcendent?

Just as everything we “give off” here on earth is received physically and emotionally by others, we have an image of a long-nosed God who acts similarly. Everything we “give off” can either push us away or draw us closer to God.

How might we work to ensure that what what we put out into the world draws us nearer to God and to each other?

These ריח ניחוח, these pleasant aromas, were not pleasing to God because of their smell alone, but because of the intention of the person performing the sacrifice.

Just as scents are only the tiniest, microscopic of particles of something much greater, the ריח ניחוח were just the tip of the iceberg, a small hint of something much larger.

The ריח ניחוח are a taste – or scent, as it were – of the depth of intentions that each person brought to their offering. And that’s why this idea is so powerful – our offerings to God have always been a just a small taste of something more to come.

They point to something much greater than ourselves.

My Bubby Jeanne, zichronah livrachah, used to make classic French dishes for Shabbat dinner. My favourite was her Coq au Vin – chicken and wine, a classic French dish. I’m sure that there are many dishes in a restaurant that might smell or taste just as good as hers. But hers, I know, was made with love and care for me and my family.

When I walked into my grandparents’ home every week for Shabbat and smelled the sweet scents of the chicken cooking, I knew that I would be surrounded by the loving embrace of our family’s Shabbat celebration.

And it is that love, encoded in a scent, that has become fixed in my memory, drawing me closer to her memory.

The idea of sacrifices might seem ancient, backwards, irrelevant or even inhumane when compared to how we pray today. But the korbanot – these acts of drawing nearer – have built into them a very human idea.

The ריח ניחוח serve to remind God, and us, of basic human desires that we all share: we want to live and thrive, we want to be loved, and we want to do this in sacred relationship with each other.

Perhaps this is the lesson of these smelly sacrifices – to send out love and compassion, and to receive those “scented” offerings with a long nose.

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Judaism - Torah

One Minute of Wonder

While researching my rabbinic thesis, I came across what is now, by far, one of my favourite teachings from the Talmud. I might be obsessing a bit over it – I’ve written about it here and here. I find its philosophy to be such a relevant antidote to our hyper-partisan age.

I’m thankful to have be asked to share a quick window into it on video, as part of the CCAR’s One Minute of Wonder series.

One of the Talmud’s ideas about pedagogy is that innovation is vital to the Jewish understanding of Torah education.

Anticipating the anxiety of every Bar and Bat Mitzvah student, the Talmud poses a brilliant question: if there are seemingly limitless interpretations of Torah, how could we ever learn it all? And moreover, what happens when different interpretations disagree?

The Talmud’s answer is simple, yet sublime: sucks to your anxiety. You need to listen to everyone. And you need to do it empathetically with love and care.

Of course, this is not an “anything goes” idea. We can (and should) have foundational beliefs and practices – things upon which we’re willing to stake ourselves. But that doesn’t absolve us of the duty to listen to others – even when we fundamentally disagree.

Judaism - Torah

Parashat Noach: No Dress Rehearsal, this is Our Life

It is difficult to speak of biblical flood stories when there are those still suffering from literal flooding in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean.

It is difficult to speak of a mass natural disaster, when thousands are homeless, ravaged by fires in California and earthquakes in Mexico.

It is difficult to speak of mass human death, when we are still reeling from death in Somalia; in Niger; in Las Vegas.

But here we are this week at parashat Noach – one of the most famous of Torah stories, one that we must acknowledge, is filled with destruction and death.

How are we to work towards repairing the very real death and destruction around us, if we are just up against a God who permits such devastation?

Continue reading “Parashat Noach: No Dress Rehearsal, this is Our Life”

Judaism - Torah

Fierce Chesed

Here we are in the aseret y’mei t’shuvah – the ten days of repentance. After spending long hours in synagogue praying, reflecting, and attuning ourselves to the holy, we are back for Shabbat. Given the grandeur and majesty of Rosh Hashanah, it might feel somewhat anticlimactic coming down from those great heights.

The soaring melodies, stirring poetry, and deep worship of Rosh Hashanah helps us do that ever-important soul work. But now, it’s a little more quiet. What are we to do now?

Here’s the truly great thing: Maurice Lamm teaches that God is not just a Rosh Hashanah God. Holiness is available to us, if we acknowledge it, every day. God’s majesty cannot be contained within a synagogue ark, or squeezed into the stone walls of Jerusalem, or locked tight in the 25 hours of Yom Kippur.

Continue reading “Fierce Chesed”

Judaism - Torah

Emet v’Teshuvah: Truth and Reconciliation

In 1940, at the age of eight, a young boy named Russell Moses was forcibly removed from his home. Ripped away from all that he knew, he was relocated by the government to one of many re-education schools. The government stripped him of his identity and gave him a number that was sewn onto his clothes.

Robbed of his name, forbidden to speak his native language, subject to harsh physical punishment, and deprived of love, Russel suffered enormously.

Born in 1932, Russell Moses was a member of the Delaware band of the Six Nations of the Grand River, an indigenous Canadian territory in what is now the province of Ontario. The story of his life – like many of the indigenous peoples of this continent – is one that includes discrimination, poverty, and tragedy.[1]

Russell’s story is just one of hundreds of thousands. Each similarly unconscionable, each more tragic than the last. They are uncomfortable truths that many would rather ignore than dredge up. We tell ourselves that we have evolved, that we are better, that these injustices are a thing of the past. Such attitudes ensured that until recently, most of these stories had never seen the light of day.

Continue reading “Emet v’Teshuvah: Truth and Reconciliation”

Judaism - Torah

Come From Away: Parashat Tazria-Metzora & Spiritual Exile

 

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Credit: Come from Away

The town of Gander, Newfoundland is one of the most remote towns in all of North America. Built in the late 1930s as an airport town linking North America and Europe, it is found on the northeast tip of Canada, surrounded by trees and rocks; rivers, an abundance of wildlife, and the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean. Gander’s population is remote, but diverse. The people who live there are mostly government, health care, and education workers. Their municipal website has an online complaint box, where answers are promised within a day. It is about as far away from my home New York City, as you can get.

On September 11, 2001, thirty-nine wide-body airplanes made emergency landings at Gander International Airport, as the world changed forever. Nearly 6,600 people were stranded there for a week, in a town whose population at the time was around 9,000.

The story of Gander, and the 6,600 unexpected visitors who inundated the town, is being told in a new Broadway show, Come from Away, which I had the privilege of seeing this past week. The play captures the depth of emotions from that bittersweet time, as a town opened its arms and doors to thousands of anxious individuals. In a time when we are surrounded by talk of closing borders and building walls, the show tells a story of acceptance, and welcoming diverse people from all over the world.

Filled with joyful and stirring chords of Newfoundland Celtic rock, Come from Away explores some of the deeper questions of our lives: what happens to us when we’re forced away from home? How does our sense of home change, when we welcome others into it? Why are some of the most transformational moments in our lives those that take place in these in-between places?

Continue reading “Come From Away: Parashat Tazria-Metzora & Spiritual Exile”

Ideas, Judaism - General, Judaism - Reform, Judaism - Torah

Smithing vs. Smelting: Liberal Religious Judaism

This is my Rabbinical Senior Sermon, which I delivered before the HUC-JIR community on Thursday, March 2, 2017, for parashat Terumah. You can watch the entire sermon below).


 

I believe in angels. The angels with wings, who can soar through the skies? I believe in them.

The angels who look out for us? Yes – those angels. I believe in them.

Let me explain.

Several years ago, on a flight from Montreal to Toronto, I felt a twisting pang in the depths of my stomach. It felt like the moment of terror when your chair tips back and you almost fall. My palms were sweating, heart beating furiously. The hair on my arms stood on end. I was having a panic attack.

It is difficult for me to describe just how destabilizing this moment was. I had never been afraid of flying. I was confused and hoped this was a random event.

It wasn’t.

Every time I buckled in for a flight, the familiar waves of dread rushed over my body. I felt a complete loss of control, as though my entire future was uncertain. When you feel this destabilized, when a perceived crisis careens your head and your heart out of sync, you desperately search for something to grasp on to.

I found some support in the biblical verses that accompany tefilat haderekh – the traveler’s prayer. Traditionally, they are repeated three times before departing on a journey.

When I hear the clicks and clangs of the plane door shutting, I pull out my iPhone and the screenshot I have saved of tefilat haderekh.

The plane taxis away from the gate and I utter this ancient mantra from Exodus: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Ex. 23:30)

In my mind, I see a soaring creature speeding toward the plane. Each time I repeat these words, the celestial being gets closer and closer, until, spreading out its enormous wings, it envelops the 400 tonnes of steel and human bodies in its glowing presence.

This image protects me from my wild thoughts. I feel grateful for the direction that calms my rushing mind.

Now, I don’t literally believe in spiritual beings dispatched by God. I think God has more pressing things to do than support the weight of an airplane filled with my anxieties. But the symbolic imagery is powerful. It reminds me that my life is not completely random, and that I can open myself to divine blessings.

Angelic figures make a stunning appearance in this week’s parashah, Terumah. Terumah is all about God’s instructions to build the portable wilderness tabernacle – the mishkan – and its Aron Kodesh – the holy ark.

 עָשִׂ֥יתָ כַפֹּ֖רֶת זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר…עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב.
(For the ark), make a cover of pure gold… [and] make two k’ruvim of gold. (Ex. 25:17, 18)

These k’ruvim – the cherubs – have long seized the imagination of commentators and artists. What exactly are they?

To begin with, let us rid our minds of the chubby babies with bows and arrows of Valentine’s Day cards and Renaissance art. Most scholars agree that the creature envisioned by the Torah is probably a winged hybrid of a lion and a human. A sphinx.

God tells the Israelites to carve the k’ruvim out of a solid piece of gold. With enormous wings stretching out above their bodies to shield the aron kodesh, the k’ruvim turn toward each other from opposite ends of the aron. This creates a pulsating negative space between them, out of which God’s still, small voice will emerge. The gaze of the k’ruvim is turned down, as though they accept their sacred duty with a most profound humility.

Even though the Torah precisely details the materials, dimensions, and layout of the k’ruvim, it doesn’t tell us of their specific form.  Even more remarkable is the command to build statues in the mishkan in the first place! Doesn’t this contradict God’s fiery injunction: “You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image”!? (Ex. 20:4)

The paradox becomes even more enigmatic, since in just a few parshiyot, our ancestors will commit what comes to be viewed as that most heinous of sins – the construction of the Golden Calf. Why is one animal statue kosher and one not?

Both are emblems of mysterious golden beings. Both are the products of communal building projects. The Israelites offer the same sacrifices before the calf that they offer to our God in the mishkan.

The calf and the k’ruvim are virtually identical. Why is one lauded while the other so reviled?

I’d like to suggest that the answer can be found in the way these two icons are constructed. The medium is the message.

God’s instructions are quite specific: The k’ruvim are to be made of solid gold, hammered by hand – mikshah –  to God’s exact pattern. עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם.”(Ex. 25:18)

The Golden Calf, on the other hand, is a molten image – masekhah – cast in a fiery furnace that melts together the Israelite’s gold with no discrimination. (Ex. 32:4)

The difference between the two is a question of craftsmanship: of smithing versus smelting, of mikshah versus masekhah: two methods of construction with two vastly different visions.

One method – masekhah – is quick work, a response to a perceived crisis. I imagine the anxiety and pain our ancestors must have felt. Moses, their only physical connection to our invisible God, has disappeared into the clouds. Their panicked sense of uncertainty is manifest in the harried and hurried cooking up of this idol.

They are so desperate for leadership; so desperate for a sense of God’s presence; that they give up their most precious belongings. Melting away their history, they pour their golden heirlooms into the form of a calf. It is a reactionary, rash attempt to meet short-sighted needs.

The k’ruvim demand a vastly different method – mikshah. They will be built with gifts of the heart, slowly and deliberately, by the precise hand of a craftsperson. Moses learns of the careful eye and steady hand required to hammer out their complex details point by point.

But, the midrash imagines, Moses has difficulty with this vision. He fears that he will not be able to transmit the intricate instructions; that the building of God’s sacred place will fail. And so, God etches into Moses’ hand, an image; personally engraving a blueprint into his skin. The work of Moses’ hands is tattooed with Divine vision. (Based on Tanhuma Yashan Shmini 11)

The calf and the angels. Two approaches to living in relationship with God. Two ways to frame our religious vision.

I think one of the reasons that the Golden Calf was considered so odious is that it was built upon fear rather than hope.

While the k’ruvim symbolize a long-vision with eternal, cosmic significance,  the Golden Calf represents a rushed, reactive project that becomes associated with communal sin and failure.

I empathize with the Israelites and their anxiety that prompted the construction of the calf. I know what it feels like to lose a sense of control on a journey, to desperately search for any symbol that might offer protection from the turbulence. Our ancestors were in search of certainty, of a presence to guide and nurture them. Can we fault them?

Our community goes through its own kind of panic attacks as we look toward a turbulent future for Jews and Judaism. What will it hold? Innovation and creativity. But also a shocking resurgence of open hostility toward us in this country and around the world.

The breaking down of institutional barriers and cooperation across once rigid lines, yes. But also increasing ossification on Israeli and domestic politics.

It is a thrilling, confusing time to be a Jew.

In this climate, Jewish organizations strive to act like Moses with the k’ruvim: We do lengthy and expensive strategic planning. We hold visioning retreats. But then life happens: bomb threats at JCCs, a crisis in Israel, a new Pew Report. Suddenly, we turn from thoughtful smithing to hurried smelting. In these watershed moments, we seek the stability of quick responses.

To be sure, sobering recent events have shown us there is a need for our Judaism to be nimble.

Good leaders need to be proficient at smelting and smithing. But as liberal Jews, we tend to focus too much on the former, and not enough on the latter. We do well with the masekhah approach of the Calf. We are adept at responding to the calls of the world. We have a refined sense of the spiritual needs of the day. The very roots of our worldview are steeped in historical responsiveness. This is proudly who we are.

But we are particularly prone to acting hastily, as we persistently strive to make our Jewish practice resonate with the demands of the moment. We are constantly pressured to craft a shiny, polished Judaism that is palatable to the masses; that is inoffensive and unobtrusive.

We tend to be more reactive than deliberate. The enduring message of the calf/k’ruvim distinction teaches us the opposite: responsiveness should not come at the expense of vision.

We need sensitivity to the world alongside a proactive, eternal vision of something that is particularly ours.

What if one day, God willing, we solve the refugee crisis?

What if one day, God willing, we have engaged all the youth?

What if one day, God willing, we reach full hospitality toward all in our tent?

Then what?

Our hospitality and engagement are only worthy to the extent that we welcome others into a vision of something greater than what we currently are.

I don’t hear many Reform Movement leaders laying out a narrative or vision of liberal Judaism that moves beyond a response to pressing social concerns. I don’t hear many of our clergy speaking of what is religiously at stake to be a Jew today.

The Movement has a stated vision, but its buzzwords rely too much on a Golden Calf approach: “innovation while preserving tradition… diversity while asserting commonality.” Putting “values into action,” and “sacred acts” are upheld as praiseworthy, with little mention of what these guiding values are, or how they are manifest in sacred acts.

Surely, a vision of what it means to be Jewish in 2017 is more than innovation, diversity, hospitality, and commonality. These are attitudes – fundamentally important ones – but they do not encompass the breadth and depth of what it can mean to be a liberal Jew in 2017.

The question, then, is how do we – inheritors of Moses’ leadership, and invested with authority and privilege – how do we take Torah, take what is eternally true, and grow our responsiveness from a vision that radiates from it?

Isn’t our dedication to this question why we walk the halls of this very building, rather than those of a State Senate or Provincial Legislature?

The challenge confronting us is how to articulate a deeply held, sustainable vision, while also responding to urgent needs. This is not a challenge with a technical solution – there is no single change in technique which will sustain us.

What we need is a shift in how we think about the very nature of liberal religious Jewish leadership.

Our Judaism must have a blueprint to sustain us as we soar through the turbulent atmosphere of the next decade and beyond. Yes, we need our hearts to stir us toward action – אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ as our parasah teaches (Ex 25:2) – but what comes after our hearts move us? Because we can build the Golden Calf, or we can build the k’ruvim; both are heart-driven.

Are we to lead like the reactive populism of the Golden Calf, or like the proactive, visionary builders of the k’ruvim?

We need to be better at making kruvim. We need to be better at cultivating the skill of mikshah, the fine craft of imbuing the work of our hands with eternal vision.

“A liberal Judaism without that ability to say ‘this is the ideal we are striving for’ will be a Jewish life that fails to challenge, a Jewish life always looking to justify and sanctify” (Rabbi Leon Morris, Reform Judaism and the Challenge of Our Time)

The k’ruvim teach us the opposite: That we can building something much greater and grander than what we currently are. Something big, something demanding, but something toward which we can strive together. (Ibid.)

The k’ruvim are the culmination of a challenging, perhaps audacious, vision of precision and personal attention. And it is precisely this vision which enshrines God’s presence on earth.

Can we recapture this process?

It is slow work.

It is dedicated work.

It is hard work.

But from this visionary work, together, we can create the space for God’s still, small voice to speak once more.