From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
The Book of Leviticus and the portion, Shemini, pose intriguing challenges. An underlying purpose in the Book of Leviticus is to promote ritual holiness in order to gain God’s blessing. Everything points to the efforts of the priests and the people to maintain a high level of order and cleanliness. Their reward is God’s blessing. It sounds like a fairly simple equation for righteous living, but it is more complicated than it appears.
It’s in this portion that we read about Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Sons of the high priest, one could assume that the boys knew their way around holy matters. But, Nadab and Abihu brought an “eish zarah,” an alien fire as an offering to God, and “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1ff). In at least two responses to this event, rabbis have upheld the record that the boys were drunk when they entered the Tent of Meeting with their offerings; therefore, their punishment fit the crime. They’ve also suggested that they brought an offering that was not commanded. Their offering was the result of their personal interpretation of God’s commands, which was an affront to Moses.
After the boys were consumed by fire, Moses says to Aaron, “This is what was meant when God said, ‘Through those near to Me, I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people. Then Aaron, their father, said, and Torah records, “Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3). Aaron’s silence has astonished readers ever since. Perhaps it’s the finality of God’s decree. Perhaps it’s the utter silence of Aaron whose grief is not recorded in Torah. Perhaps it’s the finality we’ve all felt at times in our life when “we didn’t see it coming” or “we should have known better.”
The clearest lesson is found in what God said about the matter, namely, “Through those near to Me.” It reveals that Aaron and his sons were called to serve God, and their position came with inextricable rules about comportment, leadership and holiness. The higher the office, the higher duty; or we might say, the higher you climb, the farther you fall. That is not to say that jobs with less responsibilities are more forgiving, but it is consistent with our expectations that a person who leads from on high also demonstrates exceptional moral and ethical judgment.
While there are no longer high priests in Jewish life, nor a priestly caste in modern Judaism, the covenant we enjoy in Judaism still holds us to a high standard for moral and ethical living. After all, a mitzvah is a commandment, and this presumes there is a commander. In a covenant such as ours, the commander is God. The ethical and moral teachings found in Torah, which we believe are inspired by God and written by man, are our best representation of covenantal law and duty. If, however, your vision of the commander is not God, but rather the duties of the heart that compel you, personally, it’s not impossible to conclude that your principal teachings don’t also come from the same source in Torah. Thus, Torah is our unifying text. We share the same duty to perform deeds that correspond to expectations that devolve upon us from our heritage of Torah ethics.
Whether or not we perform our duties well or often is a matter of personal conviction. Yet, I have observed time and again that events in our life deeply move us emotionally and spiritually, whether they are joyful or sorrowful. I remember the time when I officiated at four weddings, three funerals, and a baby naming in just over one week. Imagine the avalanche of emotions among everyone involved. Like Aaron, members of the families struggled to find words to reflect on their joy or their sorrow. They stumbled or they were silent. At best, they composed their words on paper to be sure they were prepared. To me their effort reflected the stunning reality and finality of the transitions we face as life unfolds. The small child who enters the chuppah is all grown up; the beloved who is accompanied to his/her final resting place on earth is physically no more; and the baby just entering the world is a miracle to his/her parents and grandparents. At these times, who isn’t rendered silent? Who isn’t in awe? These inevitable moments are part of the rhythm of life we cannot control. Indeed, there is a commander who animates the Divine in each of us.
As Shabbat comes, reflect on the moments in your life when you were at a loss for words. Maybe they were holy moments and times of sacred transitions, too.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Be Happy, it’s ADAR! It’s Purim time and Adar is the Hebrew month in which we celebrate the holiday. You would be right if you recognized that Purim and Mardi Gras come around the same time. In history, Purim was a festive holiday that provided a place in the Jewish calendar for the Jewish community to celebrate, too. The funny thing about Purim is that it’s a story that turns everything on its head. The strong are weak and the weak are strong; the powerless prevail and the powerful are defeated.
A familiar custom on Purim is to dress up in costume, but not just any costume. It isn’t uncommon for men to dress up as Vashti or Esther, and for women to dress as Moredcai or Haman. Everything is turned on its head. The hilarity of it should be obvious, but when it isn’t obvious the outcome can be unfortunate. There are those who don’t understand Purim and refuse to see it for what it is, namely, a moment in Jewish life that is given over to frivolity, an infrequent luxury in the long arc of Jewish history. Those who don’t understand would exclaim about the man dressed as Esther, “That’s one ugly queen!” or “I’m offended by these games in the synagogue!” Years ago, a teenager, whose parents lacked a sense of humor at any time of year, failed to find the fun in Purim songs that were parodies of modern tunes. Despite efforts to explain, he was unable to celebrate the holiday in ways that were as familiar in ancient Persia as they are in modern Israel. It was his loss for the fun he missed on Purim. It was also his loss, because the lesson of Purim is found not only in the ancient story found in the Book of Esther, but also in the ways it’s reflected in contemporary events.
A key to understanding Purim is seeing what is and isn’t really there and knowing the difference between them. I recommend keeping your focus on Mordecai and Esther, because their authenticity, though masked at first, is what carries the day. Haman, though he portrays himself to be King Ahasueras’s confidant, is as evil as the day is long. Keep your eye on the authentic qualities of these characters even when they’re masqueraded, and you’ll finish first like Mordecai and Esther who are the heroes of the Purim story, and not last like Haman who was left hanging from the gallows.
In contemporary times, these astute skills will serve us well. Take any foreign leader in the news, today, from Putin to Assad. Their messages and actions are not one and the same; their demeanor and their ambitions don’t mesh; and, we would be the wiser to strip them of their masks to the extent that we can and follow the data that reveals their real stories. Putin is an imperialist who seeks to reclaim the Russian crown. And, Assad is the passive ruler who hides behind missiles others launch on his behalf. But, don’t be fooled by these strong men and others like them. Their days will come. Wiser and stronger leaders will prevail. Such days can be difficult to reach, as the Purim story relates, but we shouldn’t relent when we believe that our goals serve a larger purpose and a greater good.
The Purim story is a fresh breath taken in the midst of a congested atmosphere of fear and intimidation. This holiday, dress up and have a blast on the Jewish “Mardi-Gras”. Cast your lots with the Jewish people who have, despite many clashes with evil rulers, prevailed with strength of mind and faith in God.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
This week, we begin the book of Leviticus. It’s not a favorite book among Biblical readers. If it’s any indication, Hollywood hasn’t recreated any of its scenes quite like it has from Genesis and Exodus. Who can forget Charlton Heston as Moses? But, Leviticus, for all its talk about sacrifices and bodily effects, has a lot left to tell us. Granted, the biblical text focuses on ancient rituals, but if we lift them out of their ancient contexts and dust them off for relevant lessons, it’s possible that we can find remnants that remain timeless and timely for us.
For example, animal sacrifices were a large issue for ancient Israelites. Their personal and communal goal was to bring the best of their flock or herd as offerings to God. Every offering, specifically prescribed, communicated messages between the people and God. There were offerings of thanksgiving, forgiveness, and atonement from sin, to name just a few. All this concern for animal sacrifice ended completely when the Temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE. Then prayer replaced sacrifice and the rabbinical age took hold. What the Bible couldn’t tell us about sacrifices is expounded on in Talmud and other texts. Generally, we agree that prayer and not sacrifices was good for the future of Judaism, and surely for the future of flocks and herds.
But, I’m afraid there is something that remains lost forever. In each person’s choice of animals for sacrifice was an intimate concern borne by the individual to bring something pleasing, even savory, to God. The physicality of it made it real without room for imagination. Today, each person chooses prayer for offering. At best, a worshiper offers a prayer with a similar intimate concern to bring something pleasing to God. The difference is that today’s prayer offerings lack physicality. We’ve traded the burden of our hands that held the animal for the duty of the heart that conveys prayer “up” and outward. Supposedly, we’re more advanced; therefore, we’re supposed to be able to make our experience before God more intellectual, emotional and spiritual.
I’m not suggesting that carrying an animal to the High Priest for sacrifice was more meaningful than bringing one’s prayer directly to God. I wouldn’t have it any other way and neither would you. But, it concerns me that the duty to pray is not felt as heavily in our hearts and souls as it once did in our hands. I’d like to suggest that we invite Leviticus to speak to us anew from its ancient origins. There can be heaviness in our hearts and souls, too. What if it’s frustration in would-be worshipers who struggle to find meaning in prayer? Then we can take a cue from our ancient ancestors. They didn’t wait to bring an offering until they felt ready. They brought their offering according to God’s mitzvot, namely, festival holidays and other sacred occasions. Meaning was found through participation with others. They moved in common rhythm with the community as we still do, today.
What if it’s the mindful intentions of our prayers, called kavannah, in Hebrew, which directs our prayers towards God? It requires a different kind of effort to pray mindfully. For those who do so regularly, they would probably admit that prayer might look easy, but it’s not without soulful intent which requires all their heart and soul and might. Prayers of thanksgiving, like prayers for prosperity and peace, are meaningful because they move us with hopefulness towards these objectives; not simply because we think they might work like some magical formula.
Shabbat is our day for worship, though daily prayer is also welcome. The duty to thank God for our blessings still devolves upon us. We can do it through offerings of prayer in our house of worship. We can do it through Sabbath rituals at home. Light candles, sip the wine, and eat the challah. Express gratitude to your family for the blessings they are to you. Whatever you bring and wherever you bring it, make it your best offering. Make it a reflection of the duty of your heart. In English or Hebrew, through song, poetry or prose, there is nothing better than what you’re feeling in your heart and wish to share with God, alone. I join you in that effort. I pray, personally, too. I also enjoy our weekly Sabbath services where song, poetry, prose and community make Friday night and Saturday morning more than days of the week, they are our Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom.
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