Thursday, March 29, 2007
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Mitzrayim and Me
The closest I’ve ever been to Mitzrayim, however, was this past year. Instead of finding myself a happy new mom with a beautiful baby, I developed (fairly severe) postpartum depression. I didn’t realize it, of course – I just thought I was having a hard time. Or maybe that I was a really bad mom. With a horrible life. And no sleep. And no way out.
Thankfully, after a long struggle, I am now in a better place. Much better. Ecstatic, by comparison. And although life isn’t easy (my husband’s in grad school, I work full-time, the 7-month-old baby still wakes up every 2-3 hours all night long), I feel as if the future is wide open, expansive – my options are open, and I have the ease to consider new strategies, opportunities, ideas, all sorts of things which were closed off when I was so depressed that even ‘one more thing’ felt like it would crush me.
Although most people (B”H) never have to go through such a thing, we all have our hard times, our narrow, constricting places. This year, the Pesach seder has acquired a new meaning for me. In the past, when I have tried to feel as though I, myself, had been led out of Mitzrayim, it felt like play-acting. What could I teach my children about liberation, me, who had always been free? For many of our ancestors, this injunction no doubt felt similar. And for others, perhaps it felt like a mockery, as their daily oppression made the seder participants long for true freedom, in which they might live and worship openly and without fear. For those like me, it required imagining what crushing burden might be like; for others, it required imagining freedom. To regard yourself as personally having been led out of Mitzrayim requires a genuine understanding of both, in order to feel the overwhelming joy and gratitude at the core of this holy time.
So why are we commanded thus? Is it to seek out experiences of suffering, in order that we may feel joy at their cessation? (ie., “Why are you hitting yourself with a hammer?” “Because it feels so good when I stop!”) Or to seek out experiences of joy, to counter ongoing deprivation or sadness? Hillel knew, a good sandwich takes both something sweet and something bitter – the contrast makes the whole thing better.
But I believe the real reason we undergo this practice of gratitude every year is so that, when we do have something for which to be genuinely thankful, we recognize it, and recognize the source of our blessings. Surely, this is zman cheiruteynu.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Defying our Limitations
We might also begin with the defiance of two midwives – Shifra and Puah – who refused to turn their life’s work of ushering in new life to one of taking lives.
Or we might begin with the defiance of husbands and wives who, knowing Pharaoh’s decree for the killing of all Hebrew infant boys, loved each other anyway, and chose life.
Or we might begin with the defiance of Pharaoh’s daughter, who, knowing Pharaoh’s decree, plucked a Hebrew child from the reeds and raised him in her own house.
But there is another defiance which is often forgotten, as we leave his name out of the haggadah. Moshe, the prophet Moses, revered in our tradition as the most divine prophet, with the closest connection to G-d, defied his chosen place not once, but several times.
First, as a prince of Egypt, Moses defies his royal privilege when he throws in his lot with the oppressed by killing an overseer abusing a slave. Although most readings of this story imply that Moses does not know his own ancestry, there is nothing in the p’shat (simple meaning) of the Tanakh which states this. Moses was nursed by his own mother, and although he grew up in the Pharaoh’s household, he may have known early on that he was not born there. Certainly the usual meaning makes his actions all the more altruistic – he strikes down the overseer because of some inherent sense of injustice, rather than an affiliation with his people. We would like to see in him a model of Judaism, and Jews, that is altogether morally perfect; but even this interpretation is suspect. The rabbis reserved capital punishment for the most extreme cases, and required overwhelming proof and ongoing immediate threat for such a sentence. Yet Moses does not hold back, does not wait to consult with others more learned, does not attempt simply to restrain the overseer from beating a slave – he reaches out his arm and strikes the man down. And then he flees.
Does he flee from remorse, or from fear? The account implies the latter, but we must imagine he also felt guilt, or pain, from his own hasty actions. Why? Because the next period of his life is spent living in relative obscurity, seeking no authority or dominance over anyone but sheep. And when G-d seeks Moses out, telling him his Divine duty – to return to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and free his people – Moses makes excuses. “They won’t believe me, they won’t listen to me!” And G-d shows Moses that G-d has given him powers to demonstrate Divine might. “But I am not a man of words, I speak slowly, I stutter!” And G-d rebukes him - “Who has made a man’s mouth, is it not Me?” (ie., are you calling me stupid?)”Now go do what I told you.” But Moses hesitates, and prevaricates, and puts the journey off.
Marianne Williamson is famously quoted as writing, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
If Moses fled the evidence of his own mortal powers, how much more would it terrify him to be given Divine ones? Yet, despite all his doubts, he accepted the duty G-d had laid before him and returned to Egypt. This time, he does not just defy Pharaoh’s law, but his own fear, and self-limitations.
The question has been asked – why are there ten plagues, each increasing in severity, until finally the Egyptians must suffer the Death of the Firstborn?
Moses’ own past experience makes him the perfect instrument for delivering G-d’s 10-step approach to liberation. In killing the overseer, and then living with that act for years, Moses has learned, as the rabbis later made clear, that the way of freedom does not always require violence. The way requires, instead, justice, deliberate choices, and moderation, and second (and third, and fourth, and fifth) chances. Had G-d not allowed Moses that early choice, he would not have learned regret, he might not have valued the Egyptians lives as well as those of his own people. He might, like Jonah, have sulked and raged and been impatient, demanding of G-d the immediate use of Final Force.
Moses, instead, takes it slow. G-d says, the river will be blood, and Moses gives them blood. G-d says frogs, and Moses gives them frogs.
The haggadah traditionally makes no mention of Moses at all, preferring instead to direct all praise for our deliverance to G-d, and reminding us of the actions required of all the Israelites to participate in their own liberation. But Moses represents all that the slaves go through, the internal shift that must take place before we can free ourselves from Mitzrayim, the “narrow places.” First, we must see our own power and potential, and acknowledge it honestly. We must accept the consequences of our actions, for good or ill. And we must accept the help that comes our way once our purpose has been identified, and go for it, with all our heart, with all our being, even when we are terrified that we are not good enough, or that it won’t work. A slave remains a slave if he takes no part in his liberation. We remain oppressed so long as we refuse to acknowledge our powers to liberate ourselves and others from all that holds us back. And we must work together. That is how we move from the narrow places to the wilderness, the place we cannot yet fully imagine, where we do the next work of becoming the people we have the potential to be.
Monday, March 19, 2007
Leyn, Barbie, Leyn!
See more at her site:
My Four Questions
Just in case you haven't had enough Pesach-prep at your own house. I've been trying to think of questions to provoke my in-laws at the (usually tedious) family seder:
- Why doesn’t the haggadah mention Moses? Wasn’t he the star of this film?
- Why do we say that G-d brought "me" out of Egypt? I’ve never even been there.
- Jacob and his family went down to Egypt because of famine. Why didn't they go home when the famine was over?
- Why do we say, "Dayeinu," it would have been enough, if G-d hadn’t done all he did?
My answers coming soon. Feel free to leave your own.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Thank G-d for the Nanny
Now if only we could afford her EVERY day of the week.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Ants in the Hametz
So, we can either break out the tupperware to store everything in for the next month, or start tossing entire boxes of food. I HATE to waste food ( something about starving children in 3rd world countries, plus the grocery bill), but I also hate ants. Hmm, I should ask the rabbi if this treyfs everything and I have to toss it anyway...
Our usual routine is to pack up all the unopened hametz and take it to the local food bank, and donate all the opened stuff to grad students, but I suspect even they would reject food full of vermin.
Monday, March 05, 2007
My First Purim
"The first suicide bombings in Israel. Remember back when suicide bombings, and the murder of civilians for so-called "political" purposes, was still, you know, something unusual? I often have trouble remembering such a time (rachmana l'tzlan), but I do know that such a time once existed. And it so happens, if I'm not mistaken, that some of the first bus bombings - again, back when the whole world was paralyzed with shock and grief and blind incomprehension that such a thing could happen - were clustered around Purim. I think it was the #18 bus. Well, I remember that Purim being quite a difficult time for many of us. "
Wow. I can't believe I forgot this. I was a young 20-something goy on a semester abroad, and had chosen to learn some Hebrew and go to Israel (Jerusalem, to be particular - Rehavia, in fact). From January to August of 1996. You know, right after Rabin got shot. When the #18 bus in Jerusalem, the bus I rode frequently, the bus my friends rode to get around town, got bombed - twice. Remembered my friend calling his dorm buddies after one 5am attack to reassure them he had spent the night with our gang, that he wasn't on the bus that morning. A Sunday morning - it was always on Sundays, to catch the 18-year-olds going back to their army bases after spending Shabbos with their families.
The Purim attack, IIRC, happened in a shopping mall in Tel Aviv, and targeted a bunch of children, in costume.
Not having any experience with Purim (remember, I was still a good pluralist Unitarian-Universalist, then), I thought - what the heck?!? Kids in costumes? Parents drinking?
And then I heard about the bombing and thought - what the f-k?!!? Why would they target CHILDREN?
And then I heard they were canceling the children's school parties, and Purim spiels, and so on, and I thought WHAT THE H-L??!? What's wrong with these people, punishing the children for the acts of the terrorists??
That night, we went to the home of our study-abroad advisor, with her sexy, gun-toting doctor husband (they were both reserve Intelligence officers and he had been our *guard* on an excursion in the desert), and her two little children, dressed in costume. We were American college kids. We sat in their house and ate pizza, drank beer, played with their kids, and sang some songs. All except 2 of us were Jewish- liberal Jews, obviously. (It only now occurs to me to wonder whether any of them went to hear the Megillah anywhere that year - probably not. And also, that the clever woman was probably using up her chametz on us...)
I wonder what was going through the heads of our hosts, thinking about the attack, how to explain to their children that this year they could wear their costumes at home, but not to school the next day. About what kind of country they were living in, had chosen to live in (they had both made aliyah, separately), where they'd wonder if their children were safe going to school. (Though of course I wonder the same thing about my child, worrying about drugs instead of shrapnel.)
I wonder how I might have felt about the attack if I had already converted, feeling part of the Jewish people, and not just an observer.
I wonder how I would have felt if I were 25, instead of 21, and really had a grasp what it meant that the bombings were killing actual people. Not just providing an exciting element of risk to my exotic tour abroad.
And I wonder how I could forget this for so long. Wow. What a difference a decade makes.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
Clothing Ourselves in Holiness
Having received instructions for building the mishkan last week, in Parasha Tetzaveh we are now told how to go about lighting it, dressing for service within it, and perfuming its space with incense. Maybe it’s just because I’m at the stage of pregnancy where my regular clothes don’t quite fit anymore, or maybe just that I’m preoccupied with finding a good Purim costume to wear to the megillah reading and shpiel next week, but I found it fascinating that the majority of this parasha was given over to a detailed discussion of making and wearing a set of garments.
Once again, we are urged to gather rare and beautiful elements, as we did to build the mishkan. Donations of linen, wool, precious dyes and costly metals will be combined into special garments, worn only by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, when he enters the Holy of Holies for service.
"And you shall speak unto all that are wise-hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron's garments to sanctify him, that he may minister unto Me in the priest's office."
From a pure white linen robe and turban, to a blue wool cloak, a multicolored apron and breastplate, and gold bells, pomegranates, and engraved plates, the Kohen will be enveloped in beauty.
Aside from the symbolic weight of these rare colors and metals, the parasha evokes for me the purely sensual aspects of these garments – soft fibers rustling against his skin, the tinkling of tiny golden bells and pomegranates along the hem as he walks, the weight of the multiple layers and the headdress as he bows and rises. Initially, this section reminded me most of the hours before my wedding: the care that went into getting ready, the unfamiliar weight of the long dress, and the beautiful jewelry that I borrowed for the day, all coming together to create a physical experience that changed how I felt inside, as well as changing my outward appearance.
So I wondered, was the donning of this outfit intended to “sanctify” the Kohen Gadol for service by focusing his inward attention, as he prepared to enter G-d’s presence? Certainly, this is the person most in need of such preparation ceremonies, about to undergo an experience only granted otherwise to the prophets. Just as a bride going in to meet her bridegroom undergoes an inward transformation, surely the Kohen Gadol, as a representative of all Israel, could be seen as a spouse, coming in to meet the beloved, performing the rites that join them together in covenant. Indeed, we echo this relationship as we lay tefillin, another kind of ritual adornment, when we quote Hosea:
“I will betroth you to Me forever. I will betroth you in righteousness, with justice, with love, and with compassion. I will betroth you to Me with faithfulness and you shall be intimate with G-d.”
Or perhaps this special outfit was intended to “sanctify him” in the view of all Yisrael, maintaining the beautiful outward appearance that would command the respect and awe of the assembled tribes, as they saw him enter the mishkan to represent them before HaShem… Both G-d and Moshe surely knew that after this generation was gone, some reassurance must be given to the people that the leaders were still divinely charged, and a fancy outfit can be very persuasive.
But G-d also says,
“that he may minister unto Me in the priest's office.”
So were these garments, like the requirements for unblemished sacrifices, specified simply to create a pleasing sensual experience for G-d, G-dself? This last one, particularly, intrigues me, given that we may ascribe no physical attributes to G-d…
In trying to understand the meaning of this outfit in the parasha, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the Torah’s overall approach to issues of dress and adornment.
When we think of Jewish clothing, the first things that come to mind, like the kippah (or yarmulke), the Eastern-European style of modest dress assumed by many Orthodox Jews, or even the crazy costumes we wear at Purim, are usually minhag – customs that have assumed the force of law, but not specifically commanded in the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible. - Let me assure you, there is nowhere in the Torah that says, “on Purim, while you are drinking and eating and blotting out the name of Haman, be sure to wear a funny wig, or a pair of googly-eye glasses.”
On the other hand, the Torah does make specific references to clothing and garments in a number of places, but often in ways which are hard for us to understand. Deuteronomy 22, for example, contains the commandment about Shatnez – the prohibition on mixing wool and linen (Deut. 22:11). Such a mixture renders a garment pasul (not kosher) – except that this combination is specifically required for the priestly garments! There are commentaries suggesting that Shatnez is forbidden specifically to prevent ordinary Jews from falsely robing themselves in priestly garments, but this mitzvah is generally categorized by the rabbis as a “chok,” or a commandment which cannot be understood using reason, but must be followed because G-d commands it.
Yet again, there are some clothing-specific mitzvot which seem at first both clear and easy to follow, but are no longer common except among the Orthodox. Deuteronomy 22(:5) also gives us the negative commandments about gendered clothing: That men shall not wear women’s clothing, and women shall not wear men’s clothing. Given the perils that often came to our ancestors in the Torah from figures in disguise – angels seeking to wrestle, daughters-in-law seeking a baby, younger sons seeking a blessing, even the wrong wife hiding under a veil – this seems almost too mild a warning. Yet obviously, the concerns this mitzvah represents about gender mixing, and perhaps about inappropriate socialization of the sexes, do not have the same meaning in an egalitarian society. (Note that Purim, when we dress up in costumes and disguises, is the one time of year when this commandment is traditionally considered lifted, and we can legitimately cross-dress to our heart’s content.)
Aside from mixing wool and linen, the Tanakh neither prescribes nor prohibits any particular fabrics or garments, although we are warned by example that flashy dressing can get us into trouble – think of Joseph and his coat of many colors.
Clearly, in Parasha Tetzaveh, we are looking at mitzvot around clothing and adornment that relate specifically to times of entering the Divine presence, so I turned next to those particular customs and mitzvot - and ran smack into the contrast between clothing and nakedness.
The very first reference to clothing in the Torah comes in the first portion of Bereishit, when Adám (“Earth”) and Chava (“Life-force”) have shared fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, undergone a transformation in awareness, and suddenly reached for the nearest fig leaf to cover their nakedness. In the context of this week’s parasha, where even the High Priest must dress to the nines to meet G-d, this seems to make sense: of course they are embarrassed to walk out and meet G-d naked. But on further thought, the traditional view of Adam and Eve’s sudden awareness as shame about their naked bodies cannot hold up in a Jewish perspective: for one of the most personal interactions we have with G-d – immersion in a mikveh – not only allows, but requires, us to be completely naked.
Why is this so?
Think about the way we use clothing at Purim. Clothing can protect us from the gaze of others; it can disguise our true identities, or reveal something about us to others. At its best, clothing can help us to become what we want to be; at its worst, clothing is a costume which can hide us from ourselves. Too often, we let ourselves believe that we truly are what we wear – casual, artsy, flamboyant, frum…
When we have no clothing, we are completely revealed, not to one another, or to G-d, but to ourselves. (G-d, one presumes, is like Superman – x-ray vision renders our physical disguises inadequate.) In the mikveh, we are asked to let go of our fig leaves, drop our disguises, our protection, and know ourselves, in order to know HaShem. If you have ever been to a mikveh, you know how terrifying, and liberating, that can be. For Adam and Eve, their sudden self-awareness was overwhelming, perhaps incapacitating, and as G-d approached, they reached out for something with which to shield themselves from that self-knowledge. This is part of the challenge we all face in encountering the sacred.
So logically, we must then ask, why do we not come to synagogue naked? Surely self-awareness is desirable at all times, but especially during prayer…
Well, aside from issues of fashion and weather, the Torah clearly distinguishes between what is appropriate when alone with G-d, and what is appropriate in a group. Moshe, for example, does not air his doubts and worries before all of Israel, or even before his family, but privately to G-d. In contrast, remember the scene at Sinai when the assembled Israelites are offered the opportunity to enter a new covenant with the Eternal – in unison, this motley group of former slaves and wanderers exclaims, “All the words G-d has said, we will do.” Each way of confronting the Divine is necessary: our personal interactions with the sacred allow for the complexity of real human response, while communal interactions allow for the joy of shared purpose and values. In the mikveh, we commune privately; in religious services, we commune, communally, with the Omnipresent.
So maybe the focus in this parasha on clothing, the most material and embodied preparation for worship, is meant to draw our attention to the multiple levels of awareness required when we approach the Divine: internal awareness or centering, our external relations with others, AND the mutual, back-and-forth communion we have with HaShem.
Before the Kohen Gadol approaches G-d’s presence, he must remove his usual clothing, then bathe, be anointed with oil, and don the priestly garments. Echoes of this process in our current practice, both in the private experience of mikveh and the public wearing of kippot, seem to focus on cultivating a self-awareness that encourages holy action.
The High Priest’s headdress includes a gold plate inscribed with the words, “Kadosh L’HaShem” - Holy to G-d. The kippah which many of us wear today was not commanded in the Tanakh, but adopted voluntarily by ordinary Jews, inspired by this headdress, as a way to show respect to HaShem, and to cultivate a holy awareness. The Talmud tells us that the purpose of wearing a kippah is to remind us of G-d, who is the Higher Authority "above us." (Kiddushin 31a)
Another type of holy apparel which serves the same purpose is tzitzit, which are specifically commanded in the Torah to all Israel.
In Numbers 15, G-d speaks to Moses directly, saying:
"Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes (tzitzit) in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them… " (Numbers 15:38)
Like the kippah, tzitzit are explicitly defined as aids to sanctification, by reminding us of the mitzvot, which can make us better citizens toward each other, and better able to perform true worship to the Source of all Life. Although both kippot and tzitzit are usually described as facilitating internal transformations of awareness, that change in awareness also changes our actions and demeanor, and thus affects those around us.
In reading through this parasha, I kept recalling an experience of mistaken identity I had when we first moved to Virginia for grad school several years ago. I had stopped at a gas station along the highway, and was at the pump – yes, we were allowed to pump our own gas there – when I saw two middle-aged Amish men come out of the gas station and get into the front seats of a red Honda next to me. They were followed, to my astonishment, by two middle aged Amish women, who climbed into the backseat, and then they all took off. What about the horse and buggy? I stood there dumbfounded, until the gas finished pumping. Later that week, someone explained to me that they were probably Mennonites; similar dress, different lifestyle. Ah, the messages our clothing sends...
In Virginia, we would regularly see Mennonite women, several children in tow, at the grocery store or the fabric store, all in floral or pastel button-down shirts, long skirts, and starched caps. They dress this way, formally, every day, to remind themselves that every day is holy, every day comes from G-d. They do not wait for one day a week to put on their best clothes and their best behavior.
I’ll say that part again - their best clothes and their best behavior. As physical and spiritual beings, what we wear affects how we feel, how we act, and how we are seen by others. This connection is where the parasha’s meaning becomes clear. The clothes of the Kohen Gadol, like the decoration of the mishkan, are not important for their material beauty. They are important because they help to bring holiness into the world.
In Parasha Tetzaveh, we are presented with at least three possibilities for bringing holiness into the world.
Like someone in a mikveh, or like the Kohen Gadol bathing, being anointed, and donning his spectacular clothing, we may prepare ourselves for holiness in ways that cause us to become self-aware, and effect an internal transformation.
Like the Kohen Gadol appearing, resplendent, before the people, we may project an outward attitude or character that edifies and helps those who see and interact with us.
And, like the Kohen Gadol entering the Holy of Holies in all his finery to offer service, we may uphold the mitzvot, doing all the good that we are asked to do, in ways that are pleasing and beautiful to the Source of Life.
This may seem an odd thing to think about as we go into Purim, where we mask and costume ourselves, turn the world topsy-turvy and set it back to rights. This is a silly holiday for fun, wine, food, and celebration, not a somber day of holiness. In truth, G-d is not mentioned anywhere in the Book of Esther – but look closer: a holy presence, something Divine, is clearly revealed through the righteous actions of Mordechai, Esther, and even Vashti. In many ways, this story of trouble and strife, with G-d’s face seeming to be hidden, resonates more with our lives today than does a miraculous revelation in which G-d seems to be the Israelites’ personal tailor. It can be difficult, in our ordinary lives, going about our mundane tasks, to feel the holiness underlying everything we see and do, to remember that we ourselves are blessed with opportunities for bringing holiness into the world.
So, after Purim, when you return to your workday world, try something new. Think of it as one last chaser to the holiday. You’ve taken off your masks and costumes, recovered from the Manishevitz (hopefully), and filled up on sweets, and now it’s time to go back to the everyday. But after Purim, the everyday doesn’t look quite the same.
In Sarah Laughed (McGraw Hill, 2005), Vanessa Ochs offers a drash in which Esther’s perceived beauty is simply the result of her remarkable ability to see the beauty in others. After Purim, as you prepare for the day, imagine that you are like Esther, taking off the dull, ordinary mask that hides true holiness from us. As you peel away the mundane disguise, see shining underneath, your coworkers, your family, your friends, yourself, all B’tzelem Elohim, reflecting the face of the Divine. With this golden radiance in your mind, realize that as you get ready for the day, as you prepare to enter the presence of these other Divine souls, you, like the Kohen Gadol, are preparing to enter G-d’s presence.
- As you shower and shave, think for a moment about who you are, truly, and what is at the core of your being in this world – have a “mini-mikveh minute” to be naked to yourself for a moment of self-awareness.
- Choose an outfit that makes you feel, inside, that this is a truly special event. Perhaps it’s a piece of jewelry you save for special occasions, or a shirt that’s more comfortable than what you usually wear.
- Instead of rushing around, take a moment to center yourself, so that you can enter your community with an expression of calm and joy that makes those around you feel the beauty you bring to all you do.
- And then think to yourself – what can I do today, in my interactions with those around me, that would please the Eternal as much as the beauty of a holy garment or a fragrant incense offered up in the temple?
When we can all do this every day, then we will truly have built and adorned a mishkan together, where G-d may dwell among us.
Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Purim Sameach!