D’var Torah: Acharey Mot / Kedoshim (2010)

Acharey Mot – Kedoshim D’var Torah

Rabbi Maurice April 23, 2010

Shabbat shalom. This Shabbat we continue our journey through the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, or Leviticus in English. We actually read from two Torah portions this Sabbath. The first is called Acharey Mot, and the second is called Kedoshim.

Acharei Mot presents an account of the laws of Yom Kippur, as well as a list of laws regarding sexual relationships. Kedoshim offers us a list of laws that define which behaviors are considered holy – kadosh – and which are not. It’s a mixture of ethical and ritual laws.

Perhaps the most famous part of Kedoshim is Chapter 19 of Leviticus. Chapter 19 happens to be right at the mid-point of the Torah, and many commentators have described it as the heart of the Torah. It begins with God telling the Israelites to be holy because God is holy. And then the Torah goes on to present a list of mitzvot – commandments.

The list includes the foundations of a universal human ethics. Honor your parents. Don’t steal or make a false oath. If you’re a farmer, leave the corners of your fields unharvested so the poor and the needy can anonymously come glean and avoid both starvation and the embarrassment of begging for food.

If you hire a day-laborer, pay him or her promptly for their work, the same day. In other words, don’t take advantage of their desperate economic situation or essentially enslave them by withholding their wages for long stretches so that you can force them to stay under your employ.

Don’t insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind – in other words, don’t amuse yourself at the expense of another’s difference of ability. The phrase “stand up before the aged” is also found in this chapter, and the exact words that the Torah uses for this commandment are the words you’ll see posted on Israeli busses above the seats closest to the bus’s doors.

This is the section of Torah that says don’t profit by the blood of your countrymen and women, or hate them in your heart. Do tell someone if you see them doing wrong, but don’t let yourself get dragged into their wrongdoing too. Keep the community’s place of worship in good condition and treat it as a sacred place. Don’t defraud anyone, and love your neighbor as yourself. V’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha – possibly the most famous passage in this entire section.

And in this section of the Torah God states, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, ye shall not do them any wrong. The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am ADONAI, your God.

How ironic that we come upon these words tonight just as the State of Arizona has passed a law allowing police officers to take race into account and stop people on the street to do a check on their immigration status. I guess it’s not enough to use undocumented immigrants for hard labor in our agricultural fields and pay them a couple bucks an hour so we can have cheap lettuce, strawberries and melons. No, we need to scapegoat them too and humiliate an entire racial group with spot checks by police.

Is that the best that’s in us as a society? Is that how we show the greatness of our nation? By wronging the stranger? I’m sorry – apparently I’ve digressed.

Continue reading “D’var Torah: Acharey Mot / Kedoshim (2010)”

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D’var Torah – Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769

D’var Torah – Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769 (2009)

Rabbi Maurice Harris

On Thursday morning this week we read from the Torah verses assigned by the sages to the first day of Passover. The scene is the slave ghettos of Pharaoh’s Egypt just before the arrival of the 10th and final plague, the slaying of the first born of Egypt. Moses calls together the elders of the people and says to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of your homes until morning. For when the Eternal goes through to smite the Egyptian first born sons, God will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.”

In recent years much has been written about how the Passover story begins and ends with birth imagery, and I’ve talked about this here in the past as well. In the haggadah we used yesterday at the community seder, we read the following (and I paraphrase):

How was the desire for freedom first aroused? By the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who resisted Pharaoh’s decree to kill every Israelite boy. By Miriam, who watched over her brother Moses to insure his safety as he floated in a basket down the Nile. … In the birth waters and in the Nile, these extraordinary women saw life and liberation. … The waters of freedom open and close the Passover story, taking us from the Nile to the Sea of Reeds.

A baby, Moses, is given life thanks to midwives and then pulled from the water by a princess – the birth imagery is striking. A nation passes through the narrow cavity of the path that God opens through the Sea of Reeds and emerges out the other side, alive and free. Birth imagery again. What struck me as I took a closer look at the Torah verses we read Thursday morning was that I was reminded that we have more birth imagery here in the middle of the story, at this crucial moment, just before the 10th plague brings grief and sorrow to so many in ancient Egypt, just before the Pharaoh finally summons Moses and Aaron and spits out the words, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you. Go, worship the Eternal as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”

In that moment when Moses instructed the Israelites to take a lamb, slaughter it as an offering, put its blood in a basin, and then paint the blood on the top and on the side posts of the doors of their homes, we are confronted yet again with a visual image of a people getting ready to pass through a birth canal, out of a holding chamber and into a new existence.

The Torah is full of literary links that tie together these thematic echoes – this is part of 

Hebrew_Samekh
The Hebrew letter Samech

its artfulness and beauty. The text that describes the placing of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts offers us one of these marvelous literary links. The key word is the Hebrew word for basin – saf – spelled with a samech and a final fay. This is the basin that Moses tells the people to put the lamb’s blood in, and out of which they will take up the blood to paint it on their doorposts.

Saf is a somewhat unusual word, and it calls our attention to a key word in the other two moments of birth that I spoke of. In the first instance, which describes baby Moses being placed into the Nile and then drawn out of the water by the Pharaoh’s daughter, the text tells us that Moses’ mother placed the basket containing her beloved child in the reeds of the river. The Hebrew word for reeds is soof, spelled almost identically to saf. In the second instance – the liberation of the Israelites after they cross the divided Sea of Reeds – the word soof appears again – this time as part of the name of the body of water from which they emerged.

Continue reading “D’var Torah – Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769”

A D’var for Shavuot (2009 / 5769)

D’var Torah – Shavuot 5769

Rabbi Maurice Harris

Shabbat shalom and gut yontiff.  As we celebrate our 2nd Shavuot in our new home, I want to ask us all to take a moment to look around.  We are so blessed.  We have now completed one full cycle of Jewish holy days and sacred seasons, one full year of the cycle of the Five Books of Moses, one full year of ups and downs, controversies and moments of serenity, one full year of mitzvot and of mistakes.  One full year of life.  There are so many people who worked so hard to make this new home possible, and we have only just begun to discover the ways we can continue to grow as a community in this amazing space.  Shavuot is a festival of offering our first fruits, the first fruits of our labor, to God.  We, as a community, now can offer one year’s worth of Jewish living to the Eternal One as an expression of our thanks and our desire to bring greater meaning and unity into our lives and into the world.

Over the last 24 hours we have engaged three different texts in our observance of Shavuot.  Last night we studied the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally chanted at Shavuot, and this morning we read the story of the giving of the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus.  Then, Rabbi Yitzhak chanted the assigned reading from the books of the prophets, which happened to be from the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel.

Ruth, the 10 Commandments, and Ezekiel.  Something I noticed about these three readings is where they take place.  The Torah reading featuring the dramatic revelation at Mt. Sinai takes place not in the land of Israel, but in the Sinai desert, in the wilderness, in an in-between place that was neither Egypt nor the Promised Land.  Ezekiel takes place in ancient Babylon, and tells the story of the visions and activities of a prophet who was sent into exile in Babylon along with the entire leadership of the ancient Israelite community some 2, 600 years ago.  That leaves the Book of Ruth.  Ruth takes place partly in the land of Moab, just to the east of the Land of Israel, and partly in the territory of Judah, which was part of ancient Israel.  It is the Book of Ruth that brings us geographically closest to Jerusalem, as Ruth ends up making her new life as a Jew by choice in Bethlehem, which is only a few kilometers away from Jerusalem.  Although the Book of Ruth never specifically mentions Jerusalem, because the city had not yet become the Israelites’ capital, the last words of the book point to Jerusalem.  As many of you may know, the Book of Ruth ends with a genealogy that shows Ruth to be the ancestor of King David, and David’s name is the final word of the book.  The Book literally points towards a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future.

It is that idea – a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future – that caught my attention these last days.

The city’s name, Yeru-shalayim, roughly means “they will see peace” or “the inheritance – yerushah – will be peace.”  Yet for the last 2500 years, Jerusalem has known so much war and far too little peace.  As we all know, Jews, Christians and Muslims all consider Jerusalem to be sacred, and the mythic encounters with the Divine that are so central to all three of the Abrahamic religions intimately involve Jerusalem and the Temple mount itself.  Just to illustrate this with one small example:  in Arabic Jerusalem is called al-Quds, meaning “the holy.”  This is from the same Semitic language root that forms the word kadosh in Hebrew.  It’s as if our people had named the city ha-kadosh.  And in fact, we have, as one of the city’s Jewish nicknames is Ir ha-kodesh, “the holy city.”

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A Purim D’var from some years back

D’var Torah – Purim 5751 / March 18, 2011

Rabbi Maurice Harris

Shabbat shalom.  Tonight I’d like to focus on Purim, since it comes but once a year and arrives tomorrow night.  Edith Deen writes, “Like many of the great characters in history, Esther makes her first appearance as one of the humblest of figures, an orphan Jewess.”[1]  Deen is right.  Esther – also known by her Hebrew name, Hadassah – is introduced to us as an adopted child.  The scroll of Esther states at its outset that her parents had died, and that she was raised by her cousin, the pious and virtuous Mordechai.

As many of you know, Esther is not alone in the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible – as an adopted child who goes on to become a hero.  The same holds true for Moses, who was adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the Egyptian court.  Like Esther, Moses also redeems his people from catastrophe.

Joseph, of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame in the Book of Genesis, comes to mind as well.  Although he lived to be a teenager under his father’s roof, his mother died when he was young and, when his jealous brothers sold him to slave-traders and told their father that he was dead, Joseph became an orphan of sorts.  Bereft of his birth family, the sheltered and pampered youth goes on to save the day.

So what is it with orphans in the Bible, or for that matter, in the great stories of mythology and even Hollywood fame?  We humans, the world over, seem to love a good story about a child overcoming this form of adversity only to rise to greatness.  The Torah is emphatically clear that wronging the orphan is a sure way to invite God’s wrath.  In Exodus chapter 22, God tells us: You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn…  And the prophet, Hosea, says about God:  In you the orphan finds mercy.

I’ve been teaching a unit in my 7th grade religious school class on the many ways the Jewish people have conceived of God over the centuries.  One of the things that stands out when you look at how our biblical ancestors described God’s attributes is that God cares especially for the poor and the most vulnerable.  God feels a special closeness to orphans, it seems.  Psalm 68 includes a verse with some striking language about orphans.  God is called avi yitomim, the father of all orphans.  Maybe this explains the intensity of the warning God gives against harming orphans in Exodus 22.

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The gates of the ancient rabbis

This essay appeared in the RRA Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, in 2014.

I’m guessing that many of us have given a d’var at some point that cited the passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 32b, that reads, “From the day that the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer have been closed . . . but even though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are not closed.”

I’ve always been struck by what this, and some of the surrounding passages in the Talmud, appear to reveal about the attitudes of the early rabbis towards God. For instance, right after this sha’aray dimah [gates of tears] passage, we also read, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron has been established between Israel and their Father in Heaven.” (I left the male God imagery unaltered because it offers the poignant metaphor of a child unable to access his or her parent.)

Llagrimes_(tears),_pastel_portrait_by_Robert_Perez_Palou
       Llagrimes (tears), pastel portrait by Robert Perez Palou.      By Rpp1948 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

As one studies the whole of this page of Talmud, one also finds passages that nevertheless offer reassurance that, with great effort and sincerity, we can still reach God and move God to compassion. For instance, “Every person who lengthens their prayer – their prayer will not be returned empty  (ayn tefilato chozeret ray-kam).” And, “If a person sees that s/he has prayed but it is unanswered, s/he should pray again, as it says in Scripture, ‘Wait for the Eternal, be strong and let your heart take courage,’ etc.” Continue reading “The gates of the ancient rabbis”

D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

This was a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2009.

In this week’s parashah we find high drama as Moses comes down from his 40 day stay atop Mount Sinai carrying shnai loochot ha-aydoot – two tablets of the covenant – loochot even – tablets of stone – k’tooveem b’etzba eloheem – inscribed with writing from the finger of Almighty.  You know what happens next.  As it says in the text, “The ETERNAL spoke to Moses: ‘Hurry down, for your people — note that now it’s your people, not my people — whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.  They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves an egel masecha — a molten calf, and they have bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'” 

And then comes one of my favorite phrases of divine exasperation. God tells Moses, “Am k’shay oref hu. I see that this is a stiff-necked people.” God tells Moses that God is considering destroying the Israelites, and Moses quickly pleads on their behalf, ultimately succeeding in persuading God to give them another chance. And then Moses turned and journeyed down that mountain, carrying the shnai loochot, the two stone tablets which were, according to the text, inscribed on both sides with the direct writing of God. 

When Moses finally arrived near the camp and saw the people reveling in idol worship and other lewd behaviors, he hurled the stone tablets from his hands and shattered them – v’yeeshbor otam – at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the golden calf made out of their jewelry and coins and burned it. Then he had it ground into powder, mixed into water, and he made the Israelites drink it. 

By the time we get towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, we are reading about Moses and the Jewish people’s second chance at the encounter with God at Mount Sinai. Chapter 34 of Exodus begins with the words p’sal lecha shnai loochot avanim ka-reeshonim — God says to Moses, “Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones.”  P’sal the verb that means “carve” and “lecha” means for yourself. This is the beginning of Moses’ second journey up the mountain. This time he will bring stone tablets that he has carved himself (God had created the first set), and he will return with the text of the commandments and the covenant, bringing these sacred words to a more sobered people.

Rabbis over the centuries have taken a close look at this second set of tablets – the tablets we actually received, and through midrashic lenses they found many possible deeper lessons in the Torah’s account of this cosmic do-over. Some of the sages looked at this phrase, “p’sal lecha,” and considered how the Hebrew verb p’sal — to carve — could be read in different ways and offer up different meanings. One tradition states that the phrase, “p’sal lecha,” “carve for yourself,” actually hints at a different meaning. Instead of God saying to Moses, “carve for yourself” these two new stone tablets, if you read instead of the Hebrew word p’sal the related word pesolet, which means “leftovers,” then what you end up with is God saying to Moses, “the leftovers are for you.” What leftovers is God talking about? This midrash teaches that God was referring to the leftover bits and pieces of the highly valuable stone material that the first set of tablets were made up of. As God carved the letters into that first holy set of tablets, little bits and pieces of the stone fell onto the ground, and, according to this midrash, God told Moses to scoop them up and keep them, and sell them. The midrash says that Moses did just that, and in fact became very wealthy in the process!  But then the sages add that Moses, being Moses, didn’t care for the wealth or need it.  Continue reading “D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35”

Korach and revolution

In a free society, all of us are rebels against something.  In a society where freedom of religion is part of the social contract, every adult chooses which ideas, which denomination, which philosophy, which tribe they want to align themselves with.  And in doing so, each of us rebels against somebody else’s self-proclaimed authority. For some in the Jewish community, I am a rabbi. For others, I am a “rabbi.” For still others I am a heretic.  

The same can be said for any clergy person of any faith tradition. Ask a passionately devout Sunni to describe the heresy of Shi’ism and the threat it poses to the true understanding of Islam. Then ask a devout Shia to describe how Shi’ite Islam represents the true revelation of the faith.  Each narrative rebels against the other.

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Judaism’s most famous rebel, Korach.  

Korach, along with two other tribal leaders, Datan and Abiram, challenge Moses and Aaron’s authority over the Israelites.  “You have too much power. The entire community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal One is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal one’s assembly?”  The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud depict Korach as having great skill in Jewish law. They describe him initiating a long, drawn out debate with Moses over detailed points of Jewish law, in which  Korach tries to entrap Moses using legislative slights of hand.

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Korach is a rebel who has come on the scene prepared for a coup d’etat.  He’s organized 250 leading figures to stand with him, and the first time he brings his grievances he does so in public, at a staged event designed to rally the people behind him and topple the regime.  He is seen by the tradition as the rebel with the gift of demagoguery. He claims to be standing up for a noble value – spiritual equality – as he tries to paint the established leaders as unfair and hypocritical.  Korach presents himself as a righteous whistle blower, and yet tradition holds him up as a fake.

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