Parshat Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim: If Only I Could Sing I Could Be Holy

This week I heard government officials talk about getting ready to open our doors again.  Lots of different phases, many different scenarios and possibilities – depends on if we flattened the curve or plateaued the rise or squashed the line.  We’ll open the doors gradually, some of us but not others. Businesses will soon open to anyone whose last name starts with the letter Q…or something like that.  Essentially, it reminded me of bringing a new baby home.

Actually, our doors closed to expectant mothers long before the baby came home.  Not that long ago, women would enter their ‘time of confinement’ once their pregnancies started showing and they were not to leave their homes until they looked ‘normal’ again.  Those doors have certainly opened wide as maternity clothes now sculpt around the baby bump and hug the curves of the baby while it’s still in the womb. But opening the doors of acceptance for mothers-to-be is very different than opening the doors when the baby is born.

In my day, you brought the newborn home and the family cocooned at home as the baby got used to doing things like breathing.  Visitors were kept to immediate family who usually played short games of peekaboo with the baby (in Russian you say ‘coo-coo’ which I learned after trying to explain to my husband what the word peekaboo meant…just so we’re all on the same page…it doesn’t mean anything and can’t be explained in a foreign language)…(to be fair, coo-coo doesn’t mean anything either but we can all see I’ve let that one go…)

But I digress.  Newborn babies did not venture outside for weeks, if not months.  Outside had germs and inconsiderate people who didn’t know not to get too close.  With one of my kids, we took her out at 2 months old when a stranger approached her in her car seat, looked in and ran her fingers up and down the baby’s lips as she made burble noises.  The stranger was the one making the burble noises, I was the one gasping for air as I watched in horror. I quickly moved the baby away, back into the car, back into the house, not to venture out again for another month.

Opening doors for fashion baby bumps is not the same thing as opening doors to a vulnerable human being.  

So, I think about the Torah reading this week and how could it possibly speak to the news I’m hearing and the weeks to come.  Especially since this week there’s a double parshah: Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim. Acharei-Mot describes the continuation of inaugurating a priestly class while parashat Kedoshim contains the Holiness Code.  Most of us aren’t too familiar (or concerned) with how to inaugurate a priestly class, but we are very familiar with aspects of the Holiness Code. Things like who we can and cannot have sexual relations with, as well as the verse: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.  We seem to have a mix of the ‘why would I care’ information and the ‘this is so relevant’ information. In other words, the dilemma most Jews face.

When I was growing up, I remember learning about holiness by watching all the religious movies and shows on tv.  They were all Christian. Being holy meant being a priest or a nun, and you could only be called by God if you could sing really, really well.  Bing Cosby could croon his way to faith and every nun somehow knew how to harmonize the most beautiful renditions of ‘Glo-oh-oh-oh-rious’ you’ve ever heard.  I actually thought you had to pass a singing test to be good enough for God when I finished watching ‘The Song of Bernadette’. Nuns were the only women I saw who were unfathomably gorgeous with their heads, hair and bodies covered, because if you don’t look like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, you don’t get to take your vows.  Lest we also forget that Sally Field was a nun who could fly, if she tilted her habit-hat-wings just so and one of Elvis Presley’s leading ladies really did give up fame and fortune to become a nun (great documentary called “God Is The Bigger Elvis”). This world was only for the select few and the rest of us would just have to be happy with glimpses of their world… holiness was beautiful, sensual and hidden behind the cloistered doors of Hollywood. 

I knew that Jews don’t have nuns and I fully believed Jews didn’t have priests either.  We had Rabbis. They couldn’t moonlight as lounge singers because they didn’t sing, the Cantors did that.  Christian Hollywood had no Cantors. I actually argued with people when they told me that Judaism does have priests, that’s what a Cohen is.  Absurd (I said), Blasphemy (I proclaimed)!! 

Christian holiness was everywhere.  It was special and unattainable. Jewish stuff was in the ‘why would I care’ camp and all my friends spurred each other on with ‘what a drag it is to have to (fill in with anything ritualistic)’.  Deep inside I liked the gentleness of Jewish holy things, but adolescence does not value the gentleness of very much. I quickly learned to cover up my attraction to Jewish holiness and when I learned that Judaism expresses holiness by covering things – my heart burst with joy!

The Holiness Code speaks to us of personal elevation from the mundane to the holy.  We understand that we cover holy things because they are powerful, and we must choose the moments when they are uncovered and expressed into the world.  We cover a Torah until we read from it and we cover it again between aliyahs. We cover our bodies because they are holy. The power is in the uncovering, the revelations, the interactions.  When I love my neighbour as myself, I have elevated another person to the status of my own ego because holiness is always about reaching upward and bringing someone with us.

One of the most unusual aspects of the Holiness Code for the ancient world is that it speaks of how each person can create that holiness for themselves and the things around them.  Usually holiness is reserved for the priestly class. They are the ones that need to know how to make sacrifices, how to facilitate ritual, how to create and elevate from the mundane.  Suddenly, within the ancient world, the Torah speaks of how an entire people could do it – how each individual could do it. It is a revolutionary moment.

Yet, before we delve too deeply into our personal Holiness Codes and our revolutionary endeavours, let’s remember that the first parshah we read this Shabbat is Acharei-Mot, which means ‘After the Death’.  It speaks of inaugurating the priesthood after the death of two of Aaron’s sons.  Aaron must move forward and complete what was started, devastated as he is, broken as he is.  Inaugurating a priesthood in the Jewish world of today is irrelevant to our Jewish reality but how we proceed forward toward holiness after a devastating loss is tremendously relevant.

By reading both portions this Shabbat, the message we need lies within the titles themselves.  After the hit, we move toward a higher expression. As I take social distancing walks these days, I am comforted by simple greetings I exchange with strangers on the street.  A moment of contact and good wishes. The artists and musicians offering their gifts to support others from a balcony or on a front lawn. The voluntary acts of human kindness as strangers find ways to shop for others and people continue paying workers who can no longer show up for work.  

The government has told us that soon our doors will reopen and we will all re-enter the world.  For some, it is the welcome open door of new expressions while for others it might be the gradual open door of caution and responsibility.  But for all of us, it is the open door after the hit.  

Perhaps we can take a moment to remember that the next part of the Torah reading is Kedoshim, the Holiness Code that firmly says ‘aim high’.

Sometimes we don’t want the world we left behind, sometimes we want to continue building the one we’ve been creating.

The First Candle: Looking Forward or Looking Backward?

There was an argument about lighting the Hanukkah candles between two famous Sages: HIllel and Shammai.  The holiday of Hanukkah was shaped on the holiday of Sukkot. During Sukkot, we offered 70 sacrifices for all the nations of the world.  We started with 70 the first day and offered a few less every day of the holiday. Because we started with a number that symbolized the totality of holiness, Shammai argued that Hanukkah should also start by lighting 8 candles the first night and reducing each night by 1.  That way we honour our past and maintain the impact of holiness into the world. Hillel argued that we should understand our past but always look forward in time and increase holiness in the world.  

Do we use our past to inspire our future (Hillel) or do we use our past to shape our future (Shammai)?  Both present compelling arguments.  

Hillel’s argument carried the day.  We begin with 1 candle and increase candles every night.  

Hanukkah inspires us to elevate ourselves as we move forward.

Numbers in all the Wrong Places

Hope everyone had a great week.  

The parshah this week is Pinchas and it has some wonderfully powerful points.  We meet five sisters who challenge Moses and God on the laws of inheritance and end up carrying the day, changing the laws forever.  We see God’s reaction to a High Priest who kills a man and woman for worshipping God through their sexuality. All great stuffy, but I don’t want to talk about those.

I want to talk about the stuff in the parshah that makes us yawn and ends with raising an eyebrow at a spiritually eternal and Divine document that seems to love numbers the way the Torah does. 

In this parshah, God tells Moses to take a census of Israel in order to form an army.  Each tribe will now be listed with its original founder and every male descendant and their male descendants, and so on and so on.  In total, over 600,000, which sounds like a lot of people but it’s actually a pretty small army. In other words, every victory Israel has will never be because they outnumber the enemy. I understand the need for the final figure,  but I really don’t need the initial numbers and then every number in between…

…or do I?

To most of us, me included, numbers need to be meaningful, they need to speak to me in a plain and direct way that allows me to use them as I need.  I don’t love numbers for their own sake. My accountant loves numbers for their own sake and whenever we meet, my eyes glaze over within minutes. When he pauses, I assume he asked a question and I usually nod.  He knows me well enough that at that point he picks up my phone and turns on the recorder and explains the numbers into the phone. I will listen in bits and pieces later. God bless my accountant.

So, I need meaningful numbers.  I learned an invaluable lesson about meaningful numbers when I was a student teacher.  I was placed in an elementary school in a violent section of the city. It was filled with gangs and drugs and we were cautioned to visually check our students every morning without being obvious.  We were looking for cuts, bruises, physical abuse. Every absence was to be noted.

I was assigned to teach the class fractions.  As a student teacher, I did the classic ‘draw a pie on the board, divide it in half, divide it in quarters’ and so on.  The class was quiet as I went my merry way with my apple pie drawing. Every time I turned to look at the students, they sat quietly staring back.  I felt like I was fractions’ gift to education (yeah, ego can convince us of that in a fraction of a second…) I got all the way to one-eighths without a peep from them.  Something wasn’t right. I asked if they had questions and one brave soul put up his hand and said: ‘I’ve never had pie, do you know how to draw a pizza?’

Meaningless numbers, they’ll get us every time.

So why is the Torah insisting on the numerical details?

The numbers are important when we plug in the age-old resolution: ‘cherchez la femme’, ‘look for the woman’.   In other words, behind every mystery will stand some woman, or some issue that leads to a woman, or some man who is searching for a woman – basically, everything sources to a woman.

The Torah leaves a huge issue unresolved and that is the double matriarchy of Leah and Rachel.  Jacob only wanted Rachel but also married Leah. Leah is fertile while Rachel is loved. We have the unresolved dichotomy of a woman: is she mother (Leah) or lover (Rachel)? 

Since the Torah won’t resolve it, tradition tries to figure it out by looking at who the next leader will be.  Clearly, the model for a woman would be the one who birthed the heir. Not so fast, Leah gave birth to Judah who will give us the great king, David.  But Rachel gave birth to Joseph who was a leader in Egypt. David was a warrior king while Joseph was the great negotiator. WHICH IS OUR MODEL?!

As if that weren’t complicated enough, there is a tradition of the Messiah ben David (son of David) and also a tradition of the Messiah ben Yosef (son of Joseph).

So far, no clear answer, so as a woman, I have ambiguity of role model.  Am I to be mother or am I to be lover?

Here’s where all the numbers from the parshah come in.  Maybe the biggest tribe will be the leader and then I can resolve who is the matriarch?  Except, when you look at the census in this parshah, you see the Judah and the Joseph tribes are coming in very close in numbers.

I can’t resolve the issue.  

I believe that things in the Torah are deliberate and therefore if I can’t resolve the issue it’s because I shouldn’t resolve it.  I am to cherish both Leah and Rachel. I am to be an integrated woman balancing between ‘mother’ and ‘lover’.

In the end, the ‘eyes glaze over’ numbers in the parshah told me how Israel built its first army in the ancient world while simultaneously showing me how I find my identity in the modern world.

Now I wouldn’t give those numbers up for anything.

Everything Is Fine Until the Animals Talk Back

Hope everyone had a great week.  I heard some wonderful stories this week I’d like to share, especially because they tease out a beautiful message in this week’s parshah. 

One of my sons was on vacation and met an iguana that was hanging around his room.  He told me how he planned to have the iguana eat out of his hand by the end of the two weeks.  He explained to me that iguana’s display certain behaviours when they feel threatened or cornered.  He detailed the behaviours he was watching for.  I realized my son speaks ‘iguana’ and wondered whose genes he inherited. 

He planned where and how he would meet and greet the iguana everyday and how he would advance his plan to interact.  His wife showed me a video on her phone of their last day on vacation as the iguana came to my son and ate from his hand.

I am in awe. 

Please understand, I have no desire to communicate with an iguana. Reptiles make me nervous.  I take no comfort when I’m told they’re more afraid of me than I am of them because that just means now they feel trapped and I’m the bigger threat. I am more the school of thought that says ‘as long as we don’t see each other we won’t scare the living daylights out of each other’ – fair is fair – and most reptiles smell my philosophy all over me and thankfully leave me alone.

But I was still in awe.

And as wonderful as the iguana story is, because it’s so unusual, the second story is also great for the opposite reason, it is so common.  It involves a clown fish and her clown fish mate.  My only exposure to clown fish is from the movie Finding Nemo and it definitely doesn’t do them justice.  Ms. CLOWN FISH (and I deliberately capitalize that), dominates Mr. clown fish in every way.  He eats and sleeps when she gives him permission and in return, she protects him – she is larger and basically organizes and rules his life.  She is Clown Fish Queen!

I was told that when these fish first meet, the female will bump the male with her nose, and he must then vibrate in response.  Apparently, she is asking if he accepts her as dominant and she demands he vibrate to indicate yes.  If he does not vibrate, she kills him.  Interesting system.

Why am I sharing these obscure stories?  Because they speak directly to this week’s parshah of the foreign prophet and the talking donkey.  This week’s parshah is Balak and in the parshah, Balak, the King of Moab, hires Balaam, a foreign prophet, to curse Israel.  Much as he tries, Balaam cannot curse us because God has made it clear to him that we are blessed.  He tries repeatedly and fails each time.

In fact, in one attempt, his donkey refuses to walk because she sees an angel blocking her way with an outstretched sword.  Balaam doesn’t see the angel.  After beating her, the donkey speaks to Balaam and explains about the angel and only then is he able to see it.  Yes, this is in the Torah.

I am fascinated with how animals play into the lives of foreign prophets or prophets headed to foreign lands.  Balaam and his donkey are the most obvious example but when the prophet Jonah tries to avoid delivering a prophecy to a foreign land, a whale swallows him, shelters him and ultimately delivers him where he needs to be.

These instances of extraordinary natural interactions are only a few indications of what the Sages tell us about the vision of creation.  According to the midrash, all of creation shares a common language but most of humanity has forgotten it.  The water in the clouds and the water in the earth speak and coordinate how to feed the grass and trees. The rain will limit itself to only penetrate so deep since the waters in the earth will only rise so far.  That way, little roots are fed and giant roots are fed in perfect balance. 

Unfortunately, the Sages believe we have made ourselves deaf to this language and over time, we have stopped hearing it.  There is a midrash that describes how we cut fruit bearing trees because we no longer hear them cry for the loss of their fruit, their children, but apparently their cries fill the world. 

In its original vision, we believe creation embodies unimaginable diversity of species who all connect, communicate and collaborate toward balance.  Yet so much of that has gone astray and it becomes so disheartening but then I think of my son and the iguana and the language of the clown fishes and the angel and the donkey. 

In fact, it is Balaam, the foreign ill-intentioned prophet, who ultimately blesses Israel and says, “Ma Tovu” – How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.  Every siddur begins with these words and tradition says we should speak them as we enter any shul.  But we’ve taken that even further.  Jewish gatherings and summer bonfires are filled with people swaying, arms on each other’s shoulders, singing Ma Tovu.  Kids are taught to sing it in rounds, and we take it as a moment of unity and harmony.

The Torah teaches us that God speaks with everyone and the Sages remind us that the wise one is the one who learns from every person.  As summer surrounds us and we are filled with the sounds of nature everywhere, what a beautiful message this week to take even a few seconds and listen to the sounds around us and remind ourselves that it is, in fact, a language.          

How beautiful and humbling are the words of a foreign prophet.

Thresholds

Hope everyone had a great week. I’m home from Israel and I realized I’m not a great traveller so I won’t dwell on the passive-aggressive woman sitting next to me on the flight home – it wasn’t pretty.

I had an interesting Shabbat in Jerusalem though.  I went to the Shira Hadasha minyan, which is an orthodox egalitarian service.  A few things caught me by surprise. In Israel the Cohanim bless the congregation every Shabbat.  They stand covered entirely with their Talit (looks a bit spooky). Under the Talit their arms are raised and their fingers form the letter ‘shin’ in Hebrew.  The power of the minyan is said to draw the energy of the Shechinah through their fingers and onto the congregation. It is one of the most mystically powerful moments in Judaism.  

Because it is so holy, tradition tells us not to look directly at a Cohen when being blessed.  But at Shira Hadasha, for the first time in my life, there was a Cohen standing in front of the woman’s section covered in a Talit chanting the blessing.  I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman and I had never had anyone stand in front of me doing this. Wanting to blend, I held the Siddur up to my face to cover my eyes – but I had to know.  So…I slowly moved the Siddur away from one eye and quickly glanced at the person enveloped in the Talit. My eye moved to the feet where I clearly saw the hem of a dress. It was a woman. I heard her voice and watched her sway.  Instantly, without my knowing, this woman led me to a moment of holiness. She was so close to me, she sounded like me. She was my threshold.

I thought about the parshah that Shabbat, Chukat, which is the portion we read this coming Shabbat outside of Israel.  This is the parshah when Miriam dies and Israel has no water. God tells Moses to gather the people and speak to a rock to bring water from it.  Moses, angered by the mob, hits the rock instead and as a result is told he will never enter the land of Israel. It is one of the most frustrating moments in Torah and as much as Moses will plead with God to enter the land, it will never be.

I’m struck by the fact that Moses’ fate is set so close after Miriam dies.  I’m struck by the fact that his pronouncement of death occurs through an interaction with water – these things cannot be coincidental.  Miriam’s actions as Moses’ older sister was to protect him. In fact, it is she who stood by the Nile and watched him as he floated toward Pharaoh’s daughter.  It was she who protected him from the waters that were killing all the baby boys of Egypt. She is his guardian who kept the dangerous waters at bay. She changed his destiny and as long as she is alive he is safe.  As soon as she dies, his original destiny returns and water will now be the cause of his death.

We owe everything to Miriam because without her there is no Moses.  She creates the window of time within which Moses will live his life.

I thought of a pluralistic minyan I’m working on in Toronto.  Some of the decisions about parts of the minyan are not my personal preference and I was uncomfortable.  I struggled with the question of creating an expression of holiness that might not fit the nuances of my own expressions.  But I think of these two women, one from the ancient world and one from the modern world. They both show me that at times our choices move beyond ourselves and build the doorway for someone else. 

Thank you Cohen who stood so close and blessed me.

Thank you Miriam.