Shemini

“Vayidom Aharon”  “And Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:30)

I once had many habits that would mask the honesty of my spoken thoughts. I giggled, talked quickly, mumbled and spoke in ways that made it easy to disregard and hard to argue with what I had said.  Similarly, when I first started speaking and singing on stage, my voice was thin, little and sometimes my throat would close down.  A voice teacher once asked me to make the biggest noise that I could.  I tried.  She kept asking.  I kept trying. I remember vividly the feeling of being stuck inside myself, trapped.  As much as I had things to say, I was unable to share my voice: my truth spoken through the voice and words.

Vayidom Aharon.  “And Aaron was silent.”

I have struggled to reconcile my journey to voice my inner life with the silencing in the lines of this week’s Torah reading. That part of me that knows what it feels to be silenced and trapped wants to yell at the text, “Noooo!”

In the musicality of the text, in the rhythm of the language, we hear the drama of Aaron’s sons being consumed by the fire as a consequence for them bringing “foreign fire,” something of their own and not according to the procedures that God has just prescribed.  We hear the tension peak with Moses’ rebuke to Aaron, “This is what God meant when God said ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And assert My authority before all the people’” (Leviticus 10:30) Then the verse ends with the sentence: Vayidom Aharon.  A succinct sentence, with a quieting “mm” sound in the middle, it breaks the tension, and bringing to our ears an abrupt silence at the end of the story.

This text fills me with questions, but no answers.

Did Moses intend to silence Aaron?  Did Moses’ rebuke shut Aaron down?  Was Aaron speechless from emotion, but loud with his presence? Did Aaron feel shame for his sons’ behavior and therefore unable to speak?

Did Aaron realize that moment was not an appropriate context in which to express his sense of loss and save it for another time?  Is the text suggesting to us that Aaron kept his feelings quiet in the public space and mourned later on his own?

What are the things that silence us in our lives?  When are we too embarrassed to show our emotions? When do we feel too ashamed to speak? When do we quiet our own voices because we have devalued the worth of what we have to say?

And, when do we silence others by redirecting the conversation? By attacking their ideas? By not really listening or caring to what they have to say?

One of my teachers at a seminar I attended this week suggested that rich texts like the Biblical verses mentioned, allow for multiple interpretations.  He taught us that we can challenge and support ideas with the text itself, and that in doing so, we give the text a voice.

Eventually, I found teachers who would help me release my voice.  I found people who valued what I had to say and encouraged me to continue voicing my thoughts.

Help me to give this text a voice too.  Listen to it.  When this text speaks, I hear the silence of Aaron’s suffering.  Listen.  What do you hear?

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Tzav (and Esther)

This Shabbat we read the Parshah Tzav.  It continues the theme of the offerings that were brought to the temple.  It describes the motions of the ceremony that was itself the invocation of holiness and God’s presence. These chapters are about bringing people closer to God through offerings, in Hebrew called, Korban, from the root verb k.r.v which means to come closer.  In contrast, the Book of Esther which we read on Purim, this year, Thursday, March 24th, God is not mentioned.   Yet, one could wonder if God is not present somehow in the story.

Esther does one of hardest things to do.  She comes out about her identity.  She reveals something that she had been living with in secret.  Have you ever lived with a secret that you weren’t who people really thought you were?

Esther says to Ahashverosh, “If your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request,” (JPS Translation)  Next, she tells how her people are about to be “destroyed”, “massacred” and “exterminated.”  In order to stand up for her people, Esther risks her life to tell Ahashverosh her Jewish identity.

18 years ago in Cairo, Egypt, my husband was doing an immersive program in Arabic at the American University of Cairo, and I was spending several months living with him in an apartment near Tahrir Square.   I became quite friendly with a woman named Hoda.  Hoda was the wife of our Baabwab, a man whose role was a combination of doorman and superintendent.  Hoda’s family lived in the building and I spent a lot of time with her and her two young daughters.  We spent many hours drinking tea together, talking in her halting English and my emerging Egyptian vocabulary.   She showed me how to shop in the local market, how to cook, and how to get around the town.   Hoda always presumed that as an American I was Mesichi, Christian.  At first this didn’t bother me.  My husband and I were being careful with whom and how we shared our Jewish identity.   But, as Hoda and I spent more time together and trusted each other more, the issue became difficult for me.  I remember some vivid dreams and uncomfortable nights not able to reconcile being considered Christian by someone who otherwise knew me well.   Being Jewish was too much a part of who I was to be able to keep it a secret any longer.   Finally, one day I told Hoda that I wasn’t Mesichi, I was Yehudi.   By the time I told her, it felt imperative to speak my truth, and not to pretend to be anything other than who I really was. We all have truths about who we are. We value when we and our truths are seen, heard and understood.

It was hard to watch her expression change and to feel a cooler distance over the next few weeks.  But, slowly she warmed back up and said to me one day, “It can’t be that all Jews are bad.”  Over time, I was able to talk with her about the subject.

Sometimes it is hard to express our full selves in the world and share that which is really in our hearts, or our sense of truth.  I think that in our lifetime, the korban, the gift that we can bring to God in order to grow closer, is sharing ourselves with others, telling our truths, and accepting people for who they are.  Hopefully, we can learn to do this without someone like Haman threatening our lives.  Or perhaps, there is always the threat of evil and danger when we are not being true to ourselves.

While in the Torah, the Israelites serve God by bringing offerings and through the gift giving feel closer to God, I think in our modern life, we grow closer to the divine, when we grow closer to each other, when we share our personal gifts with each other

Vayikrah

“V’nefesh ki takriv korban… ” (Leviticus 1:2)

There was a time in high school when I thought that if I lost weight everything in my life would be better. I would look better, clothes would fit me better, I would be a better dancer and look more like a dancer that I would have more friends, be a better student, and more. I evaluated everything in my life through a body image lens and was in a constant battle with food, self-control and feelings of unworthiness and shame.

This week’s Torah portion speaks to that teenage me and to all of us who go through periods of seeing ourselves through a never-ending lens of judgment, criticism, inadequacy and unworthiness.

In God’s instructions for the offerings to bring to the altar, the dominant word used to refer to the person bringing an offering is nefesh. The word nefesh means soul in contemporary Hebrew and in the Torah can refer to any individual life.

We read the word nefesh multiple times in the story of Creation, for example, when God created the animals, (nefesh chayah, Gen. 1:21), and when God created man, (nefesh adam, Gen 1:26).

Why use the word nefesh? Why use a word that can refer to male or female beings that can refer to human life or animal life?

Perhaps the purpose of this word here is to remind us of the nature of our being, to remind us that we are elements of Creation and the natural world. Perhaps it is when we see ourselves humbly within the larger context of the natural world and the spiritual world, that we experience a sense of awe, that we remember that we are a part of the awe inspiring universe.

Even though connecting with God looks different in the modern world, even though the relationship between an individual human life, and the web of lives that comprise the natural world human expresses itself differently in contemporary life, we can remember that despite our external differences, despite disparities in wealth, despite the efforts we may take to change our appearance, that we are all the same when we come to stand before God.

Decades later, I discovered that when I accepted who I was, when I improved my sense of being in all areas of my life, when I stopped judging my body, that extra weight lost itself. How ironic that teenage me had the whole thing backwards!

How might your view of yourself change if saw yourself as a nefesh first?  If you knew that you were accepted for who you are, a  beautiful element of God’s world, of creation and the natural world?

How might the way you see and act towards other people change if when you looked at them, you saw them through the lens of nefesh first?

P’kudei

I hate moving.  The process of taking all the items in a room and fitting them nice and tidy into a box, agitates me like nothing else.  I don’t like having to fit into any kind of box literally or figuratively.  Nothing about my life feels rectangular or square; nothing I care about ever looks comfortable in a cardboard box.

There is something about the process of deconstructing a living space into its separate parts that feels difficult and depressing. Standing in an empty bunk at the end of a summer at camp always made me cry.  Striking the set after the run of a fun show makes my blood pressure rise and my heart sink to my stomach.

So, why does the book of Exodus close with a tedious inventory of all the items used to build the Tabernacle as if packing and ready to travel? Why do we need to hear the inventory?

According to the Midrash, Moses demonstrated his accountability to all the Israelite donors and made it clear that all donations had been used properly and dealt with honestly.  I appreciate the characterization of Moses and the ethical lessons he taught. But, the part inside me that screams at the idea of having to inventory my home and pack ever again wonders is there more to learn here?  Is there something that can we learn from this accounting, from this deconstruction of sacred space into the specific non-sacred items used to create it?

Perhaps the answer is in the presence of the final words of the book of Exodus.  Immediately following the inventory and closing the last chapter of Exodus is a description of God’s presence leading the Israelites as cloud resting in the Tabernacle by day and as fire by night.  This description of how God’s presence traveled with the people and was always among them follows a list of objects that have no sacred meaning in of themselves.

Perhaps itemizing the metals and yarns that were used to beautify the sacred space reminds us that objects are just objects. It is we who endow those objects with meaning.   The artistic and beautiful decorations, the objects that people donated and were crafted did not sanctify the space. It was the heartfelt intentions of the community, the collective action towards a common good that invited and created a sacred space.

Perhaps it is also to remind us that it is not the objects that give our life meaning.  That those objects serve us as we pursue work, relationships, and experiences that are meaningful to us.  That it is through those experiences that we connect with the divine.

Perhaps we close the chapters about building sacred space with a reminder of the difference between our material and spiritual worlds and when they blend harmoniously together, the divine presence can dwell among us.

Vayakhel

What unsaid things do you carry in your heart? What is stopping you from saying these things? What would help you to find the words and express those unsaid things?

This week in our Wednesday text study class with the 4th -6th graders we looked at the text,“Adonai S’fatai tiftach ufi yagid tehilatecha,” “God, open my lips that my mouth may declare your prayers of praise.”  This verse comes from Psalms and is the introductory line that we sing before starting the Amidah, the silent prayer, the central prayer for which we always stand, that is at the core of our liturgy.

Why does this text invoke the lips and mouth, and not the heart? After all, isn’t it opening our hearts in that moment that brings meaning to the words? Isn’t it bringing our own intentions to the prayer that we need help doing? If the words are right there, and we are not creating them ourselves, why do we need to ask for help to say them?

In contrast, in this week’s Torah portion Vayahkel, about building the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) the text uses the word “lev” quite a lot. Different usages of the word are used to describe the people’s generosity, their craftsmanship skills, and their motivation for donating materials with which to build the Mishkan. The literal translations include: a giving heart, lifting the heart, and wisdom of the heart.

Perhaps the Torah is describing the internal experience and motivation, and the Psalms text is asking for assistance translating experience into words.

Isn’t it in our most transcendent moments, when we are moved, touched or emotionally overwhelmed by life’s experience when words falter? Isn’t it in those moments when we are so filled with joy, anger, vulnerability, or fear that we feel dumbstruck?

Perhaps the Torah portion is reminding us that spiritual moments emanate from the heart, and the Psalms text is acknowledging the complexity of trying to express or name those moments. Perhaps it is in our prayers that we remind ourselves that despite the dexterity of our language, the truly important things to say, those that are the most meaningful, the most profound and emanate from the deepest parts of ourselves are the hardest to express.

What unsaid things do you carry in your heart? What is stopping you from saying these things? What would help you to find the words and express those unsaid things?