Sunday, March 27, 2016

Shemini: The Testimony of Tsilya, Wife of Aaron the High Priest, on the Deaths of Their Boys, Nadav and Avihu


            I am Tsilya, daughter of Yitzhar, wife of Aaron, the High Priest, mother of my Lost Boys, Nadav and Avihu. You will not read my name in the Great Scroll of the Teaching; no; my name has been lost in darkness, for I spent my days mourning for my boys, my sons, Nadav and Avihu, who died blamelessly, for their mistake before the Most High.
That day, the Great Day of Coronation and Dedication of the Altar through Sacrifice, had begun so favorably, so full of promise for the future—I was exhausted, as usual, but running all about, as I had to, caring for our children; we had many—not just the four boys, but our three daughters; you will not read of them.

Girls do not count; why should they? They cannot learn the Laws of the Hidden One, He Who Dwells in Smoke and Thunder. We women-folk are more quietly learned; we know the ways of the Earth-Mother, the Shechinah, the Old Goddess of Grains, and Fruits, and the Cycles of Seasons. We are the ones who cook, and bake, and sew; we bring Life to Being. We are kept from the Learning of the Scrolls, but we have our own Hidden Knowledge, unknown to the Men, who believe they know everything—they are fools, in so many ways.... And now, their so-called wisdom has taken away my sons, my babies, from me….

            As I said… it began in triumph. My boys, my boys—they were anxious, though eager to serve God; they were nervous. Their father Aaron had instructed them; Moses, their uncle, had drilled them, over and over and over: so many details! So many ingredients! This, to make up the Holy Incense; That, to measure out the Holy Oil; this way, how to examine the carcass of a Beast to judge it fit for a sacrifice….
They were overwhelmed. I had laid out all of their garments, so carefully, so lovingly, the night before. I was their mother! Who should know better than I, who had raised them? But, so quick-and-hurried are the Ways of Men, and of Priests, and  Levites, that they yanked at their robes, and pulled at their holy shirts (which might have torn, had I not thought beforehand, and used the extra-strong Thread)—
And were out the door, before I could gather my three, beautiful Daughters, and bring them along, too—
In hopes that, perhaps they, too, might gain a fraction, just a small, tiny portion of the Glory thereunto Pertaining to their Famous Brothers—I hurried them along, but they were hard to hurry—I heard the silver horns of the Tent-of-Meeting sounding a sennet, and the earthier tones of the shofarote, the rams’ horns, summoning the People, in the distance. I heard, and saw, the assembled multitudes of the Israelite Tribes cheering—

But, as I finally, desperately, snatched up my youngest, my dark-eyed, sweet Ariela, who was laughing, and turning her head away from her Mother’s kisses, I rushed for the door of the tent—
But there, there he stood: my Husband, my Aaron. Where was his Splendor? His Golden Headband, with its Golden Words, “Holiness to the Lord”? Instead, he stood there, his royal, priestly robes bedraggled, torn, and trembling. He did not—look at me. I gave Ariela to her sister to hold—she wailed a bit, upon seeing her father, distressed, and fell silent—and then, I  approached him, slowly; he looked—strange.
“How is it with you, My Husband, My Lord?” I asked him.
He stood, stock-still. I took him by his priestly shoulders and shook him:
“Aaron! It is I, Tsilya, your Wife and Helpmeet-Partner, who speaks to you!”
He blinked, and looked down at me—and rasped; a throaty noise came from his lips, as if he had been drained of all juice in his body; as if he had become a piece of wood himself, like those piney chips he burns atop the Altar-Flame. He wiped a sooty hand across his lips, opened his mouth, and—
“Dead,” he croaked.
“Dead cows? Dead goats?” I asked.
“No. Dead—“ he rasped.
I realized. Slowly. But did not wish to.
“Aaron,” I said, and the words stuck in my throat, “Aaron. Where are my boys? Where are Nadav and Avihu? And Elazar and Itamar, my younger sons?”
“Nadav and Avihu,” he muttered, more to himself than to me, “are struck down—by the Hand of the Invisible One. They—“
Each word of his echoed in my ears, and tore a hole into my Mother’s heart. Nadav? Avihu? Dead? But I just saw them leave; they were going—were going—
“How? Why?” I said.
“They made a mistake,” he said, “Strange fire. I cannot tell. The smoke—the fire—the clouds, all black—I could not see. They disappeared into the darkness—there was a lightning-bolt, an explosion—and then, I saw: they were lying there. Gone—gone, gone….”
“I saw it happen,” came a voice, a strong, deep one.

I looked, and saw Moses—my brother-in-law, the Spokesman for our G-d—his G-d, at least. No more mine.
“It was harsh, but justified,” he said to me—Moses, that is—“Your boys were wrong, in what they did. They did not follow my—that is, God’s—instructions. When a priest wields the Sacred Fire, he must do so correctly, strictly according to Torah, or God knows what might happen. As it did. And they are dead. I am sorry, Tsilya, but the ways of God are just.”
            “God knows, and—God—is—just—” I croaked, legs suddenly numb, so that I slumped to the floor of the tent, there in the dust before my-husband-my-lord and his-brother-the- Spokesman, “God may know, but I—but I….”

I lay there, and wept. The men left, as men do who know not what to say. My daughters gathered ‘round, and we cried together, for my poor, dead, Lost Boys….

Why? What did they do? Tell me God what did they ever do to You? You Who claim to love us so….
…And that is why I left the Camp, and stay in this tent, this Black Goatskin Tent, outside the Camp Boundaries. I mourn; I pile dust upon my head; no one comes to visit me, but—Bless Her! Miriam. She is my solace.

My brother Korach has also been by:
“There is no Justice, and no Judge,” he whispers, through the closed tent door, and, “You will be avenged, my Shadow, my Sister, my Tsilya.”
Miriam does not agree. She weeps without; I weep within. We mourn my Boys together.
I still do not know exactly what they did wrong.
They were so young. Why must the Young die on the Instructions of the Old?

O Shechinah, Earth-Goddess-Mother! Help me to return to my People; help me to believe, again….

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Tzav: Attaining Spiritual Purity, Both Within and Without


            This Parsha/Torah Reading continues, in the style of Leviticus, describing the rituals which accompanied the offering of sacrifices. In particular, those bringing offerings to the mishkan/portable shrine were themselves required to be in a state of holiness. How did a person become holy? By immersing oneself in a mikvah/ritual bath, a person could achieve bodily holiness, but how were they to purify their thoughts and feelings? This dilemma remains today, in a world where millions struggle to earn a living, and Godliness goes begging.  
Jewish literature abounds in tales of idealistic young yeshiva bochrim, scholars, who strove to keep themselves free of the world’s taint. Back in 18th-Century Poland, one such tyro visited the Nashelsker Rebbe’s study on a cold winter’s day. As the rebbe gazed out of his second-story window at the stable next door, the scholar described his life of self-imposed sacrifice—a trifle boastfully:
“I wear white garments every day,” the young man said, “to symbolize the physical purity I strive to attain.”
As the rebbe watched, a balagoola-wagon-driver led his weary horse into the corral, took off the heavy wagon-harness, and set him free to rest, canter, and eat.
“I drink only fresh, pure, cold water,” the scholar continued, “no intoxicating drinks of any kind.”
Using a heavy ax, the stable boy cracked the ice covering the water-trough. The tired, thirsty horse went over to the trough, and drank deeply of the freezing, ice-filled water.

“I wear nails protruding within my shoes,” said the scholar, “to cause me pain and keep me humble—and, every morning, I strip down and mortify my flesh by rolling in the snow.”

The horse pranced around the corral, tossing its head, and then rolled happily on its back in the snow.

As the young man rambled on, describing his life of poverty, self-imposed suffering, and scholarship, the Nashelsker raised his hand and silenced him.

“Come over here, Yingele, Young Man,” the rebbe said, putting his arm around the scholar’s bony shoulders, “and look down there, in the corral. There you see a beast which, like you, wears only white. Like you, he drinks only cold water; like you, he has nails in his shoes—and I just saw him rolling in the snow. So tell me, young man—in what ways can you claim to be superior to a horse?”

God looks within all of us, and laughs to scorn those of us who fool ourselves, pretending to a life of holiness, only through outward signs. As we are celebrating Purim this week—tthe Festival of Unmasking, revealing our True Selves to both God and to one another—ask yourself:

What personas do I wear in public—the devoted employee, the obedient child, the attentive spouse, the good Jew? Further: ask yourself, how can I make these guises real and honest? How can I better myself as an ethical Jew, a true mensch, within, and lose the outward show?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Vayikra: A Plateful of Flour or a Really Big Cow? Telling God that You're Sorry, with an Offering....


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            With this Parsha/Torah Reading, we enter upon the third book of the Chumash/Pentateuch, known as Vayikra, “And God called,” or by its Latin name, Leviticus, the Laws of the Levites and Priests. This last name is close to its other Hebrew name, Torat Kohanim, or the “Laws of the Priests.” Traditionally, this was the first book which young boys would study at the European yeshivot/Hebrew schools—probably in preparation for Messiah’s Coming and the Rebuilding of the Holy Temple. Today, it is more traditional to begin with Beraysheet, Genesis, to learn how we got here in the first place.

            Following the dramatic narratives of Genesis and Exodus, it is challenging for rabbis and teachers to find something awe-inspiring to say about this book, which is mainly long lists of the various sacrifices and offerings the Israelites made at the Mishkan, the Wilderness Sanctuary, under the supervision of the Kohanim and Leviim, the Priests and the Levites.

Since we follow the Prophet Hosea’s dictum, following the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, that “the words of our lips (in prayer) will take the place of the bullocks and rams formerly offered as sacrifices,” what symbolic or aesthetic meaning can we possibly draw from a vision of God’s House as a place of slaughter and roasted meat? Portions would be dealt out and eaten by the Levite tribe and their families, and other parts burnt on the altar. Even the ashes and blood would be used as part of the ritual, symbolizing the fragility and preciousness of life.

            Early in the portion, we find the verse, “Anyone (lit., ‘any soul’) who brings a meal-offering to the Lord [shall make that offering] of fine flour, add olive oil to it, and pour frankincense on it, as well” (Lev. 2:1). Rashi (1040-1105), our French-Jewish Master Commentator, notes that “nefesh,” the Hebrew word for “soul,” is used only here, in the context of bringing the korban mincha, the meal-offering, and that meal-offerings, rather than cattle, were usually the choice of poor people, since they could not afford to sacrifice what few cows or sheep they owned. However, God would credit them the same as if they had brought cattle, because He considered it as though they were offering their very soul, not just flour and oil.

            A modern-day rabbi, HaRav Eliyahu Meir Bloch z’l, adds to this idea of Rashi’s. A wealthy person who brings an entire cow as an offering may pride himself on the size and magnificence of his offering—a cow could feed an entire family for many days, after all, and slaughtering it meant a considerable loss of milk, cheese, and other dairy goods. The rich person might therefore believe that all of his sins were forgiven.

            By contrast, the poor person might feel lacking in his sad little meal-offering. He would realize that, despite his lack of money, a simple pan of flour was insufficient to atone for his sins before God. Fearful that God might not forgive his sins for such a meager “sacrifice,” the poor person would psychologically supplement it with his very soul (nefesh), hoping with all his heart that God would accept his true and sincere apology and penitence for any wrongdoings he might have committed against God.

            The lesson for us is clear: whether rich or poor, our prayers and entreaties before God are meaningless, unless we offer them with a sincere and contrite heart. We cannot go on, sinning and simply repenting afterwards. We cannot fool God; we are only fooling ourselves. It is tragic that there are all too many celebrities, in politics, public life, entertainment, business, and other areas, who somehow believe that they are “above the law” in dealing with Divine Judgment. In God’s eyes, we are all equal, and we are all being judged, every moment. Of what avail is our wealth, our possessions, our personal and professional connections? Make no mistake: there is a Judgment, and a Judge.

            Only turn to God: if you take just a few short steps toward Him in sincerity, He will come miles to meet you. Yes, God is judgmental, but compassionate, as well, and a thousand thousand times more compassionate than one could ever imagine.

Take the first step: turn to God.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Pekuday: Finding God in the Sinai Wilderness, 1972.


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            It is lonesome and harsh in the Wilderness, when the hamseen, the hot desert wind, blows;  I know this. In 1972, when Israel still held firm control of Sinai, a group of us students from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel, went on a tour of the Sinai Peninsula. We did not travel in buses; no. We rode in the backs of trucks with metal frames welded on top, open to the sunlight, and equipped with hard wooden benches. When there were sandstorms—and this was common enough—we dropped heavy, olive-drab army-canvas covers over the sides of the truck as a makeshift shield, covered our faces and noses with keffiyehs, Arab headdresses, and breathed the best we could. It became impossible to see, as the trucks crawled along through the dunes.

            Eventually, the wind would die down, and the sun would come out again. The desert sun, burning, burning….

            We saw many natural wonders which no Jew will ever see again, without an Egyptian visa: Ras Kennedy, a natural sculpture which, from a certain angle, seemed to resemble the profile of our late president; the Mountain of Sand, which we slid down, afterwards bathing in the cool waters of the Red Sea; Sharm al-Sheikh, with its two monstrous, British-mounted naval cannon, their inner coils blown out by victorious Israeli troops in ‘67; Mount Sinai—or, perhaps, one pretender-mountain, among a dozen claiming that title. We climbed Masada, as well, via the snake path, at four am, before the sun could come up, boiling, out of the sea.

            At night, we slept in our sleeping bags, beneath the stars, after eating Israeli canned goods, the only food that would last the entire time. There were no supermarkets in the wild; it was, truly, God’s country, and God did not see fit to rain manna upon us. We didn’t care; we were young, in our late teens and early twenties, mostly, with a number of Israeli Army veterans among us (Israeli youth attend university after fulfilling their national service), and a little sand or rocks in one’s sandals didn’t bother us. We carried just one, World-War-I-vintage Lee-Enfield rifle to defend ourselves from—whom? The Israeli Army assured us that we were safe.

We hiked up hills and through wadis, taking pictures with our little Instamatics, finding where David and his gang of thieves had hidden from the mad King Saul. We posed, grinning like fools, by small oases, doing handstands to impress the girls, who wore either short shorts or denim dresses down to the ground. We listened to solemn guides, who stood before roughly-built monuments and told us about battles fought and won in the peninsula, in 1948, 1956, and 1967 (We had no inkling of the sudden cataclysm yet to come, in 1973, shortly after our return home.). I remember one, in particular: it was “decorated” with the top-plates of Egyptian-planted shoe-button land mines, along with the remnants of an Israeli jeep that had haplessly driven over it, exploding and killing its four occupants, all young men. They died that Israel might live.

            At midnight, the stars winked on us, and I thought about our ancestors trekking through that same land, following their mysterious, demanding Desert God, Who led them in the guise of a Pillar of Cloud by Day, Pillar of Fire by Night. Around this time in our Torah, God had also given the Israelites a visible symbol of His love for them: the Mishkan, the Sacred Dwelling-Place for His Spirit. There, they would gather, to offer sacrifices, incense-offerings, and ten percent of their produce, in gratitude for the blessings He sent them, or to atone for feelings of guilt, sin, or worse transgressions committed against Him. It must have been difficult, indeed, to claim loyalty to an invisible Deity in a world which either worshiped idols or mortal monarchs claiming superhuman powers. There were challenges to Moses’s leadership, questioning his (and God’s) authority, even rebellions, swiftly punished.

The Desert was unforgiving….

            What about today? We continue to live in a world where, despite our material comforts, it remains far too easy to turn one’s back on a fellow human being because of their skin color, religion, or political beliefs. Our need for a Mishkan, a Mikdash, a Sanctuary, a Holy Place, is stronger and greater than ever before, yet, nationwide, worldwide perhaps, the synagogues, churches, and mosques stand empty. Wrongheaded preachers claiming to speak in the name of one god or another misquote and misinterpret divine words. No God worth His salt would demand the killing another human being, let alone hatred, divisiveness, racism, or bigotry.

Yes, the desert is a harsh environment; our Sinai sojourn taught us that. But there is a worse condition, still: when one’s own heart is dry as the desert, causing them to look harshly upon one’s own brother or sister. Rebuke the harshness in your soul that our Post-Modern World creates; enter the Dwelling-house of God, and join His Holy Congregation.

Come home, to the Holy Place: come to Temple.