Sunday, March 26, 2017

Vayikra: The Tempter, Humans Behaving Badly, and the Need for Sacrifice

“And God called to Moses…. ‘A man who shall bring near of you an offering to God from the beast….’”

—Lev. 1:2 (Adapted from a Chasidic Teaching of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the First Lubavitcher Rebbe)

            Call me the Tempter. Most Jews know me as the Yetzer Ha-Ra, the Evil Inclination. Who am I? I am the Voice of Evil whispering in your ear; I am the soft urge which bids you to look where you know you should not. I push you to steal, to lie, to gossip, backbite, change a number in an accounting book. I inspire bored people to commit adultery. I am, perhaps, the single cause of more evil in the world since Time began; I am a perpetual troubler. I am the hair in your soup, the driver who steals your parking spot, the false friend who proposes to the Girl of Your Dreams, a second before you get up your nerve.
Let me also say what I am not: I am not Satan; there is no metaphysical Devil in the Jewish universe or theological worldview. In Judaism, Satan is not an independent spirit, operating independently of God, working for Evil as God works for Good. To say or believe so would be Dualism, such as the ancient Persians believed in their Zoroastrian religion—and don’t forget that the Jews lived and flourished in Persia for centuries, beginning in 722 BCE. No: Satan is the Prosecuting Attorney in the Heavenly Court, or, at best, the Cosmic Troublemaker in that Morality Play called the Book of Job, where he must beg God’s permission before tormenting the eponymous heroic victim.  
Within and among nations, I cause race hatred. I am Jealousy personified, Negative Stereotypes embodied. I shy away from taking people as individuals; why bother, when it’s so easy to generalize, to use differences to incite rancor? It’s always tempting for you Mortals to hide behind a Stereotype (“Why bother? She’s just a--“) rather than extend yourselves to meet a stranger. Build walls; yes, that is always the solution.
I span every time, place, country, and era. I rode with King Richard Lionheart when he crusaded against Saladin the Muslim King in 1191 in the name of the Christian God; I thrust the Jews out of Spain before the Inquisition's wrath, the Irish out of Ireland for lack of either food or English sympathy (in time to escape to America and see signs in shop-windows reading, "No Irish Need Apply"), the Armenians into the Turkish Killing-Grounds; I aimed the rifles when American boys massacred Filipino women and children in 1902 in the name of colonial imperialism (water-boarding was an American invention. I dwell deep in the furrows of your brain as you read this. I am a hatred and suspicion as old as Time.
Can you prevent my ravages, O Mortal, you who claim to be made in the Image of the God you adore so much? There is but one cure: to make an Offering—not of yourself; enough of your kind have died for my Cause and in my Name. No: there is but one cure—to make an Offering, a Sacrifice—of your Animal-Self, the part of you which demands, requires, insists upon More: more lives, more land, more power.

My Nemesis is the Yetser Ha-Tov, the Good Inclination. It is content to Live with Less, to Divide and Share; to look into the eyes of a stranger and see, therein, the Image of God in whose spirit we are all awfully, wonderfully made. One warning, though: do so quickly. This World is drawing closer to spiritual and racial destruction, day by day.

            Hold back your Evil, and embrace your Good. Kill off your Animal Self, your Greed and Selfishness, by sacrificing it as an Offering to your God, who forgives us our limitations. Work for your souls’ sakes, so that all the clay in you, all the faults in you, may yield to your Inner Light—let the Fire on High-Priest Aaron’s Altar be nothing but Light!

Nothing but Light!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Amulets--Segulote: The Importance of What One Wears Around One's Neck


By David Hartley Mark

                                                Around my neck
                                                I wear
                                                A gold Aseret HaDibrote
                                                Ten Commandments
                                                My parents gave me
                                                When I became Bar Mitzvah:

                                                It was Parshat Beshalach
                                                The Exodus Torah Portion

                                                The Israelites departed Egypt
                                                “With a mighty hand
                                                And an outstretched arm,”
                                                Following their Mysterious, Invisible Tribal God
(Not yet Universal)

                                                Whom we are still following
                                                With better or lesser Results
                                                But a great deal of Hope
                                                To see us through

                                                Whether Splitting Seas,
                                                Fighting Amalek,
                                                Finding Water in the Desert

                                                Or encouraging us
                                                To just keep moving on….

                                                I also wear
                                                A pewter rectangle
                                                Inscribed, “Courage,”
                                                A gift from a late, dear
                                                Woman Friend
                                                Who escaped the Holocaust
                                                On the Kindertransport

                                                She and her sister—
                                                Thirteen and Eleven,
                                                My friend Lisl, thirteen,
                                                Was the oldest child
                                                In the railroad car at the Vienna Station

                                                The big, black train was
                                                Huffing and puffing
                                                In Vienna Station,
                                                While Nazis in leather raincoats
                                                Black uniforms
                                                And tall shiny boots
                                                And Death’s-Head caps
                                                Strode about
                                                There were also
                                                Two Mommies in each railroad car,
                                                Whom the Nazis allowed
                                                To escort the children
                                                To the Border of Belgium
                                                But warned them:
“You Jew women must get off the train there,
                                                Or we will kill your families
                                                Who remain in Austria.”
                                                So the mommies had to get off
                                                In Neutral Belgium
                                                Where they were not wanted
                                                Being Jewish Refugees,

                                                And leave the carful
                                                Of children
                                                They could no longer see
                                                For tears

                                                But at the last minute
                                                Before the train left the station in Vienna,
                                                A young mother, late,
                                                Came running onto the platform,
                                                Crying, breathing hard,
                                                And thrust a great wicker basket
                                                Through the train’s open window,
                                                Calling to Lisl,

“Here, here!
                                                Please take it!”
                                                It was spring
                                                Flowers blooming
                                                Birds chirping
                                                Fearing no evil
                                                A bird can always find

                                                So Lisl took it:
                                                She turned back the blanket,
                                                And two pairs of bright-blue eyes
                                                Looked at her with astonishment:
                                    Two tiny baby girls,
                                    Dressed in their best white clothes
                                    As for a trip

                                    All the Kindertransport survived the war
                                    Many had survivor guilt
                                    But all had Courage
                                    And led productive lives

                                    In spite of those who hated the Jews

                                    My third amulet is a Hamsa:
                                    It is a Hand of Fatima,
                                    My Islamic Mother;
                                    A Hand of Lilith,
                                    My Jewish Mother:

                                    They protect me from
                                    Mystical Evil
                                    In the Universe
                                    And help me to
                                    Scoop up the Sparks of Light
                                    By doing Mitzvote
                                    Good deeds

                                    In a World beset
                                    By Husks of Darkness

                                    That is Our Job:

                                    Only to gather the light
Nothing but Light!

No thing but Light!                 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Vayakhel-Pekuday: Why does this Torah Portion do little more than repeat the dimensions of the Mishkan/Sanctuary already given earlier? What is so important about the Mishkan?


            Could there possibly be an unnecessary parsha/Torah portion? All Vayakhel seems to do is repeat the extensive instructions how to construct the Mishkan, God’s sacred dwelling-place in the wilderness, all of whose details were given earlier, in Parshat Terumah. Why, therefore, repeat? It is because God wanted the Israelites to familiarize themselves with all the accoutrements of the Mishkan, because both God and His people were to rejoice in His having a place to dwell on earth, among His chosen people.
Further, this parsha reiterates God’s mitzvah/commandment to observe Shabbat, stating that “whoever works on it shall be put to death” (Ex. 35:2). How could this priceless gift, that of Shabbat rest, possibly be connected to death? Accordingly, the Talmudic rabbis were quick to soften this harsh decree by explaining that, Shabbat-observant Jews receive a mystical neshama y’tayrah, or second, spiritual soul, which allows them to enjoy Shabbat twice as much. then those who violated it would lose this extra soul, and suffer a spiritual, not actual, death.      

Moving into the listing of the construction of the Mishkan coverings, we note the “Ten strips of cloth…made of fine twisted linen, blue, purple, and crimson yarns; [into which the weavers] worked a design of cherubim” (Ex. 36:8). Why those particular colors, and what purpose did the cherubim-pattern serve? Blue was the color of the Sinai Wilderness sky, reminding us of God’s protection of His people. Purple is the traditional color of royalty, referring to God as king. Crimson reminds us that we should serve God with every fibre of our being, every drop of blood.

As for the cherubim, sphinx-like mythological creatures who carried prayers to God, they reminded our ancestors that, although they sprang from a pagan background, they were to pray to God alone, not to His messengers.
The wonder of the Mishkan is that it represents a prototype of the Holy Ark in the synagogue, a place so charged with holy energy that we rise when it is opened. I have seen pious Jews reach out to the open Ark with spread palms and touch their faces, “gathering” the God-force that emanates from the sacred cabinet’s interior. The Ark poses a challenge to all of us: how to “capture” the ineffable spirit of God and make our bodies vehicles for it.

What part of your physiology carries God, Reader? Is it your heart, your brain, your soul—or some other part of you?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kee Teesa: Cherubim & Golden Calves-- Why One Over the Other?

Kee Teesa

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Most of us know the story well: Moses follows God’s commands and ascends Mt. Sinai amid smoke and thunder, to receive the Ten Commandments, to be carved out of solid stone by God, using a fingertip of lightning. Moses appoints Aaron, his brother and the High Priest, to supervise the Israelites during his absence. But Aaron is a poor classroom monitor, as I like to say, and he gives the fearful, misbehaving Israelites free rein to do as they wish—and they disobey God’s express command, using a large amount of their Egyptian gold and silver to build a Golden Calf, despite being expressly forbidden to perform idol worship.

            Warned by God that “his people” are behaving licentiously, Moses descends the mount, carrying the Tablets, but, upon seeing their supreme sin, he smashes them to bits, grinds the Calf to powder, and mixes it with river water, forcing the people to drink of it—the Biblical equivalent of eating crow. Next, Moses entreats the Almighty to allow him to return to the top of Sinai and receive yet another pair of Tablets, despite God fulminating and wishing to destroy the people, and to make of Moses a second, greater nation.

            The question stands: why did God forbid the building of the Golden Calf, which the Israelites to honor Him, and yet commanded the people to construct a pair of cherubim to place atop the Mishkan, the Tabernacle from which God communicated with the people? Both were meant to be symbolic “thrones” for the Invisible God. Why was one permitted, and the other forbidden?

            First, in Judaism, we must distinguish between doing that which is commanded, and that which is not. God expressly ordered the Israelites to build the cherubim—either angels with outspread wings and downturned faces who did not look at one another, or sphinxlike creatures with lion’s bodies, the wings and claws of eagles, and the faces of women. In ancient times, people believed that these beings carried their prayers to God. On the other hand, God most certainly did not order the people to build the calf, which was a popular part of the Baal cult, in which the Babylonian thunder god rode a bull, probably to symbolize his virility.

            The cherubim, on the other hand, regardless of their being either chimeric sphinxes or angels, were divinely ordained. What was the difference between the cherubim and the Calf?
Because the cherubim were angels, they were intended to inspire the people to turn their hearts heavenward: “The cherubim’s wings were spread facing upward” (Exodus 37:9)—that is, toward heaven, and God. The Calf, on the other hand, was a symbol of the Land the Israelites were promised—not its spiritual aspect, but the materialistic wealth they were to enjoy: “The ox will lick up grass” (Psalms 106:20)—and furthermore, the ox would be looking downward while doing so. It would be focusing on the earth and its bounty, rather than upward to God, who gave it.

            This lesson still applies, today. So much in our lives combines to turn us to the pursuit of money only, and not to our heavenly concerns, such as prayer, Torah study, and attendance at temple. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with making a parnosseh, a living, but it should not be the sole purpose of our existence. As the weeks go on, try to make time to attend services, either during the week, or on Shabbat. We will do our best to make it gainful, both spiritually and socially, and you will enjoy the experience. Promise. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Tetzaveh: Aaron, the Overworked High Priest--and His Difficult Home Life


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Call me Aaron ben Amram v’Yocheved. The Kohen Gadol? Yes, I am; I admit it; I am the High Priest. But, before that, I was the middle child, born following Miriam, my sister, the Bechorah, the First-Born, the Passed-Over One, the Dancer-and-Singer, the Poet-Prophetess. She has many talents, but all the men ignore her, while the women consider her their leader….

            And then, there is my baby brother, Moses—he is the Climber, the Mounter-to-the-Skies, who alone ascended Sinai’s lofty peaks (though it’s not much of a tall mountain, really), and there, brought down the Stone Tablets written by God. Moses alone judges, prophesies, leads, punishes; his power is absolute. Do I envy him? I wonder….

            While I, Aaron, the High Priest, the Holy Man of God, day after endless day, burn Offerings in the Holy Sanctuary: sheep, goats, cows; doves—by the Plagues of Egypt, it never ends!—and wait for the Holy Light to appear over the smoke and flames of the raw, dripping meat. I and my Levite Crew, my Sons Nadav and Avihu among them, slaughter, dress, and stretch out, bloody limb after bloody limb, on the brass-and-copper Altar we are commanded to serve. Endless rows of bloody meat, as sacrificial offerings, offerings, offerings….

            Ah, God! When will it end? The ashes coat my robes and my throat; I cough endlessly.

            To what Purpose? Why, the Highest: to convey the People’s prayers to God, and to cover up sins: adultery, theft, suspicion, anger, covetousness; jealousy, ritual uncleanliness, consuming unkosher foods… again, it never ends.
            What else do I do, in my short leisure time? I am called “Aaron, Lover of Peace, Pursuer of Peace,” and chase quarrelling Jews attempting to get them to forget their petty squabbles, clasp hands, and be friends once again—“Hail Fellow, Well Met! True friends, all around, and let’s retire to the Hard Drinks Tavern-Tent, and quaff a mug of barley beer, or something a mite harder, hey?”

            I am, as I said, a Legendary Peacemaker. Yes. But if you come, Friend (whispering) to my tent, the tent of this legendary Peace-lover, Peace-pursuer, and you will find that all is not well in the home of High Priest Aaron.

            Do you see? The thick coating of dust, over everything? The dirty clothes, lying everywhere? Just me and the boys here, now—no; don’t bother searching; she is gone.

My wife, that is. Gone, gone. Where have you gone, my own dear Elisheva? Only my sister, Miriam, knows.

There are hints and rumors, I understand—for I have my spies, there among the ladies, too—of a sort of “City of Refuge” for departed Israelite wives, who can no longer live at home comfortably, for having been—how shall I say it—neglected? By their—what was Miriam’s word?—workaholic husbands.

            I am one, it seems. Miriam has told me so, and how she warned Elisheva, and how Elisheva departed our home, leaving me with our grown and almost-grown sons.

And soon, she will tell the same to my brother, Moses, about neglecting Tziporah, our sister-in-law, our Midianite sister, whom he pays no attention to, what with all the busy-ness in which he is involved, affairs crucial to both God and Man. I fear her words. For I am a High Priest, but I am not God’s Favorite. Miriam had ought to watch her step.

            Why, you ask me? Well, it’s all well and good to keep a family squabble within the family—but when one goes outside the family, and makes private affairs into public information—especially when it concerns a Public Figure of Note, such as my Brother, Moses—well, Friend, things may go hard on Miriam.

            “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, My Sister,” I said to her, softly, when last we spoke of this. I am a prophet, too: did I not tell you that? Ah, yes—I did. I recall. I do forget so much, these days: all that smoke and fire will do that to a man’s memory and mind.

But she just tossed her curly mane of hair, my She-Lioness of a sibling, exactly as she did when we were little, and Mother Yocheved put her in command of Baby Moses, and Toddler Me—

            Miriam fears Nothing. And that, I fear, may be her Downfall….

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Inside the Mind of an American Nazi: a Poem for Our Times

In the Mind of an American Nazi

By David Hartley Mark

Rejoice, Filth!
As you sit on your squeaky chair
In your smelly little room
Surrounded by takeout boxes
That you haven’t cleared out for weeks:

The winds of hatred sweep through your empty head
And stir the red-white swastika on the wall:
On the shelf is the Nazi dagger you bought online
And the stahlhelm you treasure, purchased to protect
Your hardened and brainless skull:

You sit at your dusty computer screen,
The only light in your world—
Its otherworldly glow illuminates
Your dayless night
Your nightless day….

Your body stinks
Like your soulless frame
But you cannot tell
For you cannot smell

Since you are but
An empty shell
Of excrescence:

You tell yourself
You are Master
Of Humanity—
An ubermensch,
A Superman,
Who rules through fear.

With a mouseclick
You send shockwaves of fright
Through children and women
And men
No one can find you
Or your (imaginary) bombs
That you plant
Throughout the land

All are speaking of you,
Hunting for you:

The politicians
Police personnel
And ministers
The President?
(Who has his ear?)

Your bodily stench
Rises to the heavens

But God has cast you out
To utter



And when you tire, and go to restless sleep
On your greasy unmade sheets
Tossing and turning…

Your mind circles back:

To a little boy, crying, begging,
Beaten with a belt
By his drunken, staggering father
Who throws him into a moldy-smelling coat closet
And locks the door:

And the boy lies there, cowering, aching
In the dark, screaming:
“It’s dark!
“It’s dark!

“I didn’t do anything bad!”