Tag Archives: Leviticus

Look for the helpers

15 May
Amtrak derailment, 5/12/15 (Photo from NY Daily News).

Amtrak derailment, 5/12/15 (Photo from NY Daily News).

The Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia was a terrible shock. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of all the victims, including at least eight victims confirmed dead and dozens more who were injured. Among the dead, at least two were Jewish. Rachel Jacobs, a 39-year-old wife and mother was CEO of an education startup organization and an active member of the Jewish community. Justin Zemser was a 20-year-old midshipman at the US Naval Academy. I grieve their loss and that of the six other victims. I’m sure many in my circle are within two to three degrees of separation of passengers on that train. Two former USY counselors of mine reported on Facebook that their son was on the train and was bruised, but not seriously hurt.

The derailment and the destruction it caused underscore the randomness of life events. We go about the routines of our daily lives doing things that we often don’t think twice about, and yet we are vulnerable at any time. The tragedy also underscores the human capacity for error and the dire consequences that can result. Hopefully, the investigation will reveal why the train was speeding at over 100 miles per hour in a 50-mph zone.

As authorities conduct their investigation, I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom from Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “When I was a boy,” he said, “and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”

As we observe the unfolding of this senseless tragedy, it’s important that we focus not only on the loss and destruction, but also those who burst into action to help those in danger. This sensibility is rooted in this week’s Torah reading as we close out the book of Leviticus in Behar-Behukotai.

At the heart of Parashat Behar is the notion that everything in the world belongs to God—ki li haaretz, ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi—for the Land in Mine, for you are but strangers and sojourners with me. The upshot of this is that all of God’s creation, all matter living and not living, belongs to God not us. We therefore must in the words of the prophet Micah, walk humbly before God.

The second half of today’s reading, Behukotai, closes the book of Vayikra with a series of blessings and curses; blessings for being true to God’s laws, and curses for straying from them. I’m not going to address the challenge of reward and punishment theology that this parasha raises. Taking a bird’s eye view of this parasha, it’s not about the particulars of our lives—it’s about life in general. It’s about the good things in life- the joy, the pleasures, the blessings—such as the joy when we celebrate a wedding or the birth of a child. But the parasha also describes the hardship, the suffering and the pain. The Torah is saying welcome to the real world. Life is often good. Yet, life is often filled with great difficulty. The Torah’s mission is to teach us that we are tenants of God’s world and at the same time, we are very much of the world. We are stakeholders in the world, and it’s in our own self-interest to live a just and righteous life.

In the blessings portion, we read: vishavtem lavetach b’artz’chem…v’natati shalom baAretz—You will dwell in your Land safely, and I will give peace in the Land. According to Hasidic teachings, a question is asked: after the Torah has stipulated that “you will dwell in your land safely,” why does it have to state, “I will give peace in the land”? The reference here, then, is to internal peace, within yourselves, between one another, between one party and another, between one faction and another. I don’t interpret this teaching that bad stuff in the world will never happen. I read it to say that human beings will help one another achieve inner peace amidst great challenges.

As the world’s attention is focused on the Philadelphia train derailment, I believe this Hasidic teaching and the wisdom of Fred Rogers call on us to remember the helpers. The Philadelphia Inquirer and other news outlets reported numerous examples of heroism by first responders, passengers and bystanders.

There were the firefighters who arrived on the scene to pull trapped passengers from mangled cars; police officers who rushed into the train or drove patients to hospitals by the dozens in wagons; passengers who, as their rescuers broke into the cars, asked them to first help the more injured around them. Imagine the presence of mind of these passengers. They’re banged up, they’re bloodied, they may have broken bones. On top of all that, they’re sitting in a train car turned upside down. They are probably frightened beyond belief and want nothing more than to get out. Rescue workers arrive on the scene and, in the midst of this chaos, they directed the first responders towards passengers who needed even more help.

In the midst of human tragedy, it is awe-inspiring the extent to which people can open their hearts to help others in need, even in the midst of one’s own suffering. If human beings have the capacity for such compassion when under such pressure, then all the more so in our day-to-day lives—when we don’t feel immediate danger–we have the capacity for compassion and loving kindness. Today, as we close the Book of Leviticus, let us take to heart its great wisdom for life. As we see today, two of the messages with which the book closes are that we must be humble before God and that we must pursue peace. May God grant us the strength to continue this noble mission.

#TieBlog #YomKippur 5775

2 Oct
Goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur

Goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur

The goats on my tie are of course in honor of the goats of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple. This ritual is mentioned in the Torah:

Leviticus, Chapter 16: “7 Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; 8 and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel. 9 Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering; 10 while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.”

We no longer have the Temple nor this arcane ritual. We instead offer our sincere prayers, fasting and genuine teshuvah (return to the ways of God). May we be inscribed for life and good health.

#TieBlog #Shemini

21 Mar
Cows have split hooves and chew their cud, the two main criteria for animals to be fit for Jews to eat, according to Leviticus.

Cows have split hooves and chew their cud, the two main criteria for animals to be fit for Jews to eat, according to Leviticus.

Parashat Shemini contains a major piece of the laws pertaining to what came to be known as Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. It describes criteria for animals that are fit for sacrifice. Animals must have split hooves AND chew their cud (such as the cows of my tie). Fish must have both fins and scales. The text lists a number of birds that are forbidden, with the general conclusion that they are birds of peer.

Interestingly, if Leviticus were the only book of the Torah, it’s very possible that Judaism would ban consumption of meat except in the sacred context of sacrifice–communal meals under the watchful eyes of the Celtic priesthood. Deuteronomy (12: 20-21) permits eating meat outside the sacrificial system, and that practice has remained normative.

Michael Pollan’s recent best seller, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” describes the power of a community watching an animal cooked over an open flame. He makes a compelling case from an anthropological perspective that eating meat–consuming the flesh of another living creature–is a powerful act that requires regulation by a society. The Israelite priests closely regulated meat consumption in the he context of sacrifices that were sacred communal meals.

My critique of Michael Pollan is that he draws upon the anthropological wisdom of Leviticus as partial justification for partaking in communal pig roasts. Pollan never hides the fact that he’s Jewish–he even describes once keeping a pet pig that he named “Kosher.” I owe a great deal of my awareness of deficiencies in the modern, Western food system to Pollan’s writing over the years. However, I had to read the first chapter of “Cooked” with a split mind. I admired the compelling use of Leviticus for wisdom on mindful consumption of animals. At the the same time, I found it personally repulsive that a well-known writer who happens to be Jewish, was describing travelling the country to find the most authentic pig barbecue, in violation of

Jonathan Schorsch writes an extensive critique of Pollan on this point. In the meantime, in an era in which Michael Pollan and others have helped society rediscover mindful eating, I think it’s pretty amazing that kashrut as a practice of mindful eating has been embedded in Jewish consciousness and practice for thousands of years.

#TieBlog #Vayikra

7 Mar
Sacrificial lambs

Sacrificial lambs

Parashat Vayikra brings us into the world of sacrifices. As arcane as animal sacrifice seems to us today, it’s helpful to reflect on how our ancestors understood sacrifice. For them, sacrifice was an occasion to feel God’s presence, not out in the distant cosmos, but right at their own table. Society’s view of religion tends to be biased toward the transcendent, more distant, view of God. However, Vayikra presents a strong and equally valid position of the Torah that God is also immanent, right there with us at our meal. When we sit down to a meal with loved ones, particularly on Shabbat or holidays, rather than focusing on the stress we receive from the “black sheep” in our family (see the Tie!), we should focus on the aspects of God’s presence that bring us together. Even if we don’t sacrifice sheep and other livestock as they did in Temple times, they can still be symbols of coming together with dear ones and experiencing God’s presence.