Friday, April 6, 2012

Four Children, Five Rabbis



Okay, so
Four Children sitting around a table, talking
At a seder
And they have to ask,
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Why on this night do we ask so many questions?
And who gets to answer?
And who must  listen?

The first child, 
Book smart.
The wise child
Knows all the rules.
He's direct,
No messin' around,
This is what you do on Pesach:
Tell the story, dip the herbs
Recline, drink four cups
Ask the questions, Know the answers .
It's obvious. Duh.

The second child,
A smart ass, smart and an ass.
Doesn't care about the rules
Unless she knows what they're for,
She wants meaning
And is kind of obnoxious about it
Because sometimes it's hard to ask the next logical question
Without annoying someone.
What does this story mean to you? she asks.
And it comes off as a challenge, but it's not.
She really wants to know:
What does it mean?
So you tell her,
Freedom!
To be who you are,
To make choices,
to seek God whether you find God or not,
To become a person and then a people,
To ask questions.

The third child,
A beginner,
Doesn't know what to do
Doesn't know why we're doing it,
A baby!
So you say to him,
We tell a really good story
With a beginning middle and end
And a hero
And a villian
And miracles and dancing and bugs and dead cows and blood,
You'll love it!
And this is why we tell the story:
So we don't forget we were slaves,
So we don't forget what God did for us,
So we don't forget Torah,
And the seder is what we do to remember.
And because we remember
We don't enslave others.
We bask in God's presence.
We study Torah
And we tell stories.

And then there's the fourth kid
 The child who doesn't even know
 that she can ask a question.
Is it because she doesn't care?
Or is it, that she doesn't have a context?
Doen't know that she doesn't know?
So she doesn’t know how interesting it all is?
Or perhaps it’s because no one will let her talk
So she doesn't even try?
Sitting in the back of the bus,
Not allowed to study Torah,
Married at 17, popping out babies at 18.
So let's not wait for either of them to say something
Let's hold out our hands and say,
We were slaves
And now we're not.
And there is so much to know and do
And you can know and do it
And we will help you.
You are inspired,
You just don't know it yet.

Okay.
So
Five Rabbis sitting around a table, talking
At a seder.
They don’t have to ask
Why is this night different from all other nights,
And if they did
None of them would listen.

Each of them knows the direct meaning.
All of them plumb the depths of the hidden and symbolic.
Any one of them can tell a tale that bridges a gap.
Five out of five are inspired by God's revelations.
They know the rules and the meaning and the stories and oh my God, are they empowered to talk.
They stay up all night
And talk and talk and talk!
Each one smarter than the other
But in the morning when their students come in,
They still haven’t got an answer.

Hey you guys, say the students,
SHEMA!
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Listen.





Sunday, April 1, 2012

Tzav, a drash


Tzav, this week's parsha, establishes some of the sacrificial duties of the professional high priest, the Kohanim,  along with some of their perks and ends with the ritual of their consecration.  There is an obvious parallel between these duties, perks and consecration and those of the modern Jewish religious leader. 

In Tzav, God tells Moses how to conduct a series  of religious rituals that only the Kohanim can carry out, specifically the rituals of Burnt Offering, meal offering, offerings for purgation, reparations, sacrifices for well being and the prohimbitions regarding fat and blood, and then the insturctions for ordination of the priests.  We are told what the priests should be wearing, how they kill, burn or otherwise consume the food or creatures being sacrificed.

The purpose or efficacy of sacrifice is taken for granted.   If done correctly, the ritual will evoke well-being,  sin will be purged, God will be placated.  The acts are not without meaning and effect, but to me the obligation seems  paramount and is perhaps an ends unto itself.  One wonders how the high priests managed to escape corruption and cynicism and one assumes many did not.   But noneless, they – and we - we brave alll the possible pitfalls, because they and we need the rituals.  Why?

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer wrote in The Torah, A Women's Commentary,
As we learn about ritual as a human phenomenon, we come to understand it as a language of it's own, uniquely meaningful.  

But what gives it that meaning? Is it the ritual itself, is there some magic in the specific act, or is it enough that it is separate and repeatable and and we have all agreed to assign meaning to it?  And in our own time, is group or private prayer an adequate substitute for an orchestrated and dramatic public offering of value to God?  Or is the system of halacha and all the attendent sacrifices one makes in comfort and ease if one is halachically observant, the only true substitute for a fire on a high altar?

Or are those special creatures, the hereditary high priests the only ones who can perform the rituals correctly so that we may be made whole and holy?  If so, can these Kohanim serve as models for a moden rabbinical student?  How should we approach the learning and carrying out of our rituals?  Is there is the inherent value to a ritual even if is divorced from its history, or meaning?  Where can we find our fire?

Arthur Green writes in his interpretation of the Se-fat Emet's commentary on Tzav,
We long for a perfect act of worship, one in which there is no distraction, no doubt, no holding back, no wandering of the mind, nothing but the pure gift of love.  But we miss the point.  Our worship is all about struggle, an ongoing inner process of transformaiton

I would like to tell you what was, for me, a perfect act of worship and a transformation.

My father was a kohen.  When I was young, I knew he was special, and he got to do stuff other people didn't do because of it and that made me special.    

One day my father came home with this wooden box, and inside were five beautiful silver coins, which were for the pidyon ha ben,   the ritual of redeeming the first born son from service in the temple.  My father would "sell" these coins to the parents of the child for the price of a donation to the temple, he would then perform the pidyon ha ben, whatever that was, and they would pay him with the coins.  My father was very proud of these coins and I really wish I still had them.  We bonded over the coins, until he told me that I could never do this ritual because I was a girl, and only boys counted as kohanim, and only boys needed to be redeemed.  Not fair.

Years pass, I am an adult feminist and completely alienated from Judaism and I move to Seattle and then discover Judaism ain't so bad after all and move back to Jewish New York, but  as drawn as I was to the Jewish community, I still couldn't help feel that religion was irrational and not for me.  But then, friends of mine had a baby, their first, and a boy, and they knew I'm a Kohen, I don't remember why, and they asked me to perfrom their son's pidyon ha ben.

Me?  But I'm a woman?  You mean, I can be a Kohen now? Or at least act as one? Yes, I can.  It was so exciting!  I hadn't read Hebrew out loud in a long time, but Rabbi Sami Barth stood next to me at the ceremony while I enabled Debby and Wrolf to redeem the infant, Jeremy.  And myself.  Because in that act, that perfect act of ritual, both Jeremy and I were redeemed.  My fear and doubts were nothing next to the connection I felt to Aaron, to my father, to every woman who ever wanted to lead and study and pray as a full human being and a Jew, and most of all, to my authentic self.   A perfect act of worship and transformation, indeed.

That baby, Jeremy,  is going to college next year.  And I am applying to rabbinical school, though not because I'm a kohen.  I belong to a congregation that considers such hereditary status to be beyond anachronistic, no, more like repulsive and un-American and we never, and I mean never, do aliyot by Kohen, Levite and Israelite, but I still, whenever I hear the priestly blessing recited by the rabbi and sung by the cantor, I still think, that's mine to say, not yours, mine, though I don't tell anyone, well I just told you, because I know I'm not supposed to feel that way, and I know it's not real but I do.

But I have come to know that any leader of ritual can be that k'li kodesh, sacred vessel.   Rabbi Shefa Gold, writing about this parsha in her book, Torah Journeys, says:
We are commanded to be a nation of priests, to take responsibility for the holiness of our world, to be healers, and when necessary to stand between Life and Death, bridging the finite and the infinite.

The ritual leader, kohen or rabbi or not, lights the holy fire, whether it's a burning pigeon or a powerful metaphor, and creates the bridge between the past and the future.