In the Crowd – Parshat Bamidbar 5779

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I am not a fan of large crowds. While I love sporting events, concerts, and theme parks themselves, I also have little patience for the slow way crowds move, I worry about the possibility of losing one of my children, and I can do without the loud noise and chaos. In college at the University of Michigan, the announcer at every home game congratulated us for being a part of the largest live crowd watching a football game in America. Being a part of a crowd of 115,000 or more each game day was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting for me. I always arrived early so I could find my seat, avoid the mad rush at the ticket check, and use the bathrooms before they got awfully dirty. And I always left before the end of the game to beat the mass of people walking back to campus, especially the slower ones who always seemed to get even slower amid the chaos.

Despite my aversion to large crowds, I can’t deny their incredible energy and their power to cause change. This week we read from Parshat Bamidbar, the beginning of the fourth book of the Torah. This text brings us to the accounting of the people, showing us who each of the tribes are, what numbers they hold at this particular moment, and the flag representing their territory. This is the beginning of a purposefully organized society, a big change from the free-flow of wandering in the wilderness and an even bigger change from the tight restrictions of slavery.

The text begins by listing the leaders of each tribe and the census of the people. There are 603,550 eligible males over the age of 20 counted. This number is identical to the census taken earlier in their first year in the wilderness. The figure also presupposes a population of more than 2 million supporting itself for 40 years in the Sinai desert. What’s incredible is these people formed a society, took care of one another, and traveled together. If I thought people leaving a football game in a crowd of 115,000 moved slowly, I can only imagine how frustrating this group must have been.

Yet somehow not only did they exist together in the desert, they also listened to each other and to their leader. They organized, supported, and moved together as a community. It might have been overwhelming, but it also must have been invigorating. Though we may not be quite as close in proximity all the time, we are a part of a crowd, whether that crowd is the local Jewish community or people gathered around their televisions to watch a series finale. As we learn this week, it’s not the size of the crowd, but how it supports one another that keeps it thriving and moving (if slowly at times).

Photo credit: Ken Lund from Reno, Nevada, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Rainy Season – Parshat Bechukotai 5779

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One of the questions I’m asked most often when someone in another city hears that we live is Portland is, “How do you deal with the rain?” My usual response is a mix of humor (“At least it isn’t snow”) and honesty (“Yes, it rains a lot, but it’s not pouring constantly; there are plenty of breaks when you can still go outdoors”). Since moving to Portland, I have learned that there is no such thing as bad weather, there’s only inappropriate clothing. Now I know a good raincoat makes all the difference. I’ve also learned that rain is just water. If you’re not afraid to take a bath or shower, there’s no reason to be afraid of the rain.

Of course there are times when rain is inconvenient, like when it interferes with an outdoor birthday party at the park, a story hour at the farmers market, or a Shabbat service out on the plaza, which is rare, but can happen. However, rain is such a necessary part of our existence on the planet that we even have prayers asking God for rain in its time.

In our parshah this week, Bechukotai, the Israelite nation is receiving the final laws of the book of Vayikra, which detail specifically how we should treat one another in various relationships and how we should connect to God. The Israelites have only been out of Egypt for a short period of time, and during this first taste of freedom, they are in their stubborn and rebellious adolescent years.

The text begins with the promise that if these rules are followed, rain will be granted in its season. Today, it doesn’t sound like much of a reward. Hey, good news! Keep all of the mitzvot, and you will get . . . rain. Living in an agrarian society, as the Israelites did, this was important. In our world today, the intention and implication might be a little different.

There’s a midrash in Leviticus Rabbah which takes the idea of the “appropriate season” to mean that God will make it rain only at times convenient for the people, like on Friday nights when most people are at home and no one is traveling. Again, this makes more sense for a different era, in which the agricultural calendar was the basis for everything, and there wasn’t much fluctuation year over year. These days, schedules are made by any number of things – school, work, NBA playoffs, etc.

Perhaps the part we can actually relate to is the promise of sustenance. The parshah reminds us that when we take care of the land, take care of each other, and take care of our relationship with God, we are much closer to achieving a world in balance. And a balanced world is the kind of reward we can all get behind.

My House, My Rules – Parshat Behar 5779

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It seems to be happening more and more often. I open my mouth to say something to my children, and out comes something sounding exactly like one of my parents from when I was younger. Most often it is something to the effect of “My house, my rules,” and is usually in response to a child trying to test my limits or question a parenting decision. It’s hard for children to understand the truth, which is that as parents we make the rules not for the sake of having rules (although structure itself is always important), but for safety, security, and peace in our home. Rules are meant to bring a sense of order to the chaos and manage expectations for everyone and everything.

Teachers use this logic when setting classroom rules, and the same goes for laws at every level of governance. We live in a society in which rules, though they sometimes get broken, are imperative to setting order and guidelines for behavior. As we read Parshat Behar this week, the same holds true in the Torah. Behar discusses the preventative measures God has put in place for our land and our society to stay fertile and viable. It then continues with rules and obligations for inhabiting the land of Israel.

Ultimately, this week’s parshah focuses on God’s “house” and the expectations for living in that land. We are required to take care of the land, to share with one another, and to be truthful and compassionate. This land is not ours to own, rather it’s on loan to us from God. Chapter 25, verse 23 reminds us, “You are but strangers resident with me.”

The land of Israel belongs to God, the earth as a whole is a creation of God, and we are instructed to take care of this precious gift on loan to us. With God frequently playing the role of symbolic parent, you could think of this as “God’s house, God’s rules.” The rules don’t always make sense, and some of them may need adapting over time, but they were put into place for a reason. It’s our job to use this framework to maintain shalom bayit (peace in the home) in this giant home of ours.

The Gathering Place – Parshat Emor 5779

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If I close my eyes, I can still bring myself back to the parking lot of the local Caribou Coffee on a Friday night. It was filled with Jewish teens from all different youth groups meeting up to end their week together and make weekend plans. This wasn’t a formal program, just the universal gathering place. We’d all meet there around 8 p.m. to hang out (and sometimes flirt), make plans and enjoy the scene as it were. I remember begging my parents to let me go out on a particular Friday night, and the only place they’d relent to was this parking lot because it was in fact a Jewish experience.

I know what you’re thinking. How is hanging out in the parking lot of a coffee shop on Shabbat a Jewish experience? First, rest assured spending money was not an issue. I was there so often the servers knew me and let me prepay for drinks (interpret loopholes how you will). Second, I was surrounded by an entire community of young Jews gathering to celebrate the end of a week, relax together, and build relationships. That, to me, is the definition of a Shabbat experience. It was our natural ritual to gather, and it mirrors the ritual the Torah presents us with this week.

As we read Parshat Emor, we once again find ourselves deep into the commandments surrounding Jewish practice. Parshat Emor focuses on the rules and regulations for the priests, along with the obligations of the Israelites. It covers the observance of certain holidays, including mentions about the holiness of Shabbat, other holidays we are to celebrate throughout the year, and the ways in which we are to treat one another and even animals. The majority of these rituals are meant to be done in public, with the entire community a part of them.

Chapter 23 begins the discussion of a calendar of sacred time. We receive the laws for Shabbat, and then Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. It’s at these times of the year when everyone would gather together in the same place to check in spiritually. With each set of laws we are reminded that we are to take the pilgrimage to the central shrine and connect in community with God and with one another.

Our modern-day synagogues have replaced the ancient Temple in Jerusalem as gathering places. And in a way, I would argue the Caribou Coffee of my youth played a similar role. These moments of connection served to bring people back together after a hectic week (or month or year), and the Torah suggests that in doing so, we create a deeper, richer, more balanced Jewish life for ourselves.

Body Piercing vs. Body Image – Parshat Kedoshim 5779

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My dad told me I couldn’t have my ears pierced until I was 16. Over time I eventually wore him down to 8 years old, and then when I turned 16, I put a second hole in my ears. When I was 17 years old, all I wanted was to pierce my belly button. I begged my parents for permission to do so, but they kept telling me no. I vowed that when I was 18 I would just go do it myself. I was convinced that a belly button piercing was what I needed, but my father kept reminding me that as Jews we don’t pierce our bodies beyond our ears. I was a teenager, so needless to say I didn’t care. Right after I turned 18, my parents gave in (or gave up) and said they were ok with a pierced belly button as long as I went to a clean and safe place to do it. Of course once I had their permission, my rebellious urge was gone, and I never went through with it. To this day, my mom claims that was their plan all along.

When it came to body piercing (and ear piercing), my dad’s argument had always been that the Torah says we don’t pierce or permanently change our bodies. Supposedly the consequence for doing so was that you could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery after you died. Well, he was partially right.

This week we read Parshat Kedoshim. The structure of this section of text pushes us to look at our relationships with both God and others and see the boundaries and intimacies of each relationship. Parshat Kedoshim deals with what is known as the “Holiness Code” that helps us to understand how we can walk in God’s ways and create a community of relationship and understanding.

The Holiness Code goes deeper than our standard interpersonal relationships. It focuses on the holiness of the relationships we have with ourselves, our neighbors, and with God. One of the ways in which we establish and maintain holiness is through our bodies. Chapter 19, verse 28 teaches, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” We are taught through this verse that holiness means respect for one’s body. The prohibition against incising any marks on your flesh is meant to teach us that our bodies are already perfect vessels, and we shouldn’t permanently change them with piercings or surgery.

While tattooing or piercing does not prohibit a Jew from being buried in a Jewish cemetery, those things are technically prohibited. But I’ll be honest. As far as I’m concerned, what you do to your body is really none of my business. The real takeaway here is how the Torah reminds us of the importance of positive body image. Parshat Kedoshim reminds us that holiness is not reserved for the synagogue or prayer or even politeness around others. We have a sacred mandate to view ourselves and our bodies as vessels for holiness and to treat them as such. And if my children ask to pierce their ears before 16, only time will tell if I can hold out longer than my parents did.