Say Something

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D’var Torah for Congregation Neveh Shalom – April 14, 2018

Just this week we observed Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Some news outlets mentioned the results of a recent survey conducted about the Holocaust. You may have seen it referenced online. This survey was commissioned by the Conference  on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and it looked at the awareness of the Holocaust in the United States.

I will say as a caveat, they only interviewed 1,350 adults. It’s helpful to keep in mind this is less than one thousandth of a percent of the population. But on the other hand, it’s the job of surveys to extrapolate and make assumptions based on the data, and this data is staggering. It points to a downward trend in the awareness of basic Holocaust knowledge, or what we think of as basic, including the fact that 45% of the adults surveyed could not name a concentration camp. If we assume this survey represents a balanced sampling of people, almost half of American adults did not have the name Auschwitz somewhere in their accessible memory. They couldn’t say Dachau. They couldn’t come up with Warsaw or Treblinka.

We condemn the silence of 80 years ago by saying “Never again.” So, what about the silence now? What are doing to condemn this silence and make sure when people say, “Never again,” they actually know what it is they don’t want to ever happen again?

Maybe this week’s silence in the Torah offers some advice. This week we read Parshat Shemini, which details priestly instructions, including the prohibition from drinking while on the job and the designations for various animals to be considered pure and impure. But somewhat hidden near the beginning is Aaron’s curious reaction to the deaths of his two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. Although the text goes on to discuss what will happen to his sons’ bodies and how the priests are forbidden from the same mourning rituals as the rest of the people, only two words are used to describe Aaron’s reaction to losing two children: vayidom Aharon. Aaron was still. Aaron was silent.

It’s at the installment of the priests as the leaders of the Jewish people where Aaron’s sons make the unfortunate decision to go beyond the celebration and sacrifice that God has commanded. And for that, Nadav and Avihu die. But what about Aaron? Certainly after the death of a loved one, especially children, emotions can take you by surprise. But Aaron is left speechless, and we are left to figure out why. Many commentators suggest that the silence might have been either in protest of God’s decision, in acceptance of this fate, or perhaps the anguish was too much for words.

It’s ok to be the strong, silent type. It’s ok to choose your battles. It’s ok to turn the other cheek, to borrow a phrase from a different testament. It’s ok . . . until it isn’t. It’s ok until those moments that demand of us to take our voices and use them strongly, loudly, and vibrantly.

There’s so much to speak out about, it’s both depressing and overwhelming. There are humanitarian crises happening everywhere. From the genocide occurring in the Sudan, to the plight of the Rohingya women who have been raped and forced to flee to refugee camps in Banghladesh, and then the genocide happening to the Rohignya who have remained in Burma. We hear daily about loss of life in Syria and senseless violence in our own country.

We live in a world where there is so much to do. We might not all be fighting for the same thing, but at least we’re moving the conversation forward. Nadav and Avihu perhaps didn’t have the best of intentions or the strongest cause to stand up for. But at least they made some noise. Aaron was silent.

Our Torah this week is the Torah of engagement. Parshat Shemini asks us to find the power to stand up for what we see as right. While we certainly cannot solve all the world’s problems in one fell swoop, we can use our voices. We don’t have to be silent.

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Eating My Feelings – Parshat Shemini 5778

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Don’t think me morbid, but some of my most vivid memories of sitting shiva with my family are all about the food. We ate chocolate covered potato chips at my Zayde’s shiva. At my Nana’s shiva we found chocolate covered, peanut butter wrapped cherries in her freezer that she’d made, so we ate those. For my grandfather, it was fried chicken all the way, and for my father we had delicious cakes and treats from my favorite bakery, Zingerman’s. Each of these experiences is seared in my mind with the powerful senses of smell and taste. I will go so far as to say I probably overindulged, falling into the trap of gaining weight while grieving. It is not uncommon to either gain or lose significant weight after a loss. Things tend to fall to one extreme or another as we try to process our emotions and make some sense of the world when everything is so out of order.

The Torah provides interesting insight into the grieving process, and in particular in the portion we read this week, Parshat Shemini. The parshah begins with the words “On the eighth day” after the priests have been installed. The text picks up with the narrative of creating a holy leadership team of Aaron and his sons, who unfortunately make an offering without the appropriate directions or intentions and end up losing their lives. Following this tragic story are the laws for making time holy with sacrifices and laws for making our bodies holy by following the laws of kashrut.

What stands out in this text are the reactions to the death. Aaron is silent, though immediately following his silence we read about the rule to “drink no wine” in chapter 10, verse 9. On the surface you’d think that this prohibition has everything to do with the fact that Nadav and Avihu were “intoxicated” when they broke the rules and ultimately lost their lives. However, according to Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, a modern commentator, this resulted from the fear that the bereaved relatives would drown their sorrows in intoxicants and not be fit to carry on their responsibilities.

The Torah recognizes the very human reaction to loss or tragedy in overindulging in our vices, whether that’s the substance specified – wine – or chocolate cake. The Torah reminds us to find our balance. Furthermore, Simcha Bunem, an 18th century Hasidic leader in Poland, reminds us that while wine “cheers the heart” (Psalm 104:15), the Kohanim (priests) were to avoid it. When we come before God, our joy should stem from serving God, without the use of external stimulants.

Joy and sorrow are deep-rooted human emotions, and emotional changes cause us to behave differently in certain situations. As difficult as it can be to deal with emotional highs and lows, Parshat Shemini encourages us to embrace and experience these emotions rather than try to mask them with food, beverages, or other substances. The best coping mechanism we have is actually living these moments fully and allowing ourselves to learn and grow as a result.

 

Living In A Godly World – Parshat Shemini 5775

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Our world is material, as Madonna wisely observed, and as such it is hard to shy away from material goods. Our everyday lives are, for better or worse, often shaped and defined by our things. From the clothes we wear to the toys we buy, from the cars we drive to the foods we eat, we are all consumers. And the push for us to embrace our consumer culture is overwhelming. Commercials on TV urge us to purchase this or vote for that, and it’s hard to draw the line between fact and fiction when making a decision. Sometimes it seems like our daily lives are so incredibly wrapped up in consumerism and technology that we can get lost and forget what really matters most.

At first glance, it appears our Torah portion this week, parshat Shemini, is preaching the exact opposite of the material lifestyle. In its verses about sacrifices and the laws of kashrut, this section of Vayikra (Leviticus) is instructing us in the ways of a holy life, a godly life. But are a material life and a godly life mutually exclusive?

Let’s recap the parshah and find out. The book of Leviticus is focused mainly on the laws of sacrifice and the priests. The parshah begins with the words “On the eighth day” after the priests had been installed. The text picks up with the narrative of creating a holy leadership team of Aaron and his sons, who unfortunately make an offering without the appropriate directions or intentions and end up losing their lives. Following this tragic story are the laws for making time holy with sacrifices and laws for making our bodies holy by observing kashrut.

Towards the beginning of our text this week, we read about what it is to perform sacrifices and become closer to God. In chapter 9, verse 6 we read, “This is what the Lord has commanded that you do, that the presence of the Lord may appear to you.” But this line refers not only to the laws of sacrifices, but to our actions in general. Our actions, ritual and otherwise, are all meant to bring a God-like existence closer to us. All of our activities in the synagogue – prayer, classes, meetings, a family program, a meal, or even a stroll through the gift shop – should have the goal of feeling the divine presence. When in a Jewish context, the material things we do can contribute to the holy life we lead.

This is truly living in a godly world. It doesn’t mean abandoning our possessions, but it might require forgoing our obsessions. When we mingle our special holy selves with our everyday material selves, that’s when we bring God’s presence closer.

[photo credit: Madonna blowing me a kiss in front row 16th Aug 2006 via photopin (license)]