Friday, March 14, 2014

Ritual, Morality and Prophetic Justice - D'var Torah on Parashat (Torah portion) Tzav - March 14, 2014

   The Book of Leviticus presents a challenge to us, especially because none of us have witnessed the actual performance of the rituals of sacrifice.
    Chapter 6 of Leviticus begins with the prescribed procedure for the Burnt offering, the OLAH.  This passage doesn't focus only on the sacrifice itself.   It refers more than once to a perpetual fire that the priest was commanded to keep burning on the altar.
     This section also describes the process by which the priest would take the ashes from the sacrifice to a pure place outside the camp.   In his Union for Reform Judaism Ten Minutes of Torah commentary this week, Robert Tornberg likened this priestly act to "taking out the garbage."    The priest only attended to that task once he had removed the vestments he wore for the sacrifice and put on other garments reserved for his errand of ash disposal. 
    After reading this passage with fresh eyes this week, I thought about how it relates to us as we strive to apply Jewish values to our daily lives.   What might the removal of ashes represent?  What does the fire signify?
    The rabbis explained that the altar fire was not just burning "upon it," corresponding to the Hebrew word BO, where “it” was the altar.  BO could mean that the fire was burning "in him," in the priest.
 The fire represented the spark of God inside the priest and within every human being.  And what is that spark of God?  I believe it is that God and godliness become real in what we do, in how we treat each other.   
    So if the altar had to be cleansed and made ready for the next sacrifice, what are the ways that we can make ourselves as morally pure as possible?
    The words of the prophet Isaiah come to mind from Chapter 1, verses 16-18. He told his people what God expected of them and how they could keep themselves pure:  “Wash yourselves clean; put away your evil doings away from my sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice, aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow.”  
   A moral cleansing didn’t just apply to one’s own personal errors in judgment.   It extended to how everyone treated the most vulnerable people in society  back then.   And it still relates to those attitudes now.   We hear, too many times, that people who are low on the socioeconomic ladder deserve to be there through their lack of desire to change their position or their overdependence on outside support.   In one recent article, Harvard professor and author Robert Putnam noted that it is, in fact, the help that people in poverty receive that give them enough hope to work harder to make ends meet or to get the training necessary to find a better job.  
   This Torah reading might teach us that the ashes that we need to remove from the altar of society are narrow views about the nature of people who need our support and assistance.  We should recognize that they are truly like everyone else, and that they want to reach a personal level of subsistence and comfort. 
   I recently reviewed another text that speaks about “cleansing our souls” with my seventh graders.  We examined the Psalm from which comes the verse that begins the T'filah, the central section of the service: "Eternal God, open my lips, that my mouth may declare your praise."    Psalm 51 is associated with the story of David and Bathsheba.  After King David
arranged to have Bathsheba's husband sent out to a battle where death was certain, Nathan the prophet confronted David with his transgression.   It was this Psalm that David is said to have composed in response to his guilt. 
    He crafted his words using some of the same imagery as Isaiah: "Have mercy upon me, O God, as befits your faithfulness; in keeping with your abundant compassion, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my sin." 
   Leonard Cohen's well-known song "Hallelujah" portrays King David at the time of this episode.   In Cohen’s lyrics, David offered God a "broken"  Hallelujah.   The message of Psalm 51 and Leonard Cohen's song are clear:  we can still praise God even when we are broken, even before we have taken the ashes outside the camp.   We can offer praise, heal ourselves and return to a moral path because of that godly fire that is burning within the altar of our soul.  
   It is significant that Judaism, a religion of ritual, has always so greatly emphasized morality as essential to being close to the divine.   This week, our Psalms class studied Psalm 15, which begins with this declaration: "Eternal One, who may sojourn in Your tent?  Who may dwell on Your holy mountain? One who lives without blame, who does what is right, and in his/her heart acknowledges the truth."  
    We wondered if this passage applied only to those who observed Judaism or whether it might extend to all humanity.   I would assert that the response should be YES and YES.    Standing with God means always being conscious of the consequences of our actions, no matter what faith tradition we follow.  
   The first items on this "being close to God" list in Psalm 15 are being blameless, doing what is right, and acknowledging the truth.  
    How do we know what is right and what is really the truth?    We are blameless and right, and we have the proper sense of the truth  when we listen not only to ourselves but also when we learn from other people.
   The truth that we acknowledge in our hearts may come from the still, small, voice of conscience guiding us to practice our most treasured values, especially those that lead us to treat all people with respect and to refrain from exploiting or oppressing anyone.  
    Between the messages of the Torah reading, the declarations of Isaiah, and the reflections of the Psalmist, we have before us a vision of what I would call "prophetic justice."   As the priest kept a fire burning on the altar, while taking the ashes outside the settlement, we are called upon to feed the fire of goodness, respect, generosity, and righteousness within us.   We are asked to banish outside the realm of acceptable behavior those actions that dehumanize people through prejudice and through inaccurate notions that stigmatize them to the point of ostracism from society.  
   We have the opportunity to stand on God's holy mountain, with a fire of goodness and of love burning inside of us.   May we ascend that mountain always with a constantly renewed sense of commitment, determination and hope. 

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