Saturday, March 29, 2014

Song as an Expression of Faith and Spirit - for Ten Minutes of Torah - Union for Reform Judaism - March 27, 2014

In my congregation's Tanach study group, we recently focused on the story of Samson in the book of Judges. As we began our discussion, I played a clip of the song "If I Had My Way" written by Reverend Gary Davis. As we moved into the text, it was clear that verse and song play a major role in this tale. Samson supposedly "said" his short rhyme (Judges 15:16) about picking up a donkey's jawbone and using it to defend himself against the attack of 1,000 Philistine men. However, because in that moment "the spirit of the Eternal gripped him," I wondered if Samson had sung those lines.

In the next chapter, Samson's hair has been cut off thanks to Delilah's power to persuade Samson to share the secret of his strength. His eyes have been put out and it seems he is at the mercy of the Philistines – but not completely. When the Philistines gather at the temple of their god, Dagon, to celebrate this great triumph over their Israelite adversary, they sing to their god who has delivered Samson into their hands (Judges 16:23-24). Our study group noted that the text would have been complete without the song of the Philistines. Why were these short choruses, chanted by the people, preserved in this passage? We concluded that the singing heightened the drama of the moment. It wasn't simply a quiet sacrifice before the people, but a time to "make merry" at their victory over the supposedly powerless Samson. It is clear to the reader, but not to the unsuspecting Philistines, that as Samson's hair begins to grow back, he will have the strength to get back at the Philistines after they've made him dance for them.

We know the rest of the story. The lyrics of the Reverend Gary Davis' song declare, "If I had my way, I would tear this building down." And so Samson does. Samson's action stands in contrast to the Philistines' celebratory singing and dancing (a misguided celebration, in the view of the biblical author). In a way, Rev. Davis' song can be viewed as a long-delayed answer to the Philistine chanting against Samson – a midrash that gives the Israelite strong-man one last chance to sing with resolve and power.

Song is powerful as an expression of faith and spirit, adding an extra dimension to well-worded prose, whether in the Bible or other sacred texts, and even in our daily lives. We have just finished the celebration of Purim and are approaching the observance of Pesach. What would these holidays be without song? Imagine Purim with no music and no Purim spiel. Imagine a Passover seder with no singing of the Four Questions, "Dayenu," the Hallel psalms, or "Chad Gadya." And what would these holidays be without newly-composed melodies and new songs that add meaning for us? On Purim, one of my favorite additions to the 'Purim spiel in several verses' genre is Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom's "Megillah," set to the tune of the Beatles' "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da." For Passover, Debbie Friedman's "The Plagues Song" and the Allards'  "Ten Plagues in Egypt Land" take a potentially difficult text and offer a perspective that includes learning the lesson that hatred and prejudice have a way of coming back to those who espouse such views.

In a recent class with my seventh graders, we took a look at Psalm 51. Each time we recite the Amidah (standing prayer) in our worship, we begin with the best-known verse from Psalm 51, "Adonai, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise." Psalm 51 is noted as King David's personal plea to God to ask for forgiveness and to forgive himself for the episode with Bathsheba. Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen practically wrote his own version of Psalm 51 with the song "Hallelujah", which refers to this biblical story. Cohen speaks of "broken" hal'luyah, which appropriately describes those moments when we may feel unable or unworthy to praise God or to look positively at our lives. At those times, we especially need song and the voices of others singing with us to lift us up and to help us return to the joy of our lives.

Psalm 4 reminds us that God has put joy in our hearts("Natatah Simchah" is an original song based on Psalm 4).  Whether on holidays, in worship, at times of need, or in moments of celebration, may we always remember to look into our hearts and "open our lips" to sing of the joy that is always within our reach!

Additional Links
Hallelujah by John Cale (the singer in actual soundtrack of "Shrek")
Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen
If I Had My Way - Peter, Paul and Mary

Friday, March 28, 2014

"Spiritual Healing" - D'var Torah - Parashat Tazria - March 28, 2014

      We have arrived in our cycle of Torah readings at one that has challenged rabbis for centuries.   This year, as a Jewish leap year, splits what is usually one parashah into two. 
This week, we read Tazria, the beginning of the biblical description of how the ancient priests dealt with community members who could possibly be diagnosed with what we now call Hansen's disease, otherwise known as  leprosy (many suggest that leprosy had not yet "arrived" in the Middle East; Robert Alter uses the term "skin blanch").    Next week, the portion Metzora will complete this involved set of standards for examination, possible quarantine, and eventual restoration to the community.
    In his Torah commentary, Richard Elliot Friedman focused on what this section really means.   While it may appear to have put the Kohein in the role of doctor, that was not the case.   The rabbis reinterpreted the word for leprosy, METZORA, to read MOTZI SHEIM RA, one who brings out an evil word - that is, gossip. That made for interesting commentary, but this section had nothing to do with gossip or with a disease caused by bad behavior.  
    It just was what it was - a situation in which the priest had to make a distinction between what was pure and what was impure, especially as it related to a person being eligible to take part in ritual and communal life. 
     As I considered this issue of purity and impurity and how it relates to our lives today, my thoughts wandered to the recent case of the Grand Junction, Colorado Charter School, Caprock Academy, which applied one of its grooming rules to a student based on surface considerations rather than getting at the heart of the matter.  First, we should hear what their school rules say about the hair of female students: "Should be neatly combed or styled. No shaved heads. Hair accessories must be red, white, navy, black or brown. Neat barrettes and headbands...are permissible. Hair should not be arranged or colored so as to draw undue attention to the student. Hair must be natural looking and conservative in its color. Radical changes in hair color during the school year are unacceptable."
      A school has a right to set such rules and to apply them.  Yet, unexpected exceptions can arise.
     9 year old Delaney Clement, a student at Caprock Academy, recently had her head shaved as she prepared to begin chemotherapy.  Another student, Kamryn Renfrom, decided to shave her head in solidarity with her good friend Delaney, so that Delaney wouldn't feel alone. 
     At first, the school decided that Kamryn had violated the school grooming rules.  That was the decision this past Monday.  Kamryn was prohibited from attending school until her hair grew back.   On Tuesday, the charter school board met again and, on a 3-1 vote, reinstated Kamryn.  The board members noted that they were making an exception in this case due to extenuating  circumstances.  The board member who voted no was afraid of setting an exceedingly lenient precedent for the application of school rules in the future.
     We can applaud the school board for exhibiting some eventual wisdom.   On a scale of pure to impure, it was not just Kamryn's appearance that would make the difference.   It was her motivation as well.   What appeared to be intentional defiance of school will was actually a case of compassion and friendship.   In the end, this story gained national exposure.  This comes at a time when some of my rabbinic colleagues are preparing to shave their heads to raise funds for the St. Baldrick's Foundation next week during the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention.  They are doing so to honor the memory of Sam Sommer, a child of two of our colleagues who died of cancer this past December.   These rabbis - and Kamryn - hope that their actions and pure motives will bring healing as they raise awareness related to cancer patients and highlight the need for more research.    
     Even if the ancient rabbis may have missed the point of this section, as claimed by Richard Elliott Friedman, our sages used their reinterpretation of the word METZORA to link this section to a quote in Proverbs Chapter 6, rendered so well by Rabbi Rami Shapiro:
“Six things cut you off from the holy,
a seventh makes even your soul a monster:
an arrogant manner, a deceitful tongue, murderous thoughts,
a thieving heart, feet eager to run after evil, a scheming mind,
and a tendency to arouse violence in those who once lived in peace.
   The bible's book of wisdom identified, in that passage, some of the central ills within communities and nations that can sow seeds of conflict instead of cooperation, hatred instead of hope.
    If it is purity of motive and spirit that we seek in our world, then we need to be vigilant enough to bring healing from these ills.
   So we pray:
Eternal God, heal us from arrogance that prevents us from recognizing your image in every person.
Heal us from those who use deceit to further their goals and help us to achieve our highest objectives through honesty and hard work.
Heal us from murderous thoughts that would discourage us from even attempting to get to know and humanize people with whom we disagree.
Heal us from a thieving heart that fails to respect boundaries and the possessions and feelings of others.
Heal us from the desire to run after evil and enable us to stand up to those who would distort the truth to further malicious intentions0.
Heal us from a scheming mind that would seek to undo the well-being of others, and draw us near to those who would plan in the depth of their hearts how to spread joy and inner strength.
And heal us from those desires that would lead us to violent thought or action, so that we will, instead, resolve conflict with words, with a recognition of our common interests, and with a commitment to engendering mutual understanding.

   Like the ancient priests, I believe that we can tell the difference between impure and pure.  In our thoughts, in our actions, in our dealings as members of a community, may we always apply that special wisdom that will guide us to harmony and peace.  

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.