Monday, May 20, 2013

At Home in the Wilderness

[A d'var Torah from May 10 to the Bronfman Center community, and especially to our graduating seniors. A special thanks to Julian Gonzalez and Sofia Pasternak for sharing their thoughts on the wilderness.]

This week’s Torah portion finds us bamidbar: in the wilderness.

I have a feeling some of us in this very room are feeling a little bit bamidbar right now, and it’s a complicated feeling: the joy of getting to the other side; the gratitude for freedom; the fear of a life of new and as-yet-unknown responsibilities; the sadness of letting go of a place we have come to know.

In the wilderness, there are few landmarks. There are no roadmaps. It’s a place of sand and rock, mountain and—we hope—oasis. It’s beautiful and it’s scary. It is wide open and expansive. It makes us feel free, and it makes us feel small.

For the people Israel, wilderness was a place of bitter complaint—“Were there no graves in Egypt, that you brought us here to die in this wilderness!?” (Exodus 14:11). And wilderness was a place of profound nurture and care and love—with the pillars of cloud and fire to guide the community, with the manna to nourish them, with God’s presence in the Tent of Meeting, always at the center of the camp.
< At our Torah study this week, I asked what wilderness means to you. Two responses stood out in apparent contradiction. “Foreign,” said one person. But another person offered, “Home.”

Indeed, the midbar is both utterly foreign and utterly familiar. It is a place of wandering and it is a place that somehow feels like home.

And so for many of us—whether we are graduating this coming week or headed out for summer road trips and internships, whether we are returning to this place or flying across an ocean for a semester abroad, whether we are culminating a long-term project or conceiving a new endeavor—we are all on the cusp of a wilderness. And we are wondering, Will it feel forgeign? Will I be at home?

And I think it isn’t just the place or the experience we’re worrying about. It’s our very selves. Will I be foreign or at home? Will I be welcomed? Will they get me? Will I be recognized for who I really am, what I really have to offer? Will the inhabitants of this wilderness come to truly know me?

The poet Kadya Molodowsky writes:

I am a wandering girl.
My heart is practiced in longing.
And when the day eats up the dew of the night,
I tuck up the small white curtain from my window pane,
And look upon a new street.
There lies coiled up
In a little corner of my heart
Such a singular, trembling idea:
Maybe no one here will love me.
Maybe no one here will want to know me!
But God forbid!
Like the threat of rain always hanging in the air
And falling in unexpected abundance on the earth,
That’s how each new city is for me,
Each new place.
And I don’t know how manifold my flesh is.
Every year a new ring
Grows in me, as on a tree,
I am mazily woven of rising and setting.
I am a wandering girl,
My heart is practiced in longing.

It is our longing for something more that brings us to the wilderness: our longing for freedom, our longing for community, our longing to escape slavery and idolatry, our longing to make deep and abiding commitments, our longing for the responsibility to use our free will to decide how we will conduct our lives, our longing for the Torah that will guide us to the promised lands we will someday reach. We long for something more and we find ourselves bamidbar, in the wilderness.

And here in the wilderness, feeling so very small against the wide expanse of the desert sky, we wonder, “Will they love me? Will they want to know me?”

When the Moabite Ruth finds welcome, acceptance, and even love in the Israelite Boaz, she marvels, מַדּוּעַ מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ לְהַכִּירֵנִי וְאָנֹכִי נָכְרִיָּה: —“How is it that I have found favor in your eyes, that you recognize me, though I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10).

Lehakir, to recognize, to know, to be familiar. And nochriya, foreign, Other. Both stemming from the same root. Opposite and intimately linked. At home. Out of place. Ruth the Moabite—the quintessential outsider in the Torah—finds acceptance. She is recognized among Israel.

Will they know you? Will they love you? Out there, in that vast wilderness?

I pray that they will, and that you will each be able to marvel, Here I am, a newcomer and a foreigner,in a new wilderness, finding home.

[Molodowsky's poem appears in The Torah: A Women's Commentary.]

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Perfect Sacrifice

Does God demand perfection?

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, has multiple references to both priests and sacrifices (the animals offered on the altar of the Temple) needing to be “without blemish”:

“Speak to Aaron, saying: Any man among your offspring throughout their generations אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בוֹ מוּם who has a defect [or blemish], shall not come near to offer up his God's food” (Leviticus 21:17).

The kinds of “blemishes” the Torah outlines are ones we recognize as things over which we have little control—natural accidents of birth or results of tragedy and trauma: “A blind or a lame person, or one with a sunken nose or with mismatching limbs; or a person who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or one with long eyebrows, or a cataract, or …” the list goes on (Leviticus 21:18-19).

Here, the Torah seems to suggest that in order to offer a sacrifice, a korban, something that is supposed to help us maintain a close relationship to God, to help us “draw near” to God, lekarev—we need to be perfect. Both in ourselves and in our offerings. We need to be perfect to approach God…

And not only that, but it seems to be a superhuman kind of perfection—because lots of people are differently-abled, living meaningful—and full—lives while being judged unfairly by society as lesser than, as outside… We would hope God would draw us all near.

What a time of year to be thinking about perfection… and to be wondering, Does God need my offering to be perfect? Does God need ME to be perfect?

Finals. Graduate School Admissions. Fellowships. Summer Jobs. Resumes and CVs. Tenure. Internships and Fall Classes and Majors and Minors. Grades and Transcripts.

There are a million and one messages you receive every day that tell you: Be perfect. Nothing less than perfect will do.

So now some Rabbi is telling you that the Torah demands perfection, too!? It’s Shabbat! Give us a rest!

We get so caught up in perfection, we are paralyzed from drawing near to the very things that lend our lives meaning, link us to tradition, and nourish our souls. And sometimes we confuse our offerings for ourselves, demanding perfection at all costs in all things, and nearly unraveling when our offerings fail to be accepted in the way we had hoped or expected. We tell ourselves that the animal we sacrifice must be without blemish, and we, like the priest, must also be without blemish: An “A” for the course and an “A” for us.

And sometimes we don’t even know what counts as a “blemish” – it seems like every little misstep disqualifies our offering, nullifies the sacrifices we have made. If they’re not perfect, they don’t count. We drop them from the transcript and ask to start over...

But there’s something I remind myself when I read these chapters in Leviticus, with all their blood and sacrifice, all their unblemished goats and perfect priests in their fancy outfits…

I remind myself that we don’t have a Temple anymore in which we perform AVODAH, the service of blood and fire and animals and meal offerings. We don’t make sacrifices like this anymore. Instead, we have prayer. We have avodah shebalev, the service of the heart.

We have the regular practice of gathering in community, of being alone together, of reciting ancient words and finding in them links to our own lives. We have communal prayer and we have silent, personal prayer, too. We have prayers for healing for ourselves and our world. We have memorials for our dead.

What does perfect service, the perfect sacrifice, look like now? Now that we have avodah shebalev?

The perfect service of the heart is what is perfectly true and honest for you. It is being self-reflective, and sometimes self-critical, but it is taking the responsibility for self-care, too. It is offering all of what lies in your heart—with no concern about anything being “without blemish,” because there is no external scale by which I can measure your heart. How can the service of your heart be perfect? If it is open. If it mirrors both your rational self and your emotional self. If it engages your memories and your hopes and your fears.

Whatever it is, it will be perfect.

This drash was inspired by Cantor Elana Rosen-Brown’s senior sermon for the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion on perfection in this week’s Torah portion.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

As If…

As I prepare for Different from All Other Nights: NYU’s Annual Queer Seder at the Bronfman Center, lawyers on two sides of what has become a vitriolic and polarized debate over the legalization of marriages between persons of the same sex will argue their causes before the Supreme Court of the United States.

I confess that, when I think about gay marriage, I think selfishly. I think about my own partner of fifteen years: we have a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), but no civil marriage. I think about our son: I was present at his birth, but his original birth certificate had only my partner’s name as parent. We spent time and (quite a bit of!) money obtaining what’s called a second-parent adoption so that I would be recognized as his legal parent in the eyes of the State (I am grateful, of course, for the opportunity to obtain those rights and responsibilities). When it comes to the legalization of gay marriage, I think selfishly.

It’s easy to stand up for marriage equality when you’re talking about your own family. Your partner. Your child.

Perhaps you already know where I’m going with this: Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and his celebrated (infamous?) reversal of opinion on gay marriage—from opposition to support—because he learned that his own son is gay. Many pundits and commentators—indeed many of my own friends (you know who you are…)—have acknowledged Senator Portman’s act as one of love. And rightly so. A father who loves his son stands up for him. But, what many of us also recognize are the limitations and dangers that the Senator’s actions imply: I care about the rights of my family—and no one else’s. As one online commenter quipped, “The best thing that could happen to such politicians is that they discover minority blood in their lineages, experience mental illnesses, realize their hired help are illegal immigrants, or have family who benefit from social programs.”

It’s kind of an Ahasueros move, if you think about it. You remember Ahaseuros—from the Scroll of Esther that we read just a few weeks ago on Purim. He’s the bumbling king who learns that his beautiful and obedient new wife Esther is actually one of them: a Jew! Knowing that the woman he loves is Jewish changes Ahaseuros’s mind about his own edict to annihilate the Jewish people. His love overrides his prejudices.

At our seder table this Tuesday night, a few students will share their coming out stories. We will celebrate their bravery, lament the discrimination they faced and continue to face, and give thanks for the family members (inherited and chosen) who support them with the unconditional love we all deserve from our families. I know I will find these stories moving and inspiring. And I know I will understand the crucial role that coming out has played and will continue to play in changing minds, in changing the culture.

But Purim cannot be the only model. It’s not a model for lasting change. It puts the burden on LGBTQI folks to be vulnerable and brave—as Esther was. But most insidiously of all, it assumes that we cannot support the rights of “Others” unless and until we can consider them our own. Must every single Ahasueros find his Esther?
Thankfully Jewish tradition gives us another model. Balancing the importance of honesty and bravery—the importance of coming out—that we learn from Queen Esther, the Jewish tradition gives us Passover. The holiday of as if:

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ, כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרָיִם

B’chol dor va-dor chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzrayim.—“In every generation a person is obligated to see himself as if he had gone out from Egypt.”

כְּאִלּוּ K’ilu—as if.

In his weekly podcast, Dan Savage, sex and relationship advice columnist and creator of the “It Gets Better” Project, called Senator Portman’s argument a “failure of the moral imagination.”

We might expect the Passover haggadah to emphasize our personal, familial, historical experience with enslavement. And it does. We recall the Torah’s oft-repeated dictum: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). But our tradition knows that the direct experience of oppression cannot be the sole moral motivation to oppose the oppression we see—and sometimes inflict—in the world around us. Our seder invites us to imagine. To act as if.

In other words, it is precisely an act of imagination that our Passover seder asks of us. It does not ask us to recall our own bondage in Egypt so many ages ago. It obligates each of us to imagine that we had been enslaved in bitter bondage, and liberated by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm. It invites us to imagine that awesome—terrible and overwhelming and miraculous—moment when the sea split, revealing dry land.

So this year, as the Supreme Court Justices ponder the arguments they will have heard on Monday and on Tuesday, let us imagine a world in which each Ahaseuros is indeed married to an Esther. Let us act as if our moral precepts demand ethical treatment of those Others around us. Let us act as if our fate were bound up in the fate of those around us—not just our own sons, our own daughters, our own children, but all those Others who cry out for freedom. For in every sense that matters, it is.