Torah Reflections: July 9- 15, 2017

Pinchas

Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Rabbi Moses

There is a beautiful passage in this week’s Torah portion where God tells Moses to ascend a mountain and, from its peak, to gaze at the Promised Land before him. After that, God says to him, you “shall be gathered to your kin.” [Num. 27:13] Moses’ response is most poignant. Instead of arguing his case with God, or collapsing at the announcement of his imminent death, or having any other expected reaction, Moses replies in calm acceptance and asks God to choose his successor as the leader of the Israelites. He asks for someone who, like him, would “go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in.” [Num. 27:17] He does not ask for his sons to take over. He is not interested in creating a dynasty. Rather he asks God to provide his people with the best and most devoted leader. Not specifically a leader with the highest spiritual qualities either, but one who would selflessly love and dedicate his life to the community.

Why? Because Moses had a unique relationship with his people. He never saw the Israelite community as a pack of anonymous faces. In the verses that preceded this interaction between God and Moses, a census was taken of the new generation of Israelites now that the generation who had left Egypt had died. And even though only the men over 20 years of age and fit for battle were counted, the sense one gets from reading all these names is that Moses knew them all personally. You can’t be on a camping trip with people for forty years without getting to know them intimately. If he was anything like a rabbi, Moses probably participated in many celebrations over these four decades; births and weddings, holidays and Shabbats. He was also probably there in difficult times of illness, tragedies, complicated pregnancies, marriage difficulties, losses and deaths. He knew countless stories, and saw the essence of each individual behind every face.

One can sense this intimacy between Moses and the Israelites in the way he addresses God in his request for a new leader. He calls God; “Elohei Haruchot l’chol basar – Source of the souls of all flesh.” [Num.27:16] He says ruchot – souls in the plural, and not ruah – soul, in the singular. That is because Moses saw the uniqueness of each individual; he saw how the Divine Essence manifests uniquely through each human form. He understood that even though we are all expression of the One Soul; that One Soul manifests in a plurality of ways, a plurality of unique souls. He knew intimately each individual soul; he knew each unique way that God manifested through his people. He saw God reflected through each being. And for him, the very name of God became the expression of that realization.

In many ways, spirituality is a practice which, ultimately, leads us know the Divine Light not only in ourselves but reflected in each individual. One of the ways we close our heart to others is when we lump people together under alienating labels. We do that based on the clothe they wear, the car they drive, if they are watching Fox News or MSNBC. Worse, we do that to entire nations and races. We fail to recognize the uniqueness of each individual soul, the plurality of thoughts and viewpoints, behaviors and convictions that make up human beings. We forget that God is infinite, that God manifests in infinite ways. Moses didn’t. He not only acknowledged but celebrated the uniqueness of each being; and in doing so, taught us to open our hearts and minds to the abundant fullness of the Divine Presence around us, within us, and within each other.

Torah Reflections: April 30 – May 6, 2017

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30

Drawing Closer Through Generosity

There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion that caught my eye this time around. God, through Moses, asks the Israelites to only bring sacrifices at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting in the Presence of the Divine, and to “offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after who they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.” [Lev. 17:7] The expression “after who they stray” uses a language in Hebrew connoting harlotry. Clearly this act of sacrificing animals outside of the prescribed normative religious context was considered a debased act from people of great moral defect. But why use such powerful language?

I suspect that our modern understanding of the word “korban”—translated as “sacrifice”—might differ from that of ancient times. Korban shares the same three-letter root as the word karov which means “close” or “near.” A better translation of korban might have, therefore, been “near-drawing.” In Temple times the Israelites lived in agrarian societies. Their animals were everything to them: providing clothing, a food base, milk supply and field labor. To bring the purest and most precious of their animals as an offering to God was a major sacrifice. But in so doing, in sacrificing some of their most precious possessions, they drew nearer to God. They were reminded that all they have is, in fact, God’s possession, God’s creation, God’s blessing upon them. Letting go of their animals in this way acted as a spiritual practice of deep humility in the awesome Presence that creates all; of gratitude for the gifts in their lives, and ultimately supported the surrender of their ego-based attachments. A powerful practice indeed.

So when sacrifices were done to the pagan gods, the assumption was that peoples’ intention was not to draw near but to try and manipulate the gods of the natural order in one’s favor; not to practice letting go of ego attachments but to use the sacrificed life of the animal for egotistic aims. It was not an honoring of life but a desecration of life.

Our text, this week is there to remind us, too, that all our wealth is but God’s, all our possessions but God’s blessings upon us; and that we can use our wealth in the service of the Divine, no longer in the form of sacrifices, but through living generous lives. When we give from the wealth of our lives—not just from our finances but from the richness of who we are—we remember that we are but channels through which the blessings of the Holy One are allowed to flow. We grow in the awareness of a greater context for our life; a context in which the unique gifts that are ours are not only welcomed but absolutely needed. Generosity becomes a pathway to self-actualization, a practice through which our Greater Self is realized. With each act of generosity, with each gift, we grow nearer and nearer to Spirit until the point where we eventually merge with the One we have always been.

Torah Reflections: February 19 – 25, 2017

Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

The Angel Within

Can you imagine what it must have been like the day after? Just yesterday we were at the foot of Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. It was big. It was thunderous. Our bodies were shaking, our senses were confused, we saw the thunder and we heard the lightning. Amidst the deafening blasts of the shofarot and the shuddering mountain which was afire and smoking, God revealed God-self to us. Unfathomable! But then the moment passes. The day ends and the next day comes; and that morning feels a little like a hangover. What do we do now? After such a momentous event, how is one supposed to re-enter “normal” life? Because no matter how deep the experience, one does re-enter normal life. Life’s needs still require attending. As Jack Kornfield pointedly titled his book: “After The Ecstasy, The Laundry.” But how do we do that?

This is the question Moses asks himself that next morning. After Sinai, he knows he needs to give people something concrete, something tangible to do; something that will help them integrate into their lives the transcendent experience they just lived through. His answer is this week’s Torah portion. Moses begins to transpose the Sinaitic encounter into a spiritual code for living that represents the individual and social embodiment of this profound experience of Oneness. He reveals the spiritual practices and new ways of being that are the expression of this newfound awareness. In so doing he teaches us that—as far as Judaism is concerned—what matters most is, in fact, the laundry. How we bring our Sinai moments back down into our world and lead lives infused by them is, essentially, the Jewish path’s main concern. Why? Because our sages knew that, inherent to our human make-up, we can’t help but forget. We have a spiritual peak experience, a bright moment of clarity yielding deepening insights, and then life takes over. We’re back at work soon after, and within a few weeks we forget all that was glimpsed. Ongoing practices, keeping conscious company, are pathways to remember, pathways to guide us back to the place we just left and is now at risk of fading into the fog of memory.

But these practices, however wonderful, are just empty containers without fierce kavanah—fierce intentionality—without an ardent inner yearning to remember. Our Torah portion addresses that as well. Once Moses is done enumerating the laws and practices we are to follow, God steps in and tells us: “Here, I am placing an angel within you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place I have made ready.” [Exod. 23:20] There is a force within us, an evolutionary impulse that is always aching to remember the One we are. The Midrash tells us that this angel is the same angel that protected and guided Jacob on his journey, perhaps even wrestled with him—for angels in our tradition are the fierce kind; not the sweet cherubs of Hallmark cards fame. “Take-you-care in his presence and hearken to his voice… for My Name is within him” continues the Torah. [Exod. 23:21] This angel within us guides us to “the place” where God is waiting, when “the place” in Hebrew is “HaMakom,” and is, itself, a name of God. Our inner angel is guiding us on a journey up our own inner Sinai to reach “the place” of remembering, the place that is always already here: HaMakom, our Divine Self. Hearken to His voice.

Torah Reflections: February 12 – 18, 2017

Yitro

Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The End of Belief

We finally reached Mount Sinai, ten weeks after escaping Egypt. There, Moses told us we had three days to purify ourselves and wash our clothing in preparation for our meeting with God. And as morning dawned on the third day:

There was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn… and [we] took [our] place at the foot of the mountain… Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Eternal had come down to it in fire… and all the mountain trembled exceedingly. [Exod. 19:16-18]

Amidst this awesome display, the Holy One spoke the Ten Commandments, the Ten Utterances that were to be the foundation of our spiritual path; beginning with “I am the Eternal One your God.” [Exod. 20:2] Now, immediately following the last word uttered by God, the Torah says: “And all the people saw the voices…” [Exod. 20:15] This curious verse has captured the attention of scholars for generations.

Take one of the rabbinic teachings for example: the reason that the Torah specifies “all the people,” is to remind us that the Sinaitic event isn’t specific to a fixed time and place, but that all the generations of Jews and converts to Judaism before Sinai and after Sinai, wherever they were or will be in the world, are considered to have been at Sinai. In other (less ethnocentric) words, Revelation is an experience universally available to those who are willing to engage in a spiritual practice that leads one to the foot of the mythical Mount Sinai. The Midrash jumps in as well to explain that though the voice of God was one, the plural form used in this verse points to the Divine power to speak to all according to their own capacity; thus appearing as though there were many voices. This teaches that Revelation can happen to anyone at any age; but who we are in that moment will impact how we interpret and describe the experience.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson went one step further, wrestling with the word “saw” as it refers, here, to “voices.” What one sees, he explains, always refers to a concrete object outside of ourselves, whereas hearing does not. Hearing opens us up to the inner realm. For the Rebbe, seeing is of the physical world, hearing of the spiritual world. He taught:

They saw what was normally heard—i.e., the spiritual became as tangible and certain as the familiar world of physical objects. Indeed, the Essence of God was revealed to their eyes, when they heard the words, “I (the Essence) the Eternal (who transcends the world) am thy God (who is immanent in the world).” [Torah Studies, p.107]

In this experience of Enlightenment, we directly see the Essence of our being and that of Being Itself as one and the same. This “I” of the First Utterance becomes our “I.” There is no separation anymore. There is only One. We cannot, therefore, hear this first Divine pronouncement as a Commandment to believe in God, but as a call to knowing the Essence we are, the One we have always been. And with that knowing comes the end of belief.

Torah Reflections: January 29 – February 4, 2017

Bo

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

God Acts in Wondrous Ways

Our Torah portion opens, this week, with the last four plagues to befall Egypt. “Then the Eternal One said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart… so that I may display My signs among them, and that you may recount… how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the Eternal’.” [Exod. 10:1-2] The Hebrew doesn’t actually speak of plagues but of signs, wonders, miracles or signals. These signs are out-of-the-ordinary events in nature that are meant to trigger a reaction of awe in the hearts of the Israelites. Awe was what God intended for us to feel in the great display of God’s might; for us to know the Divine Presence in our world in unmistakable ways.

For those of us living in Western Washington one of the most “out-of-the-ordinary” awe-filled event in nature at this time of the year is snow. When some in Seattle might experience snowfall as a plague, many see it as a wondrous occasion. Because it is so rare, snow has a great power in our region: it quiets things down. Snow slows everything down to a quasi standstill. Snow does on the outside what meditation does on the inside. When it snows in Seattle, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. We retreat inward, we Shabbat. We cozy up on the couch with a hot beverage, we grab a good book, dust off a few board games. Suddenly we have time for a few minutes of meditation. We hit the reset button. We reflect on what is most meaningful in our lives. We look out the window in awe of the beauty of our natural world; we look at the people in our lives in awe of the love we share. Snow does for us what Moses was trying to do with Pharaoh: open his heart.

Though our text says that God is the One Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, I suspect that, mythologically, Pharaoh stands as the symbol for the hardening of our heart. Pharaoh is the energy in us that closes us down, that causes us to fear, and consequently reject, exclude, deny, or repress; the energy that might see snow as a plague. The root of the word “Pharaoh” in Hebrew are the three letters peh, resh, and ayin. Peh means mouth or voice. Resh and ayin put together make the word Ra, which means “bad,” or “negative.” Pharaoh can be said to represent the Peh Ra, the “negative voice” within us. On the opposite side of it, we have Moses. Moses is the voice of love in us that is urging us to let go, to release, to relax. Moses is the inner power that is able to peel off the layers of what the kabbalists call the klippot, the shells around our heart. He does so with wonder, with amazement, with awe-inspiring snowstorms that drive us inward.

For our mystics, the process of spiritual awakening is an ongoing process of peeling off the layers of ego that have obstructed the Light Being that we are. It is an ongoing process of letting go of our concepts and rigid certainties, of the strictness of our worldview, of the relative truth we mistake to be absolute. Ultimately it is about letting go of our separate sense of self, of our ego-bound identity, and to open ourselves to the Greater I AM that we are, the ego-less Being-ness that we are. In other words, it is a journey of self-transformation from Pharaoh to Moses. In Gematria, the letters of the word, Pharaoh, add up to 355; Moses to 345. One subtracts 10 from the former to attain the latter: 10 layers of shells around the heart to be peeled off through 10 Divine signs, 10 experiences of breathtaking awe, 10 concentric circles of the kabbalistic Tree of Life to be transcended, from the outermost gross physical circle of self-identity, to the innermost circle of Pure Is-ness. Let’s not wait until the next snowstorm to begin practicing awe, for awe is to be found in every day, in every moment, in every breath.

Torah Reflections – June 26 – July 2, 2016

Sh’lach L’cha

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

They Warned Moses & They Were Right
This week’s Torah portion begins with the famous episode of the spies. Much has been said and written about this episode as it is a turning point in the unfolding drama of our exodus from Egypt and our march toward the Promised Land. This year, after reading many rabbinic commentaries on these verses, I find myself understanding this story from a totally new and different perspective; as a consequence, seem to be in complete disagreement with the interpretations I have studied so far.

Some of you might recall that Moses sends twelve leaders (one elder from each tribe) to scout the Promised Land before crossing into Canaan. Upon returning 40 days later, the elders give their report to Moses in front of the entire nation of Israel. They display the enormous fruits they brought back; a cluster of grapes so big it took two of them to carry it on a pole. Ten of them proceed to say that though the land they saw was flowing with milk and honey; the people of the land were strong and powerful — giants in fact — living in fortified cities. The land, they reported, devours its people — our sages explain — because of never-ending wars. They warned Moses and the people not to go in. But two of the “spies” took the opposite stance and urged the people to go ahead; to have faith, and conquer the land. Traditional interpretations of this story chastise the ten for being such “glass-half-empty” downers, while championing the optimism of the two in the minority. But — they were wrong.

Why? Because what the ten elders knew, was that the Israelites were not spiritually ready to be immersed in such a society; that they would lose themselves there, their spirit crushed again; this time not by harsh slave labor, but by the temptations of a life of riches. In this society agriculture provided an abundance of produce — in excess, in fact. People had genetically modified grapes to grow them into giant clusters. Cattle, too, was abundant, and milk products flooded the market.  Even the insect world was manipulated to allow both for abundant harvests and excessive honey production. Can you imagine the shock of stepping into such a land when all you have ever known is slavery?

Those ten leaders knew that the Hebrews slaves, overcome with desires, would go unconscious in such seductive surroundings; they would lose their newly acquired moral compass and fall prey to the temptations of materialistic pursuit. Without first a strong spiritual and moral anchor, without having spent more time secluded in the wilderness, the Hebrews’ resolve to the one God, their embrace of the laws of Moses, would collapse, and the faith of Abraham would be lost forever. The elders’ concern wasn’t that the Israelites would be defeated by these giants who lived in fortified gated cities. Rather, they were concerned they would become like them, overweighed gluttonous war-mongers focused on amassing, bigger, better, more material wealth by plundering earth resources.

We, too, need to remember to create spaces in our lives that promote our re-sourcing at the silent center of our inner wilderness. And though there are many ways to accomplish this; belonging to spiritual communities that foster cultivating such inner wilderness is, powerfully, one of them. In such communities one is able to find authentic relationships, support amidst isolation, spiritual nourishment, and moral strength. They help affirm our own moral compass, our own deeply cherished values, that we may express them in our lives. They keep us connected to the possibility of a world that speaks of compassion, love, peace and tolerance, and where the sustainability of our planet and all its life forms is seen as sacred. The Israelites had not yet constituted themselves into such a community. They didn’t have the spiritual tools to face the world of Canaan. And though it is going to cost thirty-eight more years of wandering, and the death of a whole generation; there was no viable alternative but to take the time and space necessary to establish spiritual grounding.The ten elders were right.

Torah Reflections – May 22-28, 2016

B’har

Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

 

Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land

On July 8, 1776 the Liberty Bell was rung in Philadelphia to mark the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. On the side of the legendary cracked bell the famous inscription: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” This renowned saying is taken from a verse in this week’s Torah portion; yet that critical word “liberty” is, in fact, a mistranslation. The Hebrew word “dror” isn’t proclaiming “liberty,” rather it is calling for “release” or “amnesty.” Andthat is vastly different.

This biblical passage is concerned with the year of the jubilee. Reminiscent of the seven-week cycle of the Counting of the Omer, the Torah speaks of seven seven-year cycles when dealing with land ownership. At the end of this 49 year cycle the Torah states: “You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim amnesty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.” [Lev. 25:10] The Torah sets up a system to prevent enslavement. When a proprietor, falling on hard times, is forced to sell his land, the value of the property is based on how many years separate the time of the sale to the next jubilee year where, automatically, the land is to revert back to its original owner. “What is being sold,” the Torah explains, “is a number of harvests.” [Lev. 25:16] How does the Torah justify this process? It reminds us that we are but renters, temporary visitors on this planet: “For the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” [Lev. 25:23]

The same applies if one is to become the bound laborer of one’s neighbor. On the fiftieth year, there is to be an amnesty, private debts are cancelled, and he and his family are to be returned to their previous status in society. Why? Again the Torah reminds us: “For they are My servants, who I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.” [Lev. 25:42]

Henry George (1839-1897) was an American politician and economist who sourced from the Bible the inspiration for his economic philosophy. He wrote:

“Moses saw that the real cause of the enslavement of the masses in Egypt was what has everywhere produced enslavement, the possession by a class of the land upon which and from which the whole people must live. He saw that to permit in land the same unqualified private ownership… would be inevitably to separate people into the very rich and the very poor, inevitably to enslave labor… Everywhere in the Mosaic institutions is the land treated as the gift of the Creator… which no one has the right to monopolize… [Moses] tried hard to guard against the wrong that converted ancient civilizations into despotism… the wrong that is already filling American cities… There are many who believe that the Mosaic institutions were literally dictated by the Almighty, yet who would denounce as irreligious and ‘communistic’ any application of their spirit to the present day.”

Henry George might not have known it but he was also both a rabbi and a visionary. He powerfully captured the Torah’s warning against economic monopolies, against the concentration of financial power into too few hands which, inexorably, leads to the loss of the very freedom proclaimed by the Liberty Bell. Most critically, he recognized the Torah’s warning against creating societies devoid of Spirit, overrun by deified egos mainly concerned with securing the wealth and liberties of the few over the many. Ultimately, the “liberty” that Torah insists on and the Bell underscores is that which comes from wealth-redistribution and greater economic equality “throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

Torah Reflections – January 3 – 9, 2016

Va’eira

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Know Thyself to be Enslaved

Every year, as I meet the text narrating the plagues of Egypt, I am confronted with the same paradox. God commends Moses to ask Pharaoh to free the Hebrews. Pharaoh refuses. God brings down a plague. Pharaoh yields to Moses’ demands. Then, inexplicably, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and the latter, consequently, reverses his edict and keeps the Israelites enslaved. Why is God playing both sides? And why does God need to replay this scene ten times? One can take this questioning further and ask why God sets up the whole thing in the first place? Why, already in the time of Abraham, had God determined that the Hebrews would descend into Egypt, be enslaved there for four hundred years, only to then be liberated and brought to the Promised Land? Why did we have to get there via Egypt?

We find the answer to our questions in the early verses of this week’s Torah portion. In the first verse Moses is described as stepping into the Truth of his being, into the True I Am-ness that he is: not the illusion of the separate sense of self, of the ego; rather YHVH Itself, the transcendent aspect of Being. “I am YHVH” says the Torah [Exod. 6:2]. This I Am-ness, that Moses embodies, is now aware of the parts of the conditioned self still oppressed and in bondage, under the tight lid of the narrow consciousness that is Moses’ inner Mitzrayim, his inner Egypt. As our text has it: “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage.” [Exod. 6:5] These are the parts of self he is to free from the illusion of separateness: “I am YHVH; I will free you from the burdens of Egypt.” [Exod. 6:6] Because God, is a force that liberates. God is defined as an energy that frees us from our addiction to power, to control; from the exclusive narrow-mindedness of ego; a force that leads us into a land of inclusiveness, compassion, serenity, awe and humility. Why? So that “you shall know that I Am YHVH” [Exod. 6:7], so that our separate sense of self may dissolve in our knowing the Greater “I Am” that we are. Because in that knowing of our Greater Identity, there is no more need for control or power, and we can relax, breathe deeply and let go, as the little “i” is seen through and through for the emptiness that it is.

The journey in and out of Egypt that God sets up is, therefore, part of the process of spiritual awakening. The plagues themselves are necessary. We might mistakenly think that they are directed at the Egyptians, but I would venture to say that they are for the ultimate benefit of the Israelites, instead. Because “when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, out of shortness of spirit.” [Exod.6:9] The reality of our conditioned self is that it can’t hear our inner Moses, no matter how powerful the Truth. It needs the plagues. It needs the pain of the spiritual practice that results from time to time in a little glimpse into that Truth, knowing full well that after each such opening experience, our heart closes off and hardens again, and we fall back into thinking ourselves to be the separate ego. Perhaps our text is telling us that liberation comes after ten of these experiences, after ten awesome displays of God’s Presence. And so there might be no other way to get to the Promised Land but via Egypt. Without Egypt we might never be able to even recognize the Promised Land or even know that it exists. In order for us to know the Light of the One we are, we first need to recognize the bondage that keeps us in darkness. We need to know that we are enslaved in order to awaken to the possibility of liberation.

Torah Reflections – May 4 – 10, 2014

B’har

Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

Proclaim Liberty Throughout The Land       

On July 8, 1776 the Liberty Bell was rung in Philadelphia to mark the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. On the side of the legendary cracked bell the famous inscription: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” This renowned saying is taken from a verse in this week’s Torah portion; yet that critical word “liberty” is, in fact, a mistranslation. The Hebrew word “dror” isn’t proclaiming “liberty,” rather it is calling for “release” or “amnesty.” And that is vastly different.

This biblical passage is concerned with the year of the jubilee. Reminiscent of the seven-week cycle of the Counting of the Omer, the Torah speaks of seven seven-year cycles when dealing with land ownership. At the end of this 49 year cycle the Torah states:

“You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim amnesty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.” [Lev. 25:10] The Torah sets up a system to prevent enslavement. When a proprietor, falling on hard times, is forced to sell his land, the value of the property is based on how many years separate the time of the sale to the next jubilee year where, automatically, the land is to revert back to its original owner. “What is being sold,” the Torah explains, “is a number of harvests.” [Lev. 25:16]

[Read more…]

Torah Reflections April 20 – 26, 2014

K’doshim

Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

A Holiness Code For Tomorrow     

This week’s Torah portion continues to describe what started in our last portion, what is known as the Holiness Code, which will span the rest of Leviticus. This Holiness Code is a code of conduct, a guide that seeks to define a powerful spiritual practice, a way of being and acting in the world for the Jewish people. This all-important text begins with:

…I am the Eternal One your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their traditions… You shall observe my decrees and regulations, through the practice of which human beings shall live: I am the Eternal One.  

[Lev. 18:2-5]

This sets the tone for creating a Holiness Code that sets apart, that distinguishes the Jewish people from its Canaanite neighbors. In the early years of the Israelites’ settlement of Canaan this made perfect sense. All of us too, in our formative years, have spent much energy shaping our unique identity by defining who we were based on what we were not; differentiating ourselves from the social norms, and adopting behaviors antithetical to those in place (see parents for details.) No wonder that the Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, also means “separate.” In the formative years of the Jewish people, such a Holiness Code solidified a specific Jewish identity through unique practices that were antithetical, as well, to those in place in the land. Three thousand years later, however, does the Holiness Code and the Halacha as its offshoot still serve this purpose, or has it evolved to embody something else? In other words, should post-modern Jewish identity still be tied to a Holiness Code? [Read more…]