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Tetzaveh 5784

The bling and the burden:

28:6-13

They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.

It shall have two shoulder-pieces attached; they shall be attached at its two ends.

And the decorated band that is upon it shall be made like it, of one piece with it: of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen.

Then take two lazuli stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel:

six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth.

On the two stones you shall make seal engravings—the work of a lapidary—of the names of the sons of Israel. Having bordered them with frames of gold,

attach the two stones to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people,

 וְנָשָׂ×Ö© ×ַהֲרֹ֨ן ×ֶת־ש×Ö°×ž×•Ö¹×ªÖ¸Öœ× ×œÖ´×¤Ö°× ÖµÖ§×™ יְהֹוָ֛ה עַל־ש×ְתֵּ֥י כְתֵפָ֖יו לְזִכָּרֹֽן׃

and Aaron shall carry their names upon his two shoulder-pieces before Hashem for remembrance.â€

It then described the golden chains that bind the ephod to the shoulder pads, the twelve gemstones, each inscribed with the name of one of the sons of Israel set into the breastplate, and the intricate rings and fasteners that attach the ephod all together, closing the instructions on the ephod with verse 29:

×•Ö°× Ö¸×©×‚Ö¸× ×ַהֲרֹן ×ֶת־ש×ְמוֹת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָ×ֵל בְּחֹש×ֶן הַמִּש×ְפָּט עַל־לִבּוֹ בְּבֹ×וֹ ×Ö¶×œÖ¾×”Ö·×§Ö¼Ö¹×“Ö¶×©× ×œÖ°×–Ö´×›Ö¼Ö¸×¨Ö¹×Ÿ לִפְנֵי־יְהֹוָה תָּמִיד׃

Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before יהוה at all times.

Reading this this year, I was struck by how heavy this all would be: literal stones on the shoulders and chains wrapping around them. Even a golden chain is still a chain.

And these inscribed stones serve a particular purpose: before God, a remembrance:

Rashi teaches that this is, “so that the Holy One, blessed be He, will see the names of the tribes written before Him and He will remember their righteousness.â€

But when I think about the behavior of all of the children of Israel, I wonder: the 12 sons of Jacob were not paragons of righteousness.

I suspect that the carrying of the names of the Israelites serves more as a reminder for Aharon himself of what he is doing. As Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler has written,

“The High Priest, on this view, is charged to carry bnei yisrael on his shoulders as an act of concern and protection. But, as any parent of small children knows, shoulders that offer rides time and again tend to hurt, and it would seem that Aharon’s shoulders were to carry a whole lot of weight too. He was to bear the burdens of his people–their complaints, their doubts, their sins, their secrets. He was tasked to take upon himself the heaviness of their hard lives, lightening their loads, but also no doubt complicating his own. The holy work of the High Priest involved carrying a lot of other people’s messes. That too is part of lifting a people onto your shoulders.â€

The high priest’s job was a dangerous one, as we are reminded in several weeks, in parashat Shemini, when Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu die after bringing a sacrifice in an improper manner. The High Priest had to care about the people, and also to confess on behalf of their people, their sins, so that the people could be forgiven.

The priest is also a metaphor for the whole Jewish people, as Hashem says in Exodus 19:6- you shall be for me ממלכת ×›×”× ×™× ×•×’×•×™ קדוש – a kingdom of priests and a holy people.

Through reconstructionist Jews officially reject chosenness, and officially reject hierarchies, I do thinkthat even we carry stories of the specialness of the Jewish people, a certain idea of moral exceptionism. That can be a beautiful story, as beautiful as the garments of the High Priest, but like the garments of the High Priest, it’s also heavy, and it comes with certain responsibilities: to confess the truths about when we fail, and to recognize that we are all implicated with each other when we do when and when we fail. We don’t get o reject the “bad Jews.†– but neither do we ignore the harm that we and our fellow Jews cause. May we hold each other on our shoulders and our hearts and may we share the burden together.

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Purim and Pesach: Be happy, it’s . . . Adar? (Mar/Apr 2024)

There is a children’s song that quotes a line from Masechet Taanit 29a, “Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha.†When (the months of) Adar begins, we increase rejoicing.†Adar, the month of Purim, is considered the most auspicious time for the Jewish people, doubtless connected to the lucky reversal of fortunes that the Jews experienced in the Purim story that we read in Esther.

Nonetheless, the Joy of Purim is not complete. We do not recite Hallel (psalms of praise) on Purim, unlike the festivals, Rosh Chodesh and even Hanukkah. One of the possible reasons for its omission on Purim is that Hallel includes the line, “Give praise, you who serve God!†Even at the end of the Purim story, teaches Masechet Arakhin 10b “we are still the servants of Ahasuerus,†which is to say that despite prevailing, the Jewish people still had a very uncertain future, in exile at the whim of a fickle king.

On Passover, the liberation is as complete as it has ever been in Jewish memory. That is why we invoke the liberation from Egypt in our liturgy multiple times a day, and why we mention it as part of our blessings on Shabbat and holidays.

But that complete liberation is sadly hard to come by in our general lived experience. More often, we experience incomplete joy: joy despite suffering, despite war, despite the illness and death of our loved ones, despite tremendous moral dilemma and complication.

We can and should hold a vision of complete liberation, for ourselves and the world. But I think it’s telling that Nisan, the month of Passover, isn’t the month in which we are instructed to increase rejoicing. Because we are not supposed to seek joy only in the memory of the miraculous salvation from Egypt (indeed, perhaps the Talmudic rabbis took it for granted that Pesach would be a joyful time).

When Adar comes, we increase rejoicing, despite how complicated and how violent the triumph of Purim is, and not because we should ignore that. But because our lives are complicated, and our present is full of violence, and we don’t wait for completeness to choose joy. As my mentor, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum teaches, “Joy is an act of spiritual and political resistance.†And if not now, when?

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Losing sight of the pregnancy in abortion debate

The Register-Guard (December 2021)

Two years ago I underwent a harrowing medical condition. For nine months, my body housed a rapidly expanding uterine growth. It drained my energy, created arthritic symptoms in my joints and caused weight gain of almost 40 pounds. I expelled it from my body in a dangerous process involving 17 hours of increasingly intense pain. I required several weeks of recuperation.

I willingly put up with this—twice! I wanted the babies, and I love the children they are becoming. But as abortion is relitigated, and the issue remains framed as “pro-choice†or “pro-life,†I feel perturbed.

We largely don’t talk about pregnancy when we talk about abortion — about lawmakers decreeing that other people’s bodies must house something that is excruciatingly uncomfortable and potentially mortally dangerous for nearly a year. In our society, this process coincides with lack of support for the well-being of those women’s bodies and insufficient time to recover from the physical exhaustion of pregnancy and birth.

When I recall this exhausting condition, I am pained at the idea that anyone who doesn’t want to be a parent would be forced to endure pregnancy.

I strongly believe in protecting innocent life. While my faith tradition doesn’t teach that human life begins at conception, I can respect that belief. I can even agree that in an ideal world, abortion would never happen outside of medical necessity; people would have the knowledge and resources to prevent unwanted pregnancy and every conception would be wanted.

The Bible demands that we all care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger: the vulnerable who tend to be invisible and neglected. But as a spiritual leader, I am also aware that it is easy — and even cheap — to demand that someone else do the caring. The harder and more important spiritual challenge is recognizing the obligations in our own lives to care for the vulnerable.

Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who spent decades working to ban abortion, wrote a New York Time op-ed in 2019 about his change of heart. He admitted that pro-life work often ends at birth, failing to provide any social or financial support for young mothers and children.

In his words, “I can no longer pretend that telling poor pregnant women they have just one option — give birth and try your luck raising a child, even though the odds are stacked against you — is ‘pro-life’ in any meaningful sense.â€

Pregnancy is difficult enough when it is wanted, as mine were. In a society that fails to prevent sexual violence or offer even basic sex education, let alone health care, parental leave or other services, it is immoral to require women to just “take responsibility†for an unwanted pregnancy.

Those who refuse to advocate for welfare, guaranteed food, housing, child care and medical care for needy families are guilty of cheap caring when they simultaneously demand that women find room within their very bodies for fetuses they do not want.

It’s easier to demand another person put her own body at risk to nourish a life than it is to accept a personal share of responsibility for all the lives already here.

Her column will resume after she completes a five-month sabbatical in June 2022. 

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