Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 30, 2021 / 18 Iyyar 5781
Today is Lag B’Omer, which normally is a turning point in the Jewish calendar as we exit a period of semi-mourning into a more joyous time. Unfortunately, this year’s celebrations in Israel took a terrible turn. North of Haifa sits Mount Meron. It is the location where hundreds of thousands of religious Jews of all stripes gather to celebrate Lag B’Omer with bonfires, music, picnics, and learning. I have always thought of it as the religious person’s Burning Man Festival. Unfortunately, wet conditions caused some people to slip and resulted in dozens of people being crushed in the aftermath. At last count, 45 people have died, and there are many others who are critically injured. Our hearts go out to these souls and their families. At the conclusion of services tonight we will pause to add these individuals to our prayers.
It is a mitzvah to help those in need. It’s another mitzvah to seek out help when you need it. Many commandments discuss the need to seek help for different issues. Our Chesed Committee is dedicated to fulfilling these mitzvot in many different ways by providing food, transportation (shortly), and other needs. Please, if you are in need, or know a congregant who could use a helping hand, reach out to Sheri Cordova, Barb Schwartz, or the Chesed Committee.
Summary: This week’s Torah Portion, Emor, provides a lens to reflect on wholeness.
Reading Time: Three and a half minutes
Soup or Salad? How About Both?
If you had to pick a food metaphor to define humans, and your only choices were soup or salad (or maybe a plate of raw vegetables), which would you pick? Are we more like a soup or more like a salad?
This is admittedly a crazy exercise, but it captures an interesting tension. Are people organic wholes, in which all the parts of us meld together into something new (soup), or can we be divided into different parts which never much change their identities (salad)?
Judaism has a strong preference for soup—or maybe we should say cholent, if you favor the traditional, long-cooked Shabbat dish. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at how Judaism integrates the body and soul. The Talmud, our great work of oral law, customs, stories, history, and spirituality is another example of soup. All these topics meld and weave one into the next, emphasizing their organic connections.
This week’s Torah portion of Emor follows this approach because we encounter a mash up of spirituality, rituals and holidays, and moral and ethical concerns. It’s commonly held that religion (rituals) is separate and distinct from spirituality (inwardness and connection to something larger than ourselves), which is different than ethics (how we treat others). In fact, rabbis often are asked, “Does God really care if I follow this ritual? Doesn’t God really just care how I treat other people?” That very question takes a salad bowl approach to being human.
There can be advantages to this rabbit approach to a garden, where we nibble on one vegetable at a time. In some ways, it’s easier to study discrete subjects, especially when we are starting out: math then Language Arts. As we advance, though, we discover that there are connections we weren’t previously aware of. We learn that a salad doesn’t do as good a job at holistically explaining how things work and how they are interrelated.
Because of this, we shouldn’t be surprised that parshat Emor talks of our holidays, or that the rituals of sacrifice are juxtaposed with regulations on haircuts for priests. Laws of Shabbat, meanwhile, are placed next to laws of matzoh. The punishments for murder and retributive justice are outlined. We are also reminded to leave part of the grain harvest ungathered so that those in need can take their fill.
What can we learn from this? Is the Torah just a poorly edited book? Was God distracted or suffering from an attention deficit disorder? Not really. The wisdom of Judaism is to remind us, first, that all areas of human endeavor are valuable. Rituals are no less important than ethics because we need rituals to hold us and provide us with a positive structure and sense of identity. Humans can also nurture a sense of spirituality and thus experience moments of wonder and connection.
In addition, each of these endeavors actually informs the others, just as the carrot and onion in a soup are holding an important conversation. One of the challenges in the Jewish world is that we have divided up the human being. One movement focuses more on ethics, another on rituals, a third on spirituality. Each flavor of Judaism is thus limited in what it can communicate to its adherents. Not only is the American nation polarized politically, but we can also see that these different aspects of our Jewish selves are polarized and isolated. Instead of even a salad, imagine a series of small plates, on top of which is a different vegetable.
The Torah reminds us that a full and good life requires that we nurture all these parts of ourselves because they are part of a larger self. Together they define our soul. Together they point the way to a sense of shleimut, a sense of wholeness.
May we each find a way to experience the gifts of an integrated self. May we make room in our days so that our lives are filled with rituals, spirituality, ethics, good health, and friendship.
Shabbat Table Talk
- Can you recall a moment when you had an epiphany and understood how two seemingly unrelated things were connected? How did you feel in that moment of discovery?
- We all have leanings. Do you have more of a bent for ritual life or moral action? Where do you think that tendency originated in your life?
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.