How Should We Act?

This week the portion from Leviticus and its companion in II Samuel ask a very powerful question: how should we act?

Let me be more precise. We know that being holy in our tradition involves respecting what we normally associate with the sacred; but, importantly, it also involves living in accord with God’s direction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So, the question posed is really: as a holy people, how are we to act in the significant matters of life?

We get several stories this week that raise the question and suggest answers. The challenge is these accounts are ancient and largely mysterious. This is further complicated by the fact that the great sages over the centuries disagree greatly on the their meaning.

For all of you who, turned off by what’s ancient or uncertain, might stop reading, I APPEAL TO YOU TO STAY. I’ll make it short, and I promise that the message at the end will be worth your while.

Let me begin by giving a brief account of the stories. (I hope purists give me a little license in the simplification.)

First, in the portion, Aaron and Moses duly bring the first offerings in the newly dedicated Tabernacle, bless the people, and experience the nearness and glory of God.

Second, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, perhaps inebriated or spiritually ecstatic, bring strange (and uncalled for) fire to make an offering to God, and they are themselves consumed.

Third, though in obvious pain, Aaron responds to all this in silence. Then, clearly out of duty, he resists Moses’ charge to eat of the offerings because of the impropriety of doing so in the midst of that day’s tragic events. Moses is pleased with Aaron, as clearly was God. God now involves Aaron for the first time in matters of leadership, along with Moses.

In II Samuel, we read of King David’s returning the ark to the land. The ark is loaded on a cart instead of, as prescribed, being carried by priests. A fellow inappropriately grabs the ark and is struck by God. Things having gone wrong, David stops and places the ark in a safe place for months. Then, certain of God’s blessing, David leads the ark’s procession to Jerusalem.

Finally, in the celebration of the ark’s return, David, though criticized for it, “dances with all his might before the Lord” in the clothes of a simple person.

I know. I know. These stories are, in many ways confounding. Indeed some may be unexplainable.

Yet, I think there’s a hugely important message here. Let’s try to find its thread.

Perhaps when we we approach the important things in life, we should be mindful of God’s expectations and act with fidelity to them, as we are taught: “Be mindful of My mitzvot, and do them, so shall you consecrate yourselves to your God.”

Whatever good or bad confronts us in life, we should be attentive and mindful of our duties. Indeed, in each moment of life, we ought to orient our whole being to doing what we should do. Aaron teaches profoundly that sometimes this requires that we wait and be silent. Often we don’t know and can’t explain what’s happened around or to us. We do, however, know our duty, and we should principally be devoted to living true to that duty.

Finally in this week’s text, as David teaches, we should place joy front and center in living the life that God has given us.

The Shulchan Aruch captures the whole idea: “Pray with lowered eyes and a soaring heart.”

We, Too, Can Lead in Life-Changing Ways

 

On this Sabbath in the midst of the festival of Passover, we have special readings from our sacred texts. If we look at these stories carefully and in context, Moses teaches us powerful lessons that will enlighten our path as we go forward from our Seder tables.

Let’s take a look.

In Exodus, we read that Moses seeks to know more about the nature of God. Moses believes this knowledge is crucial to the people’s wellbeing.

In response, God assists Moses in the preparation of the second set of tablets, which re-affirms the important place of Divine guidance in our lives. Then, God shows Moses the Divine attributes of compassion, mercy, loving-kindness, truth, and justice. These are invaluable to a people who believe they are created in God’s image, for it is these attributes that they seek to make their own.

What we may forget, but shouldn’t, is how far this dialogue between Moses and God has come in just a couple of chapters.

Do you remember that it wasn’t long before when God confronted Moses upon the people’s creating the golden calf? “Go descend, because the people that you have brought up from Egypt have acted corruptly. Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them…”

How did we get to a felicitous state of affairs from such a horrific one? I think the extraordinary turn has a great deal to do with Moses’ leadership, specifically his remarkable response to the existential crisis he faced.

First, Moses did not leave God alone. He pushed immediately to assuage the Divine wrath. He reminded God that these are His people and this is His mission. What would the failure of that mission mean to the world? Moses’ love, courage and commitment drove him to demonstrate a saving advocacy that turned the Divine heart.

Moses then went to the people to chastise them for their profound wrongdoing and punish those responsible. The purpose for which God freed the people from Egypt could not be fulfilled in the presence of apostasy.

Because of Moses’ bold action, God offered the people an angel’s protection on the way to the Promised Land, but not His.

Moses knew this was not enough. The challenges the people would confront required God’s presence. So, Moses persisted and pressed for greater closeness with, and support from, God.

This, amazingly, is the prequel to the story we read this week!

By his remarkable example, Moses showed that, in what we decide and do, we matter in the world; in fact, we can matter in life-giving and life-changing ways. Out of love and commitment, Moses developed and executed a strategy that contributed to a radical change in the fate of the people. Once vulnerable to destruction, they are now destined to be a light unto the nations.

Finally, there is a lovely, poignant tie between this week’s verses from Ezekiel and our lessons from Moses.

Ezekiel has a vision in a valley in which God revives the bones of the dead. After Ezekiel’s prophecies, a legion of the newly alive arises. God tells them, “I will bring you to the soil of Israel; then you will know that I am God.”

When God thought to annihilate the people for their apostasy, wasn’t the spot below the mountain as if a valley destined to be filled with the dead? And, didn’t Moses help revive the people, as did Ezekiel when he prophesied in the valley?

We would do well in this week of Passover to think of ways in our own lives in which we can emulate the courageous and saving deeds of Moses, our great teacher. For, as he changed his world, we can change ours.

What If They Won’t Listen?

I do not think there’s a more fascinating pairing of a Biblical portion and its companion text in the Prophets than the one we see this week. In fact, it’s so captivating I can’t keep from examining – briefly – three of its gems, rather than, as usual, exploring a single one more deeply.

In Leviticus, we read a detailed account of the sacrifices that were required to be brought to the Temple. In Jeremiah, the prophet goes to a deeper level to teach what God values and wants most from us.

Some suggest that the prophet is saying that the ancient practices of sacrifice are no longer important to God, but rather that God now seeks our nearness only through being ethical in intention and deed.

I join the majority in thinking this is not quite right. The prophet is more likely saying that offerings are still expected by God, but not those that are made in a hypocritical or insidious manner. As Jeremiah preached, it is surely noxious to God when a person makes an offering in sacred space and then goes out in the world to behave in unkind and unrighteous ways toward others.

I would go further to suggest that, though the Temple no longer stands, there are ways of understanding the ancient sacrifices that are still relevant and speak to us today. We continue to be called to “come near” the Divine with appropriate offerings. They, of course, will no longer be bulls and birds; rather, they will be prayer, meditation, time devoted to service, and resources that support and celebrate the sacred in our own day.

We find the second lovely gem in the conclusion to the prophetic text. Jeremiah wants us to know what God values most. We tend to value wisdom, might, and riches. Yet, we are taught here, clearly and powerfully, that it is kindness, justice, and righteousness that God values, as should we.

In fact, there’s important guidance for those of us who want to be proud of who we are and how we’re seen. And it’s not about our wisdom, might, and riches.

Rather, “let those who glory, glory in this: that they understand and know Me, that I, the Eternal, practice kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things do I delight, says the Eternal One.”

The third, and my favorite, gem is in the verse in which God tells Jeremiah: “When you speak all these words to them, they shall not listen; when you call them they shall not answer you.”

What?

Why would God bother, and have Jeremiah bother, with words and warnings, if the people won’t heed them? Have you ever felt this in your own life – that you have something to say that is very important to making things better, but others ignore you totally? Indeed they may dislike you, even punish you for speaking the words.

Do you go ahead and act anyway? Why?

Might we act because, though it’s unlikely we’ll have an impact, there’s a chance, however small, that others will change heart, listen, and turn to the good?

Might we act because we want to be sure that good words are said and heard, even if not immediately followed. We might hope that one day, perhaps after bad consequences are experienced, these words will be remembered and will help guide the wayward back to the right path.

Finally, might we act because it’s right, in and of itself? The reality in the world will include the words, whether they’re followed or not. At least, the words are there, and there’s a record of them.

Whether Jeremiah’s contemporaries were deaf to them or not, they’re there now for you and me. Whether we listen, answer, and follow is now our choice.

Where Righteousness and Peace Kiss

 

The portion from Leviticus this week appears on the surface to teach of the ancient sacrifices in the Temple. But, more fundamentally, through these practices, it teaches people of faith that God calls us at all times to “draw near.”

The beauty of its companion in Isaiah is that the prophetic language helps us see how we actually do so in times when a physical Temple no longer stands.

We will look closely at what this nearness entails in a moment. But, before we do, let’s first understand better what the Bible teaches generally about this idea of drawing near.

We can draw near to God at any time we feel especially called. The text suggests this is so, whether we’re rich or poor.

We get the sense, too, that we should draw near to God often, at least daily, if not more frequently.

When we draw near, we are instructed to bring some sort of “offering,” and the offering should be fresh and authentic.

Our text also calls us to draw near in special times when we work to create harmony in our community. We are to celebrate such wellbeing and peace with both God and our fellows.

When we do wrong by our fellows or God, we are called to make it right and then draw near to God to acknowledge repair and restoration. This may be when we err intentionally or unintentionally, and notably when we carry guilt or shame with our wrongdoing.

In Isaiah, we find the prophet speaking to people who had been exiled to Babylon. Obviously they were no longer capable of bringing sacrifices to the Temple.

God acknowledges this reality: “You brought Me no sheep for burnt offerings, nor honored Me with your sacrifices. I did not burden you with grain-offerings, nor weary you by demanding incense.”

But – and this is crucial – God did continue to expect the people to draw near with certain offerings – then, now, and forever.

Here is the tip in the text: God says, “The people I formed for Myself, to recount my praise. Yet you have not called upon Me, O Jacob.”

In other words, whether in Babylon or modern day America, people of faith are called to praise and draw near God, even in the absence of the Temple and the requirements from ancient days to bring specified sacrifices.

How might that be?

We get a good answer when God proclaims what is NOT wanted: “Instead (of sacrifices), you have burdened Me with your sins, and wearied Me with your sins.” “Help Me,” God says, “remember…your merits.”

Could it be that reminding God of these merits is the equivalent in post-Temple times of bringing offerings to draw near? And, if so, what are these merits that God wants to be reminded of?

We know the answer to that question. As Micah teaches, it is by living in a way in which we do justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

As to the offerings we bring to remind the Divine of our merits, the psalmist in Psalm 86 guides us beautifully. “The soul of Your servant is made glad because to You, my Upholder, I lift it up.” In other words, our offerings are pleasing when we lift up from our souls prayer and praise of God, as well as living in God’s ways.

Turning to God, drawing near to the Divine presence, we find there that “kindness and truth will meet, and righteousness and peace will kiss.” (Psalm 85). And God will pour “the Divine spirit” and “blessing” upon us and our descendants.

Help From the Psalms

The portion this week and its companion in Ezekiel are full of the details of constructing, furnishing, and operating the Temple. We know that these verses, fundamentally, relate to God’s calling us to “draw near,” to live in God’s presence.

Yet, as vital as doing so is to people of faith, these ancient verses may seem inaccessible to the modern reader, especially since the physical Temple no longer stands.

So, where do we go for help? I would suggest that the Psalms, one of the greatest poetic sources for a profound understanding of God’s presence, is a perfect place. Let’s give it a try.

A nice nexus with our text this week is Psalm 48. It asks us to think back on the Temple, setting our minds “to its ramparts” and “its bastions,” and commit to recounting of the Temple “to the last generation.”

What does the psalmist say we should associate most with this memory? “We witnessed, O God, Your kindness in the midst of Your Temple.” We know, too, that God’s Name extends “to the ends of the earth,” along with praise, because “with justice Your right hand is full.” In essence, it is in God’s presence that we learn of, and are guided to emulate, the Divine virtues of kindness and justice.

The psalmist, also, sees that within this presence the Divine will lead us forever. Some translate this as: “God will lead us even beyond death.”

We see these ideas extended in Psalm 62. “Only in God is my being quiet. From Him is my rescue.” There is both a deep tranquility and a sense of salvation that comes from living in God’s presence.

After all the temptations of following scoundrels who seem to succeed or, alternatively, to live purely by resisting them, the psalmist in Psalm 73 comes to realize that it was all futile “until I came to the sanctuaries of God.” There God “grasps me by the right hand” and “guides me with Divine counsel.” Wherever I am, while I “recount the Divine works,” “God’s closeness is good to me.”

In light of this psalm, we might recall that one of God’s names is HaMakom, the Place. This name suggests that God can be understood as the One-Who-Can-Always-Be-Present. So, now that the Temple no longer stands, we have the confidence that we can still experience God’s presence in our world. As Rabbi Soloveitchik taught from the Talmud: The world is not the place of God, but God is the Place of the world.

Indeed, our tradition teaches that that Place may be very near, corresponding to our souls, through our spirit, informing what we think and do. The still small voice hovers and is available to be heard at all times.

We conclude by reflecting on the very powerful Psalms 23 and 1. What might we distill from these two Psalms?

God shepherds us on the pathways of righteousness. We learn and follow God’s teaching. And, in so doing, we are blessed with lying down in grass meadows and being guided by tranquil waters.

Life brings us into the fears and pains of dark valleys, and even the darkness of death. But, as long as we remain in God’s presence, we fear no harm, whatever harm falls our way. Somehow knowing that we have a duty to serve like priests provides comfort and the feeling that we, too, are anointed. Goodness and kindness pursue us (even in the dark valleys), and we dwell in the House of the Lord for the length of our days.

The Psalms help us understand the deeper intentions of the ancient Temple. While the structure no longer stands, the Place does. And our living in God’s presence is still very much our duty as well as the source of our richest blessings.

Weaving Relationships Back Together

This week’s portion from Exodus and its companion in Ezekiel share one very powerful feature. In both, the people stray badly in their waywardness and are punished severely; yet, in time, they are brought back into the realm of God’s care and protection.

Indeed it appears in certain ways that all is better in the end than it was in the beginning. In Exodus, God says, “Behold! I will form a covenant; in the presence of all your people, I will make distinctions such as have not been created upon all the earth…” In Ezekiel, God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.”

How does God’s justifiable wrath and anger turn into greater closeness and commitment? How does punishment turn into greater blessing?

I suggest that we may get our answer by watching Moses closely as he deals with the existential challenge of the people’s apostasy with the golden calf.

My hypothesis is that Moses’ reactions and actions, reflecting the greatest sort of virtue, are precisely what turns God back to the people and restores their relationship. And, just as important for us, it is Moses’ model behavior that gives us an ideal way back to God when we stray, as well as hope for restoration with others in our lives.

Moses responds first to learning of the idolatry by pleading for Divine mercy. His advocacy is eloquent and powerful. Should the commitment to the patriarchs be tossed away by God’s annihilating the people? Would such a punishment permit the Egyptians to be able to claim victory over God?

Whether with God or others, isn’t an immediate and urgent appeal to the deepest interests of the wronged party the absolute first, right step to take? Reason then has a chance to prevail over emotions. And the emotions can begin to be swayed by admiration for the advocate and be open to the possibility of the mercy he is promoting.

Yet, Moses’ very next step must be to hold the community accountable for its wrongdoing. They must feel the leader’s wrath for what’s been done; and God must see it. The calf is destroyed, and the people have to take sides, as to right and wrong. Moses teaches that righteousness and justice are the twins of mercy and loving-kindness.

Next, Moses immediately seeks atonement with God on behalf of himself and the community. Moses understands that, even after consequences are paid, the relationship between parties to a special covenant must be restored. Here God re-establishes the relationship but only agrees that an angel, rather than the Divine self, will accompany the people forward.

Moses seeks more, however, believing that he and the people will be at a serious disadvantage if only an incomplete restoration is achieved. If a relationship is truly special and crucial to us, surely, we must seek, after a breach, nothing less than a full reconciliation. So, hoping for God’s favor in the mission that God had established for him, Moses asks to know the Divine ways and seems to be saying, “Let’s get even closer.” God, Who desires relationship, agrees to do more, to send the Divine presence with the people. This is how we weave relationships back together again.

I find Moses’ chutzpah at this stage of the process especially appealing and powerful, as certainly must have God. “I’m not done,” he seems to be saying to God, “Show me, now, Your glory!” God responds essentially by helping Moses re-craft the two stone tablets and by showing him the Divine Attributes of grace, compassion, and justice.

How is it possible that a people who were on the verge of being destroyed for apostasy can now be the beneficiary of God’s renewed and indeed heightened presence, teaching, and enlightenment?

I want to suggest that the virtuous behavior and leadership Moses displayed made a huge difference in bringing these stories to their felicitous endings. But here’s the main message for us: God is looking for the same from you and me.

Better Than the Fat of Rams

In the special text we read this week from Samuel, the prophet, directed by God, gives the newly anointed king, Saul, a very important assignment. How Saul responds will teach us a lot.

Saul is challenged to wipe out Amalek. Let’s recall that Amalek had been more than a frightening and treacherous nemesis to the Israelites on their way; they had been a major, unrelenting threat to the people’s security.

Saul achieved initial success but decided to preserve Agag, the king of Amalek. Whatever his motive, Saul not only failed the mission of taking out this great existential threat; he seemed actually to conclude that his actions were tantamount to a major accomplishment for the people. In that spirit, Saul decided to sacrifice the surviving Amalekite cattle to God, presumably as a marker of victory and gratitude.

A stunned Samuel responded: “Does God delight in burnt offerings as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than the fat of rams.”

What’s the relevance of all this to us? And what answers might we find in this week’s portion from Exodus?

Recall that we are at that place in the narrative where God had been instructing Moses on the construction and manner of operating the Tabernacle. This and later forms of sacred space are where we draw near to God to learn to live as God expects.

So, what do we find in this text? The people are taught to bring olive oil to kindle the lamps. The priests are to wear holy garments, which are, among other things, to bear stones corresponding to the tribes. There are offerings that are to be made and rituals to be performed to sanctify the service of the priests.

How does Samuel’s teaching guide our understanding of these prescriptions? Here’s my thought: it’s a preview of the profound lesson the later prophets will teach us again and again. Rituals and offerings are important, but God does not delight in our adhering to them over living true to Divine expectations of right living.

Do we do ritual by rote? Do we do it to cover over wrong we’ve done? Do we do it because “it’s what’s done?” Or, instead, as Samuel says, do we do what we do to with the fundamental purpose of fulfilling God’s direction?

Metaphorically speaking, when we “bring oil” to our sacred space, do we do so in a manner that mostly fulfills a ritual? Or do we actually contribute our time, spirit, and resources to spreading God’s light in the world?

When we “display the stones” representing our community, are we doing so politically and for self-interest, or are we rather demonstrating that we will do what’s difficult and necessary to advance the whole community’s deeper interests?

When we make an offering, are we, like Saul, hiding our selfish decisions in a show of feigned obeisance to God and community? Or, we are giving of ourselves in a way that is consistent with God’s direction, and supportive of our community’s true requirements?

May we always be responsive and true when God calls.