The God-Who-Welcomes-Us-Back

This week’s verses from Leviticus relate to the very mysterious condition known as tzara’at. Most Bibles translate this as leprosy, which is very unfortunate because it is not leprosy. If not leprosy, what is it? How is it diagnosed and treated? What are its consequences? And, mostly, why does it matter?

I know this is already sounding like mumbo jumbo to many of you. But I plead with you to stay with me. At least metaphorically, this is very cool stuff and invaluable in helping us lead a good life.

My first gift is to spare you the analysis I’ve done on these portions. For the curious, here’s a link. http://www.thirdwell.org/Tazria-Metzora-Notes-Lesson-26.html.

For the rest, I will just tell you the main idea. Tzara’at is the manifestation (perhaps experienced more spiritually than bodily) of having acted in wrong and sinful ways. The Bible illustrates it.

Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at after she gossips about Moses. King Uzziah is afflicted after usurping the priest’s role in the Temple. Naaman is afflicted for acting arrogantly. And Gehazi is afflicted after wrongly extorting a payment from Naaman after Elisha cured him of tzara’at.

The details about the diagnosis and treatment of this dis-ease are fascinating, but we don’t have time here to explore them fully. I do want, however, to make one point. They encourage us to look within ourselves for those impulses that lead us astray so that we can control them before they erupt into harmful behavior.

What happens if we stray and “tzara’at comes on?” Essentially, first, we must acknowledge it, perhaps while getting appropriate help. And, second, we must be isolated in a way that can lead to a change of heart, a turning back in the right direction, and a readiness to become whole with others and a return to the community.

The companion verses in II Kings tell a compelling story that helps us understand this process beautifully.

On the outskirts of town we find four men stricken with tzara’at. Tradition has it that these are Gehazi and his sons. There was a famine in the land, so they decided to scout the enemy Aramean camp in search of food. When they did, they found no one there. The Arameans, we learn, thought God had sent an army dispatched by Israel, and so they fled.

The four came into the camp, ate, and took some riches, just for themselves. But, upon taking and hiding the booty, one told another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, yet we are keeping quiet. If we wait until daybreak, we will incur guilt. Now, let us…relate this in the king’s palace.”

They rushed home and told the gatekeepers who relayed the news to the king. After deliberations and some scouting, the people of their town came to the camp and benefited richly.

Why is this story so important to us?

Let’s assume the one who spoke in the group was indeed Gehazi. Recall he had earlier experienced the desire of riches inappropriately and just for himself. He gave in to these selfish urges in his larcenous actions with Naaman. Now he confronts the same temptations, but this time he overcomes them. This is “not doing right,” he says. Instead, now, he opens up to, and shares with, others.

Turning away from the sinful inclination to which one had previously succumbed and refusing to commit that self-same sin is the classic turning that the God-Who-Welcomes-Us-Back seeks.

Is Gehazi welcomed back into the community? Has he averted Elisha’s forever curse of tzara’at for himself and his descendants? The answer is unclear in the text. I would make the case for a plot in which his transformation leads to his return. Wouldn’t you?

Advertisements

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.