Thursday, 26 May 2016

Life is Change-Parashat Behar

I had a very strange childhood, probably very unlike yours.  I grew up in Apartheid South African and there was no TV and if you didn't like sports, there wasn't much to do except read.  My sisters and I pretended we were the Bronte sisters and we would recite poetry for fun.  One of the poems we really liked was this one by Yeats:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It felt like that in South Africa then to us.  It felt like we had to hold tighter, run away or hide.  Dialogue or change didn't seem possible then, but who knew that behind the fear, it was there all along.   

Although I still feel echoes of the Yeats poem occasionally, I see there’s another way to see life, rather than as a centre that cannot hold. 

Life is change.  Despite how it looks, it’s not frozen in time like frames in a movie.  It’s a slow gradual process powered by a force that we have no control over.   

That’s the theme in the portion we read this week, that life can change for any of us at any moment- you can be very rich and powerful,  and then lose it all, but always be kind because it could be you, and it was never really yours anyway.   I wonder about Donald Trump if he looks at his good fortune and believes he’s earned it and that he’s entitled to it, instead of seeing it as dumb trust-fund luck.

In our tradition too, there has been so much truth entitlement, and so much change -
From a tribe of whining ex-slaves marching around the desert for 40 years, receiving the Torah at Sinai, and finally getting to Israel, we build the first temple, it goes down, we build the second temple; it goes down too, all is nearly lost.  Good bye Essenes, Sadducees, proto-Christians, hello Pharisees.   We smuggle the essence out in a coffin, thank you Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, and then we write the Mishna, then some of us go into exile where we write the Babylonian Talmud.  In the Babylonian Talmud (and in the Jerusalem Talmud) many changes are made to the laws given at Sinai.  The Babylonian Talmud wins out.

Then some of us reject the Babylonian Talmud entirely, goodbye Karaites.  We don’t follow that line.  Our people take it with them along with the Mishnah and the Torah and march around Europe, Asia and North Africa arguing about God, faith and reason, Thank you Maimonides for making things so clear, although God knows you annoyed the believers in magic.

In the 18 century, we cross a very narrow bridge but the main thing is not to be afraid - thank you Rav Nachman of Breslov, thank you Hasidim.  Mitnagdim object to Hasidim and they fight like crazy.   I believe there were all kinds of battles going on in Germany too with the birth of the reform movement and modern orthodoxy as a response to that, and there is more fighting involved. But  unconcerned with the entire western European enlightenment, my line are the Mitnagdim from Lithuania who go to South Africa where we sang the national anthem Die Stem at school but we also sang Hatikva because later my people up North were assigned the state of Israel in 1948.  Anything is possible I tell you.

Many years after leaving South Africa, I stand here today with you.  I love it here, the people are lovely, the Kiddish is good and because from what I can tell, our rabbis are particularly outstanding people who see the big picture.  I wish it would stay like this forever, but I have no doubt there’s more change on the way, but we’ll be ok.  I have hope.

Like life itself that finds a way, Judaism is a living breathing thing that has evolved slowly. Halacha evolves at the speed of a glacier, Takana after Takana, adapting to life’s needs as it progresses, but it happens so slowly we don’t even notice. 

I think of the priests in the Temple that blew their trumpets at the end of Beit Hashoeivah, a fun-filled festival at the end of Sukkot that sadly we don’t have any more. It sounded like a blast.  The Mishnah describes how the priests blew their trumpets at the upper gate and then down the steps and then through the court of women, blowing their tekiah and truah all the while, and then on to the East gate where they said “our eyes are turned towards God”  

Those priests must have loved their procession and were probably not happy when it ended.  But it did.  Things took a different turn and we carried on the procession in a different way.  Our temple is no longer the literal temple encased in walls, and we no longer celebrate with harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets, but we keep finding new ways to sound the notes and proclaim our place in the scheme of things.   We don’t go backwards, we go forwards.  Our eyes are still turned towards God.

What doesn’t change in this Judaism project of ours?  What is the essence, the one core value?  The prime directive?  It’s something I think about a lot.  Here are some thoughts…

1.     Maybe it’s related to the full range of the human experience Jewish practise supports, from grief to joy to desire and to belonging
2.     Maybe it’s related to the power of the Talmud that holds a kingdom of conflicting opinions where no one human is allowed to own the entire truth.
3.     Maybe it’s related to emunah, the flickering experienced and felt trust in a force bigger than myself.   In this imagined place, any moment is suspended between two sky hooks, the creation of the universe in the past and the possibility of an ideal future that we help create. 
4.     One final possibility is suggested at the end of Behar, the torah reading this week, although I’m open to any other ideas.   The main thing is not to make any idols to worship and all the implications of human responsibility that radical monotheism demands.

Not to believe there is more god in some things than in others   
Or to believe your way has more god in it than the other ways 
That your land is more blessed by god than any other land 
That your good fortune is an indication of your special privilege, instead of seeing it as just on loan. 

Sometimes we get to be the ones who look after others and sometimes we have to be the one who needs a little help from their friends.  

This I know for sure, that in the moment of listening to another person without judgement, or being really heard by another person, and in the moment of love and surrender, I've felt part of the intact, infinite space I call god.  There is no action, no land and no language that is not part of that.  It is a safe, shared, sacred space.  It is a place of hope and possibility. 

It is the only centre that holds and goes on holding…the rest is just to point the way.