Friday, March 22, 2024

Parashat Vayikra

Is there not a Surrealist painting involving a nose in the sky? There really should be. Think of it, a blue sky, a giant pair of nostrils, some smoke rising toward them, perhaps even a Cheshire cat-like smile floating in the air, appreciating the pleasing odors. 

This week, in Parashat Vayikra, G-d tells the Israelites how to make sacrifices by fire, many of which generate "a pleasing odor to [G-d]." I remember in the days before my conversion to Judaism telling my mother about the notion of G-d appreciating smells. I had also recently been telling her that G-d doesn't have a body. If G-d has no body, G-d has no nose, she responded. I can't argue with that. 

But somehow I find it more possible to believe in a spirit appreciating smells than, say, chowing down on a charred piece of sacrificed animal like--l'havdil!--Santa eating cookies. It's possible to imagine a spiritual being, like G-d, as existing in the air, ethereal. And an odor is just that. Odors and spirits seem compatible. Additionally, smoke from a sacrifice rises, and I tend to think of G-d as being "up there": in the sky, in the Heavens. Even the notion of G-d as being everywhere still puts G-d mostly in the atmosphere, in space.

Why might G-d enjoy pleasing odors? Rashi comments that G-d finds the odors of sacrifices to be "satisfying" not for the smell itself necessarily but as evidence that the people are following the commandments. Perhaps the smell of a sacrifice is like that little strip of color blocks on a potato chip bag that a scanner can check to see that all the colors are printing properly and that hopefully the image, which the scanner can't see, looks okay. A pleasing odor signals that the commandments surrounding sacrifices are being followed--and hopefully the others, too.

Rashi later wonders at the reason for leaving the feathers on a bird being sacrificed: "But surely you will not find even a common sort of man who can smell the odour of burnt feathers without being disgusted with it! Why, then, does Scripture say that it shall be offered with the feathers?" Rashi asks. Does G-d truly think that burnt feathers smell good? The answer Rashi gives is that the offering "makes a finer show" with the feathers on. The parsha later notes that if a person can't afford a sheep for a sin offering, they may offer birds instead. Birds, therefore, are the offering of the poor, Rashi notes, and that's why there's an incentive to make them look as grand as possible--even if the odor of burning feathers is not pleasing to our own noses.

The Hebrew word translated as "pleasing" in the phrase pleasing odor, נִיחֹ֖חַ, is defined as "soothing, quieting, transquillizing." I find that last definition compelling. Imagine, the idea of producing a sort of tranquillizer or anesthesia that G-d would breathe in. In a moment of fear, the Israelites might want to render G-d a little less powerful, to sedate G-d a little bit. In other moments, when G-d seems less frightening, the idea of soothing or pleasing G-d might be more fitting.

What seems to connect most to my life in this parsha at this time is the notion of wanting people to do something (in this case, to burn an offering) less for the outcome of the action itself (the pleasing odor) than as a sign of fidelity. The idea that G-d would be satisfied, as Rashi said, by the odor as a signal that the Israelites were following the commandments reminds me of what my therapist says about requests I make of her. Sometimes, she supposes, I may want her to do certain things, like answer an email or give me a call, not so much because the I need the answer but because her giving me what I asked for would be a sign that she cared. Still cared. And still cared this week too. Why do I need such signals, rather than just having faith or remembering our history?

Maybe G-d, like me, needs a lot of reminders that people still care. Or G-d used to need those reminders. We no longer make sacrifices. Instead, we pray. I can't think of any particular pleasing odors that arise at our services. But we do light candles, which turn into CO2 and smoke (and water and energy). I hope G-d is pleased.

Shabbat Shalom, and have a good Purim!

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Calf v. Mishkan


Mark Morgan via Flickr, CC License 2.0

It was Shabbat, and I had just washed my dishes. Then I started writing this. Soon I’d head out for a date, which I hoped would be fun. “At least I’ll have the dishes washed,” I thought. The date, I couldn’t control; the dishes, I could. So I chose the dishes and the relative solidity of words that I could create and destroy.

I’d say that in washing the dishes, I chose the golden calf. Let me explain. Lately the rabbis at my synagogue have been talking about the distinction between the golden calf, which is solid, literally and figuratively, and the mishkan, the portable house of worship that holds empty space for an invisible god. Many things in life seem to sort themselves into these categories: golden calf or mishkan. 

For anyone who needs a refresher on the golden calf incident: After G-d delivered the 10 Commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, Moses went up on the mountain to get further instructions from G-d (and the first set of stone tablets). He was up there 40 days and 40 nights. Meanwhile, the people down below got tired of waiting for Moses, wondering what had happened to him. In their impatience, they melted down jewelry they had brought from Egypt to fashion a golden calf, an idol, which they proceeded to worship. When Moses got back and saw the golden calf, he was so angry at the Israelites that he smashed the tablets that G-d had just given him and destroyed the calf. But in time, he got new tablets and taught the Israelites to build something different: not a golden calf but a mishkan.

I think Shabbat is the mishkan in temporal form. Not empty space but empty time. Keeping Shabbat requires faith in the importance of something that isn't happening, faith in the value of not working. Thinking not “at least I did the dishes” but “at least I didn’t”! 

In going on a date Shabbat afternoon, I chose the mishkan, figuratively speaking. The future is in the mishkan. Hope is in the mishkan. The unknown is in the mishkan. 

Pessimism, on the other hand, is the golden calf. The past is the golden calf. Sabotage is the golden calf. Destruction is the golden calf. These are all things we can be certain about. But it's certainty at the expense of hope.

I include the past in my list of golden calf-like things, but not without hesitation. The past isn't all bad any more than the future will be all good. But the past is solid. Remembering the past and feeling expected emotions, even the negative ones, can be easier than imagining and hoping for an unknown future.

Since I don’t necessarily have a problem with remembering the past, maybe golden calves aren't all bad, either. The issue is not the object, be it a golden calf or a photo album, but how people use it or what it displaces. For the Israelites, the golden calf displaced faith in an invisible god. In more metaphorical cases, golden calf-like behavior and thought can displace hope and a willingness to take a chance on something new. 

Here's another golden calf-like thing I'm slow to condemn: I have a beloved stuffed animal. It's a purple bunny, but with a switch of color and species, it could be a golden calf. A stuffed animal is solid not against the teeth, like gold, but solid as in dependable. You can carry it around and squeeze it as hard you want without hurting it. You don't have to wonder if and when it will come back because it never goes anywhere (and woe to the parents of a child who has misplaced a favorite toy). If I worshipped and put all my hope in my purple bunny, that could cause me some problems, could prevent me from living my (adult!) life. But I don’t do that. My bunny is a delight. Further, I think there's some value in thinking about the golden calf in the framework of child development.

My therapist calls stuffed animals “transitional objects.” Such objects help the child transition from having a parent around all the time, and getting comfort from them, to being able to comfort herself. The American Psychological Association definition of transitional object describes the destination point of this transition in a wonderful way: as the development of an internal representation of the parent that comforts the child. The goal isn't to resign yourself to solitude; it's to feel the comfort of someone who loves you even when they aren't physically there.

Maybe the golden calf was a transitional object for the Israelites. Moses was gone, and they weren't sure that he was coming back. They definitely weren't sure that this newly introduced god could be counted on in absentia. So they made a golden calf to soothe themselves. 

Eventually, though, Moses did come back. And eventually, the Jewish people did learn to find comfort in the empty space of the mishkan. And, perhaps, within ourselves. If the golden calf helped us learn to do that, more power to it.
I recently listened to a podcast about Gazans who are eating animal food to survive. It reminded me of a comment my parents occasionally made that they "aren't eating cat food yet,” meaning that they have enough money to support themselves—and to help me, too. As a journalist looking for stories, I thought: aha. A feature about people eating animal food. When and where has this happened in the past? What distinguishes human and animal food, anyway? Dogs can’t eat chocolate; are there other human foods animals can’t eat? Animal foods people can’t eat? The history of pet food? 

I might be able to get my hands on some of this information. But what I really want is not the history of starvation but for the Gazans, for all people, to have human food. As for how to ensure that, what to write about that? The fighting has to end. But how? What happens next? What’s fair to everyone? There I draw a blank. And my point here is that sometimes, a blank is appropriate. There's hope in that blank space.

I’m not writing a pet food story, whose dismal outlines I can make out. I’m holding out for something unknown and better.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Parashat Vayakhel: The Almond Blossom Menorah

In last week's Torah portion, Vayakhel, Moses instructs the Israelites to keep the Sabbath and then gives them detailed instructions for building the mishkan, the portable house of worship that will allow G-d to live among the people as they wander the desert. 

These instructions sound very familiar, as they’ve already appeared in an earlier Torah portion, Terumah. In that portion, G-d is telling Moses, who is with G-d on Mount Sinai, what to tell the Israelites about how to build the mishkan. Meanwhile, at the base of the mountain, the people get tired of waiting for Moses and make a golden calf to worship. In this week’s portion, after getting angry at the Israelites, smashing the tablets, and going back up the mountain for new tablets, Moses finally gets to convey G-d’s message to the Israelites, and they build the mishkan just as G-d had specified.

The mishkan instructions do not call up an image of a magnificent structure any more than the steps of an Ikea instruction manual, to borrow a reference that Rabbi Matt Green made in a drash about parashat Terumah, would suffice to show you what your chest of drawers should look like. With a chest of drawers, though, you already know what it’s supposed to look like. Not so for the mishkan—at least, not so for me.

I wonder what the purpose of including so many details, and including them twice, was for the writers of the Torah. Were they trying to preserve instructions for building the mishkan in case the Jews ever needed to build it again? Did it not occur to the authors to say “Moses told the Israelites what G-d had told him,” rather than repeating it all? I don’t know and would like to learn know how others have answered this question.

The part that I like best about this parsha is the description of the lampstand—menorah, in Hebrew. Finally, something I can recognize because of the familiar word and also because of the description of a structure with three branches on each side. If the mishkan description gave us the menorah (and this is the first mention of menorah in the Torah, according to My Jewish Learning), maybe it was worth slogging through the less reader-friendly sections. Then again, perhaps other parts of the mishkan resonate with other people or will resonate with me another year.

The text says that the cups of the menorah were shaped like almond flowers, per G’d’s instructions. That’s quite the detail. Interesting that the menorah would have branches and flowers, like a tree. (Makes me think of the burning bush, but that's another subject for another day.)

I Googled “almond flowers” and happened upon something else familiar. What came up first, before photographs or direct references to nature or botany, was an image that is stitched onto a pillow that I see with a turn of my head as I sit here writing of branches and white blossoms against a blue background. It’s Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom, and it can be found patterning all sorts of objects in addition to pillows. The painting itself lives in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.

I doubt that Van Gogh had Judaism in mind when painting that work, but my Almond Blossom pillow does relate to my life as a Jew. After I had converted to Judaism, friends of our family sent me the pillow as a gift to celebrate my conversion and to thank me for some baked goods I’d sent them as care packages. They’d heard about the tradition of reclining on pillows during the Passover seder and so sent me a very fine pillow to recline on during my first Passover as a Jew. 

I had been sending baked goods because the husband in the couple was dying. He died on what was the eighth day of Passover that year. (These friends aren’t Jewish, by the way.)  Now the pillow, which sits in a yellow chair in my apartment looking beautiful and occasionally cushioning someone’s back, is a memory of him and of his surviving wife. 
This past Shabbat at CBE, Rabbi Green spoke about our wish to see ourselves mirrored in the world, referencing the women’s mirrors that were built into the mishkan. I wanted to find myself mirrored in the Torah portion and so was thrilled to discover in it not just a menorah but one patterned with blossoms that, it turned out, were sitting right next to me on the Van Gogh pillow. 

Yet the pillow and its blossoms weren’t entirely known to me. I didn’t remember that it depicted almond blossoms. I knew it was Van Gogh, but I just thought of it as showing a flowering tree. I didn’t remember that it was an almond tree or know that almond trees are the first ones to bloom in Israel in the spring. In addition to finding something familiar, I learned something about the pillow, about the world, from studying the parsha. It was more than a mirror. Perhaps next year, I’ll find a connection to, say, dolphin skins.

In a way, just by being Jewish, or maybe even just by being interested (I say to include my former non-Jewish self), we are connected to every parsha. The pillow was there sitting on the chair, and I had a connection to it whether or not I knew that the blossoms on it were from an almond tree. Learning more about the Van Gogh painting just deepened the connection or traced a path for it. The Torah is there “on the chair,” so to speak, for every Jew. Maybe every parsha reflects us, in some way, whether or not we know it. The connections are there for the finding. And chances are, as we seek out familiarity, something we knew, we’ll also find something new.

If this were Shabbat, I would say Shabbat Shalom. As it is, I wish everyone a shavua tov.