Shemini: Choosing the Path

I’ll confess up front that Leviticus, with its lists of rules and laws, is not my favorite book. I prefer Genesis and Exodus, with their great drama, rich story telling, and vivid encounters with the Holy. But as always with Torah study, going deeper shows the real lessons.

In Shemini we are told of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who are killed instantly in the tent of meeting because they came to worship with “strong fire,” that was not commanded by God.

I read that and think, How can any form of worship be wrong? And not just wrong, but so unacceptable to a strict and righteous god that they’re zapped like flies on a summer patio. Not for some obvious sin, like breaking one of the commandments, but for trying too hard to serve, and getting it very very wrong, at least by some standard.

I hear a question that’s sometimes asked in Torah study: Are you satisfied with a God who’ll do that? And I think about the consequences of wrong choices, made consciously or not. For purposes of this dvar, I’ll settle for judging human actions, not the divine. But the rebel in me really wants to know: Is God so strict or so fragile that there’s a wrong way to pray?

Disclaimers up front. I come from the “pray often, and how you want school.” In a field, on the sofa, or right here should all be valid, if you pray with deep sincerity and an open heart.

Part of me believes trust in the divine is enough to make the connection, and that more formal rituals of worship, though satisfying, communal, and valuable, are somehow extra  That prayer is a conversation we’re always in, even if our attention lapses during brunch or basketball. That more casual sense of reverence bumps up against my traditional self, child of immigrants. That one opens up at the first sound of Hebrew prayers and songs.

I wonder what Nadav and Avihu were singing on their way into the mishkan. If they were joyous with the chance to be priests. I wonder about the sanctity of life. Why do we care so much that they’re dead? Is it for their grieving father, or for our own fears of dying?

What if we stand the story on its head? If their fervor got them promoted early. If that kind of eagerness is an instant pass to glory. Or, reminds my inner Buddhist, what if it’s a one-way ticket back, busted into a new incarnation. Having to start all over with aleph and bet. A long way back to the bima.

I think about the impact on the Isrealites: Aaron, Moses and family, plus the assembled tribes, not yet a nation. But mostly I think about them, the two dead aspiring priests. Thrust into the world to come by their eagerness to serve God. Overzealous, too impetuous, not mature or learned enough.

I’m very empathetic with their impatience. With their spontaneity. Their eagerness to get to goal. And in that eagerness, failing to get it right. In my normal life I call it my wake up thin fantasy. It doesn’t work. But we all keep hoping it will.

I think about what Dolfy tried to teach me. That being a good Jew comes down simply to three things: Torah, prayer, and mitzvot. Three deceptively short words. Add in the Ten Commandments. Count the mitzvot, and three gets pretty quickly to 600 plus..

Once you incorporate the legacy of Talmud, you’ve got five thousand years of smart and pious Jews telling you when to brush your teeth and how to bury your dead The getting-things-right ante has definitely gone up. And it’s hard to get it all right all he time.

So are we all doomed to be zapped?

Because there’s not one of us who hasn’t thought, I’m tired, I’ll skip services, or Torah study, or whatever makes you feel like you’ve reaffirmed the covenant. Whatever  makes you feel like a real Jew. Because when I think about living that devout a life, 613 mitzvot, a single right incense, I quickly bump into deep theological questions, like, Is watching the Ducks a violation of Shabbat?

I remember a conversation from the old Balaboostah days, about how we all feel like we’re faking it. Jewish daughters, long on tikkun olam but sometimes pretty short on following the rules. Looking Jewish, feeling Jewish, saying I’m Jewish. But maybe that’s not enough.

I accept Torah, prayer, and mitzvoth as basic cornerstones. But that’s on an intellectual level. More practically it often feels like the sign in the repair shop. The one that says There’s fast, cheap, and right. But you can’t have all three.

So what’s the right way, even for those of us who aren’t aspiring priests, but who’re genuinely striving to feed our souls with healthy organic incense? How can we create a sufficient sense of earned goodness to enter the sanctuary and emerge alive? Emerge regenerated and inspired? Even inspiring?

I think often of the Rabbi Akiva story. The one where he and three yeshiva buddies enter Paradise, the Garden. One is struck dead instantly; one goes mad; one renounces faith; and Akiva gets enlightened. The story is told to teach us: stay on program or else. To echo Nadav and Avihu. To warn us about what can happen unless we’re committed . Committed to torah. Committed to prayer. Committed to mitzvot. Committed to everything the Talmud says we should do, and how we should do it.

Despite threats of madness or death, I still want to ask, Can we make up in zeal with we lack in practice? Not according to Shemini. That is not if you are a literalist. Because the God of the Torah is not an I’ll take what you give me deity. He’s a monopolist. He wants it all and wants it his way and you better do it right. That’s one Old Testament view of what we’re here to do.

My view of how we learn is a lot more elastic. We’re sent here in our very human birthday suits. Back to do our work, to learn the lessons of Torah. To learn them day by day, mistake by mistake, peeling away one by one the layers of our ego. To get it right whenever we can, even if we get it wrong a couple of other dozen times along the way.

It’s time for our ruach, our higher self, to labor in the trenches. To get some dirt under its new fingernails while we build the temples of our souls. Time to grapple with issues like how many mitzvot might make you pious enough, or whether eating matzo violates your no-wheat vow.

We work at it Shabbat by Shabbat, from Passover to Yom Kippur, and back again to here. It’s harder some times than others. Between the holidays and festivals, we get distracted. Pretty easily for some of us, perhaps less so for the diligent and pure of heart.

To make up for our distraction, we get excited. We find new inspiration and new forms of striving. And in our earnest desire to be holy, we sometimes reach for the wrong incense.

And then possibly, zap.

So one model of Judaism says live rigorously, with one eye always open lest the lightening bolt strikes. Good choice if there’s a divine accountant, keeping track of when we’re holy and when we’re not. Another, more modern, model is much looser and inclusive, as when we hold up our tallit and make the tents of Israel, from which no one is excluded, at least if they’ve show up at shul.

In my primitive, though probably optimistic, bookkeeping of the holy everything counts (including trying). Keeping Shabbat is good for the soul. Ditto the ten commandments. Even five or six is a good start. But look, says that stern Orthy in my conscience, you just hit the slippery slope of relativism. If you don’t do it all, and do it all right, you’ve blown it. Zap.

Maybe I’m doomed to be zapped. But by me, whether you say a hundred prayers a day or not, the part of you that‘s trying to be a good Jew, to be a compassionate and wise person, that’s the one who’s using the right incense.

When I started with this parshah, I wanted to demonstrate, and defend, the depth of the Jewish ecstatic tradition. The varied lineages of those who seek devekut, the sense of union with the divine. It’s a practice familiar to my generation, the ones who used strange incense as a way to talk to God. Maybe next year.

I honor a practice that can augment all rituals, Jewish or not. It’s a different incense, one where the kavannah, the intention, counts as much as the form.

It’s pretty simple. What’s required is sincerity, gratitude, and awareness. I’m agreeing that there’s right incense, but I think it’s called mindfulness. And that Torah, prayer, and mitzvoth without mindfulness are not enough.

For the record, I’m all for torah, prayer and mitzvoth. I practice each of them, in my fashion. But I often feel Jew-lite. I remember something I overheard a father tell his son on their way into services: If you get bored, read what’s below the line.

And that’s how I sometimes feel about it. I want the stories of torah, and the lessons. But I need to translate them into something relevant. To convert the literal into the intentional. To act from kavannah, not from a rulebook of ancient practices. I’ll never offer up a goat. You probably won’t either. But we can sacrifice time, money, or comfort, either in penance or for a higher good.

Intention and awareness are prayer made into action.

I love the grandiose language of the liturgy. The awe and imagery it evokes. But I also want the simple heart language of the interpreters. I believe in payer but equally I believe in simply saying thank you. Of living in gratitude, as often as possible. In recognizing the divinity all around us. Of saying thanks, to one another as well as to God, for the richness and magic of our world.

The mitzvoth are the hardest. Not only because I get lazy or forget, but because there’s so many. It’s easer to feel insufficient than successful. But they are a reminder of our free will. That life requires continual choosing. My “below the line” is to translate them into a practice of mindfulness. Trying to pay attention to whatever I do, measured against a standard of basic ethics and Hillel’s distillation of Torah: do unto others, as you would have others do unto you.

I don’t believe in any single right incense any more than I believe that zeal alone is sufficient. But I do believe that kavannah, gratitude, and mindfulness will activate every practice. That may sound like mild incense compared to literalism or orthodoxy, but it’s transformative and it works.

It’ll lead you places you might not predict. To counting the omer, which you can do from now until Shavuous. Or to a rosh chodesh circle. You might find yourself in Torah study, or washing up and saying a prayer before meals. Kavannah, mindfulness, and gratitude will teach you a new form of prayer. A kind that arises not out of shoulds, or fear of the zap, but from your higher self. And that new softer you will talk to God, more often, not out of fear, but as a loving friend.

If we each use kavannah, gratitude, and mindfulness as our daily incense, we’ll become better people. We’ll participate in tikkun olam. We’ll create a better world to come, in this plane, in malkuth, in this world of being.

In the end, of course, we all get zapped by our own mortality. But by living with awareness and intention, we can do some good while we’re here.

Shabbat shalom.