Guest Post: Caleb Gruber
Good Morning, I want to begin by thanking my parents not just for the regular stuff but for also the huge pivot to make this day possible for me--masks, gloves, bar mitzvah suits and all... my bar mitzvah Tutor Cantor Zach who helped me get to this moment even in a pandemic, the rabbi for helping me make this day special in these non traditional circumstances, AIleen and my hebrew school teachers for teaching me all these years and of course you...my family and friends all of whom I had hoped would be here with me in person today but am happy thanks to technology you can still be here with me through zoom.
I have been going to Temple my whole life and even more as I prepared for my Bar mitzvah. I have to say that this is not how I saw this playing out. The temple is usually a place bursting with activity...some acceptable like prayers and songs; some not so acceptable like kids running around and adults whispering gossip in hushed tones. But today it is quiet. It is just me, my family, rabbi Carie and silence. It is the opposite of the organized chaos I associate with Park Slope Jewish Center. The physical place is familiar, but in this moment it’s clear that PSJC, like many synagogues, is not defined by its building but by the people that give life to it --and I miss that.
This week’s parsha and the emptiness of our synagogue right now have many points of connection.
This week's parsha, on its surface, is a cold list of do’s and don’ts...It lists out all of the major holidays and how they should be celebrated, the rules for being a priest of the temple, the rules for how to give an offering and the rules for revenge-or as I like to call it- the eye for an eye section.
These rules are particular and oddly specific and contain little room for interpretation. They bear little resemblance to the experience I have in going to temple today.
I had a speech that kinda outlined that and was funny and interesting…. and then the world changed...schools and businesses shut down, I started zoom hebrew school and google classroom for regular school, there was no more going out to dinner or parties, no spring break trip….everything changed and so did the way I viewed this parasha…
This parasha became more puzzling to me in our current reality and I had a lot more questions...it made less sense to be so rigid.....and even less sense as I tried to imagine myself as a Jew in the time of the Torah going through what we are now...I mean COVID- 19 is not exactly the first plague our people have endured, It is less than a month since Passover, and it is certainly something I never thought I would be discussing in my d’var torah, but here we are…
So aside from saying what holiday happens when and what happens at that holiday, let’s address one of the focal points of this Parsha -the rules for being a KOHEN, a priest…
If you wanted to be a priest of THE temple here are some of the rules you had to follow...
1. Do not touch a dead body unless it is that of an immediate relative.
2. Don’t shave your head or beard and don’t have any marks on the skin
3. Don’t marry a divorced or widowed person.
The first one is don’t touch a dead body unless it was that of an immediate relative, and by that they mean a blood relative so a wife doesn’t count.
At first, I guess it sounds okay because back then there was a lot of disease and such and you probably don’t want the priest touching someone and bringing it back to the Temple. And I now understand the concern was about Tumah, ritual impurity, but I think the same concerns apply whether it is germs or Tumah.
However, the more I thought about it the more I wondered how that works practically. The priest is the holy of holies, how can he attend to the dying if he can’t be with them at the moment of death itself? Isn’t taking care of the dead one of the greatest mitzvahs we can perform? How can the priest take care of his people if he’s separated from them at such an important moment?
Being there in happy times...weddings, bris, baby namings, holidays, that seems like the easy stuff, but the hard stuff like death isn’t that when being the head of the Temple ---the priest ----means that you do not actually encounter death itself (except from your family of origin). If this is so, where would true leadership have been found? If a priest back then was forbidden from taking part in washing and dressing a congregant for burial then how can he ask his congregants to do so? If he can only touch his relatives, what about those who die without family? If the Kohanim were supposed to serve as representatives of G-d and holiness on this earth, why shouldn’t the Priest step in as family for those without? That seems like it would be the “godly” thing to do.
And then I thought about what is going on now with the virus and how many people have to die alone in strange hospital beds without family, without a priest or rabbi because health care professionals fear the virus can be transmitted, and it isn’t safe, and they are worried about the spread. And I wonder: am I being too hard on these ancient priests and their rules? Maybe back when these rules were written there were plagues like COVID-19 and not the modern public health system we have now and that like the rules of Keeping Kosher and these rules about contact with the dead were put in place to keep the priests free from disease (or ritual impurity, which was very important at the time--to let the Kohen offer sacrifices for the people and things like that). ….Something very hard to do, but necessary to keep the holiest of the religion alive.
Then I thought at the same time, aren’t rituals like preparing the body for burial with prayer and washing still important during sickness and plagues, aren’t last rites something that all men and women are entitled to before passing on? And shouldn’t the priest, being the head of the religion, be responsible for leading that?
I look at how our people are adjusting right now in this time of
Covid-19, and I see that Judaism is adapting so that these cherished and sacred moments for our dead will continue AND our rabbinic leadership will be safe. Last rites being given over i-pads and some hevera Kadisha are preparing our dead in masks and gloves (when possible). Sh’mira and Shiva are being conducted over zoom…..even this service right now…
So I question this first rule for our holy temple... What’s the basis for it? Out of concern for keeping our priests safe--either physically or spiritually? Or did we as a people then just lack vision and creativity to find ways to both serve and protect? Was this law created at a time when we had forgotten the hardships we had endured before, where we had forgotten how to evolve to meet the challenges of the moment? The history of the Jews has always been marked by hardship and adaptation, we’ve always found a way to practice our faith— from when we were slaves in Egypt through the Holocaust and the rise of anti-semitism today.
What is it about the time of the great Temple that created such rigidness in our thinking? Perhaps there was comfort in that rigidity. Certainly many people even today find comfort in strict codes and rules. Perhaps so long ago we didn’t trust critical thinking except among a handful of leaders? Perhaps there was something important in separating out certain leaders--even if it meant they could not participate, much less lead the people, in some of the most critical and meaningful actions of the community?
I don’t have the answers, but I have just as many questions of the next rule —which seems just as random to me.
The second rule about Kohanim is: Don't shave your head or beards and don’t leave marks on the skin...It seems like the torah is restricting the way the priests express themselves...Perhaps they were a big fan of man buns but not of tattoos. But something that I have seen is that the way you look doesn’t necessarily correspond to how religious you are or your ability to lead. If that were true ...well, I won’t get political here, but as I know from my own religious training male- female, long hair- short hair, a scar or a zit does not a leader make. I have found religious leadership in all forms, and I feel like here, we must have limited ourselves from finding great leadership by limiting our religious leaders from defining who they are and limiting their own creativity. Of course, the religious leadership of those days was limited to people by birth--in other words, you couldn’t earn your way into being a Kohen (), you had to be born into it. I’m glad that now-a-days, religious leadership is something people have to work for. It is not assumed because of whose family they came from--it is just based on our own interests, talents and hard work.
The third rule-- how priests can’t marry a divorced individual or one that isn’t pure....also strikes me as old and dated. It doesn’t say --like in the Catholic religion-- don’t marry because that will take away your focus from being holy. It says you can’t marry a certain type of woman. Maybe there is a therapist out there who will say if you both are pure then there is no baggage and maybe that's true...I’m 13 and all I know is If i was going to have to follow a bunch of rules I wouldn’t want who I love to be a part of it. I think if a priest really is the holiest of the holy, then they should be trusted to pick their partner whomever they would be.
So, to recap if you want to be a priest, you can’t touch strange dead people, you can’t get piercings, tattoos or cut your hair or beards and your opportunities around love are limited.
But that’s not all. If you have a skin disease and are a priest, you can’t do your job. Yes, that’s right you need to call in sick if you have an odd rash or don’t feel well and if you find a wife who is pure and then she dies you can’t attend her funeral or prepare her for death…..
I knew the Torah gave rules, but instead of helping us to become better versions of ourselves, these seem to be more of a punishment for the person taking on this holy role. . …It is amazing to me that so many priests were around and willing to follow all of these rules! ////
This week’s parsha isn’t just about the priest though, it’s also about the congregant.
If you want to make an offering and let’s say on the way you had your kids carry it and they were fighting, and the offering --which was probably fruit-- got dropped and bruised. . . well forget the offering…you have to go back home and find another offering because just like the priest has to be free of marks so must your offerings as well.
Now imagine if we had to do that right now….You would either have to wait until your once a week trip to the grocery store or the next time you could get a food delivery which could take a week or more...so,...so much for your offering in the time of COVID 19.
Then after laying out all these challenging rules...my parasha ends on the infamous biblical rule for revenge-an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Now don’t get me wrong, as the brother of Jonah Gruber I have a lot of sympathy for this rule.
But how does this part of the parsha match up at all with the laws for priests and offerings..this is more of the wild west….total lawlessness. It certainly doesn’t square up with the love and compassion I’ve always associated with Judaism. At least that’s what it seems at first glance. Truthfully, we know that this law is actually an improvement on a general idea that let you take any kind of vengeance you wanted on someone who hurt you. But more importantly, the rabbis of the Talmud recognized the limits of a literal reading of an “eye for an eye”. They decided to adapt this teaching to be about monetary compensation—about getting money for harm done. That would allow the community to continue in a much better way. This is an adaptation worthy of the Jewish community I have come to respect so much.
For me, Judaism is about community. A support system that looks out for the whole and raises every individual part up. A religion that
accepts everyone regardless of the way you look, your gender, who you marry, or look like. It is where friends come together and support each other and work towards a common moral goal not for ourselves but for the greater whole of our people-that’s how we’ve survived for 5,000 years. You can see that when this building is full of worshippers and you can feel that spirit now in the space just filled with my family and Rabbi Carrie and you virtually. Here we are the midst of what feels like a story in the Torah..in the midst of a plague that separates us, yet here we are all coming together to continue to celebrate the sacred right of bar mitzvah-- adapting with a virtual congregation gathering around the torah as we have done as a people going back before the times of the Priest at the temple. We are not preaching a literal eye for an eye but reaching out to each other, helping each other through these difficult times with a zoom call, or shopping for a friend-accepting and celebrating who we are together.
We have come a long way as a people since the days of the ancient Temple. We’re even stronger and more resilient as we have learned that rules may be important but have to evolve if we are to survive and thrive.
I thank you for joining me and adapting to accommodate my virtual bar mitzvah in the time of this global pandemic.. It’s the very reason that I know that we, as a people, are going to be just fine.