“Leviticus is one of my favorite books,” I say, and the room goes still. Someone gulps quietly. Leviticus, they are thinking, that book of rules and regulations, that book about skin disease and diverse bodily emissions. Ugh.
Admittedly, our priestly manual contains whole chapters that seem simultaneously repetitive and obscure. But there’s a big idea here worth taking seriously: in Leviticus, in Vayikra, we learn that ritual embeds values.
Right away, we are told that there are many ways to offer ourselves to God. The gratitude expressed in the olah, the burnt offering, demonstrated our ancestors’ willingness to give without expecting reward. Making a zevach sh’lamim, a well-being offering, gave the individual Israelite a chance to offer thanks and share the wealth with others in the form of a communal meal. There are levitical rituals for reconciliation, for reparation, for teshuva.
Revelations can emerge from texts that seem, in a word, bizarre. Some years back, my community’s Torah study group read about a purification ritual involving a recipe which included mixing up red cedar, crimson yarn, natural water and the blood of a bird. Our discussion of the passage – which centered around how to bring someone who had been exiled from camp back into the community – led the group to consider how congregations could make a home for the isolated and mentally ill.
Rituals embed our values.
Last December I took part in a ritual called pyebaek (pronounced paybeck), one of a number of Korean marriage rituals. During the ritual, the bridal couple must make a series of full prostrations to parents and parents-in-law – no mean feat, as the couple are dressed in ornate and colorful dress. Both sets of parents offer the couple advice and gifts. Thereafter, the couple spreads out the apron held high by the bride throughout the ceremony. The parents engage in a classic fertility ritual, throwing chestnuts and dates in the direction of the apron. Those the couple catch will foretell the number of sons and daughters they will have.
I learned about pyebaek from my son, Erik, and his then fiancée, Serafina Ha. Since I knew both Erik and Serafina wanted children, I made the most predictable of jokes, and vowed to toss a bowlful of chestnuts and dates at them.
What happened, however, was not at all the lighthearted scene I’d imagined. Ralf and I kneeled on a straw mat before a low table. We were served a sweet liquor which we sipped from the same half of a gourd.
Then Erik and Serafina walked in. I was immediately aware that they were taking the ceremony very seriously. Each prostration was unified — performed almost like a dance. They knelt, bowed and rose with a solemnity I had not foreseen. Ralf and I spoke a few words each, and then I took two dates and two chestnuts from the bowl before me. Erik and Serafina spread out the apron.
Before the chestnuts and dates left my hands, all things stopped and were still. I was kneeling at a threshold, aware that my life as a parent was, if not ending, certainly transforming. In that moment, I felt that I was holding everything Ralf and I had tried to do as parents, how we had tried – for twenty-five years – to earn our son’s trust rather than assume it. Openness, loyalty, integrity, devotion – I imagined everything we’d done well arcing through the air towards them.
I tossed the dates and chestnuts. They caught them all.
It was a sacred moment, unexpected and wholly real. And it reminded me: the embedding of values in ritual is both ethereal and actual. It is, in fact, Levitical.
Nature provided perfection: a clear, Carolina blue sky, temperatures comfortably hovering in the upper seventies, a slight breeze. Well-dressed people of all ages streamed purposefully out of parking lots, my husband, Ralf, and I among them.
We prepared for a ritual.
We gathered up our robes, hats, and tassels, and walked among hundreds. Today, we conferred degrees on over 4,000 students at UNC-Charlotte.
Faculty were directed to the bowels of the student activity center, where we lined up in twos, told stories of our students, and prepared for a ceremony that is always important and nearly unendurable.
As the faculty marched out into the large sports auditorium with the wretched, back-breaking seats, I fantasized about innovation, spontaneity, and the use of Real Words. I imagined casting all clichés aside. I began to pray that I would not find myself anesthetized by a series of mundane speeches.
This time, I brought a little notepad just to keep myself alert. Ralf sat to my right. A technical writing professor was on my left.
“Are you taking notes?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said with quiet determination. “I am planning to write down every single endlessly repeated phrase from every graduation ceremony that ever was.”
“This auspicious university,” began one of our speakers.
“Did she say “suspicious university?” Ralf asked.
“Distinguished faculty and graduates,” she intoned. “Education is a valuable, life-long tool. We are here to celebrate you and your accomplishments. We honor your teachers, who offered you important and proper guidance.”
The clichés came faster than I could write. The word “endeavor” had yet to appear, however.
“We appreciate your many endeavors….”
“Ha!” I muttered.
“…you’ve worked long and hard to get to this important milestone. We offer our thanks to family and friends for their love and support.”
After a series of forgettable speeches, graduates began lining up. The doctoral candidates processed to dignified silence. The M.A. students generated an occasional shout of support. Our undergraduates, with mortarboards glittering with sparkly accouterments, sayings, and a plethora of flowers and trim cheer, raised their fists, and gratefully received their due decibels. The speakers read through hundreds and hundreds of names. The dean shook each hand, a picture was taken of every face.
But they all blurred together on the large screens and the sounds of most names were drowned out. A young man sang our university anthem.
Hail University! To you we sing our praise. May Charlotte’s light dispel the night, illumine all our days. In Charlotte’s crown the brightness gem we see. Without your power our finest hour would hold no victory. So let us love your life and cherish your great name. To aid your cause and uphold your laws and your enduring fame.
What does one long for?
Next year, stand them all up, I say, confer the degrees en masse, and then send them off to their departments where we, their teachers, will honor them with real ritual and words that are attuned to the particulars of their college careers.
To R, a sixty-something-year-old who grew to trust in her own fine mind: Yes, you are ready for graduate school.
To R, an army vet who made me leap out of my office chair because, finally, argument, evidence and structure came together so powerfully in the first paper of your fourth semester with me that I danced into the kitchen high on your achievements and went back to my computer screen to type YAYYYYYYYYYYYY across the bottom of the page.
To M, another vet, who I invited to learn to write with me, warning of the work ahead. Thank you for doing that work, sweating out each sentence and paragraph in draft after draft. You learned the power of words (and how to command them).
Give us the opportunity to acknowledge our students not with clichés and shouts but with their own stories offered back to them and their families. Allow us to look into their eyes as we hand them their degrees. Allow us to honor them with a pride that is personal.
Leviticus offers pages and pages of ritual. Sacrifice of all kinds. Blood daubed here and there. It’s generally not the sort of reading you’d find on the best seller list. And yet: Levitical example can teach us how to heal our psychic wounds, our spiritual sorrows.
Don’t believe me? Try Parshat Metzorah.
An Israelite suffers from a skin disease – one whose name we don’t know and whose condition is like nothing we can name. The symptoms described in Torah do not correspond to any known skin disease. Chronic skin diseases doesn’t disappear by counting off seven days; Leviticus’ quarantine period would be utterly ineffective against psoriasis or vitiligo.
The text, congregants frequently assume, is about hygiene, about the treatment of contagious diseases. There is, in fact, plentiful literature from the Ancient Near East on diseases of the time – which included, by the by, bubonic plague and Lyme disease. The diagnosis and treatment of disease was a serious concern of ancient societies. But it’s not the issue in Leviticus, which offers no list of medical ailments needing to be “treated.”
In fact, Leviticus describes rituals the priest and the Israelite must fulfill – after physical healing. In Parshat Metzora, the priest orders up two live pure birds, cedar wood, some red stuff, and hyssop. One of the birds is sacrificed over fresh water; its blood drips into the water below. He dips the living bird, the cedar wood, the crimson stuff and the hyssop into the water. Seven times the priest sprinkles some of mixture on the healed Israelite. The live bird flies free overhead, the Israelite bathes, washes, and reenters the camp. In seven days he may return to his tent and on the eighth day he makes his own offering before God. He is no longer tumah.
We can be lousy translators. Terms like “impurity” and “purity,” “cleanliness” or “uncleanliness” are, obviously, laden with negative connotations. But we are retrojecting when we use those terms. What we are seeing in tumah is not Israelites contaminated, but affected. They are simply in a particular state of being – one that has nothing to do, in the ancient world, with actions or mistakes. One is pregnant or has given birth. One is menstruating. One has just enjoyed the joys of intimacy with one’s beloved. No one is bad or sinful as a result.
But they do become different, altered in a way that requires a holy ritual to bring them into a state that will be appropriate for Temple worship. Holiness in that precinct is of a different nature. It requires a kind of psychic and spiritual healing after pain and loss.
The parshiot we read this past week tell us about how a priest diagnoses the effect of altered states, on people, on cloth, even on houses. What do all the conditions described have in common?
Each is about the most elemental of conditions: Life and death. Someone bleeding from a wound does not qualify as “impure” but a menstruating woman does. Blood is life, our Torah says; when bleeding represents a clear loss of life it signifies death. One must be returned to life to enter the sanctuary.
Someone who has touched a corpse is and must be deeply affected by contact with death. Skin diseases that look like wasting diseases to our ancient forbears seemed to signal an oncoming death. All these required rituals for acknowledging reintegration into the community.
Death affects us. It changes us. How can we be returned to life? Sacrificing birds and sprinkling ourselves with bloodied water is not an option. But learning from this text is: It tells us that ritualizing our transitions from any death-like world is critical to the maintenance of life.
Last Friday evening, I asked my congregants to call to mind someone they had lost and missed. I asked them to think of a relationship that had died – one they would mourn for a long time. Whatever grief they carried, I said, also contained the source of their return to life. For whatever they head learned from beloved friends and family, whatever they had reveled in, whatever happiness they had been afforded – this could not die as long as they remembered and honored it.
I asked them to go to the table where our Shabbat candles still burned. I had laid marbles and assorted glass beads across the table.
“Take the one that calls to you, shines for you,” I said. “Take the one that reveals the light of the soul that shaped and transformed yours. Remember someone you have lost, someone who changed your life, who you loved deeply, and who will never be forgotten as long as you live. Come forward to gather the light of that beloved to you.”
Each came forward. Each took a bead, a marble. We chanted Mourner’s Kaddish. We acknowledged loss and we returned to life.
It’s a small, mostly clear drinking glass – except for the irregular, oval spots of teal and turquoise. We have a good many of them.
They match our everyday dishes, themselves a rich and soothing teal. And everything together rests quite nicely on the copper tile on the kitchen table, rimmed with turquoise all around.
My husband, Ralf, found the glasses at Ikea. He has an eye for that sort of thing. I tell anyone who works on our home that they need to drop their usual assumptions about asking the “lady of the house” for design answers. Go to the professorial-looking dude instead, I say. He’ll know exactly what to do.
Our Ikea glasses are flirty, happy little vessels. They accompany cereal (or bialys!) in the morning and my typical yogurt and fruit lunch. They fit well in my hand, contain the right amount of water, and slide easily into a row designed for glassware in my dishwasher.
Last week, one of these everyday glasses suddenly became a holy object. Then, it became a holy topic.
I frequently tell my university students that Leviticus is one of my favorite books in Torah. Typically, this elicits variant groans of incredulity. If I say such a thing at a church I am visiting, I usually receive polite looks of utter disbelief. Many in my audience are likely thanking their lucky stars that Christianity apparently did away with the need to study priestly niggling about identifying skin diseases and suchlike.
I could rely on the Holiness Code (see chapter 19) to defend myself. After all, it is Leviticus that demands that we give a pawned cloak back to its owner at night to make sure he will not freeze to death. It is Leviticus which insists that we use fair weights and measures, that we leave gleanings for the poor, that we pay laborers promptly, that we judge righteously. And so on.
Instead, I address the apparent niggling. Levitical rules, I insist, are often about making the world sacred. There are important messages in mandates around sacrifices of gratitude and wholeness, around priests securing opportunities for themselves and their people to acknowledge responsibility for wrongdoing, around making certain that God’s sanctuary is cleansed and open to God’s Presence.Leviticus teaches us the importance of doing the daily, difficult work of keeping the eternal fire going (6:2).
We need to know that each day offers us an opportunity to recognize and be thankful for life. We must make the effort to understand where we have gone wrong and to rededicate ourselves to the task of remaining upright and honest in our dealings with others. We have to recognize the chance we are given, in each hour, to keep an eternal fire going.
What is that eternal fire if not our commitment to create and nourish light in darkness? What is that light if not love?
In the last days of March, our son, Erik, came to visit us with his girlfriend, Weiwei. Weiwei comes from China. She, like Erik, is a doctoral student in theoretical chemistry at the University of Chicago.
We met Weiwei last December. I had emailed with her quite a good deal. During our week together, Ralf and I learned more about this beautiful, brilliant woman. We four walked a bit in the North Carolina mountains. We made meals together. We went to an opera and listened to Jewgrass musician Andy Statman. Live.
We shared a home.
Every morning, Ralf, Erik, and I had a cup of Assam tea. For these we used the teal mugs that go with our dishes. Every morning, Weiwei took a polka-dotted glass from the shelf and poured herself a glass of water.
Last Friday morning, I took Erik and Weiwei to the airport and came home to many pre-Shabbat tasks. I walked in the door and saw the remnants of our breakfast on the table. I took away the dishes and the napkins. I folded the newspaper and removed the magazines. I wiped the table.
But I could not move Weiwei’s glass.
I washed sheets and blankets and swept the house. I wiped down counters and scrubbed the bathtubs. I sorted all the elements of life lived together back into their appropriate drawers and closets.
I left the glass where it stood.
The glass stood for the week we had shared together, for the introduction of a wholly new element in our family life. It represented that something sacred and holy had happened; we had become a different family that week.
For all of Shabbat, the glass stood on the kitchen table like an offering of thanks. Only when Shabbat was over did I pour the water away. It was a kind of libation.
During Torah study I told congregants about that glass.
“Leviticus,” I said, “helps us invest and transform the world. It teaches us that there are categories of sacredness and that we can hallow everyday things. Rituals of cleansing, honoring, and sanctifying connect us with the holiness of life itself.”
So, I suggest again that we learn from Leviticus.
We can make the world holy by whatever means are at hand – including an ordinary, polka dotted glass of water.
Ritual. We studied it, we practiced it, we analyzed it. Great ritual, we were taught, creates lasting memories, stories that live for years. Learning to create ritual was part of my rabbinic training, and my teachers were awesome architects of the same.
Naturally, one wants to live up to one’s teachers.
Last week, a young woman in my congregation went before a beit din, a panel of three rabbis to complete her conversion to Judaism. Big ritual. Huge.
I prepared with care for her beit din and for her mikvah, the ritual immersion that formally completes the process. I had a beautiful tallit at the ready, a prayer shawl in all her favorite colors. Between her beit din and the mikvah, we would go out to dinner and before our meal I would lovingly lay the tallit on the table. She and her three witnesses would tie the tzitzit, the ritual fringes at each corner. The tying would be a spiritual practice and gift. We would wind and knot threads with our blessings and hopes. It would be heartfelt, prayerful, lovely.
I imagined myself naming each Hebrew letter of the tetragrammaton, and demonstrating how our loops and knots made it possible for us to tie God’s unpronounceable name into each fringe. “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, YHVH,” I would say. “Each letter is paired with a number, each number breathes a sound. Think it, and you’ll hear it: The unpronounceable name ends in a whisper.”
Then we would travel to a nearby lake, where a family had kindly offered us the use of their dock for the young woman’s mikvah. We would recite blessings I had crafted especially for her. Women supporting each other, co-creating a ritual we would all remember the rest of our lives.
What is it they say about the best laid plans?
One of the women got lost finding the restaurant, which had failed to turn on its neon signs. I talked her back to the right intersection on my cell phone, standing on the corner, jumping up and down and waving both arms frantically. When she got out of her car, a stream of unprintable things emerged from her otherwise calm and pragmatic person. Then I called the last woman who is chronically late to everything.
“ETA?” I asked.
“I don’t know where I am,” she answered.
I repeated my routine, hoping no one would recognize the small, hopping woman on the corner as the rabbi of Temple Or Olam.
Later, I laid out the prayer shawl in the near empty restaurant on an empty table. I began leading us through winding and tying. I asked the women to silently weave their prayers into the tzitzit. Ahh, I said to myself. This will be wonderful. Sweet. Transcendent.
“Whatcha all doing?” asked a curious staff member. “That’s puurrty,” she added, pointing at the tallit. “What’s that?”
While I was explaining, one of the woman got her threads twisted up and started joking about being handicraft challenged. Then the food arrived, and I had to find a way to keep the tallit from getting immersed in balsamic vinaigrette.
Later, we piled into one of the cars to make the drive to the lake. It was only minutes away. We got lost almost immediately – despite Google maps. There were many u-turns and a close encounter with a car with flashing blue lights.
Finally, we found the house. We climbed out of the car and began traipsing over the lawn, which, despite the terrible drought, was both very long and very wet. Sprinklers? Condensation from the lake? Suddenly, the young woman told us in a small voice that she was actually terrified to get into that lake and that she hated nature and that there were bound to be live things, including fish, in the water, and that the lake bottom would be nasty and muddy, and and and.
The other women attempted to comfort her.
“You’ll be all right,” said one.
“It will be fine,” added the other.
Our young woman kept describing the horrors that awaited her. We rounded the house and walked toward the pier, the small flashlight in my hand shedding insufficient light. We were nearly at the water’s edge.
“Omigod!” our young woman squealed. “What is that?”
“Omigod,” whispered someone.
“Omigod,” I said, in utter disbelief.
All of us saw it, despite the dark. Between the small flashlight I was carrying and the lights from the house, we couldn’t miss it.
A bobcat. He stood stock still, staring right at us.
Gingerly, we walked half backwards onto the pier, hoping the thing would go away.
“Is it still there?” one of the women asked.
“I think so,” I said doubtfully. “I can’t quite tell.”
It will go away, I told myself, as we all made our way to the end of the pier. It will go away because we are making a fearsome noise. Dear, Holy One of Blessing, I prayed internally. We’re not so good with this much nature just now…
It has gone away, I told myself, as the young woman climbed into the water.
We heard a splash.
“I saw that!” she cried out. “There was a fish jumping over there!”
She began frantic movements in the water to scare away the fish.
“Go away!” she called out. “Go away!”
She was thinking of the fish. I was thinking of the bobcat.
We raised a towel, the young woman took off her bathing suit, and I pulled out laminated sheets with our brachot. Three of us crouched around the laminated sheet and the little flashlight. One of us stood with her paper copy illuminated by her cell phone. (Later she told me that she was stealing herself to kick the bobcat into the water if it attacked. I don’t know what she was thinking. This is a woman with weak ankles, and I am not sure she could kick a nerf ball, much less a snarling, though smallish, beast. And another thing: How do cats feel about water?)
I asked everyone to breathe deeply. Somehow, we regained our sense of place and, after nervous giggles and anxious interjections from our young woman, we read our blessings in turn.
Before her final immersion, we blessed her with the fearlessness of Ruth. “Our people is your people,” the women read together. “Our God is your God. We are standing together at the mountain of Sinai, ready to receive the gift of Torah.”
She slipped back into the water a last time. She emerged. We chanted the Shema and the Shehechiyanu softly in the moonlight, and wrapped her in the towel and the tallit. We walked back down the pier and sighed with relief; we did not see the bobcat.
We got lost all over again going back to the restaurant parking lot. We laughed and mazeltoved and drove home.
There was, I admit, some residual anxiety on my part. When I got home it was nearly midnight. Nevertheless, I asked my husband, Ralf, to google pictures of bobcats. “Yes, it looked like that nasty, scary one right there!” I said.
“Were its ears forward?” he asked.
“I… I think so,” I answered.
“Then you were fine,” he said comfortingly. “When you don’t see their ears, that’s when you have reason to be on your guard.”
“But I was already scared!!!” I protested.
Our son, Erik, gave advice from his survival training course. Everyone should group together so you look like one large entity to animal in question. Spread out your clothing so you look bigger, and back away slowly…
“At least,” he concluded, “I’m pretty sure that works with elephants.”
The next morning we all received this email from the young woman we love:
“Don’t worry everyone, found out this morning it was simply a statue in the backyard to SCARE THE GEESE!!!
Out of control!
Thanks again for being there last night. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
I had dreamed of this beit din for a long time. For weeks, I had imagined us at the pier in sweet darkness, women alone and prayerful, conscious of our strength and our joy.
The real world played tricks on my dreams. There were so many emotions I never imagined. Aggravation and impatience at getting lost again and again. Unexpected and unknown fears. Giggly and giddy lightness.
“This is one crazy mikvah story,” one of the women said.