Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Shemini & Houdini

Harry Houdini was born in Budapest. His real name was Erik Weisz. His father was a rabbi. His career as a performance artist began at age 9, when he made his public debut as Ehrich, the Prince of the Air…his skill being on the trapeze. 

As his career blossomed, so did Erik, now Harry’s, bravado. He was a small man with huge daring.  At times he wasn’t as much a magician as he was a stunt man, dangling stories above crowds as he escaped straightjackets, or submerged himself in the water torture chamber.  He’d be handcuffed and stuffed into a milkcan, only to emerge cuff-less, arms open in triumph.

Now, while magicians notoriously do not reveal their secrets, any casual magic lover knows that behind every magic trick or stunt, there’s years of preparation. There’s a science to magic tricks; illusions to create, mechanisms to invent. Houdini was no exception. He would note that “my brain is the key that sets me free.” Indeed, most magicians regard their craft as an unrecognized branch of Science. The performance is the thing that makes it seem mystical.

Houdini famously died by a ruptured appendix. What caused its rupture has been long debated. You see, s couple of days prior to his death, Houdini had received five punches to his stomach. Why? Well, Houdini had recently boasted he could take any punch to the stomach. When a student questioned him on this and delivered the punches without warning, Houdini was injured. Houdini even admitted that had he been able to ready himself, he could have withstood the blow. Doctors are split on whether these punches could have caused his appendix to rupture, but they certainly didn’t help. In the end, despite all his death defying stunts, something as common as appendicitis and, possibly, a few punches to the stomach, are what took Houdini’s life.

Houdini came to mind as I read this week’s Torah portion, Shemini. The beginning of the portion is rather prescriptive. It’s a step by step account of how Aaron and his sons scrupulously follow Moses' instructions and offer burnt sacrifices to God. But then, something crazy happens.

After days and days of preparation, after verse after verse of clear and precise instruction, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, seemingly on a whim, grab their fire pans, create some sort of weird fire and offer it to God. The Hebrew is “aish zarah” and weird or alien fire.
God, who has a very precise Amazon wishlist, and does not believe in regifting, is not happy with the offering. Nadav and Avihu are zapped dead immediately.

The whole episode is puzzling and frightening; maddening and mystifying. Aaron their father, and the high priest, is dumbstruck, silenced by what happened. After a very loaded pause, he moves forward with his responsibilities.

You can read the commentary (there’s a lot of it) on what happened. The rabbis’ major hunch is that Nadav and Avihu might have been trained in the intricacies of the ritual, but they were not emotionally ready to take it on. The rabbis describe them as haughty and arrogant, anxious to be in the limelight and steal the spotlight from Moses and Aaron. The bold and rash behavior is what got the best of them.

Houdini’s story is a bit different. He knew the value of readiness, of checking your body, your mind and your circumstances before taking action. His demise (or at least, the incident that exposed his ailment) came from someone else, who’s brazenness drove them to reckless action. The guy who sucker punched Houdini did not know the value of readiness.

Despite a clinical sort of cause and effect, both stories - Houdini’s life story and Nadav and Avihu’s “alien fire” - are shrouded in a kind of mystical veil. Perhaps the eery sense that surrounds them is the knowledge that you can never be fully ready when it comes to experiencing the great mysteries of our existence.

By great mysteries of our existence, I mean all the biggies: love, death, disease, life itself. Our tradition hands all of these perplexities over to God. There is only so much we can know. There is only so much we can prepare for and understand. And while scientific knowledge increases era by era, only religion has been able to dig into the “whys” by trying to approach the Divine through prayer, ritual, and meditation.

The story of Nadav and Avihu cautions us to approach life’s great mysteries slowly. Check yourself with humility. Understand your fragility. Link up slowly, kind of like the hooks of a zipper coming together and then drawing apart.

This idea seems very important as we start to wonder about opening up our homes and our arms again. My impulse is to go running into life at full speed. But if this virus and our government’s response has taught us anything, it’s that impetuousness and a false bravado leads us into peril.  

In approaching this plague, in all its mystery, it behooves us to distance ourselves from the impulses of Nadav and Avihu, or Houdini’s assailant. Better to be like Aaron, the dumbfounded but duty-driven father who carries on despite the horror he witnesses. Aaron reminds me of those on the front lines: our doctors, essential workers, service people, who approach with humility and caution, yet still have the courage to approach. When it comes time to emerge, which I, like you, want to do so, so badly, we must do it in the right way. And that way will take patience.

Harry Houdini said, “I am a great admirer of mystery and magic. Look at this life – all mystery and magic.” The magician’s job is to mirror and emulate the mysterious way in which existence breathes. It’s all illusion.

The Jew’s job, though, is to approach the unfathomable, Divine rhythm of life and try to sing with it. Sometimes we’re on tune, sometimes we simply seek the harmony. But the Jew is humble, aware of our human limitations – an awareness that brings us patience, discernment, and, one day, we pray, reprieve.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Elijah, COVID-19 and Patience

Abby Pitkowsky, a wonderful educator over at the Jewish Education Project, offered some perspective about Jews and social distancing. Traditional stories reveal that we’re pretty good at it. A few gems from her top ten list...

- First, Noah – the one with the ark. He and his family self-quarantined for 40 days and nights on the ark in order to distance themselves from the injustices and cruelty that had ravaged humanity.

- Shimon bar Yochai, the great sage of the 2nd century, hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, during which time he amassed incredible knowledge and mystical insight, eventually authoring the Zohar.

- The Jews of Masada, who intentionally sheltered in place on top of Masada for one year in order to assert their dignity as Jews.

- Natan Sharansky, the human rights activist and later, Israeli politician, who sat in solitary confinement for more than 400 days during his imprisonment by the Soviet Union for protesting oppression there. 

She also brings up Elijah the Prophet.

We all know Elijah’s name pretty well. He pops up in all kinds of Hasidic stories. There’s a whole song about him at the end of Havdalah; a chair for him at every bris. He’s also got a rather large cameo on Passover. All that said, you might not know very much about him. Here’s a digest:

Elijah the prophet was a Tishbite from the region of Gilead (hence, Eliyahu haNavi, Eliyahu ha-Tishbi, Eliyahu ha-Giladi). 

He performs miracles like converting a handful of meal and a little oil into an endless supply and bringing a dead child back to life (An impressive start to his career).
He takes on evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel who had introduced the pagan cult of Baal…something that’s a pretty big no-no in Judaism.

Notably, Elijah travels alone for forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb, aka Mt. Sinai, where Moses had received the Ten Commandments. This is where we start to see some interesting paralleling with Moses, who spent 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain. Interestingly, Elijah is the only person described in the Bible as ever having returned to Horeb.

Much transpires after this, but the end of Elijah’s life is the most amazing. After one last prophecy, Elijah senses that his end is near. He, his successor Elisha, and his disciples travel to the river Jordan, where Elijah divides the waters by hitting them with his mantle. The group then crosses over on dry ground…also sounding pretty familiar. They go on walking and talking when suddenly a flaming chariot with fiery horses appears and carries Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. Thus Elijah is one of two people in the Bible who is taken to heaven alive – he never died! Quite the dramatic ending.

So the natural next question is why then do we look forward to the time when Elijah will come back to earth? And what does it have to do with the “final redemption” we often hear about?

Well, we partially have this week’s haftarah to thank for the idea. It’s a special haftarah reading for Shabbat HaGadol, the great Sabbath before Passover. The prophet Malachi, the last of the prophets, proclaims: “Lo! God will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Eternal. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that when God comes, God will no strike the whole land with utter destruction. Lo, God will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Eternal.”

Elijah is not the Messiah, the person or being that will come usher in the peaceful and perfect World to Come. Instead, he is the one who will come to tell us to get ready. Get your affairs in order, right the wrongs in your relationships and buckle up! If you don’t, when judgement comes, you’ll be on the wrong side of history.

This is why he mirrors Moses. Moses shepherded the Jews through the first redemption, escape from the narrow bondage of Egyptian slavery. Elijah will shepherd us through the final redemption, escaping the pain and suffering of our broken world.

So every Passover, we heed Malachi’s words. We set a cup for Elijah, we open the door, we say “next year in Jerusalem!” and we braced ourselves for his heralding the coming of the Messiah, the end-of-days redeemer.

We’ve done this for almost 2000 years. Year after year, we’ve hurried up and waited.

Elijah isn’t the only part of Passover with this “hold on, it’s coming!” mentality. It took 200 years for God to hear the cries of the Israelites and to bring them out of slavery. It took suffering through 10 long plagues before history could move forward. Or just think about that “I can’t wait anymore” feeling you have on day 5 of Passover…your stomach is heavy but you’re hungry, you can’t wait for some leavened bread.

Passover models patience. It says get your affairs in order. Clean your house, re-enact our people’s past, meditate on the present – find the injustices that still plague our world and then look forward to the future. Elijah didn’t come yet? Try again next year!

This patience is particularly hard to access at this moment in our lives. We’ve been told to hurry up - separate, hunker down, sit in your house wait for word it is safe to leave again. We look Andrew Cuomo and NIH directors and major hospitals to be our Elijahs, to tell us the end is near. Yet unfortunately, week after week we’re in the same uncertain holding pattern.

Frankly, we’re pretty fatigued from waiting– that is waiting to be redeemed from COVID and waiting for the ultimate redemption – both days when all of humanity will be re-united in peace and prosperity.

In fact, the early Reformers hit their breaking point with waiting well before us. In the early 19th century, they went so far to decide that all this gearing up for an “end of days redeemer” was superstitious and anti-intellectual.

Reform Judaism saw the prophets’ promise of Elijah’s return as metaphorical, an ancient prophetic message echoing from the past and informing our lives today.

We leave a chair, we place a cup, and we say a prayer for Elijah as a physical reminder of our own obligation to get on with redemption.

When we show up for our loved ones, for our planet, for our fellow Jews, for our fellow humans, the messianic age will be near. The more we deliver our most moral and ethical selves to one another, the closer we are to the ultimate deliverance: when the great unity of God’s essence will be known to all.

Alana Newhouse, the editor in chief of Tablet Magazine put it best: God will come to help when God comes to help; the question is what we do between now and then.

In fact, we need not wait another instant. Each of us can be Elijah, the heralder of a new age. Heck, he never died. He could be among us right now.

Here’s a challenge for Wednesday night: When you open the door, imagine Elijah has already walked in. Turns out YOU are Elijah. You are the one here to announce the coming of the messianic age. What might you say? What affairs need to be put in order to tip the cosmic scales?

Challenge yourself to think past the coronavirus. That redemption will come. What redemption will we still need 5 months, one year from now?

Think about Noah – who was traumatized after his isolation and had trouble picking up the pieces of his life. Who will need help in restoring their mental wellness?

Think about Shimon bar Yochai – who withdrew from the world and came out wiser…yet was ultimately disappointed when he saw peoples’ continued ignorance. What injustices are still lingering behind the blinders of the current epidemic that we will need to get back to fixing?

This year, when we pronounce “Next Year in Jerusalem” may it not be a complacent utterance, a continuation of our patient waiting. Instead, may it be an expression of our hope and our commitment to being builders of the messianic dream.