Although I have not completely finished my semester, I was moved to share some words of Torah based on a tragedy in the greater Jewish community which I was made aware of yesterday.
This week's Parasha of Emor covers many important topics, a fascinating ideathe idea of considering that many automatically assume that the book of Vayikra/Leviticus is 'boring,' and only deals with sacrifices. As was proven to me yet again while studying the midrashic collection Vayikra Rabbah, almost any lesson from the gamut of Judaism and the range of human experience.
The first large tract of the parasha is concerned with priestly regulations, but does so in the spirit of the oft-quoted maxim from Spiderman,'with great power comes great responsibility.' As the Kohanim are charged with fulfilling some of the holiest rituals and occupy a position of closeness to God, they are bound by special rules restricting whom they can marry, and a requirement to remain in ritual purity. While these laws may seem foreign and strange, there is a special meaning behind the idea of being set aside, part of the essence of holiness according to many traditional commentators.
The next major theme of Emor, occupying all of chapter 23, is the cycle of Shabbat and holidays, described thus: אלה מועדי ה' מקראי קדש אשר תקראו אתם במועדם (Leviticus 23:4) - these are the appointed times of God, holy assemblies, that you shall proclaim at their appointed time. In a fascinating rabbinic interpretation, God is announcing that the biblical holidays, commanded by divine decree, would not be observed on the day he decides, but based on the new moon declared by the Sanhedrin (supreme court) in Jerusalem. This reflects part of my philosophy when I observe mitzvot. While I do see observing these clommandments as fulfilling divine commandments, they are not without meaning, or even joy, for us in our daily lives.
Sandwiched between the priestly regulations and holidays announcements are a series of short laws (22:26ff) which begin the Torah portion read of the first two days of Sukkot and the second day of Pesach. An animal consecrated to God may not be slaughtered in the first seven days of its life, but only on the eighth day. A thanksgiving offering must be given of free-will, and can only be eaten on the day it is sacrified. In the next verses (31-32), we are told:
Just yesterday I was informed of a terrible accidental fire which struck a Conservative shul, Chisuk Emuna, in Harrisburg, PA. After a Shabbat dinner at the synagogue on April 3, 2009, the building caught fire, and the main sanctuary and much of the rest of the building was gutted, and some of the sifrei torah were damaged. Although God cannot be contained in a building, the sacred space of a synagogue in which a community gathers to sanctify God's name is the closest thing we have to a home for God and a focal point for the community as well. Therefore, it was distressing to hear and see pictures of the damage that was created to the structure which served as a place for this congregation to worship, celebrate, learn and mourn for decades. I encourage you to view the moving video on the blog documenting their resiliance and rebuilding: http://chisukemuna.blogspot.com/2009/04/blog-post_23.html . Through this video and the messages posted by their rabbi, Ron Muroff (an alum of Nativ 1!), I can tell that a warm and caring community was centered around the building that was damaged, but that community has not lost its light and strength.
And you shall keep my commandments, and do them, I am your God. And you shall not profane My holy name, but I shall be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel, I am God who sanctifies you.
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, מִצְוֹתַי, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה. לב וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אֲנִי יְהוָה, מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.
Chisuk Emuna's response to the loss of their spiritual home has also been an inspirational example of sanctifying God's name. They did not miss one shabbat service or session of their religious school, and have already begun the process of rebuilding the shul. Even if I didn't have some friends from Harrisburg, a tragedy such as this affects the entire Jewish people. The Robert K. Kraft Center for Jewish Life of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, in which I am writing these words of Torah serves as a place of study, worship, and a social and communal center for hundreds of Jewish students on our campus. Because this building means so much to me, I can imagine what such a loss would be to our community.
While a community is not based on bricks and mortar, a building such as these is a focal point and holds sacred memories for those who enter its doors. Thus, I can easily imagine the pain that members of Chisuk Emuna felt at the damage to their sanctuary, and my prayers for a speedy and joyous rebuilding go to them as part of the family of אחינו כל בית ישראל, our brethren of the house of Israel. I hope that you will join with me and keep Chisuk Emuna in your thoughts, as well as render any possible assistance. May we also be inspired by their dedication to each other, Judaism, and sanctifying God's name as commanded in this week's parasha, to stregthen our own commitments to Jewish life and those around us.
Then, we will be strengthened as God's name will again be sanctified as the Jewish people come together to take care of part of our own family, for all of Israel is responsible for one another.