I would like to start out with a few "thank you's". I could probably take up all of the time allotted for these words of Torah, with thanking people. So many people, have helped me become a part of this community and have shown me kindness. I wish I could thank each of you individually, and please know that in my heart, I do. I want to thank all of you here for sharing this "SIMCHAH", this joy, with me today: both members of the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community and friends who have journeyed all the way up here, into the wilderness, to join with the MCJC for one day.
I want to thank our Rabbi, our teacher, Margaret Holub, who had been my guide on the strange and wonder filled journey that has brought me to this moment.
I want to thank my Melamed, my Hebrew teacher, Mickey Chalfin. Who has spent the last 2 1/2 years pounding Hebrew into a head with the absorptive properties of granite. As my father often remarked of a fellow teacher "He must have the patience of Job."
I want to thank my Jewish friends outside of the MCJC. Who have helped me along this path, especially my old UC Davis schoolmate Evan Bloom and my BofA coworker Ron Hollander, who came up for the first Aliyah.
I want to thank Walter Green and Donna Montag, who along with Margaret, served as the Bet Din, the Rabbinical Court, that ruled that I could join this and the larger community.
I want to thank the members Adult Bat/Bar Mitzvah class, who I hope will allow me to continue to learn with them. My thanks to the regular attendees of the Shabbat Minyan who have graciously allowed me to stumble through the Shacharit, morning, service today. Thank you to the Bar and Bat Mitzvah's that have come to this Bimah before me and have read so beautifully from this Sefer Torah. And thanks especially to my study partner Basya Gale, with whom I have been studying both the Pentateuch and the Torah of life itself.
I would like to express my gratitude to the men and women who have kept the Jewish tradition alive for the last 3500 years, to the great Jewish scholars and sages and to the Jews of Sedlcany, Czechoslovakia. Who were murdered in the holocaust and whose 150 year old scroll I read from today.
To all the other members of the community who have struck up a conversation with me at an awkward moment, who have instructed me by their example, who have given me a reassuring look when I committed a faux pas and who have donated their work to the MCJC website. Thank you so much.
I know that some of the more astute among you may have noticed that I appear somewhat older that the average 13 year old who comes up to this Bimah to read from the Torah. There is a reason for this. I am a little late for my Bar Mitzvah, but only by about 30 years.
Many of you are familiar with my personal story, or at least parts of it, but I think that I should probably explain a bit about how I came to be here today.
I was born and raised in Riverside, CA. I was adopted at birth, and I do not know who my biological parents are, or were. When I reached the age of 13, several of my friends had Bar Mitzvah's, but I did not, since in the 1960's it was not customary for Presbyterians to be Bar Mitzvah'd.
Actually, I felt very little connection at that time with religion or with the spiritual. I attended a large suburban church, because my parents made me. It was my sense that their participation was inspired less from spiritual impulse than it was from a sense of social obligation
As I recall, I stopped attending religious functions entirely after a battle with my father over proper church going attire. I felt that appearance was not as important as attitude or kavanah. As you have probably noticed, my fashion sense has not evolved much since the early seventies.
I felt fortunate when I was able to escape Riverside and attend college. I studied genetics, but took as many humanities courses as I could. While I felt that there was no place for God in my life, I found great pleasure in art and poetry, and especially in the natural world, and was most happy when I was hiking in the desert or backpacking in the Eastern Sierra.
I left school, and went to work for a large multi-national corporation. I achieved a certain degree of success and recognition as a technocrat. Yet always, in the back of my mind I had the feeling that something was missing. I don't think that I was very happy. I worked a lot and the unhappier I felt, the harder I worked.
My father died unexpectedly in 1991. This brought about two changes in my life: it started to dawn on me that life really is finite and I found that my mother needed a lot of support. She became the primary focus in my life.
I read a book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, that spoke of the Buddhist teaching that one should be constantly aware that one was going to die. This growing awareness of mortality made the preciousness of my own life and the lives of others more apparent to me. I started questioning the path my life had taken and started trying to determine what I wanted from life.
In 1992 I bought a house in Manchester, and in 1993 my mother died. I think that spending part of my time in Mendocino and being out of doors a great deal started to change me. I would find such beauty in nature that the intensity of it was sometimes almost painful. I felt that I should be thanking someone for giving me this.
A couple of years later, I met a woman, Madeleine, who took the role of Judaism in her life very seriously. I found through conversations with Madeleine that my perception of Judaism as Christianity without Jesus, was not exactly accurate. I started to read overviews of Jewish belief and practice and found that I was very strongly drawn to them. In fact, many of the beliefs I had arrived at independently, or at least seemingly independently, were congruent with Judaism, and Jewish teaching amplified upon them in a magnificent way.
Toward the end her life, my mother had told me that she thought my birth mother was Jewish. I did not give a great deal of attention or even much credence to this assertion, since my Mom was always a bit hazy and fluid on the topic of my adoption. I mentally filed this away as some interesting, but not very useful, ethnic data.
As my research into Judaism continued, I started to feel a real regret that I was not Jewish. I had always felt a strong affinity for Jewish culture. When I was in Junior High School, I had been lovingly welcomed into the home of my friend Chuck. His family had come to Riverside from Staten Island and before that from the Polish shtetl. It was there that I discovered the Jewish culinary and ethical traditions.
During a conversation with my friend Ron, which he probably does not recall, on the 9th floor roof garden of the building where we worked, he mentioned that I could always convert to Judaism, if I wanted to. Strangely, this possibility had never occurred to me before. It was, pardon the expression, a moment of epiphany.
People kept suggesting that I talk to this wonderful woman, who was the Rabbi in Mendocino. I finally worked up the courage to call her. I think that I will always remember sitting in my office in San Francisco and hearing Margaret's voice for the first time. There was so much warmth and welcoming in her tone, that I felt like a long lost relative.
Most of you are a part of the story from here on out, so I'll give you the Cliffs Notes version. I started showing up at MCJC events. The first one was the dedication of this shul in June of 1996 with Walter and Polly Green, and it was somewhat coincidentally the day I gave up cigarettes.
I have been learning with Margaret and this has been a feast of the mind and soul for me, as I have sampled bits and pieces of the larger Torah. In the Spring of 1997 I formally converted. This involved appearing before the Rabbinical court of Margaret, Walter and Donna; meeting with a Chassidic Mohel from Berkeley named Channan Feld, (if you don't know what a Mohel does, ask me later); and wading naked into Big River for a Mikvah, with Mickey and Walter waiting for me warm and dry on the bank.
And the next thing I knew I was standing here before you.
OK, well so much for the chit chat, now to the heart of the matter. The text of TSAV, my Torah portion, deals with the ordination of Moses's brother Aaron and his sons as Kohens, and the appointment of Aaron as the Kohen Gadol, the high priest. God instructs Moses to take Aaron and his sons and certain ritual objects, including the priestly garments, a bull, two rams and a basket of matzahs. Moses gathers the people and ordains Aaron and his four sons by having them take a mikvah, dressing Aaron in the priestly garments, anointing Aaron and the ritual objects with sacred oil and then wrapping Aaron and his sons in the tunics and sashes of the Kohenim.
When I first looked at the portion, I was a little worried. What possible relevance could TSAV have to our lives. Most of it discusses the ritual sacrifices that had occurred at the temple in Jerusalem. And the strangest and perhaps least relevant section seemed to be the part that dealt with the ordination of Aaron. Yet, I seemed to be drawn to this part of the portion, and not only because it was the least bloody and had the most repetition.
As I started researching these 13 lines, they started to unfold. Various commentators had radically different interpretations of the meaning of this passage.
There were discussions on why Aaron was chosen for the Kohen Gadol rather than Moses. The consensus was that Moses was spiritually blemished because he had killed an Egyptian and perhaps because he has been reluctant to become the leader of the Jewish people when he stood before the burning bush.
A great deal was written on the garments of the Kohen Gadol: the tunic or Kutonet, the robe or Me'il which had 72 silver pomegranates and 72 silver bells on the hem, the Ephod which was a sort of apron, the Tzits or sacred diadem, the Choshen (breastplate) and the white linen breeches
Some sages wrote that each of these objects had the power to counteract a certain type of sin, or represented attributes of love or mercy. It was said that the ephod was spiritually connected to the Baal Teshuvah (the reformed sinner), while the choshen was connected to the Tzaddik (righteous one); and their physical connection linked the two types of Jews.
It was said that when a tzaddik approached the tzitz, it would illuminate his face with a holy light, but when a sinner came close to the tzitz his face would become pale.
Perhaps the most intriguing objects were the Urim and Tummim, (which should not to be confused with Uma Thurman). No one seems to know what the Urim and Tumim were. The prevailing view is that they are stones that were used in conjunction with the choshen by the Kohen Gadol to establish a direct link with God, through them questions could be asked and answered.
I had first run into the Urim and Tummin when I was researching, for a class at UC Riverside the historic reaction of the American majority toward Mormons, which during the late 19th century was not much better that the attitude toward Jews in many parts of Europe. The founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) said that he had discovered the Urim and Tummim in upstate New York, along with some golden plates with hieroglyphs that had been hidden their by a lost tribe of Israel, that found their way to the new world. I checked the Internet and it appears that many people believe that the Urim and Tummim are stored in either a cave in Utah or a government warehouse somewhere.
Rashi, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac who lived from 1040 to 1105 CE in Provence, believed that the Urim and Tummim were not stones, but were instead pieces of parchment on which Moses had written secret names of God. These pieces of parchment were placed in the Choshen, and when the Choshen was asked a question, the letters on the stones in the breastplate, would light up, spelling out the answer. There were 12 stones on the breastplate, each with a name of a tribe of Israel on it.
Rashi thought Eli (a Kohen Gadol) believed that Hannah, the mother of the Prophet Samuel, was a drunk rather than a righteous women when he misinterpreted an anagram provided by the Urim and Tummim.
It is said that the Urim and Tummim were hidden along with the ark and anointing oil just before the destruction of the 1st temple in 423 BCE and were never found. The rest of the ritual objects were lost at the time of the destruction of the 2nd temple in 69 CE .
After a month of delving into the mysteries of Tsav. I realized that I could spend years exploring this portion of the Torah and the many paths it suggested. Yet when I thought about it, I realized that I was missing the real point and was getting lost in the minutia. What underlay this portion was the concept of holiness. The objects were holy. Aaron was made holy by Moses. Holiness was something that I thought I could define, but on reflection, I realized that I had never though about what it means or how it is attained.
Meriam-Webster essentially defines holiness "as something connected with God", as "something sacred". The root of the "English" word Holy is the Old English word "haleg" which meant whole. The root of "sacred" is from the Latin "sacrare" which is derived from "sacer" meaning holy, which is also the root of the word sacrifice.
Kodesh is the Hebrew word usually translated as holy. The Oxford Hebrew lexicon reveals that the root of Kodesh is related to separation and withdrawal, The Hebrew word for sacrifice is Korban which means to approach or come near.
It seems paradoxical that we can come nearer to God through separation. At this point, I was starting to feel befuddled and hopelessly lost. I remembered in the Kedusha prayer the line from Isaiah 6:3 where the holy animals are said to praise God with the words "Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh Adonai Tsevaot M'Lo Kol Ha'Aretz K'Vodo" "Holy holy holy, the lord of hosts; the whole world is filled with his glory." It seemed that Kadosh also implies elevation and perhaps unity, as well as separation.
To me, the holy is that which is especially connected to God, and that which connects us with God. I won't try to define what or who God is.
It seems to me that the culture in which we live is almost designed to disconnect us from the divine. Ira Rosenberg has written quite eloquently in his paper King Solomon and the Buddha about the forces which lead us away from the spiritual and toward the material. While we live in a world of unprecedented physical safety, scientific knowledge and wealth, never in the history of our species have we been so detached from God and anchored in the material. The forces of mass marketing bombard us constantly with messages, carefully crafted to feed our anxieties and appeal to our basest instincts.
Ira writes about the about the frenetic pace of our world where we rush from one frantic activity to the next, all the time bombarded with an overload of sensory input. To support this rapacious "need" for ever more possessions and stimulation, we are destroying the natural treasures of our world with a speed that will leave us destitute in 2 or 3 generations. We may not have many worshipers of Baal and Maloch left, but the idols of our age, money, acclaim, and self obsession are worshiped with as much passion as the ancient rivals of God of Israel were, when the temple was still standing.
I have found that, for me, Jewish practice and belief is a system for connecting or perhaps reconnecting, us with God. In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shimon Ha-Tzaddik tells us that Judaism stands on three things prayer, the study of Torah and acts of loving kindness.
I feel that these three actions separate us from the larger secular world in a way that leads us toward holiness and toward a connection and closeness with God.
I have found that prayer worked in a mysterious way to change me. Whether it is reciting the Modeh Ani when arising, meditating and chanting, praying as a part community as we have done today or walking alone on the beach or through the forest speaking aloud to God as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught, these actions have a transformative power. The Rabbi's teach that we pray not because God needs to hear our praise, but because prayer changes us, it makes up better and strengthens and improves our souls.
The study of Torah, is both studying the 5 books that make up the Sefer Torah and the huge body of Jewish scholarship and writings of the last 3500 years. For me, leaning to live Jewishly has made my life immeasurably better. Sampling bits of the Talmud, Midrash, the words of Rabbi Nachman, Martin Buber, the Chafetz Chaim and Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rashi and Maimonides, the Kabbalistic teachings, Psalms, The Book of Job has been a delightful feast of sweet treats for the mind and heart.
Acts of loving kindness, chessed, are the acts we perform to help others. Acts of loving kindness bring about Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world and are the inspiration for the Jewish commitment to social justice. In my life, I have found that small efforts to be kind like trying to learn to treat homeless people as fellow humans and stopping myself when I am tempted to indulge in Lashon Hora, evil speech and gossip have improved my life. I started to avoid eating meat, which I feel contributes to the suffering of animals, when my only motivation was that I like the way that animal flesh tastes. Trying to lead a more ethical life has made me feel better about myself and feel that I am becoming the person that I want to be.
These three foundations of Judaism tend to separate us from ordinary secular life and I think that they are holy and work to connect us with God.
As I thought about it, it seems that there are two other major elements of Judaism that help us to make our lives holy. I think that they were probably not mentioned by Rabbi Shimon Ha-Tzaddik because they were so much a part of everyday life, when he wrote, that he assumed they were always present; and besides, the Rabbis seem to like sets of threes and fours, rather than fives. The fourth and fifth elements which I feel add holiness to our lives are the Jewish cycles of holiness in time, as Rabbi Joshua Abraham Heschel put it, and being part of the Jewish community.
I have found that the Jewish calendar seems to be composed of a subtly composed set of cycles which wake us and instruct us. There are daily cycles such as the three sets of prayers, which I must admit that I do not say regularly.
There is the weekly holiday, Shabbat, the day of rest. When I try to unplug from the secular world. Like many other Jewish practices, I find that I seem to get out of Shabbat, what I have put into it. The stricter my observance of Shabbat, the more peace and spirit that I find.
There are the annual cycles, with Pesach, Passover, at one end and the with days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the other. Then there are the life cycle events, those of great joy, like births, Bar Mitzvahs and weddings and those of great sorrow that come at the time of death.
These cycles educate us, each Shabbat we study a portion of the Torah, at Pesach we think about freedom and enslavement. Starting with Elul and continuing through Yom Kippur we think of our shortcomings and Teshuvah and of our own deaths.
These cycles help us to wake up spiritually, when so many forces in our lives conspire to make us sleep our precious lives away in mindless routine.
Then there is our community, which I think is probably the holiest thing of all. The worldwide community of Jews and most especially the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community, this wonderful, quirky, absolutely improbable collection of souls.
I used to wonder, when reading stories about the early Chassids, why the reference was always to Rabbi X of the holy community of Y, like Rabbi Yerachmiel of the Holy Community of Chernobyl. Now I think that I am starting to understand that the community itself creates holiness. The community helps us to rise above the trivial in our lives. When we pray together and eat together, when we help each other, and comfort each other and heal each other and bury each other, these things connect us to God.
After the Rosh Hashanah service last year, Ella Russel remarked to me that it seemed that we were really all together this year and there was a feeling of power. As I thought about what Ella's had said, I began to feel that she was right. That as we sang and prayed there was something about our voices together that seem to create a matrix that, for lack of a better metaphor, carried our thoughts heavenward.
Well, I seem to have wandered away from Moses and Aaron, the vestments, the Urim and Tummim and the anointing oil. Yet, I believe that today spiritual practice, especially the practices of Judaism, can separate us from the ordinary and banal and bring us closer to God, just as the holy objects helped to separate Aaron from the ordinary, to transform him into the Kohen Gadol and to strengthen his connection with God.
Thank you for allowing me to become a part of this community, a privilege that I don't think I will ever feel worthy of. Thank you for changing my life.
Copyright 1999 Robert G. Evans
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