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What if?


Shabbat Parah 5778| March 10, 2018
I speak somewhat abstractly today. Not to be unclear but to provide a sense of the wonder that our sacred texts convey this Shabbat.
What if I told you I could turn something distressing into something virtuous? What if you and I could change upset into inspiration? What if we could convert our fears into hopes? Would you be interested?
What if I told you 88% of all kindergarten through high school students in America participates in Active Shooter Drills in school. Would you believe me? Shelter. Hide. Run. These are the instructions they receive. Shelter in a safe place. Hide from the danger. When told to, run away as fast as you can.
A young mom reacts. “Dropped off my 4-year-old. She’s been doing active shooter drills since she was 2. This is who we are now.” Another parent explains. “My four-year-old son does active shooter drills at school. His teacher has them all hide in a closet and tells them it's in case animals escape from the zoo.”
Consider the strange law of the Red Heifer. In this particular Torah view, a person is made spiritually impure when they come in contact with death. A bizarre ritual rectifies the situation. “The pure person shall sprinkle it [water mixed with the ashes of the Red Heifer] thus purifying him.”
How do the blood and ashes of a Red Heifer purify from contact with death? It’s an ancient and mysterious rite seeming to defy rational explanation. I love Maimonides’ viewpoint. “I do not know at present the reason of any of these things.”
I admire his honesty. How many are the public rituals we witness we also do not understand? How many are the tragedies and false explanations, the platitudes and insufficient responses we see? How does social and moral dysfunction contaminate us?
Actually, this is the question the strange Red Heifer text puts before us. What contaminates us? What makes our souls impure? What degrades and lessens our essence, our humanity? In response to our brokenness, what purifies? What cleanses our awareness? What restores our dignity?
“And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you,” proclaims the prophet Ezekiel on God’s behalf. Ezekiel’s message, expressed in this morning’s haftarah, is one of transformation. Following exile, both a political and spiritual condition, Ezekiel describes the capacity of people and of God to reconnect and refocus on their genuine desires for life. Our renewal in life is to a hopeful state of being following difficult periods of time.
There is a mysterious brilliance in these ancient Hebrew texts. Their spiritual relevance to this time and place is startling. People always confront despair and anguish. In response, people always seek renewal and rebuilding.
These Biblical words call out to us for transformation. Too much continually upsets us. Too little shocks us anymore. Too much of what is blinds us from so much that ought to be, instead. Our souls lament. Our spirits wane. We must seek renewal for ourselves, for our society, and most of all, for our children who’ve only known a world marred by foreign and domestic terror all of their lives.
We need a way to take hold of our humanity, to connect us to others’ realities, to allow life’s precariousness to motivate joy and gratitude, and the collective will toward change and moral courage. What I seek is for us to grow in the blessings of our lives toward an appreciation of the seriousness of our lives.
I don’t propose sprinkling ourselves with the blood and ashes of a cow. I do suggest we need to see the power of ritual to transform human experience, to elevate our spirits, and to amplify our ethical responsibilities - just as our ancestors did.
We need a modern expression of this ancient and mysterious ritual. We need to find a method for reclaiming our ideals and re-examining our social assumptions. One option may be to understand the familiar rituals of Jewish tradition in this way.
The choices we make to celebrate Jewish life and honor our tradition’s ritual patterns and customs is a way to bring into our lives a depth of purpose, a focus on what it means to care for ourselves and others, to focus on the needs of our lives, and to connect us to the realities of human experience.
What if I told you I could turn something distressing into something virtuous? Shabbat, a day of light and joy, of family and friends, of food and song, of enjoyment and celebration, is a day each week reserved for what the other days often lack: love, beauty, and rehearsing the good we desire always.
What if you and I could change upset into inspiration? The Passover Seder begins as a memory of oppression and concludes as a feast of freedom, justice, and equality.
What if we could convert our fears into hopes? Daily, weekly, periodic moments of prayer during which we pause along with others in God’s presence to reflect, to give thanks, to imagine what can be, and to decide we need to do it.
Another option may be to act on our concerns. To voice our views in public debate. To align ourselves with others who seek the changes we do. To respond with care and compassion to those who need us to be present with them.
Deep within each of us God has planted the gift of renewal. Performing religious rituals and/or helping others when they are broken remind us to live as we believe. The new heart and spirit Ezekiel senses, according to the famous commentator Rashi, are “our inclinations renewed for goodness.”
We need a modern method to restore our souls and renew our culture. Help me think this through. What if you and I could change upset into inspiration? What if we could convert our fears into hopes? What if we felt our hearts and spirits were new? What might we be able to do? The fulfillment we seek is about answering the possibilities hidden in L-IF-E. What if?
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784