A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
April 2, 2009
Earlier this week, my mother was standing in front of the linen closet with its doors wide open, with that look on her face that says ‘do not disturb’. Whenever she stands in front of the linen closet to launch a reorganization campaign it is best to let it be: she is busy rearranging things much more subtle than sheets. Tidying up the closets (by the way, being British born, she calls them ‘cupboards’, and even referred once to the notion of people ‘coming out of the cupboard’) is her way of re-arranging what’s going on inside her mind.
For me – it’s washing dishes, or sweeping. For my friend J. it’s mowing the lawn. For S. it’s deleting old emails, one by one. For Aaron and the Levites of Leviticus – it’s all about the careful attention to the daily maintenance of the Tabernacle – God’s kitchen.
There are certain types of domestic chores that get done not only because they've got to get done, but also because they have an additional, more subtle function: they give us focus. It helps to have concrete, doable, achievable goals that move us from chaos to order and from confusion to clarity. A pile of sheets or dirty dishes, stacks of bills or unruly lawns: metaphors for our cluttered minds, symbols of transformation at our fingertips. Of course, sometimes, a sheet IS just a sheet and a dish is just a chore – but still – I think that there is more going on here, especially at this time of year - with spring cleaning in the air, and Passover prep moving into high gear. it’s all about the details.
Reading through this week’s Torah Tale – ‘Tzav’ – Hebrew for “Instruct” or “Command”, is like reading a very, very detailed voodoo cook book, with every instruction laid out, including the kitchen sink. Like most of this third book of the Torah, these chapters are about the art of sacrifice – what animals to bring onto God’s altar, when, why, how to kill, dismember, eat, and discard hoards of herds in the service of the Divine. Though these details were clearly instrumental for the ongoing activation of the tabernacle and temples of yore – today they are nothing more than historical relics. And yet, here they are, still read carefully, chanted lovingly, and freely interpreted. Why does this bygone technology matter? Perhaps because it can also be read as a mystical text – as a code for human conduct. Leviticus is about good housekeeping – but the house is not just the ‘house of God’ – it’s also the human body - the home of the soul.
Take for instance, the incidental pot in which the ‘Hatat’ or ‘sin offering’ was cooked after being sacrificed to God. Never mind what it meant exactly – let’s just say that a specific offering , in the form of a live domestic animal, had to be brought to the priest-on-call, in atonement for some personal act of transgressions. It is assumed, according to the Biblical laws of contamination, that the specific animal that happened to be carrying this ‘transgression’ on its head and onto the altar and into the pot inside which it will be cooked, symbolizes the actual transgression – and is therefore ‘spiritually contagious’. But what then do you do with the pot? Is the vessel equally responsible for the content? (Is the body responsible for the soul?) It depends, says the Good Book, on the type of vessel::
"But the earthen vessel inside which it was cooked shall be broken; and if it was cooked in a copper pot, it will be scrubbed, and rinsed in water."(Lev. 6:21)
I love this image of the priest, or of perhaps of the person him/herself who was guilty of the transgression – scrubbing that copper pot until it shines like a sunset, transformed, new and improved.
We don’t often get second chances in life. (Prime Minister Netanyahu being a brand new notable exception to the rule) but the complex teachings of Leviticus are a reminder that change is possible and that certain acts, as mundane as scrubbing a pot, can bear significant consequences with potentially great impact on the deepest strata of our individual and collective wellbeing. Read as metaphor, Leviticus is about tools for focus, and about transformation - about coming closer to our inner selves, and about making sense of the mess that sometimes becomes our life.
Yesterday, my upstairs neighbors, an ultra orthodox family, carried out their rugs to the small courtyard behind the building and banged the hell out of them, raising clouds of dust. It was nice to see the father and his sons take on this ‘domestic chore’, usually the domain of the women. Passover cleaning is taken very seriously in homes that take Passover ‘by the book’ –and men are often part of the team. The laws are strict – no bread or its kin are to be left over. Closets, cupboards, bookshelves and pockets are meticulously searched and scrubbed. Not unlike sterile conditions for medical procedures – Passover cleaning demands all or nothing.
I watched them from my balcony and was wondering if banging the rugs was also helping them to be thinking (or feeling) the cleansing process within. I didn’t’ ask them but just watching them reminded me of what I had to do – and I went back inside and opened wide the doors of my cupboard, and got to work.