By Dr. Shoshana Fershtman, May 6, 2016
This week’s parsha is Acharei Mot, which translates as “After the Death.” The death referred to in the parsha is the death of the two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, who “took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.”
Moses and Aharon are stricken with grief. In this week’s parsha, Gd guides Aharon about how to come into relationship with the Divine Presence without losing one’s corporeality, one’s life. We can only imagine the pain Aharon must be suffering as he fulfills Gd’s directions. He is guided to perform a ritual of placing lots on two goats: one is to be killed as an offering to Gd. The other, whose lot is to be “for Azazel.” This goat, shall be set alive before the LORD, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness.”
Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness. This is then appointed to be the ritual we enact each year at Yom Kippur, “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the LORD.” After this ritual is performed, Leviticus continues with its lists of social rules: proscriptions against lying with a woman who is “unclean,” various forms of incest, adultery, and among the most troubling lines in our Holy text, Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.
What do we do with the words of scripture? How do we find meaning in them for our time? For our lives? One question that has stayed with me is Reb Irwin’s inquiry: why now? Why is this particular parsha showing up in this day of the calendar.
Today we are completing the week of Gevurah, in the counting of the Omer. We counted earlier, that we are in malchut she’be’gevurah: bringing all the work we have done of purifying the sefirah of gevurah into manifestation, grounding this work in our lives, a completion of the cycle of gevurah. Gevurah represents many things: strength, boundaries, discernment. How we balance our inclination to be all-loving, all-giving, with setting healthy boundaries: taking care of ourselves, not giving ourselves to those who cannot appreciate or receive us, maintaining self-respect, not burning ourselves out.
Gevurah also can become harsh, if it is not balanced with chesed, lovingkindness. We can become bitter, sour, harsh, shut down. For this reason, Gevurah is said to be the gateway to the sitra achra, the other side. We are made in the image of Gd, represented by the Tree of Life that is our human form.
When we do the work of bringing our energy into alignment with the Divine, we can feel the flow of energy as it moves and supports us in the unfolding of our lives. But if we get caught in the negativity of Gevurah, it can take us to the sitra achra, the other side. On that side there is also a Tree, but it is like a parallel universe of negativity. Here, we live lives trapped in pain: addictions, self-attack, cut off from the Divine flow.
When Gevurah is in right balance, it helps us discern what it is that we need to sacrifice, atone for, send out into the wilderness so that we no longer need to carry that energy and so that we can grow and transform. Bad habits, negative beliefs, ways that we mistreat others, all can be released so that a new way of being can emerge.
But what happens when this system malfunctions? Sylvia Brinton Perera, a Jungian analyst, explores the deeper meaning of ritual in her book, The Scapegoat Complex. Perera says that often as children, we are put in the position of the scapegoat: all the disowned dysfunctions of the family systems are laid on our heads, and we find ourselves carrying too much that does not belong to us. We are, or choose, to find our way into the wilderness, because we cannot function within the family system that puts too much negativity on our heads.
In Trauma and the Soul, Donald Kalsched (another Jungian) looks at how we can be abducted by the dark angel in childhood. Azazel is, like Lucifer, a fallen angel. When we grow up in families in which parts of us are not accepted, we send these parts of ourselves into exile. If we were made to feel that it was not okay to be smart, creative, sensual, playful, alive, enthusiastic, funny, if it was not okay to be vulnerable… we may have cut off those parts of ourselves to fit in. Azazel keeps us in exile: acting as an inner critic that keeps repeating these distorted messages to us to keep us in line, to keep us from being hurt, or judged. The inner critic says, to say safe, you need to hide your light. We maintain this state through addiction, self-hate, self-attack. We get abducted to the Sitra Achra.
The Psalms tell us, even ma'asu habonim, haytah l’rosh pinah: the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. We must do the hard work of redeeming, reclaiming, those parts of our essence that we have scapegoated, that we have sent away. We need them to become whole, to be who we are meant to be and become. (I want to invite you right now to close your eyes, to notice if there is a part of you that has been in exile, a part that you would like to invite back into your heart.)
On a collective level, we scapegoat and are scapegoated. Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, a commemoration of the Holocaust, in which the scapegoating of Jews that was woven into the fabric of European history culminated with the genocide of our people. Along with Jews, gypsies, socialists, and tens of thousands of gays and lesbians were mass murdered. Collective scapegoating continues. It cuts through the heart of our identity as Jews as we watch the continued bloodshed between Jews and Palestinians, civil wars throughout the Middle East, and the recent wave of terrorist attacks on Jews in Europe. And closer to home scapegoating has become frighteningly central in the recent election. As we call back in parts of ourselves that were scapegoated, so we need to free those whom we have asked to carry our projections, to stop projecting our shadow onto others.
The text sets forth proscriptions against incest, characterizing menstruating women as unclean, a man lying with a man as with a woman as an abomination. Sometimes we can look at the text and transform something that seems unbearable through seeing with the eyes of love, as the Chasidic rebbes did with the tragic story of Aharon’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. They see Nadab and Abihu as very holy, holier than even Moses and Aharon. Out of their yearning for Gd, their cleaving to Gd, Gd receives them in a “divine kiss” where they are unified with the Holy One, taken up in Gd’s arms in the throes of their passionate love, fulfilling their desire for union with the Divine.
Perhaps we can imagine same sex love being re-imagined in this same way, as a divine kiss. Yet my capacity for metaphor ends here, I cannot find a way to interpret the text lovingly. A few years ago, I saw Rabbi Sue Morningstar, who was with us here last week, speak about the parsha that forbids those suffering from physical afflictions from leading prayer. Rabbi Morningstar, herself in a wheelchair, shared that if this piece of Torah was not questioned, she herself could not be a rabbi. She said, sometimes we need Torah to heal us, and sometimes we need to heal Torah, and led us in a beautiful ritual of healing the scroll.
Our ancestors, blinded by the social conditioning of their time, could not use their gevurah to properly discern Gd’s intention, and instead projected their own fears and disowned parts of themselves, scapegoating those whose love did not fit into the model of the patriarchy. We, like Aharon after the death of his sons, must learn how to come into loving relationship with the Divine, and banish to the wilderness those hurtful beliefs that keep our community from flourishing. As we prepare the scapegoat to go out into the wilderness, we can place on its head those things we are ready to release: our hatred of otherness, our fears, the projections of our own shadows, and our small mindedness.
The stone that the builders rejected, love among all genders and sexual orientations, has become the cornerstone of a renewed Judaism, and of our own congregation, a renewed tradition that returns the Divine Feminine, the Shekhinah from the wilderness of exile to the center of the garden.
Ana B’choach is one of the holiest prayers in our tradition. It contains the 72 letter name of Gd. We chant it during the Omer period, inviting the Holy One to untie our tangled places. As Reb Judith Goleman chants this prayer for us, I invite us to call in healing for the scores of generations of those who were wrongfully exiled, scapegoated, and who suffered because of collective ignorance, healing for the millennia in our collective history in which gays and lesbians and transgender people were persecuted. I also invite us to call back the parts of ourselves that have felt exiled from Judaism and from community, an ingathering of exiled parts, taking their place at the center of our temple.
- Dr. Shoshana Fershtman, May 6, 2016