Sunday, March 9, 2008

Yikes! It's Adar II!

Last night, I celebrated Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon of Adar II, with the Women's Rosh Chodesh Group.
I was a founding member of that group, when N. was a nursling, and I was the first Shliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) for the group in those days.
But my life changed, and I found myself needing to distance myself from the group and leadership of it for a variety of reasons, the most pressing of which was overcommitment.

But I got an e-mail recently asking me ever so nicely if I would be interested in coming back to the group. And, oh, by the way, could I give a D'rash and lead a discussion from the Women's Torah Commentary (WTC). So I agreed, and then wondered if I was getting myself overcommitted again. (It's one of my faults. I put it down to FMS--Fear of Missing Something).
But it turned out to be a great time in a very relaxed setting. The current leaders are doing a wonderful job of it. Better than I did, I think.

Being somewhat of a perfectionist, I spent some time last week putting together a D'rash, and since it pertains to the fact that it's now Adar II, and therefore six weeks (Yikes!) until Passover, I thought I'd post for the edification and amusement of ritual perfectionists the world over.

D'rash for Adar II: Be Happy, It's Adar II?!
Tonight we celebrate and bless Rosh Chodesh Adar II, the last month of the old Jewish year. Next month we will welcome Nisan, the New Year of Months. And it is a leap year, too.

As the Adar of Purim begins, our rabbis teach us to “Be happy, it’s Adar!” And it’s a strange admonishment for me, because when the Adar of Purim comes to my house, I also feel a certain sense of anxiety. Pesach anxiety. If it’s the Adar of Purim, then Pesach is six weeks away. Oy.

I don’t know who is coming to my Seder. Maybe nobody will. What if I make a Seder and nobody comes? Oy vey!

And would you look at my kitchen? Coffee grounds in the drawer. Sticky stuff in the recycle bins. And what is that in the junk drawer? What was I thinking when I saved three hundred and fifty-two twist ties? And just look at the shelves the broom closet! I can’t even find my cleaning supplies in the disorganized mess there. Oy vey ist mir!
Be happy? Who do the Rabbis think they’re fooling?

All of this anxiety brings me to this week’s Torah portion and the Women’s Torah Commentary. The Torah portion for this coming Shabbat is VAYIKRA—“And (G-d) Called”. (It's 3 AM. The red telephone in the mishkan is ringing. Who do you want to answer it?) It is the first portion in the book of VAYIKRA—Leviticus. At first glance, this Torah portion hardly seems relevant to the anxiety at hand. It begins:

“God called to Moses and spoke to him from out of the tent of meeting, saying: (Lev. 1:1)
The human being that wants to come near (the Hebrew root K-R-B is the same as the noun for 'sacrifice', which does not have the same connotation as the Latin meaning. It means "the bringing near") to Adonai...” (Lev 1:2)
and it continues with detailed instructions concerning animal sacrifices. We read about unblemished animals “taken from the flock or from the herd.” We learn about “burnt offerings by fire” and “pleasing odors to Adonai.” (Pleasing odor? A burning animal. I don't think so). We read phrases like “dashing the blood on the horns of the altar” and turning “the whole of it into smoke.” It is, as Rabbi Janet Marder says, “...Torah like a tough grain of gristle that runs through a tender, juicy steak.” (WTC). It is a book of blood-ritual, technically correct priestly ritual that “not only arouse(s) anxiety in the squeamish” but also seems irrelevant to how we modern women seek to come near to the G-d.

This is the priestly book that provides detailed instructions about how to be holy according to the technology of the priest. And yet we know that we—all of us who are Israel, those who wrestle with G-d—we are taught to aspire:

“You shall be to me a kingdom of priests...” (Ex. 19:6). All of us are to act in our lives to bring holiness into the world as priests. Not as prophets—calling the world to justice, not as kings, commanding from above. But it is as a kingdom of priests that we will work our destiny of holiness.

And what is the work of priests? It is the domestic work of becoming “G-d’s housekeepers,” as Melila Hellner-Esched so pointedly calls it (WTC). The kohanim do not have the normative rights of males—land ownership and warrior status. Rather, they sublimate the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination (this actually means agression, and other acts that can lead to evil--which makes me wonder about how warlike the Levites were before they got those priveleges taken away--it clearly was important to domesticate them a bit), to the discipline of "the bringing near", which is so carefully outlined here in the first several parshiot of the book of Leviticus.

But how—now that the temple animal sacrifices are but a dim memory (to which most of us say ‘thank goodness’)—how, as Rabbinic Jews, do we accomplish this calling? To what do we sublimate our aggressions, our self-righteousness, the whole of our evil inclinations? Certainly we are not expected to go out and sacrifice a lamb in our front yards. Thank goodness!

Our rabbis and commentators found a hint in the way that the first word of Leviticus was written. In the Torah scroll, the alef at the end of the word is written smaller than all of the other letters on the page. Since our Rabbis taught that everything written in Torah—every word, every letter—has meaning , the commentators sought meaning for this small change. In Itturei Torah (on Lev. 1:2 IV, p. 10 quoted in WTC) we are told that that small alef means that if we are to “come near” (l’hitkarev) to G-d, we must offer up a part of ourselves, we must offer up the yetzer ha-ra, our evil inclination. We must become priests, mindful that our smallest actions are done in the service of the Eternal One.

Traditionally, as Jewish women, we have a unique way to come into this kingdom of priestly ritual. One of my teachers (years ago when I was a young 'whipper'), the anthropologist Mary Douglas, noted something interesting about the exacting procedure of laying out the animal sacrifice upon the altar. The movement of arranging the sacrifice is from the outside of the animal body to the inside, a movement from the ordinary to the holy (Leviticus As Literature). This mimics the movement of person from the outside of the ohel moed, the tent of meeting, through the courtyard, through the outer to the inner sanctum. This movement from the outer, ordinary life to the inner, sanctified life is also a movement from the outer masculine self to the inner feminine self.

This movement has traditionally been the responsibility of the Jewish ba’alat bayit, the mistress of the house. It is signified when a bride circles her groom seven times, drawing him deeper and deeper with each circle, into the inner sanctum of kiddushin, the holiness, the completeness of the inner life. As in the days of the Temple, the priests conducted the rituals that allowed those who wished “come-near” to G-d; in these days, when the Jewish home is defined as the mishkan, the dwelling place of G-d, and the family table has become the mikdash katan, the little altar, it is the Jewish woman who makes it possible for human beings who desire it, to “come near” to the Eternal. We create the “kingdom of priests.”

Who is usually responsible for making the holy days and festivals happen? It is not generally an egalitarian enterprise. It is the Jewish woman who is in charge. And what is the festival that takes the greatest amount of planning, of arranging, of sheer physical labor? So it is that Rebetzin Blu Greenberg, in her book How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, subtitles her chapter on making Pesach 'For Men Only' since, she says, women already know how, having done it for millenia.
No wonder that many of us start hyperventilating at the very thought of making Pesach and organizing the Seder. Oy. Vey. Ist. Mir. Speaking strictly for myself, I start thinking about it shortly after Hanukkah. Just those little niggling thoughts of how it is now certainly coming... And then, in these leap years, Adar I gives me the illusion that I still have lots of time, if only I would start getting ready early. Of course, I don’t. So Adar II catches me napping, and the Pesach Panic starts in earnest.

Be happy it’s Adar?! Who do they think they’re kidding?!

Except that removing the leavening is symbolic of removing all that is “puffed up” in our lives, leaving us to content with being content with the simplicity of who we really are. Pesach is one of those rare times when we can "be in the moment" entirely in our otherwise busy lives. Removing the leavening is to offer in return a part of ourselves, the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination in order to come near to the four promises G-d made to us at the Seder table: I will sanctify you, I will redeem you, I will bless you, and I will bring you into the land.

Be happy it’s Adar? Who do they think they are kidding?

Unless of course, as we scour the kitchen, change the dishes, and remove the leaven, we can remember that the exacting priest-like ritual is done mindfully, so that we become “G-d’s Housekeepers,” and draw our families and friends, and the strangers at our gates, into being a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation.”

“Do you ponder?” A student once asked me that question. Often, I stay too busy to ponder. But during Adar, and into the beginning of Nisan, if I can breathe through Pesach anxiety, and actually begin the work of making Pesach, I find that the anxiety is mostly an artifact of procrastination and of thinking ahead too much. So, as I move into the act of being “G-d’s Housekeeper” in the little mishkan of my kitchen, I do find that the rhythm of the work is the mother of being in the moment. It's a bit like the exacting ritual of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. And as the leavening is taken out, I find my "coming near" on the altar of the ordinary work of my life. It’s hard to be puffed up and full of yetzer while scrubbing out that sticky stuff in the recycle bin. Or while wiping coffee grounds from the drawers.

I still have a few weeks yet. There’s Purim for hilarity before the pondering work of priesthood begins in earnest.

Be happy it’s Adar? I guess I am. I am happy to ponder the sisterhood of Jewish women, all doing the priestly service of making Pesach.

Be happy it’s Adar? Here’s to the priesthood of Jewish women. L’chaim!


Swylv said...

Wow this was eye opening. Thank you for sharing

quote: "this actually means agression, and other acts that can lead to evil--which makes me wonder about how warlike the Levites were before they got those priveleges taken away--it clearly was important to domesticate them a bit"

reply: Genesis 34 Levi and Simeon get revenge for Dinah ...then the tribe of Simeon was eventually swallowed into Judah and the Levite tribe became the Priest who had a very bloody job with all that animal sacrifice

or so I've learned at

Look forward to more WTC posts from you.

Amie said...

I, too, suffer from FMS

BTY...Be Happy, it's Adar :D

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

swlv--Thanks for the answer to my question. I did not make that connection. It makes sense, in a rabbinic sort of way.

Amie--Thanks! Maybe we can start a FMS support group?! ;)

Muffin said...

For Who and for Whom
Remember this hymn:
Use Whom wherever
You might have used him.

Who did? - He did!
Who copied whom? - He copied him!
Whose? - His!
Who kidded whom? - They kidded him!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Muffin--see my reply to your comment on Ragamuffin Studies dated Monday, March 10, 2008.