Life out of context – Shabbat Hagadol 5773/Parashat Tzav [ March 22, 2013 ]


By Rabbi Lisa Edwards

As many of you know, I am not only just back from a 3 month sabbatical, but also just back this week from our trip to Nepal.

Before we went, when people would ask what I was doing on my sabbatical and I would say, ‘going to Nepal,’ I was met with a lot of wide eyed stares.  I think people expected me to say, Israel or new york or  I don’t know, somewhere else there are a lot of Jews (Miami?).  I’m not sure why, but clearly Nepal was not the expected destination for a rabbi on sabbatical.

Maybe the look of surprise was because they thought I was planning to climb Mt. Everest.  I wasn’t.  And I didn’t.  Although some of the ‘uphill’ on the so-called “light trek” we took through the “middle Himals/Himalayas” felt like Everest to me.

Perhaps you saw in the newspaper this morning the obituary for George Lowe, Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing partner.  You’ve heard of Sir Edmund Hillary, right? The first ‘publicized’ man to arrive atop Mt. Everest — May 28, 1953 — 60 years ago.  George Lowe, without whom Hillary could not have made his ascent, is the guy no one’s heard of.  And apparently Lowe liked it that way.

Perhaps so did Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali who reached the peak with Edmund Hillary.

If it weren’t in the paper today, it’s probably safe to say most people in this room – except those of us who recently went to Nepal – have given very little thought to the climbing of Mt. Everest in 1953 (OR anytime since).  In Nepal, however, it took me most of a week to train myself not to think Hillary Clinton each time I heard the name Hillary.

DrashRabbiLisa-1It’s good to get away to someplace SO different from home.  Tracy didn’t even manage to hear that a pope had been selected until we got back home.  It’s true it wasn’t really front page news in Nepal — or I don’t think it was anyway — I confess I never looked at a Nepali newspaper.  But the population of Nepal is majority Hindu, with a lot of crossover to Buddhism.  Christianity, let alone Catholicism? — not big topics of conversation there, and Judaism even less so.  Just one of many reasons Nepal turned out to be a perfect place for a rabbi to go on sabbatical.

Even though, eerily, the six pointed star (what we call the star of David) and the swastika are both common and positive symbols in Buddhist and Hindu contexts — and we saw many of them in Nepal — often side by side.  Which added to my reflections about how much of what seems important in our lives depends on “context.”

Context, or lack of it, is one of the reasons that a lot of Jews find the book of Leviticus boring, especially the parts we read in Torah portions like Tzav, the one we read this week, a portion that consists largely of detailed descriptions of burnt offerings —  the animal  and the grain sacrifices that God commands to be offered by the priests.  There is a lot of detail about what the priests should wear when they make these offerings, and exactly how the fire shall be tended and kept burning, and how the offerings, including incense, shall be “turned into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to God.”[Lev. 6:8]

Usually when I read these passages I think how glad I am that Judaism is no longer a sacrificial cult where such minutia of altar tending and animal sacrifices to God would be important.  Sometimes, when we read such portions near to the start of Passover, I think how our preparations for Pesach are a stand-in for those sacrifices — how the careful cleaning of our homes, our physical separation from leavening and certain other kinds of food, the physical details that demand our attention more than they do at other times — are suitable substitutes for the ritualized detail that made up the daily lives of the priests as described in Leviticus.

This year, however, as I read about the costumes of the priests and the formulaic way in which they slaughtered animals or made grain offerings or paid attention to what they should or should not eat, I keep picturing the many, many animals we saw in Nepal, living in such close proximity to the people.  The way, whether in the hectic city of Kathmandu or in the isolated mountainsides, the goats and chickens and dogs and ducks roamed the streets alongside the people.  The way the water buffalos, who gave us such delicious milk every day, were tethered so close to people’s homes or offices or outdoor toilets.  I think about the morning we passed a huge mat on the street outside a small market, a mat filled with the freshly cut meat of a water buffalo — one had just been slaughtered and every family in town stopped by to pick up their share of that one animal — it was a rare treat — kind of like the paschal lamb must have been back when Jews really slaughtered paschal lambs for our Passover seders instead of just putting a shankbone or beet on our seder plate.  (Do you recall the introduction of that custom back in the book of Exodus?  speak to the whole community of Israel, says God, just before our escape from Egypt, “each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household, but if the household is too small for a [whole] lamb, let them share one with their neighbors who dwell nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat.” [Exodus 12:3-4])  In that little village where we had spent the night, one water buffalo fed the whole town as well as some of the people up the mountainside.

This year while reading of the offerings going up in smoke on the altar, I thought of the many tiny kitchens we ate in where food was cooked for us on open wood fires burning right there on the dirt floor in the house in the corner of the kitchen.  Rather than oven vents and fans and clean gas or electric burners, the smoke swirled all around us — it may not have been good for our lungs, but it smelled delicious, “a pleasing odor” to us as well as perhaps to the gods whose images surrounded us — readily available for purchase at the cheap street markets or in more elegant versions of bronze and wood at the antique stores.

This year while thinking about Passover and BCC’s seder here this coming Tuesday night, I find myself experiencing a more visceral sense of life in Egypt or what that Exodus from Egypt might have felt like — the former slaves and brick makers running from Egypt with bowls of unleavened dough on their shoulders and all their possessions on their backs, like the many women and men we saw carrying wood and bricks in baskets or heavy water jugs or huge bags of rice (or our own porters carrying our dufflebags and backpacks) on their backs with straps that looped around their foreheads so their necks and shoulders also “shouldered” the brunt of the burden. I even thought about the Exodus from Egypt, the hundreds of thousands of Israelites passing through the parted Sea, as I watched — with bated breath — the very full public buses winding their way up very narrow mountain roads with their rooftop luggage racks also filled not only with baggage but often with people and goats as well.  We read every week about the miracle of crossing the Red Sea, where I tend to think of the parting of the Sea as the miracle, but NOW I think just moving that many people from one place to another on a rough terrain is surely the real miracle.

And how many times, walking up and down those mountain paths, did I think to myself — MOSES was 81 years old when God had him climbing up and down Mt. Sinai by himself 2 or 3 times.  (I think Mt. Sinai was just about the same size as the middle Himalayas.)

And too this year as I’m thinking about the seder plate symbols of the parsley and egg — the “borrowed from other cultures” symbols of spring and fertility –I’m thinking about all the baby animals and baby humans and newly blooming plants we saw along the trail — so many baby goats and chicks and ducklings and water buffalos and even a piglet or two — making me more aware than I’ve ever been of the genuine role Spring plays — WHY Spring has become the symbol of re-birth and of the cycle of life.

And even though Hinduism is not much connected to Judaism, the many holy men we saw turning up at the Temple of Pashupati for the annual celebration of the birthday of Shiva reminded me that religious people in every religion have their ritual wear and religious symbols — whether it’s the red ink circle that Hindus apply daily between their eyes or the Jew’s daily affixing of tefilin between our eyes — to keep us all focused on the presence of God (or gods) and what our Gods expect from us.

On our 4 day trek through the mountainsides of Nepal, 12 of us walking all day long each day on what’s called the Indigenous People’s Trail, Tracy discovered what’s it like to be always at the end of the line, just a little slower than everybody else (except for me, occasionally).  At the end of the trek, camera in hand, she said, “I have so many pictures of people walking away from me.” [show the slides – READERS: see below]

At the back of the line really was a new “position” for Tracy and for me.  And it put us in mind of that famous comment (attributed to a number of different writers if you look it up on Google), the line that reads:  “If you’re not the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”

Actually, it wasn’t just the trek, I sat in the back of the sanctuary a lot these last few months too. And being in the back was really good for us.  I discovered that though the joke about the scenery not changing is funny, it’s not really true (unless you really are a sled dog, I guess).  Inhabiting a different space (in more ways than one) gave us a lot of opportunities to think about context, and the way that frames so much of what we think about or believe.

I’m so glad I didn’t go to Israel again for my sabbatical (although it could have been interesting to be there with President Obama this week)…or NYC… or even Miami, glad not to have gone to familiar places.  I am grateful to have been with dear friends on my trip and especially with cousins who have spent 20 of the last 40 years in Nepal (I confess I wouldn’t have had the courage to do it otherwise).

But even while traveling to so distant a land, I also know that a person doesn’t have to actually travel somewhere else to travel

“out of context.” So here’s my request — my invitation — to us all.  Pesach begins Monday night.  It lasts a week.  It is a holiday filled with symbols ripe for interpretation and re-interpretation.  It is a holiday that invites, indeed commands, us to move outside of ourselves.  Not simply to imagine what it was like to have been our ancestors, escaping their oppression, but to imagine .

ourselves – and then to become ourselves – doing whatever we can to end oppression wherever we find it in the world in which we live today.


Shabbat shalom and liberating Pesach to us all



As one of my colleagues, soon to be ordained [Nikki _______], wrote in a blog today, “Jewish tradition gives us Passover. The holiday of as if:

B’chol dor va-dor chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzrayim.—“In every generation a person is obligated to see himself as if he had gone out from Egypt.”

כְּאִלּוּ K’ilu—as if.


Let us act as if our moral precepts demand ethical treatment of those Others around us. Let us act as if our fate were bound up in the fate of those around us—not just our own sons, our own daughters, our own children, but all those Others who cry out for freedom. For in every sense that matters, it is.


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