Friday, June 1, 2018

Making The Everyday Holy: Beha’alotecha.18

Making The Everyday Holy:  Beha’alotecha
June 1, 2018
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Many years ago, a college friend suggested that we go to Colorado for a week of hiking and camping. Somehow, the trip never materialized, but the thought remained in my mind for all these years. Life kept pushing the idea further and further back, and then it just faded.  Until recently, that is.  

You see, my son now lives in Colorado, and last weekend I went out there for a few days. It wasn’t the first visit, but this time I got to fulfill at least part of the old dream. We didn’t go camping, but we did go hiking.  Colorado is full of amazing roads and nature trails, and beautiful vistas open before you at every moment and every turn.

I posted some of the pictures I took on Facebook, even as I realized that no photograph can do justice to the majesty and grandeur of the scenery.  One of the responses I got was, “I think you could get used to this!” My instinct was to reply, “I hope not!” But of course my friend had meant her words figuratively, not literally.

The phrase “to get used to something” has two meanings.  The figurative meaning is that something doesn’t require much work, there’s nothing unpleasant or difficult involved. It’s easy to become part of the experience. The other, more literal meaning, is to no longer see something as unusual or surprising. The special becomes ordinary.

How could anyone, I thought, get used to the Rocky Mountains? The lakes and rivers, the valleys and rock formations? How could all that become ordinary?

However, I suppose it is possible that for someone who’s lived in Colorado long enough, even the Rockies could fade into the background.

Our senses need constant refreshment; we need persistent stimulation, or else we dobecome used to just about anything. And when we get used to things, to people, to nature, to life, we start taking them for granted, and at that point, unless we are careful, they can lose all meaning.  

We are blessed today with just about everything we need. A few commands entered into our laptops or smartphones guarantee that whatever our hearts desire will arrive at our doorstep within a day or two, if not sooner.

It’s easy to get used to such comfort and convenience.

It’s easy to believe we have it coming to us, that we deserve it, that anything can be ours just because we want it. 

The danger in this kind of thinking, however, is that sometimes—just sometimes—it just so happens that we can’t have what we want.  Childlike then, we lapse into frustration and anger.  We lash out. We blame others for what we cannot have, and sometimes our rage can even turn into hatred, and then to violence.  Sadly, in our day, in our country, we see this happening more and more.

This week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha(“Kindling the Lights,” Numbers 8:1—12:16), teaches us how to avoid this dangerous regression. Its theme is elevation of the ordinary to the extraordinary, the sacred. The portion begins by stating the rules the priest has to follow as he kindles the lights of the menorah, the seven-branched gold candelabra that once stood at the opening of the Tent of Meeting and, later, at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Torah’s instructions then move on to the ritual of elevating the Levites, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, to the exalted position of maintaining and leading the sacred service at the Temple. Finally, Beha’alotechatalks about elevating Time itself, taking the everyday, the most ordinary, the element of life we pay the least attention to—unless we’re in a hurry, or when we realize how precious little of it we still have left—and making it holy.

In the story of the manna,Beha’alotechaaddresses the danger of taking things for granted. As you might remember, manna was that sweet delicacy that appeared every morning, without fail, like dew, and fed the people throughout their wanderings in the Sinai Wilderness.  It required no work, no hunting, no cultivation.  All you had to do was to go out and gather as much as you needed.  No more and no less. But, as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life, and soon enough the Israelites get used to it and take to complaining.  Forgetting the misery, the slavery, even the genocide they had endured in Egypt, they begin to cry out for—to lust for—the fleshpots of Egypt, the meat, the fish, the fresh fruit and vegetables that grew in abundance by the Nile River.

It’s easy to get used to something if it comes to you regularly, without fail. It’s easy to take things for granted, even people, family, and love.  It’s easy to forget how we got to this point; easy to forget the sacrifices that were made by those who came before us, by those who still stand guard. It’s easy to ignore the plight of those who endure back-breaking work for little or no pay just to make sure we have everything we want, any time we want it.

The lesson that Beha’alotechateaches us is not to get too used to the blessings that fill our life.  Sometimes we needto make a special effort to appreciate what we have. Pinch yourself to make sure the dream does not fade away.  Anything that comes easily can also disappear just as easily.   Kindling the menorahlights may sound simple enough, but it had to be done every day, with special care and attention given to the tiniest details. The High Priest, whose duty this was, had to take an act we rarely think twice about, and make it holy.  Special praise is given to Aaron, Moses’s brother and the first High Priest, for keeping his hand steady as he fills the menorah’sreceptacles with pure olive oil, never spilling or wasting a drop of the precious liquid. 

Making little deeds mean more than they seem to, takes purpose and dedication, even love.

The Levites weren’t born special—no different from you and me.  But the exalted position to which they were called came with extra responsibilities.  Becoming a sacred servant to God and to people takes study, practice and years of preparation. Holiness is neither simple nor easy. Slipping up can have serious consequences.

And as for the rest of us, the so-called ordinary people, the rest of the Israelites, whose roles were mundane, routine, even monotonous, we too were given a task, a special, sacred task: We are called upon to sanctify time.  Time—a share of Eternity—is quite possibly the most wonderful blessing granted us by God, yet also the one we take most for granted.  There are special moments that stay in our minds and hearts forever—like when our children are born, or when they speak their first word or take their first step, or when they graduate high school and leave home for the first time. However, being a holy people means that we must make everymoment of our life special. Make it sacred. Make it count.

The time we spend on this earth; the time we spend with one another; the time we see a flower blossom or a mountain rise before our eyes—these are special times. Making Time sacred means filling every moment with purpose and meaning. The gift of Time is something you can’t get used to, mustn’t get used to.  It is sacred.

May beauty and love never become so ordinary that we get used to them. Like Aaron, may we kindle lights for others.  Like the Levites, may the labor of our hands always be filled with faith and purpose. Like the Israelites in the Wilderness, may we all learn to see the extraordinary, the sacred, at every moment, at every turn, and with each breath we take. 

© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Gifts of Torah: Shavuot 2018

The Gifts of Torah: Shavuot 2018

Seven hundred years before Moses gave the Torah to the Israelites, a Babylonian king named Hammurabi gave his people his gods’ set of laws. Writ in stone, on a pillar shaped like a pointing finger, what is known today as the Hammurabi Code disappeared for centuries before it was unearthed in Iran in 1901.  It is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. A compilation of 282 laws, most of which are based on the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” concept of justice, this is one of the most comprehensive collections of ancient laws ever found.

But Hammurabi wasn’t the first to collect and publish such a code of laws. Archeologists have since discovered fragments of about half a dozen other, even earlier codes.  These, too, can be found today in various museums. What they all have in common is that they portray a rich and multi-layered social system, where power was everything.  If you were a free and wealthy man, the law was there for you.  However, if you were a woman, a slave or a child, you were basically worthless. 

And these codes also share one other common denominator: they are just about all that’s left of nations and peoples that have long ago ceased to exist and disappeared in the passage of time.

The Torah, too, is an ancient document, going back some 3000 years or more. Famously, it too includes the line “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” But there the similarities end.

The most interesting and important factor that distinguishes the Torah from all other ancient codes is that while the earlier laws were spoken by the gods to individual kings, the Torah wasn’t revealed only to one man, king or prophet. It was the entire Jewish People—present, past and future—that witnessed this extraordinary Revelation. In fact, the Midrash—rabbinic stories that came to shed light and explain the Torah—tells us that when “The Holy One gave the Torah, no bird screeched, no fowl flew, no ox mooed… The sea did not roar, and none of the creatures uttered a sound. Throughout the entire world there was only a deafening silence as the Divine Voice went forth speaking: Anochi Adonai Elohecha--I am Adonai your God (Midrash Exodus Rabbah).  That was so that everyone could hear God’s word.  The Midrash continues to tell us that the Word was revealed in seven—and some rabbis say seventy—languages, so that everyone, every man, woman and child, of any nation or culture, could understand it. As such, it is the most democratic document that was ever presented to humanity. 

It is also the most just.

In the ancient world, the king was the supreme ruler; his face adorned the statues of the gods, and he himself was revered as a god.  Unreachable, unblameable, unimpeachable, the king was not only the law, he was above and beyond it.  Not so with Moses and the Torah.  

The justice that the Torah teaches is fair and equal. “You are all standing here today before Adonai your God: Your leaders, your chieftains, your elders and officers, all the men of Israel; your little ones and your wives, and also the stranger who is in your midst, from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water” (Deut. 29:9-10). From the Torah’s perspective, all people are equal. No one is above the law. Not even Moses. God alone is the judge, and standing before God, no one is special. Justice does not depend on your gender or age; no allowance is given to the rich, and no preference to the poor.

However, not all the laws in the Torah are quite up to date.  There are entire sections that reflect the times and mindset of the ancient world.  But here’s the point: While the Torah’s words cannot be changed, people are granted freedom to interpret and adapt its laws. To paraphrase the words of our Patriarch Isaac, the voice is the voice of God, but the language is the language of people. Like people, words, semantics and meanings evolve through the ages. As times have changed, so have we, along with our understanding both of God and of ourselves. In no Jewish community anymore is an eye taken for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth.  Instead, monetary reparation is made, reflecting the importance of both eyes and teeth to a healthy body and a healthy society. 

Like Moses, who, 3200 years ago already, understood that God does not want revenge, but rather repentance, so does Judaism, today as much as ever, value compassion and kindness over strict justice and harsh punishment. It may have seemed like a small step in its time, but today we recognize this freedom to interpret ancient laws and update them in the light of changing times, as a giant leap forward.

However, quite possibly the Torah’s greatest gift of all is its belief in the power of love to bring about change.  Nowhere is this stated better than in the section called The Holiness Code, which includes the verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Dignity and respect for the elderly; extending a helping hand to the poor, the weak, the sick and disheartened—these are some of the ways in which we show love to one another. These are more than laws: they are values that the Torah calls holy, arching above any other form and example of human behavior. These are what makes the Torah without a doubt the most valuable document in the possession of humankind.

And still one more difference between Hammurabi’ Code and the Law of Moses: the former is now found only in textbooks and museums.  The Torah, however, can be found in every home, in every synagogue, in every heart. It isn’t an ancient relic gathering dust, but rather a living, evolving record of a conversation we’ve been having among ourselves and with our God for more than 3000 years now.

The gifts of the Torah to humanity are some of the reasons why it has survived so long. But as with any gift, you have to use the Torah to make it work.  It isn’t enough to write or carve the words. You have to study and understand them; you have to internalize them; you have to practice them, every day, every night, every time and every place. With each act of justice, generosity, love and compassion, be it great or small, you make the world a better place, a holier place.

Shavuot—the holiday that comes seven weeks after Passover, reminds us why we were set free from Egyptian bondage in the first place.  It wasn’t so that we could roam aimlessly through the wilderness; rather, it was to set us on a journey toward holiness.  At Sinai we accepted the Torah and agreed to live by its rules. Today, more than three millennia later, we are still walking by Torah’s light.  The Torah’s gifts—freedom, justice, compassion, love and holiness—are the unfailing source of our strength, the power that keeps us going, secure and sure-footed, through all times and all generations.

In some Jewish communities, when young children begin the study of Torah, they are given candy and sweets, so that the taste of Torah would always be sweet in their mouth. May the words of the Torah continue to sweeten our lives, and may the light of the Torah bring us and all the world the blessings of happiness and peace.

© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, April 20, 2018

Israel at 70

The Peoplehood of Israel
Reflections on Israel’s 70thIndependence Day
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

As tough as last week was, the one that ends tonight was even tougher.

Last week we observed Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day.  

This week it’s Yom HaAtzmaut—Israel’s Day of Independence—and, just prior to it, Yom HaZikaron, the day set aside in sacred remembrance of the fallen defenders of Israel.

Last week I thought about what it means to be a Jew.  This week I thought about what it means to be an Israeli.

As a Jew, I am at home everywhere and nowhere in this world. As an Israeli, my home is in the heart of Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel. As a Jew, I have a history of over three thousand years; as a citizen of the State of Israel, less than a hundred.

I’ve lived most of my life in the United States, but my childhood and youth, the formative years of my life, were spent in Israel.  Even today I am fortunate to be able to spend a fair amount of time in both countries, to observe, learn, and partake of both cultures.  

With one foot on this side of the world and the second in the other, the perspective is enlightening. 

In Israel I learned what it means to be a Jew in our own homeland. It’s easier to be Jewish in Israel, even if you are secular and not at all religious. The language, the traditions, even the food, all reflect Judaism and the many flavors it comes in. In Israel I feel freer than anywhere else, free to be Jewish, free and able to defend myself, my country and my people.  

On the other hand, my life in the United States has taught me what it means to be a Diaspora Jew, always watching my step, careful with what I say, always mindful of who’s around me and what they might be thinking of me. In the Diaspora, I learned, you can’t take your Jewish heritage for granted. You have to make it happen for it to be there.

When I’m in Israel, I try to explain America to my family, friends and acquaintances.  It isn’t simple.  Israelis are used to a multi-party political system, a cultural hodgepodge that is noisy and chaotic, yet also multi-colored and joyful. Israelis pride themselves on their achievements in every aspect of modern life—from the arts, literature and music; to high tech, medicine, and environmental conservation; from superb cuisine and excellent wines, to—for the first time in over 2000 years—a powerful and formidable army. 

In the best and most altruistic way, Israel shares its accomplishments with people all over the world, and even beyond.  In fact, a special suit, developed by the Israeli company StemRad and designed to protect astronauts from radiation, is about to be launched into space in preparation for NASA trips to Mars, boldly carrying the flag of Israel to where no man or woman has gone before.

Concerned with daily threats to their existence, Israelis argue nonstop about the best way to protect this vibrant and non-stop country. They argue politics; they hold their noses at corruption in government; they complain about prices and taxes.  They object to religious coercion, but refuse to recognize the validity of any form of Judaism other than Orthodoxy.

Israelis aren’t afraid of anything except bad news. No problem exists without a solution just waiting to be discovered. But they do not understand Trump, and the anti-Semitism they see rising in the United States and the rest of the world.  They do not understand what it means to be a Jew in the Diaspora, and they are perplexed by the hesitancy of American Jews to offer unwavering support to a State that, for the first time in 2000 years, has offered Jews refuge, safety, security and pride.

And so I sit with them—my Israeli family and friends, and sometimes even with total strangers—at homes, in restaurants and cafés, and I try to explain the strange world that is America: The politics, the culture, and the growing fear of implicit and—more and more—explicit, overt, anti-Semitism.

In its 70 years of independence, Israel has seen more war, violence and terrorism than any other country in the western world.  It has also taken in more refugees from all parts of the world and somehow managed to integrate them and create a nation that is more family than disparate groups. 

Despite the challenges of living in a dangerous and tumultuous part of the world, Israelis are among the happiest people anywhere on this planet. They are proud, and free, and feel safe and secure in their own homeland. They don’t remember anymore what it feels like to be a minority.  Though most Israelis consider themselves secular and not religious, they are surrounded by, and are part of, an almost exclusively Jewish culture and environment. Most would like to see Judaism and Jewish law modernized, but at the same time they do not understand Reform Judaism or the American Jewish community’s need to adapt, change, and modernize the way we worship and live.  

Israelis don’t understand our fear, but they also underestimate our will to survive as a people. They see us as Diaspora Jews, a relic of the past—a past that Israelis are ashamed of, a past that inspires fear and anxiety instead of confidence and pride. They see our need to integrate not as a survival tactic, but rather as the first step to assimilation, on the fast track to disappearing.  

Americans Jews, on the other hand, don’t understand the tough stance Israel has to take against those who wish to see her destruction. They don’t understand the tension and constant threat that Israelis live with, every moment of every day. American Jews—with the exception of those whose sons or daughters serve in the Lone Soldier Program of the IDF—don’t know the terror, the fear of losing a child in battle or in an act of terrorism.  Israelis never forget that 23,646 men, women and children have been killed defending the land of Israel since 1860, the year that Jews first built new homes outside the walls of old Jerusalem. 

As a result of these mis-understandings, at times, relations between the two Jewish communities—in Israel and the Diaspora—become strained. Yet we must never lose sight of the fact that we are one people.  Despite the differences among us, we are parts of the same body.  History may have taken us on different paths, but we all share a glorious past and an even more glorious mission.

As the State of Israel celebrates 70 years, we have come to see its existence both as historical necessity and as a miracle. But it isn’t only the Hand of God that we see here. 2000 years ago, the ancient sages taught that כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה, “All Israel are responsible for one another.”  Even then, they foresaw the difficulty of maintaining our Jewish identity, our peoplehood, while dispersed among the nations.  It is because we have always heeded this teaching, that we are here today, and that the State of Israel is there for us today and every day.  

On Israel’s 70th birthday, with the full knowledge that our fate as a people is intertwined, we need Israel to understand us and make room for our more liberal way of being Jewish. And in turn, we in the Diaspora need to commit ourselves to being there for Israel: To visit it, to take pride in the example it sets for the world, to support and defend Israel against all those who call for her destruction.  

The bridge between our two communities is a sacred one.  We ARE responsible for one another. We each need what the other has to offer.  We share the same history and tradition, and we fill our lives with the same values and principles. Whether we live in the United States or in Israel, we are all the People of Israel.

In the Diaspora and in the reborn Land of Israel, the Jewish People lives.  Happy Birthday, Israel.  Am Yisrael Chai.

© 2018by Boaz D. Heilman

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Reflections on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2018

Yom Ha-Shoah v'Ha-Gevurah
Reflections on Holocaust Remembrance Day
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
April 10, 2018

The Day of Commemoration of the Holocaust and Heroism (the full name of this day) is one of the most important days in the Jewish calendar. Like similar events—the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 CE and the expulsion from Spain in 1492—the Holocaust represents a turning point in our history and lives.

The date that was chosen for this commemoration was set to recall the heroic uprising at the Warsaw Ghetto: 14 Nissan, 1943. The day before Passover.

So as not to cause conflict between the joy of liberation that we celebrate annually at Passover and the intense pain of recalling the Holocaust, the commemoration was moved to the week following the holiday.  This year, Yom Ha-Shoah V'ha-Gevurah will commence on Wednesday evening and conclude on Thursday evening.

Some of us reading this today were alive during these terrible living-nightmare years.  Some of us grew up in survivor homes and still bear living scars of the trauma our parents or grandparents suffered.  

All of us, Jews and non-Jews, were forever changed by the experience.

The brutality and cruelty of the Holocaust were worse than any other experience our people has ever lived through because of the technological know-how and efficiency brought to it by the Germans. And though there were some, including those whom the State of Israel has recognized as Righteous Gentiles, who helped Jews survive, by and large the majority of the world either supported the Germans or simply remained silent.

The debate over what could have been done and what should have been done continues to this day.

And though we still hear stories of survivors, these are getting fewer and fewer as the years pass.

We now have to rely on memory to keep alive both the events that transpired and the untold suffering that was borne by so many people.

There are, of course, the meticulous records that the Nazis somehow, inexplicably, kept.

The remains of concentration camps and crematoria still stand, bearing silent witness to the misery and suffering.

There are diaries that were kept and that somehow survived the great destruction, the most famous one of course being the one written by Anne Frank.  Many of these diaries, memoirs and Last Letters can be accessed through Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.

The scope of the destruction is too great to absorb: Six million Jews, among them a million and a half children. Each with his and her own story of survival, heroism and death.

Yes, the Nazis murdered others as well:  Gays, Roma (Gypsies), the mentally challenged, and many people of other nationalities. Yet what the Holocaust represents for the Jewish People is unique in the history of humankind, a culmination of more than two thousand years of persecution, an attempt to snuff out all Jewish lives and souls.

And now, as the actual events recede into the gray-zone of the past, remembering the vastness and profundity of the Holocaust has become OUR task.  Each and every one of us needs to learn at least one story and transmit it to the next generation. It is a moral, spiritual, and psychological imperative.

I urge you all to come to at least one of the events about to take place at the Winnipesaukee Playhouse this weekend. The play by Celeste Raspanti, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, based on poems written by children interned at the Terezin Concentration Camp before being shipped to the death camps at Auschwitz/Birkenau, will receive a professional staged reading on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Following the reading the audience will be invited to participate in a discussion with the actors.  I will participate in these discussions.   

For those of you who cannot be there, check out or purchase the book in your local library or bookstore. These poems and illustrations are living testaments, the last will of children who were never allowed to grow old.

But whether you are able to attend one or both of these readings or not, please take some time this week to reflect on the Holocaust: its relevance today, its lessons for eternity.  On Wednesday evening you might want to light a yahrzeit memorial candle in memory of someone you might know or in the collective memory of the six million. 

"Never Again!" is one of the lessons that some of us have taken from the Shoah into our lives.  As we see anti-Semitism on the rise again, as we watch genocide happening again--in Syria, Africa and various other places around the world--are these words still meaningful today, or have they become just one of those phrases we take out of some dusty corner once a year and put back at the end of the day?

The best response we Jews can give today is to stand up and say, hineni, "here I am!"  This is the traditional Jewish response to the call of God and history. We are here despite the many who have tried to destroy us.  In every generation, the Passover Haggadah tells us, a tyrant has risen to destroy us.  But we are here! Stronger than ever, stubborn as ever, steadfast as ever, we Jews are indestructible. 

For us Jews, memory is a commandment. We must always remember who we are and how we became that. We must always keep before us the vision of our purpose, the reason for our existence, no matter how difficult or challenging that might be.

Hineni.  Be there for those who did not survive.  Be there for those who are still carrying the pain.  Be there for the future.

Do not let the memory recede into nothingness.

© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, March 23, 2018

Clothes And The Man: Tzav.18

Clothes And The Man
D’var Torah for Parashat Tzav
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
March 23, 2018

In the excellent 1981 movie “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” as the Nazi-sympathizing archeologist Rene Belloq prepares to open the Ark of the Covenant, he puts on priestly robes and intones an ancient prayer.  Of course, we know what happens next.  Suffice it to say that Indiana Jones’s last-minute warning to Marion to shut her eyes tight saves them both from a general meltdown.

The scene is both exciting and ironic.  We ALL want to know what’s inside that Ark.  According to ancient Jewish tradition, the contents consist of the two sets of stone tablets—the Ten Commandments—brought down by Moses from his encounter with God on top of Mount Sinai: the set he broke upon seeing the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, and the set he then had to recreate, all while fasting for forty days and forty nights.  In the movie, opening the Ark releases some wild spirit—presumably a wrathful form of the shechinah, God’s presence on Earth, usually protective and compassionate, though obviously given to extreme and vengeful wrath when angered.

How ironic that an anti-Semite would don an exact replica of the Priestly Robes, described in detail in the second book of the Torah, Exodus, and worn for the first time in this week’s portion, Tzav (“Command,” Leviticus 6:1—8:36).  Even more ironic is that Belloq would chant a prayer that isn’t found among the Torah’s detailed instructions.  The Aramaic language of this prayer indicates that it comes from around the 1st-3rd century of the Common Era.  How would Belloq even know this prayer, which is chanted when Aron Ha-kodesh, the Holy Ark, is opened and its sacred contents, the Torah scroll, is taken out on Shabbat mornings and festivals?

But never mind that detail; for those who don’t know, it’s just so much mumbo-jumbo that one would expect at such a moment, when a fool tries to meddle with something that’s way beyond his understanding.  For those who do know, however, it’s a bit of sly Hollywood humor, entertainment at its finest.

Rather than this prayer, however, tonight I would like to focus on the clothing that Belloq puts on for the occasion, a costume patterned after the priestly robes that Aaron and his sons are instructed to wear when they offer sacrifices at the Temple.

Created of rare and expensive materials, intricately woven and richly decorated, the priestly clothing included linen trousers with a fitting belt, designed for both comfort and modesty.  On his head, the Priest wore a turban to which was attached a golden diadem inscribed with the Hebrew words, “Holy to God.” Covering his body were a tunic, a robe, and finally a billboard-like vest on which was fitted the mysterious, precious-stone-embedded Urim and Thumim, used by the priest for future-telling. 

Now, three thousand years later, in his super-secret hideout, Belloq has tied up Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood. Garbed in pseudo-priestly vestments, he prepares to open the Ark, not knowing the deadly force he was about to unleash.

Though an archeologist by training, Belloq must have slept through history class.  As an expert in Middle Eastern archeology, he should have known that only one person in the entire world was qualified to approach the Ark, let alone see its content.  And that person was the High Priest, a direct blood-descendant of Aaron, Moses’s brother and the first High Priest of Israel.  Belloq should have known that there was a time when non-descendants usurped the throne of the Priesthood. These were the Hasmonean kings, descendants of the Maccabees, and what they did turned out very badly in the end: Their action resulted in the fall of the Judean Kingdom and its takeover by the Roman Empire.

But Belloq made yet another mistake, a much more common one, namely taking a passage from the Torah and applying it, out of context, to his own purpose and end.  If he had bothered to read the rest of this portion, he would have known that it wasn’t the clothes that made the priest holy.  The sacred vestments were only part of a larger whole:  Through a splendid ritual held in full view of all the Israelites, the High Priest, his clothing, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar along with all its vessels and tools, were all simultaneously sanctified and ordained for the Sacred Service.  Misusing the ritual for his own selfish gain was a transgression for which Belloq was bound to pay dearly.

History is filled with people using—or abusing—religion to suit their own needs.  Where facts or text did not suit them, they forbade or burned the offending volumes.  In fact, for nearly a thousand years, the Bible itself was blacklisted; reading or translating it were strictly banned.  During the aptly named Dark Ages, merely owning a copy of either the Old or New Testament was a crime punishable by burning at the stake.

Even today one doesn’t have to go to the movies to see Scriptures misused and misinterpreted. Bible-quoting bigots defend their suppression of women, gays, people of color, and even of the original authors of the Bible, the Jews, by emptying whole sections of Scriptures of their original meaning and purpose, and then filling them with narrow-minded prejudice and ignorance.

It wasn’t his clothing that made the High Priest holy.  It was his duties.  The writing on his tiara, “Holy to God,” reminded the priest of the many rules that regulated his conduct and behavior.  The gems embedded in the Urim and Thumim were inscribed with the names of the tribes of Israel, to remind him of whom he represented when he approached the Ark of the Covenant. It wasn’t the Priest’s clothing that protected him from God’s wrath—it was his love for his people, his desire to serve them, his unselfish willingness to face danger and even death while carrying out his sacred duties and obligations. 

Holiness, we learn from this portion, isn’t in how we clothe ourselves.  It isn’t in the pomp and circumstance with which we surround ourselves. It’s in how we fulfill our purpose, the Divine purpose embedded within each of us, to make the world better; to make life better; to ease the pain and sorrow of the people who entrust their prayers and hopes to our listening ear, our willing heart, and our outstretched hand.

May we all become—in the words of Moses and the Torah—a nation of priests, all holy, all sanctified by how we fulfill our calling and the sacred tasks we take upon ourselves.

© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman