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“Questions,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

May 5, 2023 | 7 Iyyar 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

Questions are very much part of the national conversation these days.

Questions are also part of the religious/spiritual conversation every day. Especially in Judaism. I don’t mean the Jewish age-old response of answering a question with a question. Or do I?

The Torah asks profound questions in the midst of telling the story of our people.

Where are you? God poses to Adam and Eve after they have tasted the forbidden fruit and think they can hide from the Omnipresent One.

Am I my brother’s keeper? Cain responds to God after killing his brother.

Why do I exist? A very pregnant Rebekah cries out with two struggling babies (soon to be Jacob and Esau) in her womb.

What do you need? A stranger asks a lost Joseph on his way to find his brothers.

The questions aren’t always direct. Sometimes, as in this week’s portion, the question comes as a reaction. “Why would the Torah even say this?”

The Eternal spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God…no man who is blind or lame…who is a hunchback or a dwarf…who has a boil-scar…He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, [if] he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Eternal have sanctified them. (Leviticus 21:16-23)

How are we to understand such an instruction?

The priests were a special class. When the ancient Temple stood, they conducted the ritual. They ruled over what could qualify to enter the sacred inner sanctum. They needed to mirror the perfection of the offering. Their spiritual leaders existed through a particular lens. The priests led on a precipice from which they could easily fall, for we know that priests were only humans with their own frailty. As Rabbi Rachel Cowan, of blessed memory,[i] has written:

“We wanted ideals, not role models. We exalted the high priest, not the blemished Moses, who at first declined God’s call to leadership because of his speech defect. But in recent years, our thinking about spiritual leadership has changed.” She goes on to point out that leaders who have experienced brokenness and life’s challenges shared with their community lead from a foundation of compassion and caring. “The spiritual figure whom the portion rejects as the blemished priest we may embrace as the wounded healer.”

A leader willing to share vulnerability elicits inclusion and a warm embrace.

Many questions remain, as they should. Just as the Torah poses actual questions, it also demands of us that we ask them as well.  Our inquiries lead us on new paths and insights.

Keep the questions coming, I say. They may very well lead to truths that can change lives and even an entire nation.

Shabbat Shalom!

Originally shared May 4, 2018

[i] Learn Torah With…pages 229-231

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Rabbi Elaine Zecher