Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Beha'alotecha - Committing ourselves to service

This week, we read from the Torah portion entitled Beha'alotecha meaning " when you raise up" in reference to the lamps (menorah) that Aaron was commanded to build, from God. While there is much to be gleaned from this portion, I've always loved it's aptly named title - the idea of raising something up, elevating it, in order to make it more special, more significant, and even holy.

Fifteen years ago, I had some pretty significant stuff to say about this portion - it was the portion that I read from for my Bat Mitzvah. Though I'm not sure where any of the paraphernalia of the big day has gone - you know, the certificate, the invitation, a copy of my speech (I'm, admittedly, a little jealous of jazzrabbi's photos from his post), I do remember the things I spoke about, my impressions of the day, and the way in which those things lead me down the path to where I am today.

In this parsha, the purification of the Levites is described, and they are actually elevated before God as an offering - they are to be set apart from other Israelites and are placed before God through their service to the Sanctuary. When I was 13, the idea of service called out to me. Judaism, at the time, was for me a call to being part of a community, to doing good in the world, to helping others through mitzvot and g'milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness). My drash (sermon) was about the importance of service - through any means possible: giving of your time, your money, your skills so that others may benefit from your gifts.

Today, I find that I am much more fascinated by the importance of that day in my life...and the idea of "beha'alotecha" - to raise up. Whereas most of the kids my age were interested in "just getting through it" I felt such a spirit within me as I led my congregation in worship, read from the Torah, and engaged in a sacred Jewish ritual. It was the first time that I can remember when Jewish ritual (aside from weekly Shabbat services) took on a huge important role in my life. Although I may not have felt like a woman or an adult, I did truly take pride in my Judaism and my spirituality on that day. My journey to, and through, Judaism has always been significant to me. Though it is often hard to articulate my path to the rabbiniate, I find that looking back helps me to pinpoint some of those sacred key moments. I can see, now, that my Bat Mitzvah was one of those moments.

The idea of setting someone or some group apart, and raising them up, is a scary notion. What purpose does it serve? What does it accomplish? Is it neccessary? But here it is, in our Torah, clear as day. As a new rabbi, I am constantly thinking about the ways in which others try to set me apart, even elevate me, in ways that are new to me. Often times it is a scary notion for me to think about. After all, I'm only human, and being elevated or distinct to someone else is a lot of pressure and responsibility. But I am reminded that elevation can also bring about awareness of the significance and importance of something - that it can be a great reminder to me of the sacred task I have to help lead the Jewish people to make this a better world.

I suppose there is a distinction between me and other Jews. I have committed myself, dedicated myself, to a life of learning Torah, of engaging with the Jewish people, of service to God. I have chosen a career (and a life) that is different from others. Perhaps like Aaron, I was given instruction from God on how to help create a light so that others may see their own ways to Judaism. That, I suppose, is my hope in all of this.

While it is a scary notion that I am distinct or different, it is also an awesome responsibility - one that I try never to take lightly.

What is the purpose?
I think the purpose of raising something up - whether it be time or space or people - is to really understand the sacredness and potential of God's presence in everything and everyone.
What does it accomplish?
I believe it accomplishes our ability to better understand how to make something sacred, how to treat something as holy, how to understand the specialness and diversity that is present in this world.
Is it neccessary?
Yes, I believe that committing ourselves to service, whether it be as a rabbi or as a Jew or as a volunteer or as a human being, is the most sacred task that any of us can undertake - for it brings about holiness and God's presence in our world.
And distinction is neccessary for us to remember that there are some things in life that are not just mundane or normal. Becoming a Bat Mitzvah, engaging with others, dedicating ourselves to service for God and the Jewish people, moments of working towards good in this world. These are most sacred and worthy of our distinction.


Anonymous said...

rambam-yad hachazaka laws of shemittah chapter 13: Halacha 13
ולא שבט לוי בלבד אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם אשר נדבה רוחו אותו והבינו מדעו להבדל לעמוד לפני יי לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את יי והלך ישר כמו שעשהו האלהים ופרק מעל צוארו עול החשבונות הרבים אשר בקשו בני האדם הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים ויהיה י"י חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעה"ז דבר המספיק לו כמו שזכה לכהנים ללוים הרי דוד ע"ה אומר י"י מנת חלקי וכוסי אתה תומיך גורלי:

Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as holy of holies. God will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites. And thus David declared [Psalms 16:5]: "God is the lot of my portion; You are my cup, You support my lot."

27. This wording could also imply gentiles.

28. This expression is used by I Chronicles 23:12 to refer to the holiness of Aaron, the High Priest. The Rambam is implying that every individual can reach a similar level of holiness.

29. I.e., the Rambam is explaining that the motif that applies with regard to the priests and the Levites can be extended and in truth applies with regard to any person who is willing to devote his life to God's service.

Elizabeth Wood said...

I always did like the Rambam's comments!
Thanks for the further insights..whoever you are!