Tahor and Tamei: A Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5779

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by Tzedek Chicago Intern May Ye

Gut yontif. I’m so glad to be with you this evening. It’s good to be back. It’s good to be home. I first came to Tzedek Chicago in September of 2016. I had taken the train down from Kalamazoo, MI, where I was completing my Bachelor’s degree in piano performance. Joining you for that Shabbat service affirmed my decision to seriously consider the rabbinate. I felt wrapped in Leah’s voice and Adam’s artistry, inspired by Rabbi Brant’s leadership, and encouraged by this community of politically and socially conscious individuals. After five years of searching for ways to connect with my Jewish roots, you opened your doors to me when other synagogues closed their doors to me. You embraced me in my fullness as a human, as an activist, and as a Jew. It is an honor to come home to you this year and to share the first Yom Kippur I’ve spent within synagogue walls with you. I am so excited to get to know you and to learn and pray with you.

Today, we enter into a mini death. On Yom Kippur, some Jews refrain from eating, drinking, sexual relations, and choosing to wear a kittel, the shroud the dead wear when buried. In doing so, we separate our bodies from everything that is done in life and we emulate death. Sigmund Freud said: “If you want to endure life, prepare yourself for death.” For me, this quote epitomizes Yom Kippur. I find this day to be equally humbling and alarming. I feel humbled when I recognize that no one of us is immortal. I feel alarmed when I reflect on the words of one of today’s central prayers, the U’natane tokef which asks “who shall live and who shall die” on this day when some believe the “book of life” is sealed. I find that the way in which we embody death today brings with it a sense of urgency. It reminds us to live each day fully and with great intention for we do not know which day will be our last.

As I think about death, I think about the death that occurs in my collective name. Today, on Yom Kippur, I think of the death that occurs in my collective name as a Jew. In the name of Zionism, Razan al-Najjar, wearing a white paramedic uniform, was killed by live Israeli fire as she rushed toward the wall to tend to a casualty. In the name of a Jewish state, Laila Anwar al-Ghandour, an eight month old baby, died of tear gas inhalation, during this summer’s Great Return March. In the name of Israeli security, Fadi Abu Salah, a double amputee, was killed by Israeli snipers. In our collective name as Jews, in the name of “v’al kol Israel,” a people who once wandered through the desert as refugees, Palestine and Palestinians have been shattered.

I recognize that as someone who exists as a Jew in this world, that I am not disconnected from Palestinian death. It feels like my own death. To me, being Jewish means resisting. It means heeding the call of tikkun olam beyond synagogue walls. It means engaging in civil disobedience and putting myself on the line, recognizing that there is no other way towards peace and freedom than resisting the injustice that is prevalent in our world in every word I say and everything I do.  It means holding myself accountable, to my faith, to my community, to my country, to those killed by police violence and civilians killed in American war, to Palestinians killed by Israeli military. Being Jewish is intrinsically linked to resisting Israeli apartheid, to working towards Palestinian liberation, so that one day Palestinians may return home. Each time I utter the words “I am Jewish” or “I’m going to be a rabbi”, a part of me feels heartbroken. Because to say those words, I am holding the Palestinians in my consciousness, those who have died in my name as a Jew, whose families have been broken apart, and whose familiar and sacred places destroyed. My Judaism will forever bear a tinge of Palestine.

As I think about resistance, I am holding Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour in my heart as she is currently held in Israeli jail for her poem “Resist, My People, Resist Them.” In it, Dareen pleas, “Resist the settler’s robbery, and follow the caravan of martyrs.” In our work towards justice, we must remember and draw inspiration from Dareen’s poem and from all Palestinians who are resisting Israeli oppression.

Turning to the texts of our tradition, it is sometimes difficult to understand its relevance to these issues. I have noticed that when I do close readings of Torah, I find it difficult to compartmentalize the text. I struggle to read it in a frame of mind in which it was written. I tend to quickly extrapolate the text to modern day contexts. My tendency is to read Torah with a social justice lens first, and a historical lens second. Earlier this summer, on reading through Numbers chapter 19, I was struck by a verse of Torah: “אָדָ֖ם כִּֽי־יָמ֣וּת בְּאֹ֑הֶל כָּל־הַבָּ֤א אֶל־הָאֹ֙הֶל֙ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר בָּאֹ֔הֶל יִטְמָ֖א שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃” “When a person dies in a tent, whoever enters the tent and whoever is in the tent shall be unclean, tamei, seven days.” I was struck by two things:

First, the word ohel, “tent” jumped out at me. The word was so familiar to me. I thought of the first prayer we recite in the morning, during Shacharit, “Ma tohvu ohalecha ya’akov”, “How lovely are your tents, O Ya’akov” and I thought of the concept of the ohel moed, the tent of meeting. Recently, while reciting the Amidah, I read the words we recite so many times, v’al kol Yisrael, “for all Israel.” In my early days of Jewish exploration, I would mumble these words under my breath. Surely, I didn’t believe in praying for what I translated and interpreted as “all of the state of Israel.” I have come to understand that when we pray v’al kol Yisrael, we are praying more literally for “all the people of Israel,” and as such, all of the Jewish people. Before Zionism, the term, “Israel” was less loaded - a simpler matter. However we interpret this phrase, it feels to me like another iteration of the concept of a larger tent. This tent encompasses us all including Jews with whom we disagree and those who act in ways we disapprove.

The second thing from this verse that struck me was the Hebrew word tamei. While working through chapters of Mishna, Jewish law, during the past year, I searched for resonance in the term tamei and its counterpart tahor. These words don’t translate well into the English language.

Loosely speaking, tamei translates into “impure” and tahor translates into “pure”.  We may have associations with the English words “impurity” and “purity” that are attached to shame and judgement. Really, the Hebrew words tamei, and tahor are different. In Biblical tradition the language is used around being able to enter the Temple.  The difference between tamei and tahor is a blend of a physical and a spiritual state that we don’t completely understand. It’s not being physically dirty. It’s a state in which you cannot connect with kedusha, holiness. Being tamei is a state that separates us out from all that is sacred. It does not let us reach for that absolute connection with God, with what is holy. Once you’re tahor you can connect with God and with holiness again. You can be involved in the Temple, you can bring your sacrifice, you can be forgiven. When you are tamei you are not in a place where you can be a part of that.

Here we are. We are on the periphery. We are stuck in a state of being tamei, of being impure, of being unable to say we are completely holy, because we are tamei. I think that many of us have experienced feeling tamei. We may feel tamei when we haven’t done all that we can in our capacity to become tahor, when we haven’t responded to the calls of justice. Recall, in our verse, one enters a state of tamei when they reside in the same tent in which someone has died. What I find interesting, is that this concept of being with dead and then being in a state of tamei goes beyond Judaism. I am half Chinese and in the Chinese tradition, when someone in your family passes away, you are not to enter anyone’s home for one hundred days after the death. They speak about “bad chi” as opposed to being tamei, but the concepts are shared -- that is, you carry impurity from your exposure to the dead. We carry impurity from the death that’s done in our name. We are tamei.

This year I invite you to consider embracing this concept of being tamei. Ask yourself what it means to live as a tamei Jew. Think about how you might change your Jewish practice to reflect an acknowledgement of being tamei. It is on Yom Kippur that we acknowledge our imperfections. And so, I invite you to join me in wrestling with what it means to be tamei.

As I reflect upon the past year and think of moments in which I have felt tamei, I think of the period of Shabbat. For three months this summer, I intentionally distanced myself from the practice of Shabbat. I felt uneasy sitting in a synagogue, singing songs, praying in what felt like hypotheticals. I felt guilty for having left my comrades in the streets while I prayed. This year, I learned that I could do both. I could pray in the streets. I could pray on the sidewalk. I could pray and act in the same moment, and for me, that is how I needed to live. That is how I needed to live for as long as I am a tamei Jew. For me, being tamei meant that I needed to distance myself from Shabbat, Shabbat as we know it. Those of us who are non and anti-Zionist Jews are pushed to the margins in many Jewish communities. They see us as tamei. As an Anti-Zionist, Asian-American, patrilineally descended Jew, I often feel pushed to the margins of Judaism in many different ways. Only when I embraced being tamei, acknowledging the vast injustice committed in my collective Jewish name, did I feel that it was right that I live on the margins of Judaism. I imagine that many of us here feel proud to be on the margins of Judaism. We feel proud to be on the right side of history, advocating for Palestinian return, speaking our truths about what a just and prophetic Judaism is, showing up for our Palestinian brothers, sisters, and neighbors. If we can feel proud in being the radical Jews that we are, can we also find comfort in sitting on the margins of Judaism as tamei Jews?

On the sidewalk outside of city hall this July, I joined an Occupy style encampment as part of the #AbolishICE movement. Day after day I would spend my afternoon and evening adding my body to the encampment. Many days I would sit reading my textbook on Jewish history. Other days, I worked on my summer project of reading through the Torah. Some days the words of a prayer would pop into my mind and I would hold it with me, chanting it under my breath, or just thinking of its meaning and pertinence in the moment. One day I led a niggun circle where we chanted the words of our demands. We prayed. Every day I reflected. What was poignant for me was that I was praying. I had been avoiding Shabbat. Now, I was observing Shabbat - fully. I was actually praying more than I do when I’m sitting in shul. I was praying more than I do in my day to day life. Now, I was responding to a call, to put my body on the line. The circumstance of being on a sidewalk made Shabbat come alive for me in ways it hadn’t before. Talking with my beloved homeless comrades, unhoused comrades as they prefer to be referred to, made Shabbat more real than it ever had felt. I felt tamei when I left at 8pm and didn’t have to spend the night on a yoga mat on the city streets, under bright lights, being woken up at 5am by trash trucks. For my unhoused comrades, they didn’t have another choice. The sidewalk was their home. Our win to end one city contract with ICE is due to the steadfast commitment of my unhoused comrades to the movement. They made the encampment possible, spending every night there weathering thunderstorms, downpours, high heat and humidity. As we work towards becoming tahor Jews, we must turn to our comrades who are living with the least, who are living under dire conditions, whether within our socially constructed borders or in Palestine. They have so much to offer us. We have so much to learn from those more marginalized and oppressed than us, from our unhoused comrades and Palestinians marching to return home. As you walk down the street, find the humanity in every person you pass, whether they are sitting against the side of a building or walking past you.

Another moment in which I witnessed an individual move towards being tahor was on a cold February day in Michigan during a rally I organized in response to the first iteration of the Muslim ban. Once I published the list of speakers, I received a lot of flak. The Rabbi who would be giving the blessing called me the morning of the rally to say that he couldn’t give a blessing for this rally if a Palestinian were speaking. He said the Palestinian would speak out against Israel. On the Facebook event, someone asked me how dare I invite the vice-Mayor of the neighboring town, a Muslim man who had made homophobic remarks in the past and had voted against a non-discrimination provision. I replied that while I, too, was disappointed in the way that he voted, we needed to stand together in unity on the issue for which we came to gather. The night after the rally, the vice-mayor’s daughter sent me a message. Her dad had changed. He was so moved by the outpouring of support for his community at the rally, and from the members of the queer community who showed up, that in a meeting he had after the rally, he spoke in support of the queer community. His tone completely changed. Those who we may least expect to change, truly do have the capacity to do so. It is incumbent upon us to support each individual we encounter along our journey to work towards being tahor.

I am reminded of a Chinese Zen story. In it, two monks come upon a river where they see a woman afraid to cross. One monk without hesitation, lifts the woman and carries her on his back across the river. There, he puts her down and the two monks continue on. A while later, the second monk says to the first, “I can’t believe that you carried that woman on your back, for we are not supposed to touch women.” The first monk replies, “I put her down a long time ago but you are still carrying her.” Note how the monk who steps into being tamei, is actually less tamei than the monk who could not let go. Just as though we intentionally marginalize ourselves in Jewish circles by being voices for Palestinian liberation, we do so with deep consciousness. We embrace being tamei.

In Judaism, the transition from tamei to tahor occurs by immersing oneself in a mikveh, a body of water that consists at least partially of naturally sourced water, such as spring or rain water. In working towards becoming tahor, we must immerse ourselves in our natural society and respond to situations that call us to act towards justice. In the story of the two monks, I hear a question: How do we stop carrying and let go? The monk responds to the woman’s needs by stepping into being tamei. As soon as they cross the river, the monk puts her down and continues on his way. We must be keen in knowing where the bounds are, sensing when it is appropriate to conscientiously cross into being tamei and when it is time to let go.

Let us turn to the wisdom of our sages. In Pirkei Avot (2:21), it says: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We, as Tzedek Chicago, are constantly working towards olam haba, the world to come. As activists, we understand that this journey is an endless process of choosing rightly over and over again. The seven days are right here, in olam ha’zeh. Our opportunity to move towards being tahor is now.

However, we cannot achieve a state of tahor until Palestine is free. Even though individual action alone will not lead us to liberation, in our move towards being tahor, we will have to go individually. We are far from living beneath a unified Jewish tent. We often find ourselves at the mercy of politicians such as Netanyahu. We may feel powerless and frustrated. What I do find exciting, is Tzedek Chicago, and the new progressive synagogues that have put themselves on the map this year; Rabbi Ariana Katz’s shul Hinenu in Baltimore and Rabbi Joseph Berman’s shul, the New Synagogue Project in Washington DC. Yes, we will march in our work towards being tahor as individuals, but also collectively as Tzedek Chicago, and as the growing number of progressive synagogues in our country and around the world. Tent by tent we will march towards being tahor, a feat I do believe is possible in our lifetimes. You give me hope. As we wrestle this year in exploring what it means to live as tamei Jews, I believe by next Yom Kippur, we will be closer to being tahor.

Tzom kal. May you have an easy fast. G’mar Hatimah Tovah. May you be inscribed in the book of life.