While I was off performing in Minneapolis last weekend, I asked Shari Brenner and her daughter Nora Brenner-West to leader Shabbat services at Ner Shalom. Below is Shari's beautiful drash on Parashat Shemini. Shari has a Masters in Public Health and has worked in health care, primary HIV prevention and services, for over 25 years. She is the administrator of a large Community Health Center providing primary care services in the impoverished Latino neighborhood of Southwest Santa Rosa. She is also the recent past president of Congregation Ner Shalom and my good friend.
When Irwin asked me and Nora to lead services tonight, of course my response was “absolutely not.” Sure, leading services is just facilitating moving from one part of the service to the next, but the drash is the scary part. I could never live up to Irwin’s standards, could never be so funny, could never do the research he does, could never understand the parsha the way he does; I don’t even really know the rules for HOW to do a drash. So I asked him how to start, who to read, what the rules were, and he said something like “I don’t read other people’s thoughts because I feel like I’m copying. I just share my own thoughts, even if it often begins with how I don’t want to talk about what the parsha is about.
Okay, so I read Parshat Shemini, and let’s see how this goes. This parsha has two major parts to it. The first part is Aaron’s sons making some sacrifices and offerings, and the second part includes the rules of Kashrut.
The first part: Aaron’s sons.
Two of Aarons’ sons made several sacrifices and offerings, following the specific directions that God gave them, using the right animals, the right type of fire, the right vessels and the offerings were accepted. Then, they made an additional offering that God had not told them to make, and they were immediately and fully consumed in the fire of the offering. This was fairly upsetting, as it doesn’t seem like they did anything wrong, had any mal-intent, or broke any rules. They just made up a few of their own -- they just embellished a little.
I have no clue what this means, so I won’t talk about this part.
The second part: Kashrut.
The rest of the parsha outlines the rules of kashrut-what animals, birds, and sea creatures can and cannot be eaten, and God tells us to follow the instructions so that "you shall be holy, for I am holy."
I have lots of thoughts about Kashrut, both about following the rules, and about food itself. As Jews, these are two very important cultural concepts, right? So let me share just a little about where I came from. I grew up in a kosher home, following the rules. We ate only kosher meat and never mixed milk and meat. We had five sets of everything: dishes, silverware, sponges, towels, dish drainers. The five sets were for milchik (dairy), fleishik (meat), milchik for Pesach; fleishik for Pesach, and a set of fine china – fleishik – for when we had company.
Whenever friends came over and tried to help clean up, they were invariably chastised by my mother for putting a knife in the sink, wiping up with the wrong sponge, using the wrong towel, putting the dishes in the wrong place, etc. In time I learned to warn friends just not to try to help in the kitchen.
I grew up in a kosher home, and I was very proud of knowing and following the rules. I’m sure I didn’t give it much thought, they just were the rules and I followed them. I followed them as my parents changed them a bit, but I followed their logic, so I followed any new rules I learned.
When I was 15, I got a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and I learned that a kosher home means only the INSIDE of the home. When there was chicken left unsold at the end of the night, I would bring it home to my anxiously waiting parents and sisters and we would eat it on the front porch. Okay, but the INSIDE of the house was still kosher, my mother insisted.
Fast forward through the next 25 years, outside of my parents’ home; making and sharing homes with many roommates, a few partners, Jewish and non-Jewish, each home having different “rules” about food. During those 25 years, I was acutely aware of every single morsel that passed my lips that was unkosher. My emotions ranged from the rebellious “see, I can eat this and nothing bad happens” to feelings of loss, sadness, or maybe some guilt? Perhaps some longing for the certainty, the safety, of knowing and following the rules?
Over the years, I inched closer to vegetarianism, even called myself an almost vegetarian, and got to about 95%, but never quite made the full commitment until Nora was about 3. We were visiting Martha’s Vineyard, and out of the blue, she asked, “Mama, when you were little and you ate meat, did you kill it with a very sharp knife?” Later on that same trip, we were walking along a lagoon, when a large school of beautiful fish sensed us and hastily swam away. Nora looked up at me, confused and hurt, and said, “Mama, why did those fish swim away. Don’t they know we’re vegenetarians?” Okay, my 95% vegetarian diet became 100% for the next 12 years. That felt right, and was a relief, as in addition to not killing animals and decreasing my environmental impact, one of the benefits of a vegetarian diet was that I could keep kosher. No more conflict. My vegetarian home is a kosher home. My timing was such that I was the one of the grandchildren who inherited my grandmothers’ dishes, because they were kosher dishes. Sure, my kids would order meat in restaurants, but that’s no different than Kentucky Fried Chicken on the porch, right?
Well, actually I was 99.9% vegetarian, not quite 100%. Sometimes people supersede animals. When my grandmother put chicken soup down in front of me, I ate it. When my 85 year old Aunt Ruth served me gefilte fish, I ate it. I have always been clear that respect for elders, and others’ gifts, is a higher value than vegetarianism, or even kashrut. But even those rules are clear, easy and comfortable to follow.
Many of you know that my daughter, Cybele, was quite sick last spring, and she spent about 2 weeks on a ventilator, heavily sedated. With the prayers, support and love of so many of you here, I held only the vision that she would make a complete recovery, which she has. But during that time, I continually wondered what she would think, what she would say, when the tubes came out and she could talk. Well, it turned out that she had something very important to say. She said, “Bacon!”
That single word rocked my world. My comfort, relief and identity as a vegetarian were challenged by the needs of the daughter that I might have lost. Well, what’s a Jewish mother to do? I gave her bacon. When we returned to my home, I served her bacon. And all the meat she wanted. Clearly her body was telling her, telling me, what it needed. Who’s to argue with such certainty, such clarity?
Well, if you can’t beat em, join em. I joined Cybèle, and others in my household, in eating meat. The world didn’t end. Some of it even tasted really, really good. But over time, I found that same old nagging discomfort that I’d had before was growing, and was quite relieved when the date of Jan 1 that I chose to return to vegetarianism came.
So, back to the question of what is a higher value? Following the rules as we always have, or updating or embellishing them? Or taking a brief hiaitus from them, so we can really appreciate them? Following the rules of Kashrut as they are written in the Torah, even with thousands of years of interpretation and re-interpretation, somehow feels right to me. Making an exception in those rules for gifts from elders and hosts feels right to me. Making an exception at an exceptional time felt right to me.
But now I can’t help but thinking about Aaron’s sons. They did what God told them to do, and then they did a little more. And it was for that little more that they were punished. We have no reason to believe that their updating, their embellishing of the rules was anything other than a desire to be even more holy. A desire to go even further than they were instructed, to add their own value and maybe even their own values to what they were doing.
As Reconstructionist Jews, we are constantly searching for meaning in the rules, replacing the word “rule” with “tradition”; picking and choosing the ones we want to follow; proudly updating them to give them meaning in our lives; constantly searching for new definitions of sacred and holy. I feel blessed to be a member of this Reconstructionist Jewish community today, where we get to do this. Where nobody will judge me as a “bad Jew” because I make the choices I make. I feel blessed to be surrounded by each of you now, as I share from my own experience, as coached by Reb Irwin, and count on support from any of you as I struggle with what makes sense to me. I feel blessed to be among you, knowing that each of you is struggling with many and varied rules, customs, traditions, questions; searching for value in your own life, and sharing your thoughts and path generously with others.