10 Iyar 5773 / April 19-20, 2013
In this week's double portion, we find the steps the High Priest took each Yom Kippur to atone for the nation, we find a slew of sexual morality laws (incest is not okay – sorry Lannisters), we get some general guidance as to how we're meant to be holy in our actions as a result of God being holy, and we learn that hanging out with ghosts is a no-no.
I'm particularly fascinated by this concern about hanging out with ghosts. The portion actually mentions the prohibition a few times, further emphasizing its import. Just how prevalent was hanging out with ghosts in those days? I'd love some more information. Were they concerned about people entering intimate relationships with ghosts? Perhaps they were more concerned about being slimed by ghosts? Or maybe they were ahead of their time and were buying into the Jewish cultural mythology around possessing spirits, or Dybbuks.
The textual answer provided in the portion as to why we should not hang out with ghosts and other spirits (if you do, you'll be rewarded with the death penalty) is that other nations consort with ghosts and spirits, and we're meant to be holy (hence, unlike those other nations). Not an entirely satisfying answer. Notice that the Torah doesn't say that ghosts and spirits don't exist; rather, there seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that they do – but we're instructed not to engage with them.
Spirits and ghosts have been on my mind quite a bit this week, as I just returned from my first ever visit to Poland. While there, I had the chance to celebrate contemporary European Jewish life by running a Moishe House "How to do Shabbat" learning retreat for 30 European Jewish young adults in their 20s. I also had the chance before and after the retreat to visit some of the wartime monuments in Warsaw, as well as the Treblinka extermination campsite (which is a now a massive memorial as well), where over 800,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
Needless to say I'm still processing my experience, and in particular, the confusion and awkwardness of celebrating Jewish life in a place where the darkness of the past can still tangibly be felt. Walking around downtown Warsaw, one can still see (and feel) the lingering effects of the war. My grandmother is originally from Poland, spent time in concentration camps there, and was very much against my going to visit given the ghosts and spirits that still plague her dreams 70 years later.
From this lens, I can begin to understand why there would be a blanket prohibition in our tradition against consorting with ghosts and spirits. Allowing oneself to be taken into that world risks being entirely consumed by it, eliminating the ability to find warmth, love and joy, which I would argue are spiritual prerequisites for a number of other justice-centric instructions we receive this week, such as leaving behind the corners of our fields for the poor.
We had 30 people from seven countries singing songs of Shabbat, celebrating our shared Jewish heritage and striving to learn more about it this past weekend in Poland. What need do we have of external ghosts and spirits when our own spirits can be elevated so powerfully?