Need I say more?
As Jews sit down together for Passover Seder and recall the Paschal sacrifice performed by our ancestors in Egypt, let’s take note that any one of us may be considered by others to be the “Black Sheep” of the family. With that in mind, let’s take the opportunity to welcome one another and renew our relationships. Let’s listen with open minds and hearts and seek to understand before being understood. Let’s free ourselves from everything that enslaves us, including grudges, hurts and perceived slights. Let’s make this season of our freedom a true time of renewal and hope for ourselves, our families and our world. A joyous Passover to all.
On this Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” prior to Passover, our Torah reading, Parashat Aharei Mot, takes us to the opposite pole of the Jewish calendar. The reading describes the elaborate rites carried out by the kohanim (priests), and particularly the High Priest, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. At the center of the the atonement rituals we find goats. In his Yom Kippur Mahzor commentary, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on the words shnei se’irei izim, two goats (Leviticus 16:5) that served different roles in the atonement ritual.
Rabbi Sacks writes: “The two goats were identical in appearance but different in their fate. One was sacrificed to God, the other–the “scapegoat”–was sent into the desert. They represent, respectively, the polarities of the human condition: on the one hand sanctity and order, symbolized by the Tabernacle; on the other, formlessness and void, symbolized by the desert. The ceremony of the two goats is similar to the acts of separation and division that took place during creation (Gen. 1). They represent the light and darkness within the human personality. The darkness–sin–is sent into the dark: the desert with its dangers. The light–the gift of love we bring to God when we offer Him a sacrifice–is transmuted by divine fire into forgiveness and love” (Koren-Sacks Yom Kippur Mahzor, p. 729.).
The goats on my tie are not your average “Billy Goats Gruff.” They are goats of personal transformation and renewal.
In Parashat Metzora, the kohanim (priests) check the people for tzaraat/skin ailments and determine whether or not they are in a state of ritual purity to enter the Temple. The rabbis draw a connection between “metzora” and the phrase “motzi shem ra,” one who creates a bad name by maligning someone else. The rabbis make this connection because Miriam, sister of Moses, was afflicted with tzaraat (Numbers, Chapter 12). Despite the moral judgement that the rabbis ascribe to the metzora, it is not to be construed as permanent damnation. Rehabilitation is the goal. Just as Moses prays for healing for Miriam, and she is healed, so too the kohanim have the task to reintegrate the metzora back into the community. Similarly, when one does something improper such as gossiping about someone else, that person can and should work to bring healing to broken relationships.
The tie reflects the healing aspect of the the Torah portion. For even more insights, check out the G-dcast video on Metzora.
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
March 28, 2014
Last Sunday, I took my five-year-old daughter on a date. We went to see the Disney blockbuster, “Frozen.” The story is adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen.” Disney’s retelling is full of action, warm sentiment—and terrific music. In fact, its theme song, “Let It Go” has been playing in my car every day this week, particularly when I’m driving Esther. Without spoiling the movie for those who might not yet have seen it, I think it’s fair to say that the prevalent ice and snow in the story are metaphors for coldness of heart. On the other hand, acts of kindness that show warmth of the heart can melt the largest icebergs and turn the most brutal winter into spring. When we show warmth towards another person, that warmth is contagious. A single warm-hearted act can spread throughout a community and even the world. As a synagogue community, this is a message that is especially relevant to us. Sharing kindness and warmth with others is what we’re all about as a community. Overcoming chill and bringing warmth and healing to a community is a central theme of this week’s Torah portion.
In Parashat Tazria, there is much discussion of the special role of the ancient priesthood in diagnosing and purifying people afflicted with skin disease. In Hebrew, the disease was known as Tzaraat, apparently a complex variety of skin ailments. Since these diseases were assumed to be contagious, separation from the community was an important part of community protection. Toward the end of Chapter 13, the Torah states of the afflicted, badad, yeshev michutz laMahane moshavo. He shall dwell apart, his dwelling should be outside of the camp” (13:46).
In analyzing why a victim of skin disease must dwell apart from the rest of the camp, it’s important to note that in the plain sense of the Bible, there is no moral significance to tzaraat. Modern Biblical scholarship has demonstrated that to the Biblical reader, a skin disease was a reminder of death, and the Torah emphasizes concentration on life in the presence of the Tabernacle. When someone overcomes their ailment, he or she may return to the Temple precincts.
Rabbinic commentaries offer different interpretations. In rabbinic interpretation, there is a moral dimension to the skin diseases of this portion. One who suffers from tzaraat is a metzora, word that the rabbis of antiquity note is similar in sound to motzi shem ra—one who creates a bad name for someone else, who slanders or promotes ostracism of another human being. The Sages say, in essence, that people who cause others to be demeaned as “other” should themselves be shunned much the way the metzora is shunned in Leviticus for physical ailments.
If we dig deeper into the Torah reading as well as the commentaries, we find that the portion is about much more than shunning those who don’t meet a certain communal norm. The Torah’s focus is on people with tzaraat healing so that they may return to the camp. Commentators, including Rabbi Harold Kushner, note that tzaraat is a condition to be cured and that the focus of the kohanim is to rehabilitate people so that they can reenter the sanctuary, not to shun or permanently exclude people. Similarly, the rabbis are more concerned with changing behavior than in ostracizing people who make mistakes. We are all imperfect, yet we all have the opportunity to bring healing to broken relationships and forge strong new relationships with others.
This Shabbat, with Rabbi Zelermyer and many friends from Temple Emeth joining us at Temple Torah, we have the opportunity to celebrate the opportunity before us to come together in partnership as one community. B’shaah tovah, at a good and appropriate time, please God, this will be official within the next few months. Even before we officially join forces, we still must lay the groundwork for building strong relationships based on trust, mutual respect and recognition that we are all on the same team. We all want a strong, vibrant Jewish community that we will pass down to coming generations. The sacred task before us is rooted in the relationships that we forge with one another.
Next week, thanks to the vision and support of the Temple Torah Foundation, Temple Torah will have the honor of hosting Dr. Ron Wolfson, a renowned author, lecturer and scholar of the American Jewish community. He writes in his book Relational Judaism that the key to the Jewish future is: “It’s all about relationships.” A vibrant, intergenerational congregation like Temple Torah has a wide array of worship services and educational and social programs for our community. This is all well and good. We need opportunities for people in our community to gather, to celebrate and learn in Jewish time and Jewish space. That’s what we do as a synagogue. At the same time, we need something more. People may come to Temple Torah for programs, but they will stay for relationships. As Dr. Wolfson writes:
“It’s not about programs.
“It’s not about branding, labels, logos, clever titles, websites, or smartphone apps.
“It’s not even about institutions.
“It’s about relationships.”
Dr. Wolfson will share with us in depth next week his vision of what a synagogue rooted in meaningful relationships looks like and how we might take steps to get there. I believe it is vital for as many members as possible to attend the various events and services at which he will be speaking. Reservations are still being taken for Friday night dinner next week with Dr. Wolfson. He will also be speaking next week at our morning service, after Kiddush lunch, and at an evening leadership workshop for our members. Next Sunday morning he will teach about bring Relational Judaism into our homes to help us create meaningful Passover seders. Please consult the bulletin and Temple Torah website for all the times. More importantly, just come.
May God grant us the strength to seek out new opportunities to create warm, meaningful relationships that will be the foundation of our Jewish community for years to come.
(Watch Rabbi Bernstein and Dr. Ron Wolfson in conversation on YouTube.)
As I’ve developed my Torah tie collection over the years, I’m often asked by people with some knowledge of the Torah reading cycle what ties I could possibly wear for Tazria-Metzora. Last year, I partially answered that question with medical-themed tie for the double portion of Tazria-Metzora. The two portions together deal with various medical conditions, including skin disease, that barred victims from participation in Temple worship until they recovered. The Kohanim (priests), while certainly not doctors of today’s standards, were the arbiters of who could and could not enter the Temple precincts.
This year, due to the leap year on the Jewish calendar, the double portion is split into separate weeks. What is a TieBlogger to do? Have no fear–I have just the tie.
Parashat Tazria begins with instructions concerning a woman after childbirth and the purification rites she must go through depending on whether she bears a boy or girl. Rabbi Harold Kushner asks: “Is the normal period of impurity after giving birth one week, and is it doubled after the birth of a daughter because the new mother has given birth to a child who will herself contain the divine gift of nurturing and giving birth to new life? Or is the normal period two weeks, only to be reduced after the birth of a son to allow the mother to attend the b’rit in a state of ritual purity, or because b’rit milah on the eighth day is a purifying rite?” Rabbi Kushner leaves it to us to ponder the answer to that question. In the meantime, the verb tazria literally means, “when [the woman] conceives.” The root z-r-a means seed. In order for her to conceive and give birth, her ovum must be fertilized by sperm, also known in Hebrew as z-r-a, seed. This tie may be PG-13, but it reflects the discussion of conception and childbirth at the start of Parashat Tazria.
Parashat Shemini contains a major piece of the laws pertaining to what came to be known as Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. It describes criteria for animals that are fit for sacrifice. Animals must have split hooves AND chew their cud (such as the cows of my tie). Fish must have both fins and scales. The text lists a number of birds that are forbidden, with the general conclusion that they are birds of peer.
Interestingly, if Leviticus were the only book of the Torah, it’s very possible that Judaism would ban consumption of meat except in the sacred context of sacrifice–communal meals under the watchful eyes of the Celtic priesthood. Deuteronomy (12: 20-21) permits eating meat outside the sacrificial system, and that practice has remained normative.
Michael Pollan’s recent best seller, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” describes the power of a community watching an animal cooked over an open flame. He makes a compelling case from an anthropological perspective that eating meat–consuming the flesh of another living creature–is a powerful act that requires regulation by a society. The Israelite priests closely regulated meat consumption in the he context of sacrifices that were sacred communal meals.
My critique of Michael Pollan is that he draws upon the anthropological wisdom of Leviticus as partial justification for partaking in communal pig roasts. Pollan never hides the fact that he’s Jewish–he even describes once keeping a pet pig that he named “Kosher.” I owe a great deal of my awareness of deficiencies in the modern, Western food system to Pollan’s writing over the years. However, I had to read the first chapter of “Cooked” with a split mind. I admired the compelling use of Leviticus for wisdom on mindful consumption of animals. At the the same time, I found it personally repulsive that a well-known writer who happens to be Jewish, was describing travelling the country to find the most authentic pig barbecue, in violation of
Jonathan Schorsch writes an extensive critique of Pollan on this point. In the meantime, in an era in which Michael Pollan and others have helped society rediscover mindful eating, I think it’s pretty amazing that kashrut as a practice of mindful eating has been embedded in Jewish consciousness and practice for thousands of years.