In Parashat Tazria-Metzora, the kohanim (priests) check the people for skin ailments and determine whether or not they are in a state of ritual purity to enter the Temple. The tie reflects the medical angle of the the Torah portion. For more insights, check out the G-dcast videos on Tazria and Metzora.
Pope Francis continues to impress me. Since he ascended to the papacy, he has earned the respect of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world and has single-handedly restored dignity not only to the Catholic Church but to organized religion. I have been impressed with Pope Francis’s humility, compassion and the moral clarity with which he speaks. It has been 100 years since World War I was raging in Europe, and at a mass last Sunday the Pope commemorated the start of the mass murder of some 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Turks. The government of Turkey takes offense when people call this systematic mass murder a genocide. They prefer to whitewash history, and governments and non-governmental organizations, including many Jewish organizations, have avoided referring to this historic atrocity by what it truly was and so avoid a row with the Turkish government. In this context, it was truly remarkable that Pope Francis this week spoke about what is “widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century.” Turkey promptly recalled its ambassador to the Vatican, and the Pope’s use of the word “genocide” has created a diplomatic row.
Pope Francis didn’t stop there. He put the Armenian genocide in the context of setting the stage for the Shoah that decimated the Jewish people, Stalin’s mass murders of his people, and the current scourge of militant Islamic terror in the guise of ISIS, Boko Haram and Al Shabab.
“It seems that humanity is incapable of putting a halt to the shedding of innocent blood,” Francis said. “It seems that the human family has refused to learn from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, so that today, too, there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few, and with the complicit silence of others who simply stand.” The Pope implored his listeners to hear the “muffled and forgotten cry” of endangered Christians who today are “ruthlessly put to death–decapitated, crucified, burned alive–or forced to leave their homeland.” Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes that Pope Francis, to his credit, refuses to downplay that Armenians were victims not only of genocide but of Islamic jihad, similar to non-Muslims subjected to militant Islamic terror today. He writes that during World War I the leaders of Turkey openly boasted about their massacre of Armenian Christians and that only later as Turkey sought to curry favor with the West, did Turkey change course. However, rather than accept responsibility as post-World War II Germany did with respect to the Shoah, Turkey has stonewalled and threatened to cut off relations with anyone who refers to the Armenian genocide as genocide. I applaud the Pope for his moral courage to speak the truth.
This past week, we Jews paused on Yom HaShoah to recall the brutality to our own people in Europe in the 20th century. We continue to bear witness to the unspeakable brutality and murder that our people suffered in Europe and that still scars our community. Like decent people everywhere, we are baffled that while human innovation over the last century has advanced our civilization in so many ways at the tools of innovation have been used to carry out unthinkable mass murder and brutality.
Parashat Shemini comes to remind us that we as a civilization stand at the precipice between creation and destruction. Rabbi David Wolpe writes that the most important day of creation in Genesis is not the first day when God created the heaven and earth, nor the sixth day when God created human beings nor even the seventh day when God rested. Rabbi Wolpe writes that the most important day was the eighth day. We began our lives in a real sense then, on the fateful eighth day –Yom Shemini. What happened then was not so great once God turned creation over to us. Adam and Eve get in trouble; Cain and Abel have their strife; humanity completely degrades.
When we turn to Leviticus, Parashat Shemini offers echoes of the fateful eighth day after creation. Only now what was created over the previous seven days was the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system. With a week’s worth of opening festivities over, it’s time to transition to regular function. It’s precisely at this time that we have the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu who perish on the altar when they bring eish zarah, strange fire.
Rabbi Wolpe writes: “We are blessed and cursed with the eighth day. For as we are given the start to creation, we are also mandated to carry it forward.” On Yom HaShoah, we recall the worst “eighth day” in human history, the twelve dark years of Nazi terror in Europe. The Nazis arrogated to themselves the powers of God that have roots in the initial eighth day of creation when God let go of the reins and said to humans, you run the world. At the same time, out of the ashes of the Shoah is a glimmer of hope that humanity can muster the courage to confront evil, rebuild and affirm life.
In the cause of stamping out tyranny in our world, Pope Francis was helpful in calling the Armenian genocide by it rightful name. I appreciate that a man of his stature and moral authority is not afraid to identify evil when he sees it. In a sense, he eloquently identifies the choice that we have in shaping our continuous eighth day of creation. Will we ignore evil or will we bear witness to evil and build a world of goodness, hope and love. The choice is ours.
Note: At press time, the link to the quotations from Rabbi Wolpe was not working, even though I have referred to that link previously. I will try to find the correct link and embed it in this posting.
We learn when we’re young never play with matches. In Parashat Shemini, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest, bring eish zarah, strange fire to the altar. They are tragically stricken down as punishment. The Torah provides scant rationale, Rabbis throughout the ages have struggled to find an adequate explanation for this incident. Whatever explanation one chooses, there is no ambiguity of Aaron’s shock: Vayidom Aharon, Aaron was silent. Yet Aaron goes on living, establishing Jewish religious observance for generations to come. In our world, we are bombarded by inexplicable tragedies that often leave us speechless. Our best defiance is to go on living and affirm life.
This year, the American Jewish community celebrates Pesah at an auspicious time in American history. This month marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and the tragic coda to that war, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Last month, March 4, was the anniversary of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural during which he delivered what might be the most spiritual message in American statesmanship, perhaps second only to his own Gettysburg Address. On April 9, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Two days later, April 11, Lincoln delivered his last public address from a balcony at the White House. In that speech, he built upon the Emancipation Proclamation and for the first time in a public setting made the case for the right to vote for African Americans. In the crowd was one John Wilkes Booth who told his companion: “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Three nights later Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York compiled a beautiful Seder Supplement that connects the retelling of the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom to the American story. The power and poetry of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural rests in his acknowledgment of both sides of the conflict. Another leader might have seized the opportunity for triumphalist chest thumping. Not Lincoln. His words set a tone of humility, compassion and forgiveness.
“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Lincoln concludes his address with the stirring words:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
We can only wonder how Lincoln would have governed through the period of Reconstruction. If these words and his prior deeds are any indication, he would have shunned vindictiveness and corruption that plagued his party after the war that paved the way for the unraveling of Reconstruction and decades of Jim Crow governance throughout the South.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, coming so close as it did to his death, serves as a kind of ethical will to the nation, a moral call for healing and unity. What Lincoln challenged our nation to do 150 years ago, we must do for ourselves in our own families.
When we began Pesah, we encountered in the Haggadah the account of the four children, one who is wise, one who is contrary, one who is simple and one who does not know how to ask a question. On the first day of Pesah I suggested that the four children as a group express metaphorically that all kinds of people are welcome at the seder table. Each person is an heir to our received tradition, and each person is a link to coming generations. Moreover, everyone is at the table. With all of the family strife and mishegas that they endure, they are sitting together having a conversation.
On this last day of Pesah, as the holiday lingers for a few more hours, we are called to reflect on the meaning of the holiday and how we can apply it to the rest of the year. As we observe Yizkor, I’d like to suggest that we honor the memory of our departed loved ones and reflect on the feelings of hurt, anger and resentment that enslave us and wield power over us. This Festival of Freedom should be a time of release in which we bind up our families’ wounds. At a vulnerable time such as Yizkor, we recognize that we are all widows and orphans to some extent, and we need one another. Just as there are four children in the Haggadah, there are also four statements that we should express to those close to us: “I’m sorry,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you” and “I love you.” Saying these phrases with specific examples of each to people close to us, particularly where there has been rupture, can foster meaningful healing.
Ideally, we express these sentiments when we still have time to enjoy and strengthen a healed relationship. Sometimes, we don’t have an opportunity to do so until a dear one is close to death, but we can still bring about healing. What if a death occurs before we have the chance or before we muster the courage to humble ourselves in this manner? We can still find creative ways to bring about closure–perhaps visiting the grave, writing in a journal or speaking to a photograph of the deceased. The words “I’m sorry,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you” and “I love you” have the power to break the shackles of that which enslaves us.
As Jews, we imagine that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt who went forth to freedom. As Americans, we take stock that our nation was built on the foundation of freedom but sullied by the legacy of slavery and that it took the courageous leadership of Lincoln to steer our nation towards the values for which it stands. As individuals, let’s take from the best of our Jewish and American ethos. To paraphrase Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, we pray that our loved ones whom we recall today at Yizkor shall not have died in vain. Rather, each one of us will enjoy a new birth of freedom and that our Jewish values of repentance, compassion and kindness will not perish from the earth.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.
Since it’s Pesah, there’s a great story about a prominent British Jew who is informed that Queen Elizabeth intends to knight him. The queen’s protocol officials prepare him for the ceremony and instruct him to recite certain Latin words just before being knighted.
On the day of the ceremony, the man is very nervous and, sure enough, when he approaches the queen, he forgets the Latin expression. As precious seconds tick by, the only non-English words that he knows pour out of him: “Mah nishtanah ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot?” The queen is confused. She turns to her protocol officer and asks, “Why is this knight different from all other knights?”
At the seder we empower the youngsters at our seder to ask questions and learn. Shortly thereafter, we read in the Haggadah about the four sons, or the four children. This passage reminds us that at least four different kinds of people are invited to the seder. We traditionally call these children wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.
Each of these children has his or her flaws. And yet they are all at the table. They are all seeking to engage in the discussion in some way, each on his or her level.
Each child has a more complex personality than meets the eye. Consider for a moment the Rasha (often translated as ‘wicked’).
Rasha, mah hu omer? Mah ha-avodah ha-zot lachem? Lachem v’lo lo. Ul’fi
shehotzi et atzmo min hak’lal, kafar ba-ikar. V’af atah hakheih et shinav, ve-emor lo.
Ba-avur zeh, asah Adonai li, b’tzeiti mimitzrayim, li v’lo lo. Ilu hayah sham, lo hayah
The Rasha asks: “What does this ritual mean to you?” (Exodus 12:26) By using the expression “to you” he excludes himself from his people and denies God. Shake his arrogance and say to him: “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt…” (Exodus 13:8) “For me” and not for him — for had he been in Egypt, he would not have been freed.
The very term “rasha” is difficult to translate: As noted in the Haggadah “A Night to Remember (Mishael Zion and Noam Zion, eds.), “‘[W]icked’ and ‘evil’ are very harsh, uncompromising terms for a child. ‘Rebellious,’ ‘mischievous,’ ‘recalcitrant,’ ‘chutzpadik,’ ‘impolite,’ ‘vilde haye,’ ‘naughty,’ ‘troublesome,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘problematic’ or ‘alienated’ are also possible” (45).
These adjectives are more descriptive and less judgmental than wicked or evil. After all, why would we be expected to have at our table someone who was truly wicked? Our tradition puts great stock in questions, and we have a seat at our table for someone who will do just that. In a sense, he may be the truest yodea lish’ol, the one who knows how to ask the sharpest questions.
In our current society, I am concerned about how we talk to one another, particularly within the Jewish community. We all know the old saw about where there are three Jews there are three opinions. It seems that increasingly we have multiple opinions, but people with divergent views avoid talking to each other or even sharing the same space. A case in point is the recent annual conference of J Street, the lobbying organization that describes itself as “Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace.”
Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, was slated to speak at J-Street’s annual conference last month where some 1,000 Jewish college students from across the country were in attendance. However, almost at the last minute, he cancelled. His reason was that Saeb Erekat, an official with the Palestinian Authority, was slated to speak during the conference, though at a different time. Fingerhut said that due to inflammatory statements Erekat had made in the past about Israel, he would not appear at the same conference. I was disappointed by Fingerhut’s decision. I think it was his job to be there. As he himself said, he was going to speak at a student-only session to thank students for their fight against the anti-Israel Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement and to encourage them to continue this important work. Fingerhut’s absence was a missed opportunity to engage in dialogue with students whose outlook might not be in lockstep with the board and funders of Hillel. If the leader of Hillel won’t speak to 1,000 Jewish students who care deeply about Israel, then who will speak to them? If they are not welcome to sit at the table with the organized Jewish community, at whose table will they sit? If they are labeled “Rasha,” wicked, they may well opt out, and this will be a disaster for the Jewish people.
As disappointed as I was by Fingerhut’s decision, I am just as concerned when the left shuns divergent view points as the right. We might call it opinion cleansing. I am not a fan of J Street. I believe that it’s in Israel’s best interest to pursue and ultimately achieve the goal of two states for two peoples so that Israel will remain a Jewish democratic state in peace and security. Yet, in pursuing their vigorous two-state agenda, J-Street has shunned centrist points of view, including, most notably, Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz notes that he has never been invited to speak at a J-Street event, even though he supports the two-state solution. As Dershowitz wrote an op-ed in Ha’aretz last year:
“[J Street] seeks to attract centrist members by advocating the two-state solution, an aggressive stance towards peace negotiations and criticisms of Israel’s settlement policies. These are positions I fully support, and if they were J Street’s only positions, I would have joined that organization many years ago. But in an effort to expand leftward, particularly hard leftward, it has taken positions that undercut Israel’s security and that virtually no Israeli center-leftists support.”
Dershowitz notes further:
“When J Street invites BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) supporters and those [who] oppose Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people to speak at its events, it claims that it does not necessarily support these positions, but it believes in encouraging its members to hear views that are different from its official positions. That is total nonsense. J Street only wants people to hear views to the anti-Israel hard left of its position. It categorically refuses to allow its members to hear views that are more centrist and more pro-Israel, such as my own.”
On this Pesah, this Festival of Freedom, there is much to be concerned about in the world such as a nuclear-armed Iran, a Middle East crumbling under the scourge of militant Islam, and Israel’s increased isolation among the family of nations. It is easy to be frightened by the unknown that awaits us, and we may be inclined to wall ourselves in among like-minded people. The Passover Haggadah challenges us that to be truly free we must move beyond our comfort zones and engage in discussion with people from different points of view. The Rasha is sitting at our table. Rather than alienate the Rasha with labels and creating distance, let’s reframe who the Rasha is. The Rasha sits opposite the “Sh’eino Yodea Lish’ol,” the one who does not know how to ask a question. Let’s rename the Rasha the “Yodea Lish’ol,” the one who knows how to ask. If we are lucky enough that he or she is sitting at our table, let’s not be dismissive. Let’s listen, because chances are such a person cares deeply about the Jewish future.
Through having open conversations at our seder table and throughout the year, I pray that the Jewish people will model that a free people is not afraid of disagreement. We sit at the same table with respect for one another as we challenge the ideas of those around us and listen to their challenges to us. Our Haggadah provides the Jewish people with a template for modeling respectful dialogue for our society. May God give us strength to fulfill this sacred duty.