Say, What?

Emor, the name of this week’s parasha (Torah portion), simply means “Say,” and this verb is in the imperative mode. Here in the depths of the forests of Leviticus we read about things that Moshe is commanded to say to the people of Israel as they are forming their social structure. This parasha also has one of only two narrative passages in the entire book of Leviticus.

What kinds of things do you think it would be important to say to a nascent national entity as they begin to establish the way they want things to work? There are oh-so-many rules and guidelines to make a society work optimally…. In Exodus we heard the basics in the Aseret Ha-Dibrot (Ten Utterances, usually known as the Ten Commandments), but in Leviticus we get the nitty-gritties — all the little laws, some things not as obvious as the Big Ten.

Our G-dcast storyteller focuses on Moshe’s lecture on the holidays — when to mark them and when to celebrate them. Hmmm, would instructions about holidays be on your list of the most important instructions for a newly forming society? Maybe we can learn something essential about the way we are built psychologically if we consider why God deemed it important to make sure the Israelites knew about marking these holy-days.

When we mark the seasons in nature, when we remember special days like birthdays and graduations and anniversaries (of weddings or of deaths), we are differentiating that day from the endless progression of infinite time separating one day from another, from the routine. Chapter 23 lays out these special times, or as God tells Moshe to say, “These are my fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions” (Chapter 23 verse 2). Here in the desert, our rag-tag masses of former slaves, not particularly well-versed in how to live a good life, hear about the special “fixed” times for the Lord. And Moshe tells them how to go about marking these fixed times. Seems like a pretty important concept for the well being of this new nation.

Another set of rules offered at the beginning of the parasha is the laws of the priesthood, beginning in Chapter 21. Even though we don’t have a priesthood anymore in normative Judaism, it is nevertheless fascinating to think about what we need from our leaders, who the priests were in the days of the Israelite wanderings in the desert.

Why does God forbid a priest from coming into contact with the dead, or from marrying a divorced woman, or from serving if he is blind or has a broken leg? What would be the analogous parameters for today’s spiritual and political leaders? In this week’s D’var Torah by Professor Arnold Eisen of JTS, he unwraps the underlying message about the laws pertaining to priests.

At the end of parashat Emor, we change channels and read a very short and disturbing story in chapter 24 verses 10-16. It’s about a man who had an Israelite mother and Egyptian father. We even read his mother’s name, Shlomit bat Dibri of the tribe of Dan. This is an extremely rare occurrence — to get the name of a person’s mother (just think of all of the Biblical women who remain nameless, from Potiphar’s wife to Samson’s mother…). Apparently, Shlomit’s son did something that was so beyond the pale and so grievous that Moshe didn’t know what to do about it. What did this man do that was so awful? He blasphemed.

The blasphemer was placed in custody and brought before Moshe. Because Moshe didn’t know what to do, he went to commune with God; of course God was able to make a decision — the blasphemer needed to be put to death in a most horrifying way, by stoning. (By the way, in countries such as Afghanistan, this still occurs occasionally and we read about it and shudder.)

Some more questions:

  1. Who was this blasphemer and why do we find out that he had an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father? Was the intermarriage relevant?
  2. Why is this narrative here and what does it have to do with the rest of the parasha? The only other place that a narrative such as this appears is the story of Nadav and Avihu, back in Chapter 10, where it appears in parashat Shemini. Both of these stories end in death, and both seem to imply that lines have been crossed in something having to do with the essence of the way God is worshipped or spoken about.
  3. What does it mean to blaspheme? Could someone actually blaspheme today? What would he or she have to do to be considered a blasphemer? According to the rabbis of the Talmud, it is not just taking God’s name in vain (as forbidden in the Ten Commandments); rather, it is cursing God in public — that is, uttering imprecations against The Holy One, desecrating the Sacred. Doing something that is wrapped in mystery but that is intolerable and connected to speech (remember, our parasha is called, “EMOR/SAY!”).

While I have not been able to figure out what would constitute a blasphemer in our contemporary society, I would like to share a teaching from my teacher, Dr. Avivah Zornberg, in which she quoted a midrash from Tanhuma. Tanhuma, dating back to at least the 4th/5th centuries, is a collection of stories and discussions of specific laws connected with the Torah, that is to say, “aggadot” (a word that shares its root with hagaddah, the book that tells the story of Passover).

The back story on the identity of this blasphemer is that he was conceived by an Egyptian taskmaster and an Israelite slave woman, back when the Israelites were still enslaved in Egypt. One day, a taskmaster told one of his Israelite work-gang leaders (who were slaves) to assemble his gang. When the Israelite slave left, the Egyptian taskmaster raped the slave’s wife. The result of this coupling was the son who grew up to be the blasphemer. When Moshe heard about the rape, back in Egypt, he killed this same taskmaster and buried him in the sand.

Fast forward to the desert, years later, when this son is an adult. Dr. Zornberg describes him as the quintessential “ger” (stranger). Now we begin to understand why it is that his parentage is noted (when the Torah often leaves out so many details we want to hear about). He is a person who hasn’t been able to find his place; he is estranged, and in some existential way, represents all of us who sometimes feel that we can’t find our place in the world. The Torah tells us 36 times to be sensitive to the stranger because “you were gerim (strangers) in the land of Egypt”. Zornberg quotes Nahmanides, a commentator from the Middle Ages, who posits that this man wanted to be part of the Hebrew nation but was told “no.” There was nothing he could do to change his parentage; he felt out of options, there being no way he could un-do the circumstances of his birth. He is thus profoundly outraged by the terms of this world, its complete and utter unfairness… and he blasphemes. Maybe understandable, but not something for us to emulate. We must find a better way when life presents us with ultimate limitations.

Lots to think about….

Boston and “After the Death”

When tragedy strikes, what do you need to do to remain balanced and react in a positive fashion? What kinds of rules should we adopt to keep our society safe, healthy, and open?

BAM's message of support for Boston

Brooklyn Art Museum's message of support for Boston

The parasha (Torah portion) this week, Acharey Mote/After the Death, opens with a reference back to the inexplicable death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Remember them? The ones back in Leviticus chapter 10 verses 1-2? Not only were those deaths kind of shocking, the Torah captures the reaction of their father, Aaron, in one pain-filled, two-word sentence, “Va-yidom Aharon” — “And Aaron was silent.” Because really, what can one say when confronted with an inexplicable and seemingly senseless death?

Even though Acharey Mote refers back to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, for me, this week, the opening words of this parasha referred to the deaths and horrifying maiming of the victims of the terrorist attack at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this past Monday, April 15, also known as Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts.

There has been so much written about the attack and its immediate aftermath, and we know so little right now about the perpetrator and their reasons. But we do know some things, for example, about the astoundingly brave way in which those unharmed, both spectators and runners, rushed to help the injured. One of the columns that helped put the atrocity in perspective for me appeared in the New York Times, written by Thomas Friedman. Friedman urges us to focus on our reactions — that is, not to give the terrorists the advantage of deciding how we react. How we react is up to us, he reminds us. And he begins his column with a reference to how Israelis have decided to react to the multiple terrorist attacks they have been subjected to over the past decades.

In shock and dismay, I looked at the photos, as I imagine thousands of others did, and thought of how much the scene in Boston resembled scenes in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after a bus bombing or other terrorist attack. Coincidently (or maybe not) on Monday, Israelis observed Yom Ha-Zikaron/Israeli Memorial Day, immediately followed by Yom Ha’atzma’ut/Israeli Independence Day, on Tuesday. The juxtaposition of these two observances with our parasha led Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, who lives and works in Israel, to remark on how the parasha sheds light on the pain and joy embodied in these 2 days. He remarks:

the opposite side of the pain is life — choosing and embracing life with fervor, zest, and appreciation. The calendar reminds us that we must pause to reflect on these two aspects of the Jewish journey.

Moving back to Acharey Mote, our G-dcast storyteller, Amichai Lau-Lavie, helps us think about the threads that connect this parasha together. He wants us to see these chapters as a modern “Operations Manual” for the Tabernacle, and lists the 3 subject areas the manual covers: eating meat, having sex, and atonement (for when we do wrong and have to go “oops”).

At the outset, Lau-Lavie says that the parasha deals with the aftermath of the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, and explores ways to react to their deaths. He later comments that we often need to look beyond literal instructions to find symbolic meaning in what the Torah prescribes for our behavior, whether in the realm of eating meat, or in our sexual lives, or when we have gone astray and need to atone. The organizing principle, he suggests, is that we impose a kind of discipline in our lives — and follow the appropriate rules listed in whatever operations manual we find compelling, to navigate the uncertainties, the pains, the unbridled desires, the ups and the downs of life. While there may be many different interpretations to the rules and regulations set forth in our parasha, nevertheless our storyteller wants us to know that the bottom line is that discipline matters.

Circling back to the tragedy on Monday in Boston, discipline mattered a great deal. Without the discipline of the first responders and medical personnel, many more victims would have lost their lives, not only their limbs, as horrible as that is. The discipline of the marathoners to listen to the police instructions mattered. The discipline of the spectators — to help and comfort victims, to tie tourniquets, and to do whatever was asked — mattered. The discipline of the journalists not to report unconfirmed rumors mattered.

What each of us takes away from this terrorist attack matters. We need discipline to react in ways that re-enforce our cherished freedoms, our trust in others, our humanity, our belief that good can and will triumph over evil.

The Power of Words

How do our words affect our physical lives — and the lives of those around us?

This week we read a two Torah portions, a “double parasha,” Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) and Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-14:33). They are both relatively short and they are both concerned with pretty yucky details about skin diseases. As the G-dcast story teller, Jennifer Traig, acknowledges, it’s a dreaded parasha to get for your bar or bat mitzvah — whatever will you be able to talk about that isn’t totally gross?

The important thing to remember is that the Torah sometimes gives us something very physical (skin disease) for us to understand in a meta-physical way (as divine punishment for anti-social speech) — in other words, as a metaphor for something real in our contemporary lives. In this day and age of speech that actually hurts and causes real damage, one could actually benefit by thinking about the lessons of hurtful speech, gossip, and other sins that come from plain old talking. All you have to do is look to the political divides and stalemates in the US Congress to realize that hateful speech is alive and even thriving today. Sometimes don’t you wish that the loudest, most vociferous congresspeople were told to take a “time-out” or were sent away for a while, to be alone in the wilderness, perhaps to recover their sense of perspective?

Our storyteller makes it patently clear that we are not talking about a skin disease of the sort that can be healed by a salve or cream. A dermatology aphorism is: if it’s dry, make it wet; if it’s wet, make it dry. There’s no such snappy advice that the cohen (priest) could give in the days of the torah, but he might have said this: “You need to be alone, for an extended period of time, until you can refrain from gossip. I will let you know when you can come back.”

The skin disease described in our parasha existed only in Biblical times, according to the rabbis; it is called “tza’ra’at” and is incorrectly described as leprosy (we will understand more about this faulty translation in a bit). So, even though gossip, speaking badly of others, spreading rumors, and repeating unpleasant things about people we know and don’t know is still very much a part of our social fabric, we have no prescriptions to heal the person afflicted with the disease of being a gossip-monger. In this sense, the Biblical rules were way ahead of our own.

Moving on to the next parasha, Metzora, we note that these two parshiot (Torah readings) are a matched pair, and, in fact, are often read on the same Shabbat. There is a good way to remember how this parasha links to the previous one. In Hebrew, even though “metzora” means a person who has tza’ra’at (the unlucky one afflicted with the yucky skin disease), it also is like an anagram for the expression “motzi shem ra” (literally: extract a bad name), meaning one who is a slanderer, who spreads evil speech. This is to remind us that the person who is a metzora (has the skin disease) must have been spreading gossip or committing other verbal offenses.

The storyteller for Metzora, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, tells us that this parasha is an “interesting place to learn about our bodies and ourselves.” He traces the centuries-old translation mistake that equated tza’ra’at, an unknown (by whom?) Biblical skin disease, with the skin disease of leprosy. Starting with a list of scaly skin diseases compiled by Hippocrates, we leap forward to a 9th century (unnamed) physician who wrongly called tza’ra’at leprosy, which helps us to understand why lepers, although not contagious, were isolated even in our recent history and sent “outside the camp” even though there was no evidence that they had indulged in gossip. For centuries, one little word was mis-translated and much human suffering ensued.

Rabbi Greenberg emphasizes the power of a word, “davar” in Hebrew. He quotes the rabbis of the Talmud who say that the power of life and death is in the tongue, and reminds us that once harmful speech is “out there” it is next to impossible to repair the harm it has caused. Another way to think about how Jewish thought regards the power of a word: davar also means “thing.” It is as if we are meant to understand that a word is a real, physical object. It is not ephemeral; it has life and power and can be used for good and for bad, with real consequences in the lives of each and every one of us.

In the days of the Bible, the warning signs were obvious:

  1. First, tza’ra’at appeared on the walls of your house.
  2. Then, if you didn’t stop spreading rumors and speaking ill of others, the fungus would appear on your clothes.
  3. Finally, your own skin began showing scaly areas and sores, and you had to be isolated and go through a whole cleansing ritual before coming back into the camp, kind of like re-joining society after being imprisoned.

Fast forward to now: what warning signs do we have that our gossip is causing harm? How can we prevent ourselves from engaging in it? After all, isn’t a little gossip just an innocent indulgence? And we know it’s also kinda fun…. Nope, says the Torah, the rabbis, and the law codes. Gossip (“lashon hara,” casually speaking about others for no good reason) has no place in a healthy, well-functioning society. Even though an outbreak of zits nowadays has nothing to do with tza’ra’at, we would do well to guard our tongues from speaking evil.

Striving not to speak evil? It is, by the way, something we say in prayers at least 3 times a day, maybe because it’s so hard to actually accomplish. The following prayer is quite old, from the days of the Talmud (200-600 CE), when it was composed by Mar, son of Ravina, who used to say:

“My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. May my soul be silent to them that curse me and may my soul be as dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue Your commandments. Deliver me from evil occurrences, from the evil impulse, and from all evils that threaten to come upon the world. As for all that design evil against me, speedily annul their counsel and frustrate their designs. ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, God, my Rock and my Redeemer.’”

No Good Reason

This week’s Torah portion (parasha) contains one of only two narratives in the entire book of Leviticus — the rest of Leviticus is made up of laws, rules, and instructions. The story this week is of the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and appears at the beginning of chapter 10 and is only 3 verses long. (But don’t worry — we also get rules, about food!, this week too. Read on…)

It is a poignant and tragic tale, partly due to its brevity, partly due to its strangeness. It leaves us with an overarching sense of injustice, and we are left with many questions but few answers. Why exactly did these men die? What does “alien fire” mean? Why would God want to kill young priests offering sacrificial incense?

You might imagine that these questions provide fertile ground for rabbinic inquiry, and you would be right. A number of midrashim (stories that come to fill in the blanks) were suggested by the rabbis of the Talmud about the deaths of Aaron’s sons. In chapter 9 of his book Reading The Book: Making The Bible A Timeless Text, Rabbi Burt Visotsky, a professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes about sibling rivalry in the Bible. He explores the rivalry between Aaron and his more famous brother, Moses, and their sister, Miriam.

The literature is thoroughly divided on explaining how it came to pass that on the very day of Aaron’s investiture as High Priest, his two sons were put to death by fire from heaven. The puzzling death of the two siblings, Nadav and Avihu, is reported in the Bible on four separate occasions. Each time, the account differs until we are left with no clear idea of what actually happened…..

Professor Visotsky and his colleague, Dr. Avigdor Shinan of the Hebrew University, have laid out 12 separate reasons the traditional commentators gave for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Visotsky compares this gamut of explanations to the various points of view in the Japanese film Rashomon, in which the filmmaker, Kurosawa, wants the viewer to understand that a story has no objective truth and that it changes depending on who is telling the story. The same events can be interpreted in vastly different ways. What happened to Aaron’s sons is beyond comprehension — hence the 12 very different reasons from the rabbis who tried to make sense of a tragic and ultimately perplexing loss.

And what do we know of Aaron’s reaction? “And Aaron was silent.” This loss of two sons was beyond words — Aaron was speechless. The brother who was the mouthpiece, the one who was to speak to the Pharaoh for Moses, is left without words in the face of his heartbreaking loss. Sometimes in the face of overwhelming tragedy, the best behavior is silence.

Then, on a completely different wave length, (or as our G-dcast storyteller says, “now that this unpleasantness is behind us”) the parasha also lays out some of the rules of kashrut, enumerating explicitly which animals Jews are allowed to eat and which are forbidden. The storyteller presents this information from chapter 11 of Leviticus in a catchy song:

Eating is one of the most basic functions of a living, breathing creature, humans included. If we are lucky, we eat 3 meals a day, both to sustain us and to give us pleasure. The Torah is concerned with what we consume as food/fuel. In parashat Sh’mini, this weeks portion, we get the full rule book on what is in the YES column and what is in the NO column.

Notice that no explicit reason is given in the Torah for why some of these animals, birds, and fish are forbidden for Jews to eat. Kind of like the idea that there is no explicit reason that two of Aaron’s sons are consumed by the fire of the sacrificial alter, even though the G-dcast storyteller suggests a few, like one of the better known rabbinic “reasons” — that Nadav and Avihu were drunk, and therefore in no state to perform the holy acts of offering up the incense.

It occurs to me that we are only several days past the last crumbs of matzah from 8 days of Passover, when there were many restrictions on what kinds of food Jews were allowed to consume and what was forbidden — anything made from the five grains that could become hametz (leavened). On an outing to the local grocery store’s kosher section, you could see food products, many produced in Israel, that bore the label, “kosher for Passover;” these are foods that come out only at this time of year.

It’s worth a few moments of contemplation on what all of these restrictions mean to people observing the kashrut laws, both those derived from this week’s parasha and those that apply to the 8 days of Passover. Also worth noting are all of the various kinds of restrictions people freely adopt concerning the kind of food they will eat and what they deem forbidden for either health or environmental reasons… from veganism to abstaining from gluten or sugar, from raw foodists to those who will not eat any foods that have been processed commercially. Once you start thinking about the various categories of food that people will or will not eat, the laws of kashrut in chapter 11 are no longer so strange!