A Red Cow, Water, and a Snake?

To think about as you read this week’s installment:

  1. What do you think about rituals surrounding purification around death/caring for a deceased person?
  2. How do you reconcile following laws that make no sense to you? Would you ever obey a law that you can’t understand? Why or why not?

One might think that the way parashat Chukkat opens, with details about the way one must purify oneself after being in contact with the dead, we would be reading mind-numbing minutia of priestly rites with absolutely no relevance for us today. All this talk about a red heifer and how Eleazar the priest must sprinkle its blood hither and yon, followed by the burning, and how to use the sacred ashes. Whew! So impossibly arcane!! Turns out that the early rabbinic commentators used this particular law of the parah adumah (red heifer) to suggest that the Israelites had two separate categories of law: chukkim (statutes or Divine decrees) and mishpatim (logical laws).

The chukkim were (and are) laws that make no rational sense to us on the surface. Why would touching the ashes of a dead red cow purify one from being in contact with the dead? Or why are we still not allowed to mix certain kinds of fabrics (like linen and wool)?

The mishpatim were (and are) laws that seem to be based in logic. For example, the laws dealing with interpersonal relations such as not stealing or not murdering. They are rational if one is to build a civil and moral society — that is, they “make sense” to us.

The red heifer saga, which opens our parasha, is a prime example of a chok (law; the plural form is chukkim) that makes no sense. Nevertheless, it was very important to have some kind of ritual to draw a sharp line between contact with the dead and re-entry into daily life among the living. On a recent trip, I spent some time in the “Four Corners” area of the U.S., an area of land which belongs to the Navajo Nation. While in the Tribal Lands, I read a fascinating book, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing, by Lori Arviso Alvord, M.D., in which she talks about the customs surrounding death in Navajo culture. For example: it is forbidden to touch a dead person; only those who care for the corpse may touch it. After they have prepared the body for burial, the people who have cared for the deceased remove their own clothes, and wash themselves completely before getting dressed again and mingling with the living. When a dead body is removed from a house or hogan, the hogan is burned down, and the place is abandoned. While there are many differences between contemporary Navajo and the Israelites of the desert, we can appreciate that the desert-dwelling Israelites had complex rituals for purification after contact with the dead, and it isn’t so completely different from the customs of other tribes.

But hold on, that’s not all this parasha has in store for us!

This parasha also includes the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the two siblings of our greatest leader, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) at the beginning of chapter 20. Miriam becomes forever linked to water. Think about the episodes linking Miriam and water: she protected baby Moshe when he was set afloat in the Nile, and she later sang the Song of the Sea as the Reed Sea waters parted to let the Israelites escape into freedom. Some of us have added the “Cup of Miriam” to our Passover seder tables to remember her special link. The rabbis connected Miriam to a magical well with springs of fresh water following the Israelites in the desert, because immediately after the verse marking her death (Numbers 20:1) we read “and the community had no water, and they assembled against Moses and against Aaron.” It was as if once Miriam died, the water dried up. So those creative early rabbinic commentators came up with the midrashim (stories) about Miriam’s well.

Aaron, big brother and life-long partner to Moshe/Moses, dies at the end of chapter 20; the description of his death in verses 24-29 reads like a scene from a movie. It is poignant, filled with ceremony and unstated emotion. Perhaps because the landscapes of the Navajo Tribal Lands are still in my brain, I flashed on Native Americans when I re-read these verses — the descriptive scene of Aaron’s death seemed like something I had seen in a movie about the death of a great Native American chief.

Finally, we get to the snake/serpent/viper. The G-dcast storyteller focuses on this fascinating little story in Chukkat — the symbol of the snake or serpent.

As with some alternative medical therapies, where one may be given the tiniest amounts of an allergen to ingest to counter-act one’s allergy, the G-dcast storyteller offers some ideas of how the snake became a healing symbol to counteract its poisonous bites (Numbers 21:6-9). The symbol Moshe/Moses is instructed to fashion is called “Nechash Nechoshet.” Biblical scholar and translator Robert Alter quotes medieval commentator Rashi, who remarked that G-d had just mentioned a “nachash” (serpent), but Moshe said: “the Holy One calls it nachash and I’ll make it out of nechoshet — a pun.” Alter points out that the force of replicating the same letters “reinforces the device of sympathetic magic whereby the sight of the bronze image of the serpent becomes the antidote for the serpents’ poisonous bite.”

And if you want to pursue this depiction of healing in today’s medical symbols, take a look at what Wikipedia has to say about the image of the snakes coiled around a staff.

Believe it or not, there’s a lot more to mine in this parasha, so stay tuned.

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Showdown at the OK Corral

This week’s parasha (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32) is named after its key protagonist, a feisty fellow by the name of Korach, born into the priestly tribe of Levi, the same leadership tribe as Moshe/Moses and Aaron. The scene is the desert: the Israelites are complaining and want a change, wishing they were back in good old Egypt. The vibe is just right for a populist revolt. Korach steps into the breach and stirs up trouble. He basically demands an answer to this familiar question: “Who made you the boss over us?” Korach asserts that Moshe is an elitist, busy interacting with God while leaving everyone else out, and then proceeds to organize a band of people who agree with him to confront Moshe.

You can imagine that neither Moshe, his big brother Aaron, nor God are pleased with this uprising. After he gets over his initial shock, Moshe consults with God and receives instructions for something like a gunfight at the OK Corral (minus the guns), in which Korach and his cronies will be swallowed up by what seems like a gigantic earthquake.

Before we proceed to talk about what ultimately happened to Korach and his sons, I’m wondering if I’m the only one who feels some empathy with Korach and his position. This is what Korach says, verbatim, in chapter 16 verse 3:

“You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is the Lord, and why should you raise yourselves up over the Lord’s assembly?

Aren’t Korach and 250 of his closest friends just demanding what is due them? That is, to share the leadership? After all, God has told the people repeatedly that they are all a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (look at Exodus 19:6).

Some of us are puzzled by the searing condemnation and punishment Korach receives for raising the issue of a more democratic system in which Moshe would share leadership with the other Levites. For an insightful commentary on why siding with Korach really is missing the boat, read this piece by Dr. Benjamin Sommer of JTS.

Now, let’s go back to find out more about the fates of Korach, his buddies who joined in his rebellion, and his sons. As you saw in G-dcast’s video, no one remains; they are swallowed up and completely disappear — no one is left except Korach’s sons, who didn’t take their father’s side. And what turns out to be a strange twist is that the guy’s sons went on to write some dozen or so of the 150 liturgical poems found in the Bible, called Psalms. Many of these psalms still appear in Jewish daily worship and some are recited on Sabbaths and special occasions.

These poems are filled with profound insights expressed eloquently and with great beauty. Korach’s sons are mentioned by name in Exodus 6:24 — you can read more about them (and Korach himself) here.

Traditionally, Korach remains a power-hungry trouble-maker, despite the fact that on the surface, he seems to be raising a valid point about sharing leadership. And yet, his sons become known for their spiritual poetry, opening us up to the mysteries of life.

One more thing: in the Talmud, there is a shorthand way of classifying arguments between scholars: those that are “for the sake of heaven” and those that are not. The following quote is from the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 5:17:

Every argument for the sake of heaven will in the end be of permanent value, but every argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument between Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. And which is an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his followers.

Korach gets a bad rap — and deservedly so, despite his seemingly compelling critique.

To think about:

  1. Even if Korah had a point, what do you think of the way he went about with his argument? Did he approach Moshe privately to have a quiet chat about his (and others’) dissatisfaction? Or was he looking for a fight? When you have difficult emotional issues to grapple with concerning divergent religious traditions, how do you resolve them?
  2. What do you think of the family dynamics in our story? Cousin Korach spearheaded what turned into a huge rift with Cousin Moshe. Do families have propensities to argue with each other? And what about Korach’s sons? How did they manage to stay out of the rebellion? Is there a message for us when we read that Korach’s sons became composers of liturgical poetry? How does it happen that family members can have such divergent religious views as Korach and his sons?

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Spies and Confidence

Nechama is on vacation, but wanted to make sure you didn’t miss a beat. No lengthy discussion or questions to ponder, but you still get to enjoy a video!

Will the Promised Land be flowing with milk and honey, or giants and battles? This week’s guest narrator, Jay Michaelson, invites the spies of Parshat Shelach Lecha to look inside themselves and see what the true story behind the challenges to come is: WE CAN DO IT!!

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Is This a Healthy Relationship?

Nechama is on vacation, but wanted to make sure you didn’t miss a beat. No lengthy discussion or questions to ponder, but you still get to enjoy a video!

Hold onto your hats, this is a really crazy G-dcast. One of the oddest, most thorny episodes in the Bible involves a man who suspects his wife of adultery. Inbal Freund-Novick, an Israeli activist for women’s rights, tells the excruciatingly difficult tale of the accused wife in Parshat Naso. Hard to believe this stuff is in the Torah, but it’s undeniably fascinating.

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Counting in the Desert

This week we begin reading the 4th of the 5 Books of Moses, which actually has 3 different names: Bemidbar (Hebrew for “In the Desert”), describing where the action takes place, and Numbers, because, following the early Greek translation of the Bible, the book begins with a census and close attention to counting. Finally, this book also had another, earlier name: Homesh Hapekudim (Hebrew for “the Fifth of the Torah about Counting” (or reckoning)), emphasizing the several censuses (first in our parasha, the first few chapters, and then again in chapter 26).

I like the name Bemidbar (in the desert) because the desert has a connotation of being an in-between place… That is, the place between the enslavement of Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land of Israel. The desert is also a wilderness: the word “wilderness” has in it an echo suggesting a place of wildness. It’s where a certain kind of desolation and emptiness can make one wild and/or can help one journey through whatever is required to make one civilized. Have you ever felt the need for isolation in a quiet, empty space to re-calibrate your own balance, to become more “civilized” and fit for social interactions? What is it about a “time-out” in a quiet space that takes the wildness out of us? For the Israelites, Bemidbar is the place where the ragtag tribes who were taken out of Egypt go in order to become a civilized nation, with rules and proper organization.

Bemidbar begins with a head count, a census. This is where we get the notion that the tribes must engage in the business of nation-building, how to position themselves, how to divide things equitably, and how many able-bodied men there are to wage war. Israel is organizing — each tribe is assigned its proper place. In contrast, the Levites are not placed among the tribes; just as they don’t receive a regular inheritance in the Promised Land and have special responsibilities, they are assigned a location along side the Tent of Meeting, which is in the center of the camp’s concentric rectangles.

The whole book of Bemidbar is a composite book, with multiple narratives, and they don’t always fit together. More than any of the other five books, this one is clearly the result of an editorial process, according to biblical scholars. We have both snippets of ancient texts (often found in poetry) and chapters that seem to be written much later, but were added here by whoever edited the Bible, to emphasize certain points. You could think of the entire book of Bemidbar like a journal of a family trip: even though it looks like everyone was in the same place at the same time doing the same thing, each member of the family has his or her own experience of that place and that activity, and each will report on it in sometimes radically different ways. Each day of a family trip might be planned by a different family member, or parts of the day might be the responsibility of another member of the family. Bemidbar is our family’s journey in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land of Israel. It is a bunch of stories, some of which have the same theme, but sometimes the way the stories are assembled makes the narrative disjointed and confusing.

Another observation about the entire book is that the structural aspects of Bemidbar parallel its content. The 36 chapters alternate between discussions of laws and narratives. According to the late Professor Jacob Milgrom, one of the foremost scholars on Bemidbar, the book zigzags between laws and stories as follows: The first 10 chapters deal with laws. Then, chapters 10:11-14:45 are stories. Chapter 15 goes back to laws; chapters 16-17 are stories; chapters 18-19 deal with laws; chapters 20-25 are a narrative; chapters 26-27:11 again deal with laws; chapters 27:12-23 are stories; chapters 28-30 contain laws; chapters 31-33:49 are stories; and finally, from the end of chapter 33 through the end of chapter 36, we get more laws.

If you were to make a line drawing of the map of the wanderings of the Israelites and used what I listed, making a zig or a zag for every time there is a change in content, you would get a route that would show the extremely circuitous way that the people traveled through the desert, which is partly the reason they spent 38 years there, until the generation of those who experienced slavery died out.

One of the strongest narrative themes in Bemidbar is rebellion. There are eight different rebellions, most of them beginning with the Israelites complaining and whining and involving the same actors: Moses, God, the Israelites. The biblical scholar and prolific biblical translator, Professor Robert Alter, points out in his book, The Five Books of Moses, pages 676-77:

The scheme of the recurrent scene of ‘murmuring’ or complaint is as follows: the people bitterly protests its misery in the wilderness or Moses’s leadership or both: God’s wrath flares against the people, expressing itself in some sort of ‘scourge’ that decimates the Israelite ranks; Moses intercedes — in two instances God actually threatens to wipe out the entire people and begin anew with Moses — and He relents…. Restiveness under Moses’s rule is so epidemic that even Miriam and Aaron are infected by it, at one point resentfully rebelling against their brother (chapter 12). One suspects that all these repetitions of the scenes of murmuring are introduced because the writers conceived it as a paradigm for the subsequent history of Israel: recurrent resentment of God’s rule and of the authority of His legitimate leaders, chronic attraction to objects of base material desire, fearfulness, divisiveness, and the consequences of national disaster brought about, in the view of the biblical writers, by this whole pattern of constant backsliding.

On the other hand (and this is another zigzag), we will see as we continue to read this book of Bemidbar, that we get a strong counter image of this nation-in-formation, as a bunch of tribes who are molding themselves into a people with a grand historical destiny in their future.

This week’s parasha has a lot of counting in it — and it comes at the end of the counting period known as the Omer, the 49 days we count between Passover and Shavuot. In her Torah commentary this week, Rabbi Abigail Treu of the Jewish Theological Seminary reminds us that counting must be seen in context. As we begin the book of Numbers, when it seems the text is hung up on counting, she reminds us of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

She concludes, “With all of the numbers and counting pervading our week, let us not lose sight of the message they bring: that what counts the most is spending time with one another, and that we measure our years by counting day in and day out the moments we spend with others wandering with us, blazing paths together through the wilderness of life.

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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….

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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.

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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.’”

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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!

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Ritual Then, Ritual Now

As we sit down at our seder tables, I invite you to talk about what rituals you treasure in your life, and why they are important to you. Are they something you inherited or something you made up? How do you feel when you do those rituals?

The G-dcast storyteller tells us this week to “Keep That Fire Going!” Parashat Tzav is filled with how-to instructions on the burnt offerings which the Israelite priests are to offer to God in the holy Tabernacle, and later, the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem. It is a precise manual of what the priests must wear, where they must bathe, how they must mix ingredients for offerings of meal (flour), who can and who must eat the offering, where, and how. It tells us the quantities of meal that should be used, which pots to cook the offerings in on the altar, which animals should be offered up and which parts may and may not be eaten, exactly where the priests should put their hands when slaughtering the animals, what to do with the blood, what the ceremonies of consecration must be like, how many days, where, and many more details.

Get the picture?

The minutiae remind me of Cooks Magazine, when someone is deconstructing a recipe you have made many times, like buttermilk biscuits, and then it gives you several pages of detailed instructions that are much more complicated than you thought the recipe warranted. Seems like way, way too much information, or TMI.

With Tzav, however, the detailed instructions seem different because we are dealing with the holy, the sanctified. All peoples have realms of sanctity in their lives, even if they don’t readily recognize them as such. And once you get into making something holy or set apart, you become involved in the performance of a ritual. Even the way we say that, “performing a ritual,” implies that we are doing something with a heightened awareness that is different from just doing something, like doing the laundry, doing dishes, or taking a shower. “Performing” implies we are acting in a way that is prescribed, with a script, a set of words and actions that are not spontaneous and not our own. Last week, we talked about ritual when we began the book of Leviticus, because that’s what this book is all about. Look at the lens through which Rabbi Nancy Kreimer considers our parasha and ritual in general. She mentions some of the same scholars we referenced last week, Arnold Eisen and Mary Douglas.

The most ritual-filled meal of the year will be celebrated on Monday night, the 14th of Nisan, this year corresponding to March 25. The Pesach (Passover) seder has 15 steps, corresponding to the 15 stairs leading up to the Holy of Holies in the Beit HaMikdash/Temple in Jerusalem. These are the very steps on which the Levites (for whom the book of Leviticus is central) would sing as they walked up to the Holy of Holies.

Turns out that as we sit around the seder table telling the story of our ancestors leaving the slavery of Mitzrayim (Egypt), we are also imitating the behavior of those priests of long ago and their complex rituals of sanctification. As Rabbi Kreimer points out in the article linked above, Catholics incorporate rituals into their Mass as congregants ingest the Eucharist, symbolic reminders of the body and blood of Jesus, who is also called the Lamb of God. Jews incorporate our particular symbols in the ritual foods we eat at the sedermatzah, maror, charoset, eggs, etc. — to remember, sacrilize, and sanctify the experience of liberation from bondage, of yitziyat mitzrayim (leaving Egypt), brought out by the strong arm and outstretched arm of the Holy One.

I wish you a very sweet and joyous Pesach and a seder filled with songs of thanksgiving, with free-wheeling discussions of what it means to be free, with questions galore (many of which cannot be answered simply), and with special connections to family and friends….and of course, a splendid Pesach meal! Happy Pesach!!

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