May 5778 be a year of fulfillment and meaning
This evening is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. May your High Holidays be meaningful and 5778 be a year of health and blessings.
Leon Bridges song River has been in my head for most of Elul as I try to prepare myself for the High Holidays. It seems a perfect song for Tashlich. I hope you enjoy it and find it deeply moving too.
Wishing everyone a Happy Healthy 5778, may it be a year filled with blessings.
Our world seems to be in a particularly harsh place. On all fronts we seem to be ailing. People seem unable to talk with one another; our government and institutions are unresponsive to our needs; countries withdrawing from one another, many spiraling into brutal regimes. Anger, fear, and frustration divide us rather than hope guiding and uniting us. This is the backdrop to the double portion of Tazria/Metsora (Leviticus 12; 1-13:59, Leviticus 14:1-15:33), which interestingly addresses these very issues.
These Parshiot contain peculiar rituals that are actually timely messages. The ailments that afflict us are more than skin deep according to the Torah, indicating perhaps some spiritual or emotional sickness perhaps that causes the infirmed to be separated from the community. Because these ailments can infect bodies, clothes and even buildings we recognize that there is something more here than meets they eye. It runs deeper and we are compelled to question what might the Torah be cautioning us about. Torah’s message rarely stops at the edge of The Land so we can engage what these portions say about us. But first, let us examine the Parsha a bit closer.
Tazria continues the conversation about ritual impurity from the previous chapter, Shemini. The Parsha moves into the conversation surrounding Tzaraat, an affliction affecting people. It is often referred to as leprosy because it manifests itself as scaly white patches, but more interesting is the decision to bring in the Priest.
The Priest, instead of a doctor, views the afflicted person to decide if indeed this is Tzaraat. The priest instead of the doctor raises our collective eyebrows. We are not the first to grapple with the texts here. Two of our classic commentators, Rashi and Abarbanel, wonder about this too. Rashi hones in on the phrase that notes the Priest is called when the white patch seems to go deeper than the skin of the afflicted person’s body. Arbarbanel focuses in on the idea that the priest is called instead of a medical Specialist to provide treatment for the individual.
We know that medical treatment options were available. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans practiced sophisticated medicine. In Exodus and 2Kings Abarbanel notes the use of medical treatments. Our texts speak of something besides some physical problem.
Our tradition has seen afflictions as a punishment for sin against God. Nachmanides says the Divine Spirit keeps bodies, clothes, and homes in good appearance. But when one of them sins, ugliness appears on his flesh, clothes or his house. Later, the text tells us that if the affliction reappears, the clothing is burned and houses were taken down. Sforno, another commentator, suggests that perhaps the seven-day process of isolation of the afflicted is meant to rouse the sick person to repentance. We might build upon the ideas of our teachers to suggest our goal is to remedy and repair, performing Tikkun upon “people,” “clothes,” and “houses” instead of tearing them down.
Afflicted people are those who are motivated solely by their own selfish considerations. The “clothes” represent the identities or communities with which we recognize our place in the society, the roles and responsibilities of our jobs that serve others or only ourselves. The “houses” are the institutions established to promote the common good, but have become corrupt perhaps undermining their missions, supporting very wrong they were intended to redress.
Judaism teaches us to care for the needy and weak. Clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and caring for the widow and orphan is our charge. Our American tradition should measure our success by how well we care for the weakest among us. Freedom, liberty, and justice are our core values. They have made us a light to the nations. Our text gives us the opportunity to review what we do and consider course corrections to keep our sacred mission working. But the work begins with us.
Buber reflects that a person cannot find redemption until he/she recognizes the flaws in their own souls. A people likewise cannot be redeemed until it recognizes its flaw and attempts to efface them. Redemption comes only to the extent to which we can truly see ourselves. Redemption is not an act of grace; rather it comes when we make the world worthy of it. Only through our faith and deeds can we make so.
We are charged with a holy mission to be agents in the process of Tikkun and creation. We each are part of bigger things that begin with our own selves: family, country, and the world. How do we assume our responsibility in the work? It starts by living up to the standards to which we aspire, acting with kindness and respect for each other, and finding common ground to promote the common good; we must ensure our institutions embody our values, and actively support organizations that promote those values, here and in the world. Tazria/Metsora challenges us to act as though we are each a priest and to act embracing that each of us is B’tzelem Elohim, bringing the holy where it may not exist and effecting the changes we aspire to see in our lives.
How do I forgive? I am supposed to use the month of Elul to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. It is a time of introspection, to reflect on how I can improve in the year to come by looking at where I went astray in the year past. I need to seek forgiveness from God as I bare my soul. But our tradition teaches I cannot ask God for forgiveness until I have sincerely attempted to reconcile with my fellows. It all starts and ends with me.
Who among us does not deserve an apology from someone who has treated us improperly? But am I ready to welcome that apology if it comes? And if it does not come, am I prepared to reach out and help those who do not know how to ask for forgiveness and how would I do that? It is very hard to rise above my pain and hurt to embrace the humanity in the other.
And what about those whom I have wronged? Can I find it in myself to be contrite and ask forgiveness from them? Pride and principle often get in the way, blocking what could otherwise be a caring relationship. Even when I sincerely believe I am right, standing on principle creates an impasse. Then I must consider whether it is more important to be right or to be the one who can reach out and embrace someone I care about.
Finally and very importantly is forgiving myself. I look inside and see my shortcomings, the places where I did not do as I hoped I would, the places where I am shackled by guilt, immobilized by my personal sense of shame or deficiencies. I am the victim of the harshest critic of all, me. What can I do to finally say I am sorry; I forgive me so I can finally begin to heal from my wounds and move forward, not place a bandage over them. Keeping them locked inside only chains me to a past filled with hurt.
Sins and transgressions are big and small. Whichever they are, my inability to move beyond them and sit in judgment places barriers between us. They estrange me from those I love locking me into a narrow place. If I can move beyond the pain and hurt, however, forgiveness can be a transformative experience. It is quite difficult but when I truly forgive, a great weight is lifted from me. Barriers that once separated fall and I can reunite with those who had become distant whether it is another I love or the child within. If I can temper “din” (judgment) with “rachamim” (mercy), then I am acting in a more Godly, selfless way. And perhaps it is through these acts of human forgiveness I might attain forgiveness from the Eternal One.
Perhaps the first step on this path is through our traditional MiShebeyrach prayer for healing. May the one who blessed our fathers and our mothers bless those in need of healing with a refuah shlemah, a restoration of completeness. I will speak the words for them and for me too.
May this be a year of health, wholeness, and healing for us all~
Mercury is in retrograde. From August 30 through September 22, Mercury is moving backward in the sky from our perspective. This is the third of four such occurrences this year according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Astrologers say this event is supposed to mark a time for reflection rather than new action. This is not a time for decision-making. Instead, we are to assess priorities and plan to move forward by reviewing projects and determining where to appropriately focus energy.
Elul is the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. It is our Jewish time for deep reflection and repentance as we prepare for the High Holidays. For many of us, this is our period of Teshuva, the “return to God” that requires seeking and granting forgiveness as we strive to understand where we went astray and how we can get back on the path of living a meaningful righteous life.
I’m not suggesting that there is some equivalence between Astrology and Judaism or that the early astrologers were Jews. But I believe that making time to take stock of whom we are is of utmost importance to finding fulfillment. The unexamined life is not worth living, so teaches Socrates in Plato’s Apology. So many of us are consumed by the day-to-day issues of living, sometimes, it is all but impossible to step back and assess where we are and where we are going.
In life we often awake to find we have been blown off course. Anyone who has ever piloted a plane or a boat knows navigation is an ongoing process of course corrections, so too life. Currents and tides constantly push us off course and our aim has to compensate if we are ever to arrive at our destination. For some of us, we don’t even take the time to determine what our destination might be. For all of us Elul is an appointed time to engage in the process.
As we approach these High Holidays may you find forgiveness for those who have offended you, be forgiven by those whom you have offended and find your true path of meaning, relationships, and fulfillment.