Category Archives: Torah

This week’s Torah speaks to our world today

Tazria by Christina Mattison Ebert

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.

 

 

Ki Tisa- Trust and Fear

golden calf The relationship between Trust and Fear is very close. They are locked in a dualistic battle for supremacy.

Ki Tisa contains the story of the Golden Calf. Ex 32:1, When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don’t know what has become of him.”

 Rashi explains that the people expected Moses to return in 40 days. He was delayed according to Rashi’s reading of the texts by 6 hours. 6 hours delayed after a 40-day encounter with God, and the people rebel. What an extraordinary level of fear that possessed the people to turn against the trust of God and Moses, the covenantal relationship that took the people out of Egypt, crossed the Red Sea and brought them to the moment of revelation, all the Trust undermined by a six-hour delay.

 We learn how difficult trust is to build, how important it is and how quickly it can disappear. We embrace trust as a foundation. We speak of trusting in ourselves so that we can make decisions along our way. We believe trust is the basis for any intimate relationship, that we will be cared for and held securely and safely by another and create a deep meaningful relationship permitting ourselves to be vulnerable because we feel protected. And it is precisely in this place that Fear can exercise its damaging power. In a moment, in a blink of an eye, or in this case six hours, Fear can take all we thought we had and burn it down. Rashi suggests that it is Satan who acts to confound the people. Satan is the fear we each carry inside.

 It is in the realization that we carry Fear as a primal instinct that we can understand its place. Fear resides inside, maybe a protector from an earlier era in human development. It may have helped us survive certain threats, but it shackles us and keeps us down. Only when we consciously use Trust to defeat it, can we overcome Fear and permit ourselves to be vulnerable, creating bonds and relationships with others upon which we can build. However, these two things need to coexist. Fear continues to protect us from threats and tempers Trust. Trust likewise keeps us from becoming paralyzed by Fear. Each is a part of us and we need both to be whole. But when one takes over the other things fall apart.

 Arguably we could say that the people should have trusted in God absolutely.   But we know that for most of us that is not true. God had yet to reveal, that was why they were at Sinai and Moses was the man they followed, making God even further removed. Their trust was tested and the relationships were not strong enough. The fear was able to creep in and crush this new relationship.

 Trust needs to be nurtured and reinforced to withstand the tests fear makes it endure. The story of the Golden Calf is the story of all of us.

A Quest for Meaning

 In Naso, we are introduced to the Nazir. A Nazir is one who purposefully separates himself or herself of the community by abstaining from certain luxuries or conventions, taking a vow as part of a spiritual search. This is the issue of the individual’s quest for meaning.

 We see the idea of a vow as a chance to be in closer communion with God. It is an extraordinary commitment as the individual, man or woman, commits to refraining from some basic of things. This particular vow seems to contradict the idea that we are in community; the Nazir does things that by their nature separates him/her from societal norms: The Nazir does not drink, does not cut his/her hair, not to be near the dead, even including those for whom even a Kohen would. At the end of the vow’s timeframe, the Nazir brings a sacrifice as a Sin offering and a second as an offering of well-being signaling the vow is now concluded and fulfilled.

 Once the Nazir has made the appropriate sacrifices, Aaron blesses the people with the Priestly blessing. This is as though through the process the Nazir endures in the sacred separating and the sacred re-joining, the whole people become worthy of God’s blessings.

 Like the Nazir we too try to find meaning in our lives. We reflect and act to give life purpose. The path we walk in that process can be difficult and often lonesome. We might find a need to separate ourselves from those we love or things that are familiar in order learn and grapple with the hard questions we confront in our lives. We do things that set us apart, not unlike the Nazir. However, our tradition teaches are not hermits or ascetics.   Parashah Naso teaches that our path needs to lead us back to the community. When we return, we are changed and, we pray, better off for the journey. When we return and again become a participant in our community, we enrich our community as well.

 We see this understanding of the Nazir play itself out all the time in our modern lives as well. Our young people for example, venture out from the family in their quest to find their paths, to challenge the paradigms they have learned in their youth and as they seek wisdom and growth. We call this going off to college. Our children leave us as adolescents and hopefully return as thoughtful young adults. In other even more noble pursuits, many of our best and brightest make a vow in the form of enlisting in the military to serve their country. The ideals they embrace they are willing to defend with their lives.

 We give our young the best we can. And then they leave. We pray that they will be safe on the journey and return to us whole. Then we know that indeed The Eternal has blessed us and protected us and caused The Divine Countenance to shine upon us.

The Give and Take of Torah

Our sages impress on us that Shavuot is the time of the Giving of Torah.  Giving and Receiving are seen as two separate acts.  The Giving is important because it is a one-time event and it is in the Receiving of Torah that we experience ongoing revelation. However, I think it is more complicated than that.  Both the Giving and the Receiving are inextricably bound together, two sides of the same coin. Both come with their own set of expectations and obligations.

Giving

A true gift is given freely and without strings attached.  Like so many of us, I have commented in the aftermath of the giving of a gift, with the gift box open and wrapping paper strewn, that “If you don’t like it, you can always bring it back.”  And that is true.  I do not want a gift to be kept merely to keep from offending me.  But whenever I give a gift, I select it thoughtfully and with care.  I want the gift I am giving to convey the meaning and love with which it was given. And I also want it to be loved and enjoyed.   So I rarely shop for Jewelry for my wife, unless I find something truly extraordinary that I know will fit her aesthetic sense.

Similarly, I believe the Gift of Torah is given with a similar intention.  It is given as an extraordinary expression of love that God has for his people.  And, if you will permit the anthropomorphism, I cannot help but think the Almighty would be crestfallen if we asked whether the receipt was still in the box somewhere.  Torah was not given just as a something for us to have.  It is to be a prized possession.  It is the greatest gift of all, short of life itself arguably.  There is an expectation and hope that we will embrace it fully and use it to guide our lives.

 Matan Torateinu, the Giving of our Torah, is more than something given in love.  This extraordinary act of Giving requires an equally extraordinary act of Receiving.  Sadly Torah can be rejected and “returned” as it were. It can be ignored, or possibly worse, misused as a means to exert power or personal gain at the expense of others.  All of us are diminished when one rejects Torah. Instead we hope to we turn it and turn it delving into its beauty and depth, revealing wisdom and ways for us to make meaning both in our relationship with God and in our relationships with each other.

Receiving

The Receiving of a gift is another matter.  I recall my mom teaching me as a boy, that it was proper to receive gifts with graciousness and gratitude.  The value of a gift lies in the intention with which it was given, not the price paid.  So understanding how a gift is given is very important to the receiver.  But what we actually do with the gift is up to us.

We determine how a gift is to be used.  A gift can be placed on a shelf.  It can be an object to be admired and appreciated.  But without interaction, it often does little more than collect dust.  Our willingness to engage it will determine how much it will mean to us.  But we must decide how to do this.  Even when the giver advises us how to use our gift, it is ultimately up to us.

And certainly when we do interact with it, the way we do it is also under our control, even when the gift is Torah.  We can return to it regularly or sporadically, we can be ready to engage fully or we could be more nonchalant, ready to pick up where we left off or to start afresh, we can be literal or figurative in interpretation.   We can plumb its depth and seek ways that it speaks to us and guides us.  It is said that when a piece of art or great literature leaves its creator, it becomes that which the recipient decides it will become.  All the more so Torah; for Torah is the supreme such work and yet still can only have as much meaning as we are willing to impart to it.

 I recall a Midrash spinning a story about the moment the people received Torah.  God lifts the mountain and suspends it over B’nei Yisrael by a thread.  The people are told they have a choice to accept or reject Torah.  But if they reject Torah, God will let go.  I actually prefer to understand the story another way.  The gift of Torah is the thread itself.  The world, as the mountain, can be harsh and cruel and the weight of the world can be crushing.  Torah gives us the ability to live under the reality that is our world and keep it from destroying us, instead giving us the opportunity for a full and meaningful existence.  Torah is the ultimate lifeline.

 In this case, both the receiving and the giving are dynamic.  We are always in the process of receiving, and arguably God is also always in the process of giving.  The Torah writ large is a living work, continuing to expand and evolve.  Both giver and receiver are actively involved in the process.  Both are intimately involved in the give and take.

 So how do we do justice to the gift of Torah?

For one thing, it is to embrace it with vigor to engage it and find how it speaks to us in ways that can affect our lives.  How do we grapple and test and probe with a sense of reverence and gratitude that comes from knowing Torah is given in love and the giver hopes that this priceless gift will be used for all its worth.

Forever Changed- Relationships through the lens of Ki Tisa

Experience forever changes who we are, what we are, particularly when it is an encounter with another. Each of us can think of a person who has had a profound impact on our lives, and usually impact is based on one select memory we have of our experiences with them.  The experiences of this week’s Torah Portion, Ki Tisa illustrates the indelible impact of the encounter with God. 

 We struggle with God and the Divine presence.  God chastises us for abandoning God by demanding and worshipping the Golden Calf.  But doesn’t God deserve it? As we retell the story every Pesach, God “remembered” us and “with a strong hand and outstretched arm” redeemed us out from the land of Egypt.  But just one question, “Where was God for past 400 years, while we suffered in slavery?”  From our historical perspective it is a great story from which we make all kinds of meaning.  But if you were the “average Yehuda,” living in Egypt before the redemption, you suffered as a slave, plain and simple.

 So possibly, we remained a bit skeptical of God and this freedom stuff and we needed constant reassurances that it really was not merely smoke and mirrors, or in this case pillars of smoke and fire.  And when Moses, our leader left us and did not return when he promised, we panicked. We reverted to the familiar stuff that comforted for generations.  We went for the Golden Calf!  Forgive us our weakness, but recent miracles not withstanding, we were not getting the “warm and fuzzies” standing in the desert at the foot of a mountain with both our God and our Moses nowhere to be found.  We were scared and felt abandoned.

 And of course, God sees this and is deeply offended by our fickle actions; for the Divine Presence is actively sharing Torah with Moses so that Moses can bring it back to the people. They are engaged in a deep communion.  The people however don’t know that and react badly.  God does know that, and arguably He reacts badly too.

 God wants to wipe out the ingrates and start anew.  He tells Moses that He will make a whole new people from Moses and these will be the new loyal and chosen people.  It is Moses who stops God and persuades the Almighty that the existing people are indeed those with whom He is in Covenant, a sacred bond that cannot be irrevocably broken because of the bad actions in a moment.  God is persuaded by Moses’ argument, but God’s relationship to the people is changed.  God suggests that He will dispatch an Angel to lead them forward from Sinai.  God is no longer interested in personally leading these people.  Moses must use his powers of persuasion yet again to get God to amend this attitude.

 As Moses helps God in God’s time of need, so too God helps Moses.  For when Moses sees for himself the betrayal of the people and the great sin of the Golden Calf, Moses, to use common parlance, “loses it.”  He smashes the two sacred tables given to him by God, and heads back up the mountain to suggest that God’s original suggestion was not so bad after all.   Let’s start over!  This time it is God who must talk Moses off the ledge.  But Moses is also forever changed by this encounter.  Torah speaks of Moses descending with light radiating from his face, so much so that Moses wears a veil whenever he appears before the people.  The only time we are told Moses removes his veil is when he talks to God.  This Midrash confirms the relationship is irrevocable altered.  Moses still loves the people and remains their committed leader throughout the wandering in the desert.  But the relationship is now different from what it was before.

 The relationship between God and Moses is one from which we can learn and draw great meaning.

 God and Moses play off each other.  Both God and Moses need a partner, a sounding board to help them through.  Each keeps the other in check so that one does not to fly off the handle acting rashly or precipitously in the moment in a way that would irrevocably damage another.  How important is this lesson for us.  To ask for help in getting perspective, not letting ego or hurt or pain cause an outburst or reaction.  To consider and cogitate, dispassionately considering what really is the best course of action given the circumstances we confront.

 Who gives you this kind of non-judgmental, unconditional support that you need? Do you have the security of a relationship where you can expose your true self and your true feelings without fear of harsh judgment or repercussions?  Is there someone, or might you find that in your relationship with God. It can be your love, your friend, your rabbi or possibly a colleague such as my rabbi.  How much better off would we be if were to think before we were to act, to measure what we do by the standard of what is best for all those involved, rather than to let ego dictate a reaction that gives us satisfaction in the moment but leaves a path of hurt or destruction in its wake?

 Cain yehi ratzon May this be God’s will.

Shabbat Shalom

I will not let you go until you have blessed me.

In the dark solitude of night Jacob wrestles with an unidentified man until dawn, but would not let him go, even after he appears to vanquish his opponent. Although the text says it was a man, the figure is mysterious and might have been an angel of God or possibly a demon from Jacob’s psyche.

 This remarkable story speaks to how we might make something good come from the troublesome or even the tragic event; for Jacob would not let go until he received a blessing.  Instead of fleeing, as Jacob has in the past, Jacob only grapples with it. Acknowledging this event is now a part of him, Jacob holds on.  Jacob emerges from the scuffle physically injured, forever changed. But he still insists that something good comes of the encounter a blessing.

 So many of us confront tragedy in our lives.  And despite the pain and the suffering tragedy causes, people often turn it in order to make something good as a result.  For example, the founders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD, were able to take the unspeakable horror of losing their children and create a crusade to save the children of others. Veronique Pozner, recently named as one of the Forward 50, lost her 6-year-old son Noah in Newtown and transformed her personal tragedy and grief into a rallying cry for gun control legislation in Connecticut.

 We are forever changed as a result of the harsh tests in our lives.  For Jacob, his hip was damaged and his name changed to always reflect that the event had irrevocably altered him.  Nothing will bring the lost children back to their mothers. Noah will never return to Veronique, but she celebrates his brief life, by working to create a better world.  May we all find the strength to do so.

~Thoughts on Vayishlach

The need for connection runs deep

Toledot, last week’s Torah portion, holds one of the most poignant moments in the entire Tanakh for me.  The story of Esau before his father is heart wrenching.  We know that Esau sold his birthright to his brother for a bowl of stew and that Jacob completed the deed by deceiving his father into giving him the blessing.  But I cannot help but feel a profound empathy for Esau’s anguish.

 There Esau stands, this strong brute of a man, sobbing before his father beseeching him: Is there nothing left for me?  Can I not also have your blessing?  This is more than a demand for his portion of the family wealth.  This is the yearning human need to belong.  There is the deep heartfelt desire to believe that there is love enough in his father’s heart to share a blessing, a hope an aspiration for something that is Esau’s inheritance from his father. The best Isaac could muster was that Esau would be free of his brother’s dominance only when Esau moved away.  And so an estrangement began so brutal in its nature, that Jacob fled and when the brothers next meet twenty years later, Jacob still fears for his life.

 When our father died, my brother and sister and I respectfully shared the material possessions that remained.  My brother took a desk that he always loved and I took the vanity mirror that sat on my dad’s dresser since he was a boy.  But I think the blessing that my father left my brother was his knowledge that he was dad’s primary caregiver and their bond grew very strong and close.  For me it was the knowledge that this new path I embarked upon into the rabbinate was a source of pride and admiration.  These are the truly valuable legacies that will remain with us.

 May we always find that our inner wellspring of love and compassion is never exhausted.  May we always have something to give to those seeking our love and support, even when it is challenging.  May we learn from Isaac that there is a better and more empathetic way to embrace another.