Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tazria, Calendars and Slander

Two weeks about leprosy! We continue our journey through Leviticus and the minutia of priestly concerns as we read Parashat Tazria this week and next week Metzora. Both portions focus on the disfiguring disease of leprosy. Most years, however, it is not two weeks, but only one week about such details. Why this year are we subjected to two weeks?

It is because this year is a leap year according to the Jewish calendar. In such a year we add an additional month. This added month of Adar, called Adar I, helps to reorient the calendar. The Jewish calendar is a combination of a lunar and solar calendar. The months are dictated by the cycle of the moon. The new moon begins the start of the month. The full moon indicates the middle. By the way it is not an accident that many of our holidays begin on the fourteenth of the month when there is a full moon in the sky. Imagine the days when there was only the moon and stars to guide our calendar and not today’s computers. We could then look to the full harvest moon and know it was for example Sukkot.

Thus our holidays must be tied to the seasons. And these are of course connected to the solar year. The upcoming holiday of Passover not only celebrates our freedom from Egypt but also the spring barley harvest. Sukkot not only marks the historical claim of wandering in the wilderness, but the fall harvest. While we are no longer farmers each of these holidays must be tied to their corresponding seasons. A lunar year is 354 days long. A solar is 365 days. If not for a leap year, and the addition of this year’s extra month, the holidays would therefore march into the wrong seasons.

We would then be adding the prayer for rain during the heat of Israel’s dry summers. The wisdom of our tradition is to add this prayer not when it would be miraculous and beyond our natural expectations, but instead during the rainy winter season. We pray not for the miracle of rain but rather that the rains will be plentiful and the seasons will continue to follow their prescribed path. (How we could use such prayers these days!)

Rain falls during its expected season, and soon, after our celebrations of Passover, we will let go of this prayer. Still we are left with two weeks of leprosy. The usual double portion is divided. What are we to make of these now lengthened discussions about a disease cured by antibiotics and absent from our experiences. I look anew to the wisdom of our tradition. Even the ancient rabbis spiritualized leprosy’s meaning, arguing that tzaraat—leprosy is not so much about a physical ailment but a spiritual deformity. Leprosy connotes the sin of gossip. To engage in slander deforms the gossiper.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great Jewish moralist, argues:
In the previous parasha, Shemini, the Torah lists the various types of animals and birds that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten (in the laws of keeping kosher). Here, we have the law of tzaraat (leprosy), which according to our Sages afflicts a person who was guilty of lashon hara—slander. The reason for this juxtaposition is because people are more concerned about not eating non-kosher food than they are about “eating up” a person through slander. Thus we learn from the juxtaposition that “eating up” a person is no less a sin than eating a worm.
And we continue to worry more about the food we eat, or the food we wish to eat, or even the foods we are forbidden to eat—whether because of religious stringencies or health sensibilities—rather than the words we say.

Regardless of the season, regardless of the year, this is a teaching worth remembering. There remain diseases of the spirit that can be as disfiguring as those of ancient days.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Shemini, Taboos and Shouts of Mazel Tov

When Susie and I were married, now over 25 years ago, Susie and I each broke a glass to conclude the ceremony.  The reactions this elicited from our guests were telling.  While we thought it was perfectly in keeping with our commitment to an egalitarian relationship, others were perplexed by this gesture and wondered (aloud) if we broke some ancient tradition.  Our arguments that the breaking of a glass at a Jewish wedding is only a custom and not law did not mitigate these concerns.  Our addition to the Jewish ceremony people had come to know and love was met with comments of “interesting” at best and “radical” at worst.  We had, in the eyes of many, broken some sacred taboo.

I have been thinking about taboos.  Not the game of course and not the breaking of anything more radical than a ceremonial glass, but instead the religious concept.  In any introduction to Religious Studies one learns that a taboo (and I quote from the Encyclopedia) is the prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too dangerous for ordinary individuals to undertake.  Our portion is framed by this concept.  It begins with details about the sacrifices to be offered in ancient days and in particular how to repair an offense with the sin offering.

It concludes with a list of kosher and non-kosher animals.  “These you may eat of all that live in water: anything in water, whether in the seas or in the streams, that has fins and scales—these you may eat. But anything in the seas or in the streams that has no fins and scales, among all the swarming things of the water and among all the other living creatures that are in the water—they are an abomination for you.” (Leviticus 11:9-10)  This list certainly creates the impression that certain foods are permitted and others prohibited, and are in fact abominations.

Sandwiched in the middle is the story of Nadav and Avihu.  They are Aaron’s sons and therefore priests.  They die when offering a sacrifice. “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)  What was their sin?   

The Torah offers little explanation.  Rabbis are left to ponder.  Some read the text literally.  God had not explicitly commanded this sacrifice.  A number even write that they must have been intoxicated even though the story does not mention such an infraction.  The prohibition against priests drinking alcohol while offering a sacrifice follows soon after this episode.  And so a connection is made between the two.  The list of possible interpretations is endless.  The young priests were overly ambitious.  They sought to usurp their father Aaron’s and Uncle Moses’ jobs.

We read again the words: they offered an “alien fire.”  What is an alien fire?  Does it burn in an unusual way?  Or is it instead that they brought something foreign to the sacrificial altar?  The Torah suggests it is the latter.  They had broken a taboo.  They brought something to the sacred precinct that was forbidden.  Their punishment was death.        

Such was the world view of the ancients.  There is a line between sacred and profane, permitted and prohibited.  Cross it and you invite death.  Still I wonder.  What is foreign is of course a matter of language and labeling.  What I call alien you might call akin.  What you call foreign I might call sacred.  What was labeled by some as approaching blasphemy others still view as a step forward towards egalitarianism.  Who has the power to deem this appropriate and that inappropriate?  And now we have arrived at the essence of the struggle between generations.  “Why can’t I wear shorts to dinner?” asks the child.  “Because!” the parent responds. 

I continue to wonder has the very concept of taboos been turned on its head.  In an age when privacy and personal fulfillment are set as the highest of goals how can there remain a shared concept of what is forbidden and what is permitted.  It was the pressure of community that made for taboos.  It was the community whose language labeled this an abomination.  Community is no longer as compelling as it once was.  And so today far more is permitted.  Or is this the perspective of a graying parent? 

Recall this. Both Nadav and Avihu were priests.  They were supposed to offer the sacrifice.  And yet in this instance they slipped.  They performed one small step out of place.  The line between permitted and forbidden is often very near.   The line was thin then.  Perhaps it remains just as close now.

And we remain, as the Book of Exodus proclaims, a “kingdom of priests.”  Will we stumble and fall?  The power of language continues to rest in our hands.  The glass remains shattered.

And yet the congregation shouted in unison, “Mazel tov.”  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Tzav, Purim and Jewish Power

This week we read more laws about sacrifices in Parshat Tzav. For the ancients the sacrificing of animals and the offering of grains was how they prayed. They brought to God physical gifts. While we find these details foreign, and even disgusting, they did provide what today’s services lack. You could literally hold your prayer in your hands. Sacrifice was as well an attempt to reorder the chaos of the world. Life’s vicissitudes can often be frightening. Offer a sacrifice. And some counsel, Say a prayer. Gain power over your life. And thus sacrifices, and prayers, can be seen as an attempt to address these feelings of powerlessness.

So too is the story of Purim, the holiday which begins on Saturday evening. In the beginning the Jews, and women, are powerless. Queen Vashti is kicked out of the palace by the drunken king. Our heroine Esther gains entry to the palace by hiding her Jewish identity and then winning a beauty pageant. She gains power by concealing her Jewishness. She saves the Jewish people from the wicked Haman (make some noise to drown out his name!) by revealing her identity.

This story raises many questions about power and powerlessness....

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Vayikra and First Tastes

This commentary marks the beginning of our fifth year studying the weekly portion together via the internet. As you know I have faithfully written a commentary each and every week for the past four years. I hope some of my words and interpretations have found their way into your hearts and minds. The effort remains the same as it has been for thousands of years. We continue to ask how the Torah can provide meaning and guidance for our world. As always I welcome your thoughts and responses, and even disagreements. Torah is given renewed life through our discussions and debates. May our conversations continue to be lively and thoughtful. And so today we begin again, and we begin anew.

This week we open the book of Vayikra, Leviticus. Its relevance for our present world appears distant and remote. The book is filled with details about sacrifices. Do you want to thank God? Offer a sacrifice. Such is the counsel of Vayikra. “The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting…. Its entrails and legs shall be washed with water, and the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1)

Could anything seem more irrelevant? Sprinkling blood? Cleaning entrails? Slaughtering an animal to please God?

Why then would the tradition insist that a child’s Jewish studies begin with this book of Leviticus? True, nearly half of Judaism’s 613 mitzvot are found in Leviticus. And so one could discover a life wedded to the commandments by studying these words. In the myriad of commandments listed in this biblical book a child can begin to learn the meaning of mitzvah. Yet many of these mitzvot are no longer binding. We do not offer sacrifices. We do not examine the sick for signs of leprosy. We do not get tattoos. (Perhaps another example might be more apt.)

So why begin our studies with a book filled with laws we are no longer required to observe? It is because then our study can truly be for its own sake. Then it is Torah l’shma. Some teachers even place honey on the text so that a child’s first taste of Torah is sweet. As we pour over the words of this book our motivations are purified. We discover there our desire to draw closer to God and God’s Torah. That can be our only hope for all this effort. When we open Leviticus first our intentions become true and we draw nearer to God. And then our lives become sweetened.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. It comes from the word to draw near. Its origin suggests that for the ancients sacrifice was first and foremost an effort to draw closer to God. Despite the book of Leviticus’ unappealing details of blood and entrails, the effort remains the same.

We open the pages of a book. We draw near to God. We begin again with the words “Vayikra—And the Lord called…”