Rx for the Human Spirit

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria/Metzora deals with genital discharges and skin diseases, very unpleasant things. Worse yet, people have taken this portion to some very unpleasant conclusions, framing human illness as a punishment from God.

Ick.

What if, despite the lovely descriptions of skin eruptions, this portion isn’t about a physical illness at all? Let’s take a short passage:

18 When an inflammation appears on the skin of one’s body and it heals, 19 and a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red develops where the inflammation was, he shall present himself to the priest. – Leviticus 13: 18-19

What if we reread this, but instead of someone having something on their skin, it’s a moral failing: racism, sexism, enviousness, unkindness? Perhaps some family member has pointed out our unkind behaviors, or a friend has mentioned that a dearly-held opinion is actually quite racist. Our first impulse on realizing these things is to deny it or hide it, because we’ve been told it is shameful. (We have also been taught to feel shame about skin diseases and genital discharges, come to think of it.)

What if, instead of hiding or denying, we went to a counselor, our rabbi or a therapist, and said, “My wife says I am unkind,”  “I am envious when I see friends get honors,” or “I would hate it if my son dated a black woman.” The good counselor would take a close look at the evidence and the context. They’d explore it with us. And perhaps things are not what they seem (“he is clean”) or perhaps there are changes that need to happen. Then they could help us toward the changes until we are “clean.”

This is not an easy fix. It requires honesty, humility, and bravery. It is not fun saying to a counselor, “I have unkind/envious/racist thoughts.”  We hear over and over that nice people don’t have those thoughts. We may have them and then squish them down quickly, because we are ashamed. On some level, we know it isn’t OK.

But as with the mysterious disease in the Torah portion, these things affect others in our community. Some of them are communicable (children learn racism and sexism from someone) and some are just plain contagious (I am unkind to Joe, and Joe kicks the dog.) Some can’t heal on their own; we may need help to change.

Here in the 21st century, there are many diseases we can cure, and many more that we can manage; even AIDS and some cancers are now somewhat manageable. However, besides physical illnesses there are other plagues with which we have made much less progress. Perhaps the prescription in Tazria/Metzora is really for them, the plagues of the human spirit.

Sh’mini: Back to Basics

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Several years ago I heard Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin give a wonderful sermon on Parashat Sh’mini. She pointed out that the first part of the portion has to do with the tragedy of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. Immediately after their ordination as kohanim [priests] they experiment with making a burnt offering. Instead of working properly, the offering goes horribly wrong and the two of them are burnt up in an explosion of fire from the mishkan, the portable dwelling of God.

Then, she noted, the text swiftly shifts topic. Instead of continuing with the esoteric topic of sacrifices, Chapter 11 of Leviticus switches abruptly to the topic of Jewish dietary laws: “These are the living things which you may eat…” I had always been bothered by this sudden shift, but Rabbi Mates-Muchin explained it: God understood that the Israelites were not in the right place spiritually for the intricacies of the sacrificial cult. What they needed were the basics: “here is the food you are supposed to eat.” That sermon comes to my mind whenever I explain to an Introduction to Judaism student that I don’t cover kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in the “Intro” class.

There is something in us human beings that makes us think that “more advanced” equals “best.” Some of it is ego: we want to be black belts, not yellow belts. And we think that if we can do some of the “more advanced” exercises that makes us better than if we were only doing “beginner” things. So we want to jump ahead to advanced Judaism: we don’t want to know about dietary laws, we want to learn about kabbalah or gematriaBut beginning Hebrew? – that’s so boring!

The trouble, of course, is that when we jump ahead to the things we are sure will be more interesting, we miss the beauty of the basics, and we will be studying whatever it is without the tools we need. Learning Hebrew is a basic skill for study in Torah and rabbinic literature. The stories in Torah and Tanakh are the building blocks of Jewish ethical and legal thought. But even in English, on the simple peshat level –the level of surface meaning – they are a rich treasury of wisdom.

A life of Torah is a journey. Every step of the way can be a thing of beauty, a precious jewel, from “Aleph, Bet, Gimel” to the most complex lesson in the Talmud. May we each learn some new bit of Torah every day, and value it for the treasure it is!

No, You Can’t Have My Earrings!

One of my favorite midrashim is rooted in the story of the Golden Calf:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”  So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”  And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. – Exodus 32: 1-6

Of course, we know how the story ends: building the calf was a huge mistake. The tablets that Moses brought down the mountain specify that the people are not to make any images of their God. Moses is angry, and God is angry, and Aaron and the people are in big, big trouble.

However, midrash offers an interesting wrinkle on the story: according to a story that appears both in Numbers Rabbah and in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer. Not everyone contributed to make the calf. When the men approach their wives and daughters, they refuse to participate. Rashi tells us in a comment on Megillah 22b that their reward for this is the women’s holiday of Rosh Chodesh, the first of every month, when women are exempt from work.

Some writers, including the redactor of Numbers Rabbah, have suggested that this is evidence of women’s moral superiority. Sometimes when I tell this story, people have said that it was because the women were vain, and they just loved their jewelry and didn’t want to give it up – in other words, that women are morally inferior to men!

But this is not a story about gender superiority or inferiority. It’s yet another story about Jews disagreeing as to the best way to worship. Often our tradition has given men greater authority on such things. The ancient midrash points to the fact that gender doesn’t magically confer the right answers.

One of the things I love about studying rabbinic texts is that just when I decide that the rabbis were all patriarchal old so-and-so’s, they surprise me. These texts are greater than any of us, then or now.

 

Thoughts on Parashat Terumah

V’a’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham. –Exodus 25:8

Make me a sanctuary, and I will live in the midst of them.

These words appear in and on many synagogues. Usually they get a fancier translation, something along the lines of “Build me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them” or some such. I think there’s something to be gained from the rawer version: Make it, and I will live with you.

It appears in the early part of Parashat Terumah, when God tells Moses to ask for a free-will offering. The offering will be used to build the mishkan, the portable Ark of the Covenant, and its setting, the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. He asked specifically for a list of things I would never imagine to be in the possession of runaway slaves in the midst of the Sinai Wilderness:

These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver and bronze;  blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and sea mammal skins; acacia wood; olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense;  and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece. – Exodus 25: 3-7

Other writers will offer you theories on why the Israelites had these things. But for a moment, let’s just focus on the fact that much of this list is beyond precious and rare. The “blue, purple, and scarlet” dyes were so scarce that they were reserved for royalty even centuries later. I can imagine Moses thinking to himself, “Uh-oh. I don’t think we’ve got half this stuff.”

Moses transmitted the message to the people: here’s what we need. And Am Yisrael delivered. The people of Israel came through, bringing precious metals, precious dyestuffs, rare leathers, precious gems.  That’s the miracle of this parashah: God asked, and the people stepped up. The rest of the parashah talks about the people bringing such a pile of loot that it turned out to be more than was really needed.

Today we face an analogous situation. “Oy gevalt, how will American Jewry make it to the next generation?” say the pundits and pollsters. They follow this statement with a list of what the people aren’t bringing. Jews are intermarrying! Jews don’t learn Hebrew! Jews don’t come to synagogue! Oy gevalt!”

But here’s what I learn from Parashat Terumah: Look at what Am Yisrael, the Jewish People are bringing. Many American Jews are intermarrying, yes, but a significant percentage of them are raising their children as Jews. We are in the midst of an avalanche of conversions, people bringing themselves to us, jumping through hoops to become part of us, anxious to participate and build a Jewish future. Jews are bringing innovation to the table, too: Internet learning, online services, nontraditional minyanim, a thousand interesting experiments, any one of which may turn out to be durable for the next ten generations.

Perhaps our next tabernacle is not a holy place hung with linen and studded with precious gems, not a fabulous modern building. Perhaps it is a gathering of rare and lovely souls, a gathering of Jews themselves, bringing heads and hearts and hands. I know that when I am in the midst of Jews celebrating a holiday, or studying together, or doing social justice work, I can feel the presence of God, living in the midst of us.

Let us bring all that we are and see what we can build together.

Measles, and the Book of Job

One of the strangest books in the Bible is the Book of Job.

The book begins with God and Satan (“The Adversary” for Jews) having a little bet. God points out to Satan that Job is a really good guy. Satan retorts that Job is only good because God protects him.

“Stop protecting him,” taunts Satan, “And he’ll curse your Name.”

God says to Satan, “Do what you like! Just don’t kill him.”

So Satan showers troubles upon Job. He takes away Job’s wealth, kills his children, and destroys his health. But throughout it all, Job never curses God. Friends come to Job saying that he must have sinned and he must repent, but Job keeps insisting that he has done nothing wrong. Finally God appears in a whirlwind, declares them all fools, and Job collapses, declaring himself “dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

There’s a bit at the end of the book in which God gives Job new wealth, a nice new house, new children, and everything seems super. Most scholars agree that it seems to be a very late addition, as if someone later insisted on a Hollywood ending. Anyway, any parent will tell you that you cannot simply replace dead children and make it all better.

Job admits to us that sometimes life really, really stinks despite everything we do.

That is exactly why I think the book of Job ought to be read more often, and with greater attention. Tsuris (Yiddish for trouble) finds many people who don’t deserve it. This is a terrifying fact of life.

In our terror that tsuris will find us, we attempt to find reasons for bad luck. We ask the cancer patient if he smoked, we drive only “safe” cars, we explain every ill in terms of something that someone did wrong. But there is no vitamin, no regimen, no diet, no car, no product, no magic talisman that will keep all bad things from happening to us. We are human, and we are prone to trouble. (Job 5:7)

I am all for medicine, and science, and research, and doing what we can with our brains to make life easier, better, and longer. I wear my seatbelt, and I go for regular checkups. Certainly science has given us wonderful tools to reduce human misery. But it is arrogant foolishness to look at a suffering person and say, “I would not have made her mistakes” with its corollary “…so that will never happen to me.” It is arrogant foolishness and it is cruel.

The book of Job is an extraordinary admission in a book that often seems to say “Be good and you are guaranteed only good things.” Job admits that sometimes life stinks, no matter what we do.

The true comfort in Job is hidden in plain view. Job’s wife suffers all the same losses that Job did. She loses ten children to death. She, too, is reduced to poverty. She becomes the caretaker for a sick husband. And yet only once, early on, does she speak, and for that commentators have vilified her ever since:

“Do you still hang on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” – Job 2:9

She is standing by him, caring for him, watching him suffer, suffering herself, and her rage and pain erupt. Then we don’t hear another word from her. But at the end of the book, there she is, ready to bear ten more children. She loved him, and she stuck by him. Their covenant held solid. Archibald MacLeish got it right in the play J.B.: the answer to human misery is love.

We can’t avoid all tsuris in this life, but we can stand by one another in times of trouble. We can do that individually and we can do it communally. When I hear a parent worrying about vaccines and autism, one of the things I hear is a person who is terrified of parenting a challenged child in a society that doesn’t give a damn. Does that make it right to withhold vaccines? Of course not. But isn’t it understandable, once the seed of doubt is planted?

My children received every shot the doc prescribed. I have begged young parents not to be fooled by the anti-vaccine nonsense. But I think this terrible measles outbreak points to something we need to consider as a society: when people have troubles, we often abandon them. We assure ourselves that it must be their fault. We worry about freeloaders. We worry about frauds and fakers. And people with genuine trouble, people who have been given steep challenges are left to become homeless, to starve, to struggle with impossible scenarios.

Mention “disability” and someone will pipe up about fakers. Mention “food stamps” and someone will tell you about frauds. Mention “homelessness” and some helpful soul will tell you it’s really about moral degeneracy, and drugs, and mental illness – and mention “mental illness” and someone will say that poor parenting is to blame.

Real people sometimes have real troubles and need help. We have to find our way out of the morass of fear, selfishness and arrogance and deal with that fact.  May that day come soon.

May we all have mercy on one another.

For chapter and verse on what Jewish tradition has to say about vaccination, I recommend an article in Tablet: If Jenny McCarthy Were Jewish by Rebecca Einstein Schorr.  Rabbi Schorr is a colleague and friend with her feet firmly planted in Jewish tradition and a poignant stake in the discussion.

 

Chapter, Verse, Word & Letter

The beginning of Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:2 – 22:16) is interesting on a couple of counts.

First, the parashah begins on verse 2 of chapter 21 of Exodus. Students sometimes ask, “Why does it begin on the second verse?”

If you look at a Torah scroll, there are no divisions into chapters. There are also no vowel markings, and nothing to serve as punctuation. Anyone preparing to chant Torah has to use a book called a tikkun to memorize these things beforehand.

This is script from the Torah scroll.
This is script from Genesis, in the Torah scroll.

Jews divide the text into verses, the length of which were handed down to us from the Masoretes, rabbis who specialized in the text from the 6th to the 13th centuries. They transmitted the knowledge of where the verses end and begin.

The books of the Torah are also divided into parshiyot [portions]. These are rather like chapters, but they are not the chapters in modern Bibles. They are marked by gaps in the Torah text, and we see those gaps very early, even in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Modern-day chapters of books were not a Jewish innovation. Rather, an Archbishop of Canterbury named Stephen Langton set chapter divisions for the books in 1227. Wycliff’s English Bible translation (1382) was the first Bible to appear with the chapters, which quickly became standard in all Bibles.  Since neither Stephen Langton nor John Wycliffe were interested in Jewish opinions about the text, their chapters do not always match up with our parshiyot. Mishpatim is just such a parashah, which begins on verse 2 of chapter 21 of Exodus.

The second interesting item in the beginning of this parashah is its first letter. Here is the full first verse:

וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃

It may be translated: “And these are the rules you shall put before them.”

Look at the far right end of the line, at the little vertical line with two dots below it. That’s the Hebrew letter “vav,” which can be translated in many ways but here is best read “and.” Such a tiny word – only a letter! And with the rest of the word to which it is attached, “V’ehleh,” it means “And these are.”

We are taught (by Rashi and others) that this word “v’ehleh” in Biblical Hebrew tells us there is continuity between what went before and what follows. That is, the rules that follow are of one piece with the rules that came before this word. What came before? The Ten Commandments. So with one little word, the writer is letting us know that not only were the Ten Commandments given at Sinai; so were the other laws [mishpatim] that follow.

Every tiny detail of the Torah is significant. This is why one of our earliest sages, Joshua ben Perachyah said: “Get yourself a teacher and find yourself a friend” with whom to study. (Avot 1.6) For those who must study by themselves, a good commentary can be a help: through the commentaries we hear the voices of many teachers.

Do you study with a teacher or a friend? Is there a commentary with which you particularly like to learn?

Yitro: A Tantalizing Gap

Open_Torah_and_pointerThere’s a tantalizing little gap at the beginning of Parashat Yitro:

Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home, and her two sons … Gershom… and Eliezer… Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness where he was camped at the mountain of God. – Exodus 18:2-5

What? I remember the first time I read this, flipping back to see when it was that Zipporah and the boys had been sent back to Midian. I could not find the story, because the story wasn’t there. Looking closely at the Hebrew, I noticed that the verb usually translated as “sent home” is shillach, which is more commonly translated as “sent away” or “divorced.” And yet this text emphasizes the marriage: over and over, Yitro is designated “father-in-law” and Zipporah is “Moses’ wife.”

No doubt about it: a piece of the story is missing. Moses and Zipporah had some kind of separation. She went home to her father’s house, and he went to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. Was he simply off on a “business trip” while the family remained safely in Midian? Or was there an estrangement between Moses and Zipporah? The text doesn’t say. All it tells us is that Yitro brought Zipporah and the boys to Moses, after he heard how Israel had made a successful exodus from Egypt.

Yitro is a wise man and a capable leader, and he is also a role model for in-laws everywhere. Whatever had caused the separation, he supported the couple in their reunion. He brought them safely back together.

It is tempting to pick sides when there is discord in a family. It is tempting to listen sympathetically to grievances. The ego expands when one’s child comes home, asking for a shoulder or for help. But a couple cannot work out their troubles when each can “run home to mama” to complain: it is better to say, “Go back, work it out, talk to each other, not to me.”

Obviously there are limitations. Domestic abuse is a serious matter, for instance. But even in such a case, the job of a parent – an in-law – is to support their adult child in working towards a resolution, whatever that may be.

In a marriage, as in any other human relationship, working things out requires the couple to interact directly. Talking to third parties is rarely helpful unless it leads to talking to one another. Those of us who want to be good parents and good in-laws or even good friends to a married couple can take a lesson from Yitro.