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

scrollDeut

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!

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.

 

Beshalach: The Road Not Taken

ShoreRoad
The red line is the shore route through Philistine lands. The Israelites took either the blue or green routes instead.

 

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was near. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” – Exodus 13:17

Who were the Philistines? Theories vary, but most scholars believe that they were originally from Greece and/or Crete, since their pottery looks very much like that of Mycenae. They were a non-Semitic people, city dwellers who lived in five cities along the coast: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron.

They were known as iron-workers, and if they were the descendants of Mycenae they were the heirs of Agamemnon, the victor-king in the Trojan War story. They would have been scary opponents for a gaggle of runaway slaves traveling with elders and children.

The Exodus writer tells us that the Israelites were not ready to face such formidable opponents, so instead God sent them home by an indirect route. Midrash suggests the Israelites needed time in the wilderness to toughen up before they faced their ultimate challenges in the land of their ancestors. Another midrash suggests that without Torah, they would have been unequipped to live in the Promised Land, so the apparent “detour” was actually the best route.

Somewhere around middle age, many of us look back over our lives and wonder what we were thinking as young people. Why the youthful marriage that was doomed from day one? Why the unfinished education? Why the “wasted time” and the “false starts?”

Maybe we weren’t ready. Maybe there were lessons to learn without which we could not become our best selves. Maybe something we did along that circuitous route was very important, as it was important for the Israelites to visit Sinai and accept the Torah.

Perhaps, as the poet Robert Frost wrote. the road we took “has made all the difference.”  I would not be the person I am today without the twisting path of my life. You would not be the same person had you made different choices in your youth.

We can’t redo the past and take a different route, and who is to say that it would truly have been better?

What we have is today. What we have is the person we have become. The question is, what are we going to do now?

 

Va’era: It’s Not About Us

Open_Torah_and_pointerTo modern ears, there’s an odd digression in Chapter 6 of Exodus. Just as we become engrossed in the narrative of the struggle between God and Pharaoh over the Israelites, everything stops for a genealogy of Moses and Aaron in verses 14 – 29.

Why the digression?

Notice that the digression is bracketed by Moses’ plaintive cry, “See, my lips are uncircumcised! How is Pharaoh going to listen to me?” There are at least three ways to understand that repetition. The first is that Moses is truly desperate. Whatever he means by “uncircumcised lips,” he is frantic that he does not feel like the right man for a very important job. He’s not going to be side-tracked or ignored. And yet that’s what God seems to do as the text meanders off into a genealogical treatise on the line of Aaron.

The second possibility is that the digression is evidence that this story started out as oral history. In Sarna’s commentary on Exodus, he suggests that this digression is a literary device to separate the first part of the story from the next. He points out that this interruption comes at a low point in the story: the Israelites are suffering and so far, divine intervention has only made matters worse. Moses’ repeated line is the storyteller’s signal that we are getting back to the story now after the break.

There’s a third possibility: both times, God seems to ignore Moses’ objection. The genealogy seems to say, “Look, you are from a long line of people with the Right Stuff. Buck up!” The second time Moses’ says it, God pushes him aside:

See, I give you as God to Pharaoh,  and Aaron your brother will be your prophet!” – Exodus 7:1

or in a more vernacular form: “Lookit, Moshe, this is not about you!”

So often we get distracted from an important mitzvah by our own insecurities:

  • I can’t make a shiva call because I don’t have the right clothes.
  • I can’t speak up against a racial slur; no one listens to me.
  • I can’t chant Torah – my voice isn’t pretty.
  • I can’t give tzedakah – what I have to give will not make a difference.

Moses felt he couldn’t speak clearly and be heard. Because of that, he wanted God to call someone else, anyone else. But in this story, God wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

God says “I give you as God to Pharaoh.” It’s a curious phrase. Who can “be” God? And yet that is exactly what we are each called to be dozens of times a day, every time there is a mitzvah to be done. We are the hands of God in the world. We are the comforters at the shiva house, the ones who can speak up against slurs, the ones who give tzedakah to relieve suffering.

No matter whether we believe in a personal God or in a God beyond human understanding, most of the work we attribute to “God” in the world must be done by human hands. None of us are up to the job, the boundless needs of a suffering world. None of us will complete the task. And that’s OK – it’s not about us.

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”

He also used to say: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward of your labors. And know, that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.” – Pirkei Avot 2:15-16.

A Last Lesson from Jacob & Joseph

"The time drew near for Jacob to die. (1984 illustration by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing)
“The Time Grew Near for Jacob to Die” – Jim Padgett

The end of the book of Genesis offers us two end of life accounts, those of Jacob and Joseph. In their deaths, they leave a legacy not only for their immediate descendants, but for all Jews.

Both are models for us in that they are clear about their wishes while they are still able to convey those wishes. Jacob calls Joseph to him, as the son with executive power, and specifies exactly what he wants long before he needs it: “Bury me with my ancestors, not in Egypt.” Joseph takes an oath to carry out that wish.

Later, when Jacob knows that he is actually near death, he calls all his sons together. First he blesses them. Then he informs them of his wish to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, this time with great specificity: “with my ancestors… in the cave in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan.” He then lists his ancestors and kin who are buried there, teaching them the mitzvah of burial in a family plot.

In his great specificity, and in choosing to speak with the brothers as a group, he is a role model for end of life instructions. Even though he had already spoken with Joseph, Jacob gave his disharmonious sons the gift of certainty about his wishes. That way, when the time came, Joseph could direct that Jacob’s body be embalmed in the Egyptian fashion for transport to Canaan. He and his brothers traveled together to the Cave of Machpelah without unnecessary arguments – they all knew exactly what their father had wanted.

Later Joseph followed his father’s example, gathering his family and blessing them with a reminder of the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then made his own request: “Bring my bones up from this place.”  He prophesied that someday they would leave Egypt, and in fact, Moses remembered:

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones from here with you.” – Exodus 13:19

In our own days of advanced medical technology, there are many more things about which we should be specific with family. It is important to have the proper documents prepared: advanced health care directives, valid wills, and instructions for executors. However, those documents are limited unless we also take the time to talk about these matters with our loved ones in such a way as to minimize conflict and confusion at a difficult time.

Our ancestors Jacob and Joseph teach us the value of these conversations, a value that has only grown over time. If you have not had such conversations, if you have so far not created those documents, do not delay!