Friday, April 28, 2017

Parashat Tazria-Metzora and Yom HaShoa: Watching Your Words

Shabbat Shalom! Before talking Torah, it is also time to count the Omer.
ברוך אתה יי אלוקינו מלך/רוח  העולם אשר קידשנו במצוותיו וציונו על ספירת העומר
Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech/ruach  ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al s’firat ha’omer.
Blessed are you, adonai, our G-od, ruler/spirit of the universe, who sanctifies us with commandments, and commanded us regarding the counting of the omer.
 היום שמונה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וארבעה ימים  בעומר.
Hayom shmonah asar yom, she’heim shnei shavuot v’arbah yamim b’omer.
Today is eighteen days, that is two weeks and four days of the omer.
The mystical realm of this day of the Omer is Netzach she’b’Tiferet, that is Endurance in balance. On this day in this journey from redemption to revelation, may speak truth to power and stand for equality even when it is difficult and it may seem easier to let imbalances slide.
This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Tazria-Metzora, in which the Torah deals with the rules of ritual purity and impurity, including the impurity of skin blemishes. Tza’arat, often translated as “leprosy,” is described in detail, telling us of the various signs and symptoms the priests would look for to determine when a Metzora (someone with tza’arat) would be clean enough again to re-enter the Israelite camp (after a repurification ritual, of course). It’s all pretty gross. 
While the Torah presents this information like an early WebMD entry, simply the symptoms and home remedies of a physical illness, the rabbis of the Midrash Rabbah felt these blemishes were surely punishments for sin. Why else would our Holy Torah share such repellent details unless to repel us from wrongdoing? So they connect these descriptions and explanations about tza’arat to another portion (Parashat Beha’alot’cha) in which Miriam comes down with a case of it after speaking ill of Moses’s wife. So, they conclude, tza’arat is the punishment for lashon hara, or “Evil Speech” (most often understood as gossip).
You’re all probably at least somewhat familiar with the sin of lashon hara. There’s that famous legend about the person who spread a rumor and felt guilty afterward, so they asked their rabbi what they should do to make it up to the person who was the subject of the rumor. The rabbi tells the person to go buy some feather pillows and stand on the hill above the village and cut open the pillows, letting the feathers fly. The gossiper does so and goes back to the rabbi the next day and asks what happens next, how this helps make teshuvah to the person they’ve hurt. The rabbi tells the gossiper to go collect the feathers and refill the pillow sacks. Of course, this is impossible and the gossiper learns that much like the released feathers can never be gathered back up, so too words can never really be taken back and only true teshuva directly to the person hurt in the act of gossip can make amends.
I often teach this lesson to students by playing a game of telephone to illustrate that not only can we not take back our words once they leave our mouths, but we also lose control of how they’re used. The words in a game of telephone morph and change, lose their meaning and get silly, sometimes inappropriate, and often the word or phrase that the group ends up with is not quite what the initial speaker said. As rumors make their way around a school, the story that eventually sticks may not be what the initial gossiper meant to go around. That does not at all excuse the initial gossiper for starting the rumor. The tza’arat affects those who spread falsehoods about others regardless of intention, and the Talmud says that lashon hara kills three people: those who speak it, those who hear it spoken, and those of whom it is spoken. 
            This week was Yom HaShoa, the Jewish Remembrance Day for the 6 million Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust, and of course we mourn the countless others as well. Rroma, LGBT populations, political prisoners, Catholic clergy, twins, and people with disabilities were all also victims and survivors of this horrible time in history. But the concentration camps didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. I know less about the anti-Rroma or homophobic or ableist history in Europe, but I know that the Holocaust was a culmination of centuries of antisemitism. Whether or not the medieval Christians who started the Blood Libel and claimed they just wanted to save our souls with forced conversions could have ever imagined the extremes their rhetoric would eventually come to means nothing. Christians today who continue to believe in Zionist world domination conspiracy theories, who claim to want to save our souls with coerced conversions or the uncomfortable manipulative rhetoric of “Messianic Jews” are reiterated this centuries-old antisemitism and triggering the trauma of the Holocaust. Words have meaning. Did you know that the “Final Solution” wasn’t even Hitler’s idea? He said he wanted the Jews out of Germany, and his henchmen decided gassing them and burning the bodies was the fastest way to move along toward the goal of a Juden-rein Germany. Hitler wasn’t even at the meeting. Does that make him any less responsible for the circumstances he created? Of course not. Are those who unknowingly perpetuate his rhetoric without intending to finish his goals any less responsible for the hurt they cause? Of course not.
            Words turn to actions, which is why part of the purification ritual for tza’arat was temporary exile from the Israelite camp. While one is afflicted with lashon hara, they need a time out. A chance to appreciate their diverse community, and not have any opportunity to spread further malice or allow words turn to evil actions. In the camp, unchecked gossip could lead to the complete ruin of the tightknit community stuck together wandering the wilderness. In Medieval Europe, unchecked anti-Jewish theologies and conspiracies gave way to anti-Jewish pogroms and church/state-sponsored violence. As time progressed the words of Modern Europe became more sophisticated antisemitic scapegoating, which gave way to larger scale antisemitic genocide.
            This is why when we see lashon hara in any form, we should call it out and put a stop to it immediately. Whether mere gossip, or hate speech and fear-mongering, words hurt. They can become actions, and rumors turn to bullying, scapegoating and conspiracies lead to mass violence. We endeavor to speak truth to power and restore balance in our communities through positive speech. As we remember those lost in the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as those lost to other state-sponsored genocides or other instances of violent prejudice, we resolve to stand by the decree: Never Again. We honor their memory by saving others from their fate, by nipping dangerous lashon hara in the bud. And may we protect ourselves, our friends and families, our neighbors and communities, from tza’arat and all the harm that lashon hara will bring down upon those who speak it, hear it, or find themselves the subject of it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Parashat Shemini

            Shabbat Shalom! Before talking Torah, it is also time to count the Omer.
ברוך אתה יי אלוקינו מלך/רוח  העולם אשר קידשנו במצוותיו וציונו על ספירת העומר
Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech/ruach  ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al s’firat ha’omer.
Blessed are you, adonai, our G-od, ruler/spirit of the universe, who sanctifies us with commandments, and commanded us regarding the counting of the omer.
היום אחד עשר  יום שהם שבוע אחד וארבעה ימים בעומר.
Hayom echad asar yom, she’heim sh’vua echad v’arba’ah yamim b’omer.
Today is eleven days, that is one week and four days of the omer.

The mystical realm of this day of the Omer is Netzach she’b’Gevurah, that is Endurance in Strength. On this day in this journey from redemption to revelation, may we remember to be conscientious about sticking with a decision we’ve made.
This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Shemini. The parasha details the inaugural use of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary the Israelites worship in during their 40 years in the wilderness. Aaron and his sons take the first sacrifices in, exactly as instructed, and everything looks dandy. Then two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, try to take in a separate sacrifice, a “Strange Fire” that is not instructed, “and there went out fire from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.” Moses tells Aaron not to mourn for his sons, and the Israelites carry on as if nothing has happened. The Torah then segues into some more laws that Moses has to relay from God to the people, and so we received the laws of Kashrut. The parasha concludes with the laws regarding the mikveh, a spiritual bath, and a commandment to always distinguish the pure from the impure.
Many readers and commentators are troubled by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and make excuses for God’s apparent rejections for their sacrifices. They were too bold, they were drunk, they were trying to usurp Aaron and Moses’s positions of power, etc. And any of those explanations may be right. But we have in Rabbinic Judaism the idea of a “d’var acher”, which means “another thing,” and is often the way rabbis disagree with each other respectfully. It’s like saying, “yes, and” instead of “no, but” when offering a new perspective that doesn’t necessarily prove anything else right or wrong. So the Ohr Chaim, an 18th century Moroccan rabbi offers a “d’var acher” for Nadav and Avihu. He says, “They approached the supernal light out of their great love of the Holy, and thereby died. Thus, they died by a “Divine kiss” such as experienced by the perfectly righteous; it is only that the righteous die when the Divine kiss approaches them, while they died by their approaching it... Although they sensed their own demise, this did not prevent them from drawing near to G‑d in attachment, delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kissing and sweetness, to the point that their souls ceased from them.” Conscientious may not be the right word for their behavior, but in this reading, they certainly were committed to following through with what they started, and demonstrated an enduring and strong commitment to God.
I’m not advocating acting dangerously in the name of some religious fanaticism or anything. But I recently rewatched Fiddler on the Roof, and I can’t help but think of Perchik’s song, Now I Have Everything, in which he sings, “I have something that I would die for, someone that I can live for too.” He has a goal in life, a passion and a drive that consumes him, a cause he would die for, and then he falls in love and he calls Hodel “someone [he] can live for.” They don’t cancel each other out. He doesn’t say now he’s going to step back from the fight for equality so that he can be a better partner to Hodel; he says that now he has everything. A new joy to his life. Hodel, reciprocates in kind, and runs to his aid when he is sent to Siberia, a destination that often meant death. But they are devoted to each other and to their cause. They have endurance and strength, and they are committed to following through on their ideas, even if they sense their own demise approaching in their perseverance.
Take all possible precautions and do your best to keep yourselves and your loved ones safe, but find yourself a passion. A cause you are willing to fight for. A project you refuse to give up on. This sort of devotion can be holy, especially if you are willing to bring a spiritual grounding to it. Bring love and joy to your passion and your cause, and you too can have everything.     

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Pesach: From the Narrow Spaces to Liberation

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! With Passover approaching and now passing, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be free. I’ve been thinking about the Midrash of Nachshon, an Israelite who walked into the Sea of Reeds up to his nose, ready to swim if necessary to freedom, before the Sea split. I’ve been thinking about how Mitzrayim means “a narrow place,” but how narrow that dry path between the Sea walls must have felt. I’ve been thinking about how hard life was for the Israelites in the desert, and how much they complained that at least in Egypt they had plenty to eat and drink and they knew what would become of them. I’ve been thinking about how hard it must have been for Moses or even Nachshon to lead a fearful people away from a comforting familiarity toward an uncertain future, which may be more liberated but which may also require a lot of emotional labor.
Tonight, we are in the throes of Pesach, and our Chol HaMoed reading for today situates us after the Exodus itself, in a time after the Israelites have crossed that sea and reached freedom from the Egyptians, only to find that life in the wilderness is also difficult. A frustrated Moses, tired of defending the Unknowable to the whiny Israelites, and tired of defending the whiny Israelites to the Unknowable, demands to see God’s face. God tells Moses that no man may see the face of God and live, so God instructs Moses to wait in a cleft in a rock — a narrow place — to wait for God to pass by, so that the Divine Goodness will be visible to Moses. So, we have left Mitzrayim, but the work of building freedom and breaking out of narrow spaces is not done. There is the narrow pathway of the dry space between the walls of the Sea of Reeds to walk through. There is the narrow space in the cliff face in which Moses nestles himself waiting for a glimpse of Divinity. There are many years wandering in the desert. There is fear. There is thirst and hunger. There is uncertainty about this Unknowable, Unseeable force. There is fighting, both within the community and with external forces. But, there is also freedom. There is dignity away from forced labor and attempted genocide. There is a taste of holiness, and a new peoplehood born. 
Our Haftarah for this portion comes from Ezekiel, a prophet in exile in Babylonia, praying for the revival of a seemingly dead and cut off people. So many in the institutional Jewish world worry about what they see as a dwindling population of involved young Jews, and pray for the revival of Jewish life. I know sometimes we worry about membership in this congregation, too. But after spending some significant time with other millennial Jews lately, some of whom are unaffiliated and just reaffirming their commitments to Judaism and some of whom are fellow rabbis, rabbinical students, and otherwise observant young adults, I feel very confident that the Jewish community is plenty lively. I have so much faith for our future and our liberation. I believe that the future will be good for us. Though I work toward widespread and intersectional freedom, I am wholly aware that I cannot promise perfect freedom, though I don’t think anyone would expect me to. There is a lot of hard work ahead, maybe even 40 more years’ worth, before we will see a liberated world with freedom and dignity for all. But we’re ready to leave Mitzrayim. We ARE leaving Mitzrayim, this narrow place of feeling enslaved by historical trauma and the ever-looming threat of antisemitic violence. We are crossing the Sea of Reeds, navigating carefully through a narrow space that seeks to reinforce narratives of self-hating Jews, in order to come out the other side as self-loving Jews. We are stepping out from that cleft in the rock, the safe-feeling narrow space where we thought we might catch a glimpse of the Unknowable, but found we could only see the backside of Divine Goodness. We are raising our dry bones from the justice-starved, peace-parched earth and we are reviving Jewish commitment toward tzedek and tikkun olam. We are leading our community toward the future, a future of freedom and dignity for all. In the future, we will look back our promises to ourselves this Pesach, our commitments to show Elijah that we are ready for peace on Earth, and we will know we were on the right side of history. 
May you find the courage to step into your own Sea of Reeds. May you navigate your narrow places and find self-affirmation, community, liberation, and love. May you catch a glimpse of Divinity. May you rise up as if from the dead, reborn as the Spring, to take a stand for freedom and dignity for all. And may Elijah find us next year worthy of a Messianic age, that we may all live in peace together. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.