Shabbat Tazria-Metzora: The Elixir of Life

 מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים Mi ha’Ish he’Hafetz Hayim? Who is the one who desires life? – Psalm 34.13

The early Shabbat morning prayers called p’sukei d’zimra (verses of song) are a way for us to  prepare spiritually to pull aside our Zoom veils and seek the presence of holiness together 

They include some rather direct opportunities for us to do a self-check. Are we living our best lives, are we being our best selves, ethically speaking? For example, we often sing this song:

מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה. סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ

mi ha’ish he’hafetz hayim ohev yamim lirot tov?

n’tzor l’shonkha meyra’ usfah-teh-ha midabeyr mirmah

sur meyra’ aseh tov, bakesh shalom l’rodfeyhu

Who wants to live a life of loving and being loved?

Shut your mouth from speaking evil; don’t share negative stories

Instead, turn away from that evil and in so doing you will be doing good, and creating peace

(Psalm 34.13-14)

There is an ancient teaching which compares the one who shares gossip about another – and for Jews, with our very strict standard for “evil speech,” this can mean any story at all that influences one’s estimation of another human being away from the khaf zekhut standard. Khaf zekhut means “giving the benefit of the doubt” and it’s a sine qua non for meaningful spiritual community.

Our parashat hashavua is Tazria-Metzora, a part of Torah that has long been understood to get to the heart of how we poison our relationships, and how to refrain from doing so. This year, our time in COVID-19 quarantine brings a new resonance to this very old teaching. Let’s get at it using our PaRDeS interpretive approach:

  1. P p’shat (“surface level meaning”): a metzora is someone who is suffering from tzara’at, a physically disfiguring condition caused by any one of several different possible illnesses. They may be contagious and, whichever it is, it is certainly the cause of suffering – and sometimes death. 
  1. D drash (investigating more deeply): the word metzora can be read as motzi ra’, “bringing forth evil.” This reading brings to mind the verses from Psalm 13: who wants to live well, love and be loved? the one who avoids evil, ra’. 
  1. R remez (“hint”): what words come out of your mouth that allow evil to flourish, instead of life?

There was a peddler who would go around to towns that were close to Tzippori. The peddler would shout “Who wants to buy the elixir of life?” Everyone would crowd around. Rabbi Yannai was sitting and studying Torah and heard the call, “Who wants to buy the elixir of life?” [Rabbi Yannai] said, “I want it.” 

The peddler took out a book of Psalms and showed Rabbi Yannai the verse, “Who is the one who desires life?” The peddler pointed out “What is written after it? ‘guard your tongue from evil […] Turn away from evil and do good’.” 

Rabbi Yannai said “All of my days I was reading this verse and I did not know how to interpret it until this peddler came and made it understood – ‘Who is the one who desires life?'” Therefore, at the start of  [parashat Metzora’] Moshe warns Israel and says to them, “This shall be the law for a leper (metzora’)” – the law of the one that gives out a bad name (motzi ra’) [to another]. –  VaYikra Rabbah 16.2

Not sure if you’ve been motzi ra’ this week or this month? Reflect on the time (or times) when you did not remember to give someone else the benefit of the doubt, especially when someone you know personally upset or offended you in some way, or when someone you don’t know personally did something public that you felt free to comment upon. 

Let this be our Shabbat learning, on this 18th day of the Omer count, a day upon which we are taught to consider the nature of our desire for attention against the obligation to be compassionate (Shabbat, the 19th day, will be netzakh in tiferet, a day to consider the eternal nature of compassion – a good day for you to repent of the evil you may have spoken or contributed to by speaking during this week).

It’s not too late to shut our mouths against evil and so much unnecessary contagion, and to choose a loving and life-affirming stay on the planet.

Shabbat Shemini: You Can Rise Up

The fifty days between the two harvest festivals of Pesakh and Shavuot are traditionally counted. The daily count is called Sefirat haOmer, the “counting of the [barley] measure,” because in the unceasing toil of ancient agricultural subsistence, every day of the harvest was a time to count in gratitude and in hope for continuing harvest.

The counting of the omer was interpreted for new relevance during the 2000 year Exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel, and very often from the ability to farm. The ancient Rabbis recognized in this 50 day period a chance to consider the eternal truth that one does not cease to be a slave overnight. One does not alter a perspective quickly, nor take easily to a layer of change over years of habit. In truth, there are those who prefer never to countenance change at all, as well as those who embrace it. Most of us are somewhere in the broad and confusing middle, wandering in a wilderness of some comforting habit, and some jarring change.

These 50 days offer us a yearly opportunity to contemplate this ancient invitation: are you moving forward, or are you circling back around? No judgement, just an effort at clarity: where are you on your path? Are you happy in it? What choices have you made, and what narrow places constrain you?

In a play on the words sefirat haOmer, the mystics of our tradition offer us the sefirot haOmer, a way of counting our days and considering their impact on us and the world through looking at aspects of our selfhood.

For one whole week we consider how our own sense of compassion intersects with our attribute of judgement, of mercy, of consequences, of wisdom, of our own sense of what grounds us, and more. The next week, we go through the same characteristics of our existence, but from a different angle. And so on, for seven weeks of considering our response to the Eternal question

Ayeka? Where are you?

as HaShem asked the first humans as they hid themselves (to no avail) in Eden.

Eternity asks us ayeka? every day. Every day we are too busy and too distracted to hear. But for 50 days, we are urged by our tradition to take the time to listen.

The first weeks of our contemplation find us at the level of our physicality. This is truly human; we begin as small organisms that do nothing but exist physically. As we mature, we develop into emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beings.

This is where our parashat hashavua finds us, grappling with the nature of our physical existence. It offers a profound lesson in the first day on the job of two priests in the new Mishkan, the sacred space created to approach the presence of HaShem. 

But it does not go well.

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered HaShem a fire offering which had not been instructed. Fire came forth from HaShem and consumed them, and they died. (Leviticus 10.1-2)

Judaism has never derogated physicality; Jewish teachings recognize that the body must be cared for before one can learn. But to remain in the grip of focus upon the physical will destroy us. The teaching for us in the sefirot haOmer is perhaps this:

if you don’t take care of your physical body you are not able to rise above the level of the physical. The invitation to the 50 days of contemplation of all one’s harvest are not simply or only physical, though, and if you are only concerned with your body, you are stuck in a circling. 

For anyone who is physically endangered by illness or dysmorphia, it is imperative, in the light of this teaching, to act with clarity and fullness to address that danger. Until you are physically safe, you cannot rise to the next level. And to grow into your fullness, you need to rise.

The same is true of the emotional level of our lives, which is considered next. Then the intellectual – each with its own traps, lest we believe that any one of our characteristics is enough to define us. We contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman sang of himself. We reflect Eternity in all its aspects, each of us and every single one of us. 

On this Shabbat we have counted the days from Pesakh to Yom HaShoah, and soon we will commemorate Yom HaAtzma’ut. The experience of releasing one’s energy from constraints similarly may presage destruction as well as hope rising from that destruction. The Jewish people will continue to count past these monumental dates for our people. Join us, as we attempt to rise all the way through an inner as well as communal journey that may, if we are willing, lead us all the way to meaningful personal existence within meaningful supportive community – rising to the moment of Sinai, where we can finally see.

Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh: the Imperative of Joy

On Sunday evening at our Second Seder we counted the plagues:

world wide pandemic and more than 2.5 million souls lost

Oregon fires

Texas ice storm 

George Floyd

economic hardship

assault on the U.S. Capitol

children in U.S. concentration camps

31 million people without health insurance

white supremacy violence

The Federal government repeatedly using weapons of war against Portland citizens

Our Haggadah refuses to narrate the story of freedom without stopping to grieve. It is painful to learn this, but the lesson is demonstrably true over millennia: human life is a mixture of joy and pain, triumph and bitterness, of Pyrrhic victories and defeat’s silver linings. 

All the more remarkable, then, that our ancient tradition also insists on lifting up the moments of joy shining like a shaft of light through all the darkness. Yes there is fear, and pain, and confusion; yes, there are birds singing in the trees after the ice storm, and people who will hold out their hand to you when you are hurting. 

The story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt is easy to look back from this distance. Through the veil of centuries the past is hazy. It’s easy to tell children the simple story: Moshe Rabbenu led us all out, and we all followed. Even though the Torah itself will show us repeatedly in the upcoming Book of BaMidbar (Numbers) that we fought constantly and drove our leader to despair, we all still have a mental image of a group that suffered, a group that walked out of Egypt bravely, a group that crossed the Sea, and a group that stood at Sinai.

In truth, it’s always more complicated. Midrash, that layer of ancient lore which fills in the human dimension of Torah, lays it out:

only one-fifth of the Israelites left Egypt; the other four-fifths died in Egypt, for they refused to believe. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael 13.19.3)

All the more precious, then, to celebrate when we reach the other side of the sea. On this Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh the terror begins our special Torah reading:

וּפַרְעֹ֖ה הִקְרִ֑יב וַיִּשְׂאוּ֩ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶ֜ם וְהִנֵּ֥ה מִצְרַ֣יִם ׀ נֹסֵ֣עַ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיִּֽירְאוּ֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַיִּצְעֲק֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃

Pharaoh and the chariots of war drew closer and closer to the Israelite people, and it was terrifying, and we screamed out our fear (Exodus 14.10)

And after the chaos and fear, there is the silence of finding ourselves on the other side: somehow, suddenly, the din is over and it is just us. Bedraggled, but safe for the moment, on the far side of the fear we once knew. 

Then the prophet Miriam fills the silence with her famous song, teaching us in this first instance the lesson that will sustain us through all our existence as a people: there must be moments of joy.

וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת

Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took the drum in her hand, and all the women followed after her with their drums, in circle dance

וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ 

Miriam shaped their response: sing gratitude and praise! our terror is drowned in the sea!

(Exodus 15.20-21)

On this Shabbat, we lift up our joy. On this Shabbat, in the face of fears past and future uncertainty, we take this sacred moment to feel gratitude for what has been, and focus on confidence in what we know we are.

On this Shabbat, may you who are hurt, wounded, unhappy after a year of plagues and so much stress, find the burden of your sorrow lightened and the veil of your fears lifted. May the Sea you have crossed, in between the pain of the past and all we are able to imagine going wrong in the future, nevertheless turn in your memory and imagination from a terrifying wall of death to a life-giving mikveh of hope. 

mo’adim l’simkha – May the Intermediate Days of the Festival bring you joy!

shabbat shalom

Rabbi Ariel

Because What Do I Know about Love

Except that we are at sea in it 

– and parched for its lack?

Let down your buckets, my dears. 

Haul up the sweet, swaying spill.

Tilt your face to the stream.

Be washed. 

Be drenched. 

Turn loose

the dripping dogs to shake themselves among you.

Flood the decks; fill the cisterns. 

Then drink, and find it fresh.

You have sailed all unknowing

into your home river.

– author unknown

We Need a Nekhemta

Spring is here – and with it, more light! We can go outside, safely distanced, and bask in sunshine. Relief for light, and the ability to see more and further, is a natural response. We are like the new growth it the spring, flowering in delight.

But after the last 9 days, with eight massacred in Atlanta and ten in Boulder by lone gunmen, and another tragedy averted, again in Atlanta, only yesterday, we might want to close our eyes, turn off the lights, and go back inside. 

Sorrow darkens these days that should be so full of hope and joy for the rising numbers of vaccinated, and the falling numbers of those infected. We want so badly for things to be all right now, with the former administration defeated in its bid for more power, and the assault on the national Capitol turned away. 

But white supremacy is not ended, and the bigotry and racism that endangers the happiness of Jews as well as that of our siblings in the Queer community, Muslims, and all people BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and of Color). There will be, has v’shalom, more tragedies in the days to come while lawmakers refuse to impose gun control.

Perhaps the reason for the popularity of books such as the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings, and so many more is that they reflect our true situation back at us: sometimes evil is overt, sometimes quiescent – but never truly eradicated until a great day of reckoning comes. That day always requires the heroes to overcome their differences among themselves in order to unleash their full capacity to do justice.

In Jewish tradition this teaching is transmitted on this Shabbat, the last before Pesakh. This Shabbat is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Shabbat,” perhaps so called because of the last lines of the special Haftarah:

הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם יְהוָ֔ה הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

וְהֵשִׁ֤יב לֵב־אָבוֹת֙ עַל־בָּנִ֔ים וְלֵ֥ב בָּנִ֖ים עַל־אֲבוֹתָ֑ם פֶּן־אָב֕וֹא וְהִכֵּיתִ֥י אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ חֵֽרֶם׃

[הנה אנכי שלח לכם את אליה הנביא לפני בוא יום יהוה הגדול והנורא]

Elijah the prophet will come to us before the coming 

of that awesome, horrifying day.

Prophetic vision shall reconcile us, each to each other, 

so that, when the awful day of reckoning comes, 

we are not utterly destroyed. 

[Elijah the prophet will come to us before the coming 

of that awesome, horrifying day.]

Malakhi 3.23-24 [23]

Note that the penultimate line is repeated. It’s an ancient practice, called nekhemta, “consolation.” We are not allowed to end a message, whether from Torah, haftarah, or a sermon or other presentation, on a negative note. We have to provide a nekhemta.


Our ancestors knew far better than we how difficult it is to be a Jew, part of a marginalized, persecuted community. Two and a half years after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, we are only beginning to relearn what they lived with. The traditional message they might send to us is like a message in a bottle which we open up and read in the Humash this Shabbat: it will get worse before it gets better. There is no safety from what is happening.


והיא שאמדה לאבותינו שלא אחד בלבד אמד עלינו לכלותינו
It did not happen only once; in every generation there is the danger that evil will rise up and attempt to make an end of us
– The Haggadah 


What happens to some of us, happens in a very real way to all of us in this nation, because our sense of safety and well-being is assaulted even though we are not in Atlanta, nor Boulder, nor Pittsburgh – and we know that it can happen here.

Where is our nekhemta, if not in the reality of our community? We are not alone. We may not be able to erect an impervious fortress around us, but we can hold hands and let the burden of the self’s inner nightmares be shared.

Our nekhemta is in reconciling to each other, past the individualism of the 20th century and the isolation of pandemic fear. After a year of enforced separateness, we are going to need each other’s closeness and support.

I look forward to being your nekhemta, and you mine, in the days and weeks and months to come, as we campaign for sane gun laws and watch legislative madness and worry about who will be next. 

May your Pesakh celebration be meaningful despite the continued distancing; may you hold on a bit longer until we can be together again.

hazak, hazak v’nit’hazek – let us be strong and hold on to each other

…one more nekhemta: 

Orthodox Jew and folk singer Dovid Mordachai: “What the Hell Are Kitniyot?”  Not only wryly funny but very informative:

Shabbat Tetzaveh: For Want of a Tent Peg

Our parashat hashavua is Tetzaveh, from the same root as mitzvah, that is, obligation. The parashah’s name is generic: every week we are presented with mitzvot, which we are to carry out. No matter what the occasion or occurrence, there’s always a mitzvah to fulfill; this is the framework that structures Jewish life. 

The mitzvot are the details of a Jewish life, changing according to the need of the moment, and always specific to it. The building of the wilderness mishkan where we will gather to evoke the presence of HaShem is a myriad of mitzvah details: commands regarding the materials, the utensils, the objects, and the priests’ clothing. Some are hard to follow, others difficult to carry out, requiring specific expertise.

There’s a lovely little message hidden in a simple-seeming word, the Hebrew for “tent peg,” which looks like this: אדני האוהל  The word for “peg” in Hebrew looks exactly like HaShem’s name when it is spelled out. The lesson, of course, is that “G*d is in the details” – as it were, in every tent peg. This teaches that each one of us, doing the job which is ours as participants in our community, is as important, and holy, as each of the tent pegs which secured the Israelite mishkan. 

Each tent peg does its job, strengthened by the next tent peg. If one fails, all are affected; each draws strength from the next, isha el akhotah, “each woman and her sister” as the Torah puts it.

To understand this is to begin to see that which is unique about the Jewish path; even as each of us must move our own feet, yet none of us walks alone. The quality of the trust we build among each other is the true measure of the common work of the mishkan, and the beauty of the building is not in its aesthetics but its ethics.

It has only been a few weeks since we left Egypt; we’re still getting to know each other. But the most important test has already been presented, in the leap of faith presented to us at the Sea, when we began crossing over, together, despite our uncertainty about whether the sea would part and we would survive.

The faith needed for such a leap is not about where you are headed, nor about how uncertain the view ahead may be. We can never really know what will be tomorrow. All we have is what is here today. The faith we need is in each other: those with whom we leap. 

Shabbat Zakhor: Remember to Forget

The parashat hashavua is Terumah, which begins with the insistence that if we would know the holy – know peace, serenity, friendship and love – we must build a holy place in which to focus our intention:

Let Them make Me a sanctuary where I can be among them (Exodus 25.8) We cannot truly understand the impact of this verse of Torah until we understand that according to Jewish mystical insights, the words “them,” “me,” and “I” all refer to each one of us.

But what is “them” and what is “me” when we also must learn that we are all “I”, that is, we are all One? What must our shared space look like if it is to be holy? Every year Purim comes just now, to test our sense of self and challenge it, with the upending of our expectations of what is normal:

Purim invites us to set aside a time in which we completely reverse our wardrobe, which in turn reverses our identity. It is an invitation to…cross and reverse all the other dichotomies and uniforms of our lives as well. On Purim we are using clothes against themselves, to deny their power to box us in, and simultaneously to redeem us from needing redemption…

Purim…makes us wonder if there is an “authentic self” at all, or whether it is all just endless masks upon masks.

On the surface, it seems that Purim involves an escape from reality…Purim provides us with the hope that the garments we put on that seem only to mask our present realities can reveal the deep-seated consciousness of our potential for change, our ability to bring happiness and fulfillment to our lives.

 …we may ask what lies beneath a story that intimates the absence of God and meaning, and the holiday of Purim, which is about frivolity and play. Underneath the garment of the story is perhaps a glimpse of the existence of a force in the universe that can help us move beyond who we are and what our lives presently are, and enable us to become who we aspire to be.*

On this Shabbat Zakhor, which always comes just before Purim, Torah teaches us that if we are to survive, we must learn what to remember and what to forget. Shabbat Zakhor reminds us that we cannot become who we are meant to be, a holy community of Israel, until we allow the power of the Universe to move us to forget the destructive nature of the community-disrupting Amalek – which is to say to stop learning from it, stop copying it, and erase it from the future of the human story.

The great historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his book Zakhor (“remember”) offers the insight that we will become depends upon both what we remember and what we forget. On this Shabbat may we remember that an authentic self cannot be built on anger or reactiveness, nor on “going it alone,” but only on the truth that “them,” “me,” and “I” are all One.

We celebrate Purim next Thursday evening, February 25. Wear something that will remind you of the endless masks, and help you ask yourself what is beneath them. What do you need to remember, and what are you better off forgetting, so that you can thrive as a spiritual and communal being?

____________________

*Cohen, D. N. J. (2012). Masking and Unmasking Ourselves: Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing & Identity (1 edition). Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights