Shabbat Naso: Look Me In The Eye

The word that identifies this week’s Torah text is naso, part of the idiom naso et rosh, is correctly translated “take a census,” or, more simply, “count heads.” The actual Hebrew wording is more beautiful; it literally says “lift up the head.” In other words, for our ancestors, to count someone was to look that person in the eye, and to take account of that specific human being.

This parashah begins innocuously enough with a description of the work assigned to different Levite families: Kehat, Gershon, and Merar. Each family unit had a special job in connection with erecting or dismantling the Mishkan and carrying it as well. Only Levites could come this close, and they had to regularly watch to keep themselves free from tum’ah in order to fulfill this duty.

It’s as logical a segue as we will ever find that the Torah’s next subject is that of keeping the Israelites’ camp clean. Anyone experiencing tum’ah or capable of transmitting it to someone else was to be sent outside the dwelling area until the tum’ah could be cleared.

What is tum’ah? It’s a subject we come back to again and again in the Torah. We moderns come to it influenced by interpretations that call it a form of impurity (cue the caricature of the person calling “unclean!” while walking through the village). But if we  meet the ancients on their ground the reality is more nuanced.

It seems likely, according to the academic scholarship on the matter, that most Israelites were tam’eh most of the time, and that was no problem since the only time one needed to be tahor (the opposite condition) was in order to take part in ceremonial aspects of Israelite ritual. To be tam’eh, then, has something to do with one’s ability – or, in this case, inability, to participate in community engaged in ritual.

You are tam’eh if you have just buried someone, or if you have just given birth, or if you experience unusual flow from your reproductive organs. You are tam’eh if you have been in the presence of someone else who is tam’eh. And, interestingly, by virtue of juxtaposition, it seems that you are tam’eh if you wrong one of the people with whom who share your community. According to our text,

When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a companion, thus breaking faith with HaShem, 

The next case brought by the Torah – and we are still informed by the principle of juxtaposition, which indicates that this is somehow related to what just came before – this next case describes the situation in which any one of us has wronged another in our community. Note that to do so is much more than simply wronging a fellow human; the Torah insists that to wrong the other in our midst is to ‘מעל בה – literally, to betray HaShem. This is an utterly powerful statement. To wrong another person is to wrong G*d.
It’s interesting to note that here, as in every other case of tum’ah, nothing can be done about it until the state of being – the tum’ah – is recognized. As the verse goes on:
and that person realizes his guilt, that person shall confess the wrong s/he has done. S/he shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who has been wronged. (Numbers 5.7)

Healing the situation is straightforward, the law is clear and easy, but it can only happen after a person realizes that a wrong has been committed. Until this is done, the person who committed the wrong is tam’eh, and is unable to take part in the religious activities of the community. The person wronged is unable to fully participate as well, due to the damage done to that person.

What would our communities be like if we were as careful to sweep tum’ah from, as it were, the midst of our camps, by focusing upon, and righting, the wrongs done among us, each to each other?
Would our U.S. community be required to pay reparations – the value plus one-fifth – to all wronged by our government’s policies – African Americans enslaved, Native Americans slaughtered and robbed, the stranger among us persecuted and oppressed?
Would our Portland community be required to readjust budgets and future planning to pave streets in poor neighborhoods, restore the potential of innocents punished as guilty and people of color sidelined, repair the lives of the marginalized people that should have been protected and served?
What would our own community need to do? How can any of us discern whether we have wronged another in our midst, thus driving the Presence of G*d from us? The way our parashah urges us to take is here in the opening verse: look into the eyes of our companions and really see them, in the sense taught to us by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber: to see the other as a presence, deserving of our respect and attention, not a projection of ourselves who ought to already understand us.
Here is one act: our congregation has endorsed a national Jewish campaign to stand up for Trans people at this time of vulnerability for our Trans sisters and brothers. Take a look at all you can join in learning and doing in support of righting this wrong, and sweeping this tum’ah out of our midst: Kavod Akhshav: Dignity for Trans Youth. May it bring the Presence of G*d closer to us all.

On this Shabbat, in a world in which so many are wronged, where the earth itself is crying out its pain, consider that real caring community starts among us, and begins when we lift up our own heads to meet each other’s eyes, so that each of us can say to the other, here, come in: sit down. Share my bread and wine. Let us walk together. Only then can we begin to let down our protective walls and be seen, and only then can we truly see each other. That’s the clean, safe, happy camp the Israelites were trying to create. May we learn to live so in our own days, and may we understand that it is the first step toward the better world we pray for.
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Shabbat Shemini: What’s Kosher and What’s Treyf

This week in parashat Shemini the Torah sets out the law of kashrut, the ancient Israelite guide to good eating. At first glance, you may assume that you will be given a list of what’s kosher and what’s treyf. What’s fascinating is that in all of chapter 11 of the book of Leviticus the word kasher, “fit”, does not occur.  Here’s a glance at a few interesting and misunderstood words that do.
1. “Kosher,” (in Hebrew it’s pronounced kah-SHEYR) is a word we use as a general term for what Jews eat – but the actual description of what we eat and why is expressed in different terms altogether.
  אַל-תְּשַׁקְּצוּ, אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ, הַשֹּׁרֵץ; וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם, וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם. Do not not make yourselves sheketz [“detestable”] with any swarming thing that swarms. Do not make yourselves tamey with them, for they will make you tamey.
 כִּי אֲנִי י-ה, אֱלֹה-כֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ. For I am HaShem your G*d; make yourselves kadosh [“holy”], and be kadosh, for I am kadosh. Do not make yourselves tamey with any of the swarming things that move upon the earth.
We are to eat certain things and avoid certain other things as part of what it means to be kadosh, itself a word often misunderstood. It is translated as “holy,”, but is better understood as “set apart for a specific purpose.” In this way we might understand the eating discipline of kashrut to be similar to the eating regimen of a vegetarian, a locavore, or even a weightlifter: each focusing on that which is eaten in a very precise way for a clear purpose which is holy to that person.
2. We are to avoid that which is sheketz, “detestable,” to us, in order to be unique as HaShem is unique. It’s an identity statement, not too different from wearing one’s team colors on game day. One interesting theory comes from the insights of cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, who points out that the swarming creatures are not seen as “detestable” to themselves, or to G*d their Creator, or to the rest of the world – only to the Jews.
What is it with these swarming things, and why are we to avoid them? Notice the other place where we have seen this word recently in the Torah, in Exodus 1.7:
וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם. The people of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed abundantly and multiplied greatly; and the land was filled with them.
Mary Douglas posits that there is some kind of historical linkage for us, perhaps a retention in our cultural memory of a time when we were called “swarming” using this very same word. From this insight we might further wonder if this is, on some level, an expression of empathy. We ourselves were once called swarming things, and, therefore, forever after our religious tradition holds that those creatures which swarm upon the earth have our protection.
The Jewish food laws are about so much more than food.
3. What’s treyf, then? It literally means “torn [by a beast or bird of prey]”, which is to say, the ancient version of roadkill. But the term has come to signify anything that isn’t Jewishly good or right or true. And that fits the way we use the word kosher as well.
For halakhah as it has evolved in Jewish tradition, what’s kosher, “fit” to eat, has been understood as that which is healthy and, in the case of living creatures, was killed in a way judged to be as painless as possible. (There are Jews who argue that vegetarianism is the holiest way to eat, basing themselves on the Noah story. After the Flood, Noah’s family was given permission to eat meat under certain conditions.) Left Coast kashrut has added to this understanding with what is called Eco-Kashrut, extending the provisions already explicit in halakha to cover areas unheard of in earlier times: the destructive practices of large-scale raising and killing of animals, the transgression of child (and other) labor laws, and the fraud perpetrated by some who are untrustworthy kashrut inspectors.
So for example, those of us who follow what we consider the higher standard of Eco-Kashrut refrain from eating veal even though it is considered kosher by halakhic standards, and some have held that organic, anti-biotic free, and free range chickens who are demonstratively cared for in a humane way are more kosher than chicken or their eggs that are marked kosher but not kept in such conditions. And so it literally becomes a question of what is holy to us.
But we can go further, as the Prophets do, to the highest level of kashrut, which is this: no matter how carefully one eats, if you do not fulfill the mitzvot of caring about others, yourself, and the world, you’re not kosher. Hypocrisy makes everything it touches treyf.
Here’s wishing you food choices that are fit, empathetic, thoughtful, and true, and expressive of your unique sense of what matters most in this world.
Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Shabbat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: The Goal of Torah Study

This week’s parashah is once again a double: Akharei Mot, “after death” and Kedoshim, “set apart”, which is what “holy” means in Jewish religious culture. 

Because every couple of years these two parashot occur as a double (meaning that we read at least a third of them both), it was only natural that our inquisitive and creative Sages who comment upon and interpret every aspect of Torah should comment upon this too: what do we learn from the juxtaposition of these two parshas, and their names? Are we to understand that after death we are holy? what exactly would that mean?

It’s not a stretch for us to accept the idea that the memory of our beloved dead is holy to us, that is, it is set apart in our hearts in a special place, so to speak. We might even set that memory apart to recall only at special times, such as yizkor, the memorial prayers we recite four times a year (at the Festivals and on Yom Kippur). 

When we pause to consider the place of death in Jewish tradition, we discover that other aspects of holiness may come into play. For example, we read in the Talmud that after the Roman massacre of Jews at Betar, we were not allowed to bury the bodies – in this final battle of the third failed Jewish revolt against Rome, they were to be a terrible lesson to the rest of us. The Talmud asserts that years later when we were able to bury the bodies, they had – miraculously – not decayed. This idea of a miraculous preservation is later expressed in connection with a belief in what happened (or didn’t) to the dead bodies of tzaddikim, “righteous ones”, such as great Rabbis. These bodies have become different, set apart in our religious tradition, and therefore, in a way, holy.

But does death itself connote holiness? A dead body carries the quality of making all that come into contact with it tamei, “spiritually unready” to stand in G-d’s presence. It causes one to be “set apart” in that way, and such a one must undergo a ritual process in order to become once again tahor,  “spiritually ready”, or what we might call normal, as afterward one does return to normal life.

The place of death in our lives is alternately problematic, fearful, tragic, and inevitable – and sometimes even a blessing. All of us will face it. The Jewish question is how does Jewish learning help me face it? Torah study is able to follow us everywhere. The question is whether we let it in.

Aryeh Ben David, writing for eJewishphilanthropy on February 11, 2015, notes that Jewish learning has been conceptualized as having two primary foci.  Now, he suggests, it’s time for a third.  The first stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “What do I know?” The second stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “Am I connected to what I know?” 

He writes:

The third stage of Jewish learning asks “How can I bring my learning into my life? How does what I know and my personal connection to this knowledge change me? How is Jewish learning making me a better person?”

2,000 years ago, Judaism instituted the reciting of blessings before eating. The goal of saying a blessing is not only to know the words and meaning of the blessing. The goal of saying the blessing is not only to feel connected to the words of the blessing. The goal of the blessing is ultimately to affect me and transform how I eat.

The test of saying a blessing is whether it changes how I actually eat.

Similarly, the goal of learning Torah is not only to know content, and not only to be connected to what I know.

The test of learning Torah is whether it changes how I actually live.

http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-third-stage-of-jewish-education/?utm_source=Feb+11+Wed&utm_campaign=Wed+Feb+11&utm_medium=email

May your learning change your life and all that touches it for good.

Shabbat Tazria-Metzora: Time Out

This week’s double parashah reflects a fundamental understanding of ancient Israelite religion – and we are not sure that we know what it is. Between parashat Tazria and parashat Metzora, we are presented for four solid chapters of VaYikra (Leviticus) with rules of what anthropologist Mary Douglas called “purity and danger” in her book of the same name.

The guidance presented by Torah in these verses (12.1-15.33) separates the tamey from the tahor, two categories that are unhelpfully translated as “pure” and “impure” when in truth the situation is more complicated than that. In her examination of the religious laws which include this as well that other famous duality of Jewish law (kosher or not), Douglas insists that we regard these ideas not with the dismissive superiority of moderns but with what I like to think of as a post-modern curiosity about that which is not yet understood. These ideas should be approached as “a shorthand summary of the categories of Israelite culture….taken as a whole and related to the totality of symbolic structures organizing the universe.” (Douglas, Natural Symbols, 60). 

At a glance, even the most casual, it is not difficult to detect the ancient Israelites’ desire to keep the world ordered and coherent. One is always in either a state of being which is tamey or tahor. The activities and situations which cause one to be tamey are neither bad nor to be avoided, and they are not associated with sin. They include birth, death, sex, and food, among other basics of human life.

Most interesting is the requirement for “time out” in between the two states of being. For example: if one is in a state of being tamey because one has been ill with a contagious disease, one is required, for the good of the community, to be isolated for a specific time. When one is no longer showing signs, one is expected to return to one’s former place. In other parts of VaYikra the same rule applies to one who has been in the presence of death: one takes time away from the community, and then returns to one’s “normal” social existence. 

One of the great gifts of Jewish tradition is its insistence that we take time to recover from our experiences, and that certain situations carry certain ordered and religiously-mandated responses. Since the effect of illness or grief is often to cause us to feel isolated, there is a simple logic to the ancient Israelites’ understanding that the sense of isolation might be acted out and respected. One is given a specific pattern of behaviors to follow to help one move through the experience, and its aftermath. 

Since at the end of the “time out”, the Israelite is once again able to enter the sacred grounds and stand before G-d, we might understand one possible interpretation of the terms tamey and tahor to be “spiritually unready” and “spiritually ready”. Certainly we all feel the need sometimes to “take a break” from the community’s expectations of us – that might be our time of spiritual unreadiness. If so, what might be a relevant way for we moderns to move through the experience so that we can return to “normal”, and our beloved companions on our journey? Our ancestors went off alone into the wilderness (or at least a short walk away from camp); how can you in your own life make space for yourself so that your spiritual unreadiness is respected, moved through, and made ready?

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel