Shabbat HaHodesh: Homelessness and Hope

On this Shabbat HaHodesh (The Month) we mark the first day of the month of Nisan, which, since it is the first of months in our calendar, is also the first day of the Jewish year. Happy New Year! Our people took their timing from the world around them, which renewed itself in buds of green and baby lambs at this time.
The return of spring and the longer, warmer days bring with them the opportunity to stretch, and relax, and hope again. This sense of renewal is so precious when we are able to feel it, and so necessary to our ability to live and thrive, that our ancestors wisely incorporate an opportunity for us to be mindful, and to be grateful, in our daily morning prayers: ברוך המחדש כל יום מעשה בראשית Blessed is the Renewal every Day of Creation. 
 
Everyone can touch this sense of beauty and meaning, whether one lives in an insulated house or in a tent under a bridge. Our sense of the history of our people and the culture of our experience is that of wandering and homelessness, and so we know that even in uncertainty there can be beauty, and even in misery there can be uplift. Flowers bloom freely; it is we who need the regular reminder to look at them.
This Shabbat we read parashat Tazria, which speaks of the seeding of new life, and the special role of the female whose womb is a conduit between the Source of All Life and the small lives of human beings. The most ancient level of our tradition seems to recognize the female infant as a double blessing for that reason. The Torah records our ancestors’ sense that the act of giving birth makes one tame’ – and here we are confused if we translate tame’ as “impure.” Yet it is a condition from which one must take time to recover, and so it may well be that a mother giving birth was standing in a place, as it were, which we normal mortals cannot access.
There is a parallel between the homeless human being under the bridge and the mother giving birth. Both are in a place of human intensity which is not easy for the rest of us to understand or with which to empathize. Like our patriarchal ancestors, who were quick to recoil in fear of what they did not understand and in which they could not participate, it is easy to see a negative difference here, and to fear an impurity of some sort, and to avoid contact with someone in such a state.

Yet the mother giving birth seeds the world with renewal; unless we can find it in ourselves to look more closely at the homeless refugee at our border, under our bridge, and on our street, we will miss the opportunity to discover what renewal of our own lives, and our world, is dependent upon what only the houseless person can seed for us.

If we look at the growing desperation of those living on the streets from a distance; if we take refuge in some explanation for their plight from which we ourselves are separate; if we refuse to look at them at all, we will not avoid the supposed contagion of impurity, but only make it worse with a rising tide of callousness. This is the impurity that recedes only when it is seized with compassion, with awe, and with the determination to find through that human touch a renewal of life for us all.
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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