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We are in the middle of what some might refer to as the ‘icky’ part of the Torah. Last week we read from Tazria, and this week we are reading from parashat Metzorah. The portions are always combined when the Jewish calendar does not have an additional month. Perhaps this is because the rabbis wanted to get through these sections as quickly as possible.
Metzorah, in particular, deals with tzara’at, often translated as leprosy. However, it was more likely some sort of scaly skin ailment. Metzorah also presents us with cases of domiciles having some sort of a plague or possibly fungal or bacterial or mold infestation, though the Torah is not clear on this. We also encounter the issue of bodily emissions as well as menstruation.
In the cases of tzara’at and a ‘plague’ on a house, a priest is called in to inspect it. If they are determined to be infected, the priest will pronounce the purification rituals. There are also purification rituals as well for bodily emissions and menstruation.
The larger challenge is to make sense of all of this, as modern readers. One possibility is that it had to do with striving to create more sanitary conditions for the community. When someone or something is infected or afflicted, best to remove them from the community so as to prevent the disease from spreading. However, there are contradictions within the purification rituals that would support this argument.
A more likely interpretation is that the Torah is acknowledging real transformations and transitions within the sacred and the profane. Or as is written in the WRJ Women’s Torah Commentary, “The body passes through the various stages and is likely to cross several borders between ritually pure and impure over the course of its existence.”
There is no value judgment placed on whether one is ritually pure or impure. It just means that if one is ritually impure, there are certain roles they cannot perform related to the sacrificial cult until they are in a state of ritual purity again.
If this is the case, then why spend so much time dedicated to ‘icky’ issues? The answer is in part because life is messy, yet the Torah is concerned with all aspects of life, not just those focused on prayer and ritual. This then empowers us and should also inspire us to ritualize all elements of life, including the ‘messy’ parts.
As Elyse Goldstein wrote in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “each month, when I get my period, I say: ‘Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, she’asani ishah: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a woman.’ Saying the blessing becomes a revolutionary moment … (it) affirms my holiness and sanctity within the context of menstruation, not despite it.”
May we all continue to find ways to affirm our holiness and sanctity each and every day through sickness and health, and through all that life brings.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
 Eskenazi, Tarama Cohn and Andrea L. Weiss, ed., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, 2008, pg. 672.
 Ibid. pg, 675
This week’s Torah portion deals with some of the different things that make a person tamei (the noun form is tumah) and tahor (the noun form istaharah). These words are often translated as clean/unclean or pure/impure, but that isn’t really what they mean. One who is tahor is ritually fit to appear in the Temple and one is tamei is not. What things make someone tamei? In general, the things that make a person tamei involve contact with the liminal forces that divide life and death – blood, semen, birth, death. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “these categories flow from the contrast between G-d and human beings. G-d is immortal, humans are mortal. G-d is spiritual, humans are also physical… Conditions that render a person tamei are those that testify to our mortality and physicality.”
We move in our lives through moments of tedium and of transcendence, between birth and death, sickness and health – we are constantly navigating a river of emotion and action, intellectual analysis, and gut feeling. None of those are unholy, but each has its place. We must exercise to be healthy, but we don’t bring our weights and gym shorts to a dinner party. Ecclesiastes wrote, “to everything there is a season,” and sometimes we are so eager to return to our daily lives, that we don’t give ourselves enough time to live in the tamei state – to immerse in the liminal moment that life has served up and then indeed to transition back. Why do we think this can or should be instantaneous?
Today when a healthy woman gives birth to a healthy child, she is discharged from the hospital in the next day or two and is expected to be up and about very shortly thereafter. The Torah commands her, though, to take some time to live in the experience that she has undergone. Rabbi Malka Drucker wrote, “In a time when women give birth on Monday, go home Tuesday and have a dinner party Thursday, Tazria gives us permission to enter the fluid, deep transcendence that giving birth offers us. A child is born, a woman becomes a joyful mother, and G-d is never so near. We are invited to withdraw briefly from the chatter and flow of everyday life to shake our heads and exclaim, “G-d is in this place and I’m staying here for a while!”
Tumah and Tahorah are part of the cycle of our humanity. The judgement inherent in the English translations of these words have lead us to dismiss the concepts entirely when there may be rich lessons contained therein. If we look at tumah and tahorah through the lens of sacred time, we can ask ourselves whether we are taking enough time to care for ourselves in our own liminal moments and to spiritually transition out and prepare to rejoin our sacred communities.
Cantor Sally Neff
This week we will be reading from Parashat Shemini. It is a particular favorite for those looking to comment on a Torah portion because it not only contains the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests, but also the sudden inexplicable death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu.
There are numerous midrashim related to the demise of Nadav and Avihu. As the story goes, they, without being commanded to, chose to offer up incense and aish zarah“alien fire” as an offering to God. As the Torah teaches, “then fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal” (Leviticus 10:2).
The Torah tends to be very terse of language. There is no great rational given for what transpired, so the rabbis were left to try to fill in the gaps. One of the midrashim or rabbinic stories explains that the sons wanted to elevate themselves above Moses and Aaron. Another is that they viewed themselves as being too good for any potential wife because of who their father and uncle were. Another is that they were drinking the day they made this sacrifice and therefore died because of their disrespect to the Sacred and Holy. And yet another explains that they did not physically die, but instead it was a death of the spirit.
When looking at all of these midrashim, they struggle to explain the inexplicable, sometimes more successfully than others. In the end, they tell us more about the interpreters than perhaps about the events of the Torah.
But this is one of the most beautiful parts of being Jewish. Our sacred text is incomplete. One could argue that this is by intent. We are meant to struggle with the meaning of the text. We are also meant to find our own interpretations. As Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said in the Mishnah, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22).
Also, in case you are interested, we do this every Saturday morning at 9 AM with our Taste of Torah. We bring ourselves and our experiences to engage in dialogue with our Sacred text. No previous knowledge or experience with Torah study is required or even needed. All we need are you and a willingness to keep turning Torah, which in turn, helps us grow in our understanding of what our tradition demands of us.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week we will be reading from Parashat Tzav, which is a continuation from last week’s Torah Portion Vayikra and is focused on the sacrificial cult as established through Aaron, Moses’ brother. As Cantor wrote in her D’var Torah last week, “According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Leviticus is divided into three parts. The first is about the holy – more specifically sacrifices.” And yet, the question comes up pretty much every year, why do we spend so much time reading about the sacrifices?
With the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (The Temple) in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., the sacrificial cult ended. Though there are prayers in our liturgy calling for the restoration of Jerusalem and the return to sacrifices, our tradition has evolved and transformed since then. As we learn about from our haftarah portion this week, in the words of Jeremiah, “Listen to Me, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people; walk only in the way that I have commanded you, and it shall go well with you” (Jeremiah 7:23).
Jeremiah was castigating the people because he felt they were violating the tenants of the proper sacrifices. More than that, he was also setting the groundwork for an eventual turn away from this entire form of worship.
Our modern tradition may be related to the sacrifices our ancestors offered up, but it is also radically different as well. Nowadays we focus on the performance of gemilut chasidim, acts of loving kindness and worship rather than offerings. How we choose to do Judaism is perhaps even something Moses and Aaron would not recognize, but it would hopefully be something they approve of.
I recently had a conversation with some students who kept apologizing because they are not “super-religious.” I asked them to define what it means to be “super-religious.” For them it meant coming regularly to services and keeping kosher. Like the sacrifices, this is one way to define one’s religiosity. However, there are so many more ways. I argued that by living and embodying contemporary Jewish values in their homes, schools, and in their lives, they were in fact, “super-religious.”
Worship takes on many forms. For our ancestors, it was all about the sacrifices. For the later rabbis it was all about observance and the performance of mitzvot. For Reform Judaism, for the longest time it was an emphasis on Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. We are now in a time of transformation again where we get to define what worship means to us. It can certainly be in the synagogue and in the sanctuary, but more and more, it also means to walk in God’s ways wherever we are.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week, with Parshat Vayikra, we begin the book of Leviticus. The first word of the book, and the one that also gives this Torah portion and indeed this entire book of the Torah its Hebrew name is, “Vayikra” – He (sorry for the gender pronoun) called. The use of this word to start the Torah portion seems redundant. The first verse of Vayikrareads, “The Eternal One CALLED (Vayikra) to Moses and SPOKE (vay’dabeir) to him from the Tent of Meeting SAYING (leimor). The Torah is famously succinct, so why so many words that seem to say the same thing?
Most of G-d’s messages in the Torah are preceded by the words, “Vayomer” (He said), “Vay’dabeir” (He spoke) or “Vay’tzav” (He commanded). These are all words of authority. But Vayikra doesn’t have this connotation at all. Vayikra is an invitation to engage. The book of holiness begins with a sacred summons.
The word, Vayikra is written in an unusual way in the Torah itself. The aleph at the end of the word is tiny. Why should this be so? If the aleph were not there at all, the word would be vayikar – He encountered, chanced upon. What is the connection? Why make the aleph small? Some people experience holiness in grand moments or major life events. For others, it’s more subtle. It’s a chance experience, an encounter with the Divine, a “still small voice” – a tiny, silent letter aleph.
The book of Vayikra brings to mind both types of holy encounters and invites us in to find a spiritual path. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Leviticus is divided into three parts. The first is about the holy – more specifically sacrifices. The second is about the boundary between the holy and the world – the things that prevent us from entering sacred space. The third is about taking the holy into the world. Leviticus democratizes holiness so that it becomes a part of the ongoing life of the people as a whole, and not something that only Moses can approach. Later, when prayer replaced sacrifice, this process would get taken even further.
Holiness is about setting things apart for a sacred purpose. Vayikra calls us to live a life of sacredness – whether we are the person who sees G-d’s hand in everything, or the person who seeks to hear that tiny, silent aleph. Vayikra is a challenging book, it is difficult to understand, has moral difficulties, and is hard to relate to. But we cannot begin to approach it without first engaging with it, and with that first word, Vayikra, we are invited to start.
Cantor Sally Neff
With this week’s Torah portion, Parshat P’kudei, we complete the reading of the epic book of Exodus. The book began with the words, “V’eileh sheimot” – these are the names. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob.” A new king arises who did not know Joseph and the children of Israel become slaves. The book tells us of the birth of Moses, his rise to leadership, the plagues, the Exodus, the ten commandments, the sin of the golden calf, and finally the building of the Tabernacle – a portable sanctuary. The people leave Egypt a “mixed multitude” and over the course of their wanderings in the dessert will become the Jewish people.
The last sentence of the book of Exodus reads, “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal One rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” By the end of this grand book of the Torah, we have not completed our journey. We are still in the wilderness, but now we have an accessible, visible, spiritual presence that accompanies, unifies, and comforts us.
The book began with the names – the foundation of who we came from, but it ends with the word, “journeys.” Our journeys are what will define us going forward. As Jews throughout our history, we have always been wanderers, but our connection to our people, our faith, our history, and our Torah have been the fire and the cloud that have united us. The names are our foundation. The journey is our destiny. The destination has never really been the most important part. In fact, even by the end of the Torah, we haven’t reached The Promised Land.
It is so easy to become caught up in our visions for our future, in goals yet to be realized, but we learn from the Torah that perhaps the purpose of the goal is to lead us through the journey.
Cantor Sally Neff
A few days ago, there was an article in the New York Times entitled, “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.” The author discusses how his use of his smartphone had become a problem in his life. “I found myself incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping.” He decided that, despite the fact that he is a tech columnist, he needed to find a way to bring himself back into having a more normal, healthy relationship with his phone use. He sought help. In the process of working on the problem, he noticed that he was reaching for his phone in every spare moment he had – while brushing his teeth, walking outside, even during the “three-second window” between when he would insert his credit card in a chip reader at the store and when it was accepted. He realized in trying to wean himself off of these extreme behaviors that he had become “profoundly uncomfortable… with stillness.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayak’heil we read, “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal…” (Exodus 35:2). In the traditional observance of Shabbat, Jews do not use electronics. This includes not only the lights and television, but indeed cell phones. Many Reform Jews that I know take a cell phone Sabbath every week. I will admit that I have not yet done this, partially because it is not practical for my life as a parent. Still, I felt some discomfort as read this article in the Times (and I read it on my cell phone). I do not have an extreme problem like the author does but I do (and I suspect many of us do) recognize this new discomfort with stillness and the empty time that appears while waiting in line.
One of the beauties of Reform Judaism is that we have the opportunity to define what Shabbat means to us. What does a “Sabbath of complete rest” mean? What are some new ways to distinguish Shabbat for all the other days of the week, to make it stand out as set apart? Maybe a break from social media, or from cell phone use altogether could be an interesting way to mark a separation “bein kodesh l’chol” (between the sacred times and all other times.) Maybe it is time off from something else that disturbs your sense of stillness and peace. But even if you choose not to go this particular route, the point is to find ways to distinguish Shabbat from the rest of your week, to find paths to stillness and rest. As Reform Jews, we often don’t walk the traditional route, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the ultimate beauty that our tradition is trying to help us bring to our lives.
Cantor Sally Neff
This week we will be reading from Parashat Ki Tisa. It begins simply enough with God commanding Moses to take a census of all the Israelite men who are able to fight; excluding those who are from the tribe of Levi. It also involves other mitzvot regarding the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle: the portable structure to be built by the Israelites to worship God. This is followed by another reminder that the Israelites were to observe Shabbat and refrain from all work, including work done to build the Mishkan. As an aside, this is the basis for all of the rules concerning work on Shabbat.
Then, just as Moses is about to descend from Mt. Sinai, where he has been conversing with God, the Israelites finally had enough of his absence. They approached Aaron and demanded that he build for them an idol. Aaron collected gold rings and gold earrings, melted it down, and used it to create the egel masechah, the molten or golden calf.
After learning of the matter from God, Moses pleaded with God to act with mercy upon the Israelites. Yet when Moses saw had transpired first-hand, he smashed or hurled or dropped the tablets of the Ten Commandments. He burned the calf into powder and made the Israelites drink of their disgrace. Moses then worked to control the unruly mob and helped them to see the error of their ways.
A little later on in the portion, Moses went back up Mt. Sinai after carving two stone tablets. Moses then recited what have become referred to as the Thirteen Attributes of God’s compassionate nature. After which, Moses wrote down the Ten Commandments before delivering them once again to the Israelite people.
Needless to say, there is a lot going on in this Torah portion. There are great highs and great lows. There is drama, there is communal sin, and there is redemption. There is anger. There is love. There is forgiveness.
Ki Tisa encapsulates many of the most important elements of the Exodus narrative. Here we find a reminder of the Israelites’ amazing talents at frustrating God and Moses. Yet, we also find God and Moses willing to work together to forgive the Israelites over and over again.
It is as if the Torah is reminding us how anger and forgiveness are constantly circling each other, the great foes battling for our souls, if you will. Anger diminishes, forgiveness elevates. One is easy to give into, the other, much harder to bring to fruition. On this Shabbat, as we learn from Ki Tisa and the Thirteen Attributes, may we, like God, be slow to anger and quick to forgive.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff