Friday, April 27, 2012

Double the Portion, Double the Fun!

6 Iyar 5772 / April 27-28, 2012

In this week’s double portion of Tazria and Metzora, we read about the purification process for those who had skin afflictions (in Hebrew, “tzara’at” -- commonly mistranslated as “leprosy”), which it was believed were caused by spiritual shortcomings. 

The Talmud (in Erchin 15a) lists 7 wrongdoings for which one would deserve to be stricken with tzara’at:

1.     Lashon hara (speaking evil about another)
2.     Murder
3.     Immorality (most often sexual in nature; specifically, adultery)
4.     Making a false oath
5.     Arrogance
6.     Theft
7.     Miserliness

For example, we learn later on in the Torah that Miriam, Moses’s sister, was punished with tzara’at when she spoke poorly of her brother (fitting into the category of lashon hara -- #1 above). 

Those who had skin afflictions were required to present themselves before either Aaron or one of his sons (all of them Priests), and they would determine whether or not the individual was “contaminated” or “pure.”  If contaminated, depending on the affliction, there were a number of steps one needed to take in order to regain status as “pure.”

The idea that internal shortcomings may manifest externally is not a new one.  Also, just because we don’t see an external sign doesn’t mean that we are not guilty of doing some of the things on the above list (and/or other things that challenge our spiritual purity).  As a result, sometimes we’re blind to our own shortcomings.

As a result of this potential blindness, in the process the Torah lays out, it is an outside actor – a Priest – who is telling individual Israelites whether or not they are spiritually contaminated.

Who do we as Jews have that kind of relationship with now? 

Is there someone you check in with to make sure that you are being the best version of yourself? 

A rabbi?  A therapist?  A parent? 

Who do you choose to confide in to grow spiritually and why? 

While there may no longer be active Jewish Priests, and even if you aren’t exhibiting negative external signs such as tzara’at, make a conscious decision to have someone you check in with spiritually on a regular basis.  In doing so, we can avoid our own spiritual blind spots, and continue our commitment as Jews to living lives both meaningful and fulfilled.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Something just feels a bit off...


April 20-21, 2012 / 29 Nissan 5772

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini – or is it?

In Israel, they actually are already on the next portion. The reason for this is that outside of Israel, in traditional communities, the Passover holiday lasts for 8 days, while in Israel it only lasts for 7 days. The 8th day of Passover this year was last Saturday – so while in Israel it was a normal Shabbat and Israelis read the portion of Shemini, outside of Israel it was still Passover, and a special Passover Torah reading was read instead. A few weeks from now, we'll catch up by reading two portions, while those in Israel will read just one, allowing us to once again have our readings in synch.

I struggle a lot with the idea that not all Jews around the world are reading the same Torah portion at the same time. I personally find great meaning in knowing that when I’m partaking in a certain ritual (say, for example, something as simple as attending a Shabbat dinner with friends) there are Jewish people all around the world who are doing the same thing I am, at the same time (allotting for time differences of course). You would think that when it comes to the public reading of the Torah, the ancient rabbis would have been super concerned about having all Jews being on the same page (literally).

The portion of Shemini is the third portion in the book of Leviticus (the third of the five books of Moses), which is often referred to as the “priestly code,” and which spends a significant amount of time focusing on “sanctification.” In Leviticus, we learn that speech carries significant power, stressing the need for us to sanctify what goes forth from our mouths. So too, in Shemini in particular, we learn the value of sanctifying what goes into our mouths in the form of the primary kosher laws (in case you didn’t know, we learn in Shemini that pigs are not kosher… sorry to disappoint!).

It is this idea of “sanctification” – of making otherwise ordinary endeavors into holy actions, which can help us cope with any feelings we might have of being out of synch in our lives. While this week for me it’s a literal being out of synch, as the Torah portion we read outside of Israel differs from the one being read in Israel, so too can we be out of synch, for example, when we’ve failed to celebrate a Jewish holiday in a way that’s meaningful to us, when we stray from our inherited morals or values, and/or when we lose sight of the bigger picture.

The way to combat such feelings is by finding opportunities to make holy (if you prefer, to make “special”) those things that might otherwise be ordinary.

The next time you sit down to a meal, rather than diving right in, take a moment to reflect on the food in front of you and how blessed you are to be able to eat in a world where many go hungry. In doing so, you’re elevating the meal, making the meal special.

If you’re struggling to find the time to read a book you’ve been dying to have a chance to curl up with, pull out your calendar and set aside a certain amount of time each week, on a particular day of the week (might I recommend Saturday?), that you designate as “reading time.” In doing so, you’re distinguishing between the rest of the week and a time especially dedicated to your personal relaxation and joy.

There is undoubtedly something to be said for all of the world’s Jews being in synch and on the same page. I would argue however that the ancient rabbis (who understood the implications of establishing certain holidays as 8 days outside of Israel) knew that literally being on the same page is nowhere near as important as all Jews being in synch with regard to striving to add holiness to our lives by increasing the number of elevated moments we experience, both individually and within community.

Looking ahead, try to consciously set aside a few moments each week that you believe have the potential to be elevated from the ordinary into something meaningful and holy. And then, live those moments, knowing that you are without question in synch with Jews everywhere.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

You shall teach it to your... parents?

Passover 5772

On four occasions, the Torah instructs parents to teach their children the story of Passover. (As a fun fact, it’s as a result of the four verses that the ancient rabbis created the portion of the Haggadah dealing with “the four sons”).

During this past week’s second Seder, I found that I was actually the youngest person at the Seder table. My little brother has been married for a bit under 2 years and spent the second Seder night with his wife’s family. My little sister is studying abroad in Jerusalem for the semester. So I, the 28-year-old (who has done quite a bit of study on Jewish topics and Passover in particular), had the pleasure of chanting the ma nishtana.

Needless to say, I knew the answers to the question before I asked it (take a closer look – it’s only 1 question, not 4!). I knew that the night was different from all other nights because we eat only matzah, we eat bitter herbs, we dip twice and we all recline. I even knew that these were not the original answers given to the question, as they had changed over time. But as the youngest person at my parents’ table, it was my responsibility to be the question asker.

There has been quite a bit of press lately focusing on extended adolescence and how my generation is the “failure to launch” generation.

At what point do we cease being children?

Is it upon bar/bat mitzvah? When we leave for college? When we pay our own rent for the first time? When we become parents ourselves? Once our parents pass away? Never?

Given that so few non-Orthodox Jewish couples have children while in their 20s, what does it mean for those of us who do not yet have children (if we aspire to at all), but view ourselves as adults, to participate in the Seder?

If we’ve already been educated about the holiday (many of us arguably to a level much greater than our parents), how do we balance being the youngest yet most knowledgeable about the holiday at the table with the Biblical imperative of “teach your children” that accompanies the Passover holiday?

I’m going to suggest an additional Passover imperative, to accompany and supplement the traditional imperative.

For those of us who have reached adulthood, however we may define it, it is imperative that we take it upon ourselves both to learn and to teach. Learn from those who know more than you, regardless of their age. Frankly, there are many things to be learned from those who “know less” than you as well. Be a sponge for wisdom and tradition. And then be a transmitter and teacher, to your children if and when you have them, and to others who are similarly seeking to learn, regardless of their age.

On Passover, we celebrate our freedom. Being able to ask questions is arguably the greatest expression of freedom. Ask questions. Learn as much as you can. And be sure to take the time to share what you’ve learned with others.

Chag sameach and Shabbat shalom!

Friday, April 6, 2012

A FRESH Take on Passover

Passover 2012 / 5772

We’re taught that on Passover we’re meant to experience the Exodus story as if we ourselves had come out of Egypt…

Now this is a story all about how

My life got flipped turned upside down

Now I’d like to take a minute just sit right there

I’ll tell you how I was freed from Egypt and how my story ain’t rare

In bondage in Egypt born and raised

Brickmaking with my brothers is how I spent most of my days

Grinding and mashing and using all sorts of tools

Just minding my business and avoiding taskmaster fools

When all of a sudden God did something none of us could

And started bringing plagues to Pharaoh’s neighborhood

From blood to slaying babies eventually Pharaoh got scared

So Moses said “You’re heading into freedom! Go quickly bake bread to prepare!”

I started to bake the bread feeling redemption was near

But worried how to keep it fresh because the timeline wasn’t clear

If anything I figured unleavened cakes made with care

Would remain preserved despite extended exposure to fresh air

We crossed over the sea after very little wait

And we sang in celebration “Yo Egyptians, catch ya later”

Brought to Mt. Sinai, Moses provided tablets – a pair!

Now we tell our children the story so they too will be aware.

Wishing you and yours a meaningful and joyous Passover.