Archive for April, 2001

Tazria/Metzora 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria/Metzora

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

OVERVIEW

The next two parshiyot deal with issues of ritual purity and impurity, starting with ritual impurity after childbirth. Ritual impurity, or tumah, has nothing to do with being “unclean” physically, but was a spiritual state which prevented one from entering into holy areas. Similarly, the skin affliction which is discussed at length is not the biological disease leprosy but rather something that the Torah understands as the physical manifestation of a spiritual or ritual problem. This condition is called tzara’at; a person with it is called a metzora. A negah is a more general word meaning some kind of outbreak on one’s body or clothing.

It’s important to remember that all these rules, which seem so arcane and barbaric to us, were part of our ancestor’s religious system. They were not merely the medical knowledge of the day. The Torah seems very concerned about bringing people back into the camp who would otherwise be ostracized or expelled.

IN FOCUS

“The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh….and declare him ritually impure.” (Leviticus 13:3)

PSHAT

Let me say again: the system of purity and impurity was about religion, not about disease, per se. The priests were to examine certain kinds of skin blemishes and make a declaration that someone was either ritually pure or impure, in which case that person had various kinds of rituals to perform, depending on the severity of the impurity.

DRASH

What strikes me about this verse is that only the priests were to declare someone ritually impure- this was not a matter for just anybody to decide. (Cf. Deuteronomy 21:5, for example.) It’s easy to understand why: if neighbors were allowed to declare each other impure, there could be all kinds of panic and nasty recriminations, and people might use this weapon for personal gain or revenge. It’s hard to be objective about someone’s problems if your life is bound up in theirs- even today, the mental and physical health professions insist on certain boundaries around the personal relations of patients and caregivers.

Reminding ourselves that tzara’at was the physical manifestation of a spiritual condition, I’d like to suggest that there is a powerful lesson to be learned from the fact that the Torah authorizes only the priests to make a judgment of impurity. All too often, we think we know what’s going on with another person: they eat too much, they drink too much, they’re too lazy, they’re workaholics, they’re too permissive/too strict with their children, they should do this, they should do that. . . . the list goes on and on.

Quite often, however, we simply can’t, and mustn’t, judge the spiritual, physical, or moral condition of another person- we usually don’t have all the facts. We may not be experts, and personal relationships may make objectivity impossible. We might declare another person “outside the camp,” because of their behavior or appearance, but we might be seeing only the outside appearance of things, without the subtleties. To me, the Torah’s message in this verse is: don’t think you can diagnose your neighbor’s problems so easily.

Of course, it’s also true that a person cannot declare themselves a metzora, either. Denial can work in two ways: we can refuse to see a problem in ourselves, until we are presented with unavoidable, straightforward evidence, and we can also think things are worse than they are, until someone else tells us there is real hope. I’m not suggesting that we don’t have real insight into our own problems, and the problems of those around us- I’m only suggesting that sometimes it pays to leave the exact diagnosis of a mental, spiritual or physical condition to those who can be both objective and helpful. A busybody thinks they know what’s wrong with everybody around them; a compassionate and loving person sees that people get the help they need, without presuming that they themselves have all the answers.

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Shemini 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

OVERVIEW

Last week, Aharon and his sons were dedicated as priests to serve in the Mishkan. This week, in Shemini, the altar itself is dedicated, and the priestly service begins- but on a tragic note. Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, bring a “strange fire” on their own initiative, and are “consumed” right then and there. God warns Aharon directly that priests may never perform their service while drunk. Rules are given for the disposition of the day’s korbanot. The last section of the parsha lists which animals, birds, fish and insects are permitted or forbidden as food.

IN FOCUS

“For I am God, Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God- you shall be holy, for I am holy. ” (Genesis 1:31)

PSHAT

At the end of the list of permitted and forbidden foods, there is a general admonition not to break these laws, and to be holy, because God is holy. Perhaps holiness consists of making distinctions between pure and impure, or in following God’s commandments, or in cultivating a heightened consciousness of our eating habits- whatever the definition of holiness, the Torah strongly links our behavior to our relationship with God.

DRASH

Being an extremely careful reader, Rashi notices that one word in our verse is a bit unusual:

    “For I am God, Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt-” I [i.e., God] brought you up on the condition that you accept My commandments.

    Another explanation of “For I am God, Who brought you up-” everywhere else it is written, “I have brought you out,” but here is written: “I have brought you up.”

    The School of R. Yishmael taught [that God said:] ‘If I had brought up Israel from Egypt only so that they do not make themselves impure by eating crawling things, as do other peoples, that would be enough for them, for this is very high level of raising up.’ That is the meaning of “brought you up.”

What’s Rashi talking about here? If you check out other prominent verses which mention the Exodus from Egypt, you notice that they speak of God taking the Israelites out, not up, as for example in the Ten Commandments:

    I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Exodus 20:2)

So Rashi offers two explanations: first, that Israel was brought up from Egypt only to observe the commandments. That makes a general kind of sense, given that this verse comes at the end of a long series of detailed laws. Rashi’s second explanation is more contextual, related to the rules of kashrut [“keeping kosher,” or following the dietary practices]: not eating impure foods “raises us” up on a spiritual level, just like being free rather than slaves raises us up on a moral or social level. The mystical tradition takes this further, teaching that what we eat affects us on the level of the soul, not just the body.

Another way to understand Rashi’s comment is to think about how poor, oppressed servants would eat, as opposed to a people free to reach their spiritual potential. Perhaps just as the Israelites were “raised up” from the social and material conditions of servitude, they must be raised up from the mental habits they acquired in oppression. How you eat, and what you eat, says something about your personal dignity and mindfulness- something the oppressed Israelites probably didn’t have much of a chance to cultivate while working as slaves. Not being oppressed any more means that the Israelites can choose what to eat, and don’t have to eat just anything that comes their way- thus being “raised up” from slavery means that one’s morale and sense of self-worth is also raised up.

Different Jewish communities have different practices when it comes to kashrut, but I think most branches of Judaism would agree that we are whole beings, whose physical state affects our spiritual state and vice versa. If we want to be “raised up” spiritually, we have to pay attention to our physical existence, integrating our habits of eating, spending, dressing, and working with our religious ideals. Conversely, as Rashi points out in his first interpretation of our verse, our physical freedom and well-being only matters if we “raise ourselves up” with meaningful spiritual and moral goals.



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Emor 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

OVERVIEW

Emor begins with laws directed at the kohanim, the priests. They must observe certain restrictions concerning contact with the dead; they are only allowed to marry certain partners, and some kinds of physical abnormalities disqualify them from service. The food that the kohanim eat may not be shared with “regular” Israelites. Just as the priests must be physically unblemished, so too the animals must be physical perfect. The major holidays are described in order. The parsha ends with laws pertaining to the menorah, the bread of the altar, restitution of injuries, and punishment for cursing God’s name.

IN FOCUS

“God spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them:
There are special times that you must celebrate as sacred holidays to God. The following are My special times: You may do work during the six weekdays, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Sabbaths. It is a sacred holiday to God, when you shall do no work. Wherever you may live, it is God’s Sabbath. (Leviticus 23:1-3, modified ORT translation.)

PSHAT

God tells Moshe to teach the Israelites about the yearly holiday cycle. First among the “sacred occasions” is the weekly Shabbat, and then there is a description of all the major holidays in order, beginning with Pesach in the spring. Unlike the priestly regulations in the first part of this parsha, the holidays are to be observed by the entire people.

DRASH

The term used for an annual holiday, like Pesach, is either mo’ed, which means “set time,” or mikrei kodesh, a “sacred proclamation.” Obviously, the holidays have to occur in the same season every year- Pesach must always be in the spring, and Sukkot in the fall. Yet because the Israelite calendar was based on a sighting of the new moon, the holidays were also “proclaimed,” because the authorities announced each new month as it arrived. Thus the exact date of any particular holiday wasn’t known until the beginning of the month in which it occurred, after the new moon had been announced.

Compare the complexity of the Hebrew calendar with the simplicity of the weekly Shabbat: it just rolls around every seven days, regardless of lunar or solar cycles. There’s no human “input” into the date of Shabbat, whereas the annual holidays are set on specific dates by the calendrical authorities. In fact, the Talmud records more than one instance of authorities disagreeing about the date for important holy days, which of course would have all kinds of implications for ritual observance.

So if the weekly Shabbat is not a “sacred proclamation” in the same way the other holidays are, what’s it doing first on the list in this chapter? One suggestion is that, even though we don’t fix the date of Shabbat, we still must proclaim, or affirm, its holiness- Shabbat doesn’t happen all by itself, but requires communal participation to make it holy, just as we have to do our part to make sure the annual observances happen at in the right times. Nothing of spiritual importance is automatic- it requires a sense of purpose and partnership. Or, as one of my friends put it, “if you don’t work at it, Shabbat happens, but not to you!”

Another interpretation of our text points out that the prohibition on work for the weekly Shabbat seem to be more restrictive than on the annual holidays, which only restrict “servile” or “occupational” work. Measured by the kinds of activities we refrain from, the holiness of Shabbat is indeed on a higher level than the annual holidays, in that greater focus is required in creating a sense of distinctions in time. If a holiday falls on Shabbat, the special rituals of the holiday are often changed to reflect this “dual-status” day- a famous example being that the shofar is not blown in many traditional congregations if Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat.

The annual holidays- Rosh Hashana, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot- are wonderful experiences, eagerly anticipated and often lots of fun. However, maybe there is something to learn from this insistence that the weekly, “ordinary” Shabbat is “first among equals” in the list of Jewish holidays. Maybe the unusual, extraordinary kinds of spiritual occasions really are secondary to a weekly practice of rest, reflection, and rejoicing. Of course, each holiday has a special message, and each one is important- but a time of weekly quiet might be a doorway to greater holiness than a yearly festival.

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Tzav 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

OVERVIEW

The first part of Parshat Tzav deals with various kinds of korbanot [sacrifices or ritual offerings] that we’ve already heard about in the previous portion. The difference is that last time, Moshe was addressing the entire people, telling them about the sacrifices that anyone might bring, but this time, he is specifically addressing the priests, and instructing them in the details. This include the service of taking the ashes from the Mishkan out of the camp; rules for the eating of meat; and keeping the “eternal flame” going on the altar. The second part of the parsha describes the ceremony wherein Aaron and his sons were dedicated for service as priests.

This parsha also usually coincides with Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath,” which is another name for the Shabbat immediately before Pesach. On Shabbat HaGadol, a special haftarah, or passage from the prophets, is read. This passage from the book of Malachi calls on Israel to be faithful to the God Who has never abandoned them, and ends with a promise to send Elijah the prophet on that “great and awesome day” of future messianic redemption.

IN FOCUS

” ‘So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the Lord. . . . . ‘Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord.

But you ask, `How are we to return? ‘ “

“Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, `How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings. . .

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. ” (Malachi 3:5-10, abridged)

PSHAT

The prophet Malachi- literally, “My messenger”- urged the people to embrace a holistic piety, one that combined observance of ritual commands with ethical sensitivity. The prophet senses that the people lack faith in God’s justice, and see no point in acting justly; thus, the overarching message of Malachi is that God is indeed a God of justice, and we are all called to that high standard.

The image of “robbing” God by not bringing proper tithes, or contributions, to the Temple illustrates this ideal of ethical and ritual piety in perfect balance. Tithes of produce were brought to the Temple not only as a ritual demonstration of gratitude for the blessings of the land, but also as a kind of redistributive tax, because there was a portion of these tithes that supported the priests (the civil servants of their day) and the poor. Thus, one “robbed” God by refusing to contribute for the common good of society. The prophet urges the people to make this “leap of action” by bringing tithes, and says that giving to others will never cause one to be poor.

DRASH

So what does the prophet Malachi have to do with Pesach? The simplest explanation is that Malachi reminds us to prepare ourselves for a future redemption, just as our Pesach seder reminds us that the Exodus from Egypt is just a “preview” of the great redemption to come. (See our Reb on the Web archives for more on this theme.)

On the other hand, Malachi also reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that ritual without ethics is empty- this is a very timely reminder before Passover, with all of the cleaning and cooking and special commandments. The prophets never tell us to feed the poor instead of observing the mitzvot [commandments], but tell us that feeding the poor, protecting the powerless, and promptly paying the workers is a necessary precondition to religious observance. So maybe the ancient rabbis chose this passage to send us a message: don’t spend so much time preparing for Pesach that you forget about the poor and needy and powerless.

At the very least, I think Malachi challenges us to observe simple customs like ma’ot chittin, or special charity for Passover, and inviting guests (especially those who may have nowhere else to go, like students, the elderly, or immigrants) to our Seder. The Shabbat HaGadol haftarah puts it very clearly as a matter of religious faith: giving of your resources brings you blessing, not insecurity. You might even say that the opportunity to give is a blessing and a gift in itself.

Finally, notice the theme of “returning” to God in our passage. Usually, we think of “returning,” or tshuvah, as a theme of the High Holidays, not of Pesach. Yet chametz, or leavened bread, is often compared to arrogance or selfish inclinations. Thus the menial work of cleaning out our cupboards of chametz is sometimes seen as a kind of meditational opportunity to “clean out” our inner selves of undesirable character traits.

To put it another way, cleaning out our cupboards should be accompanied by cleaning up anything that gets in the way of our spiritual growth. Just as the High Holidays provide us with a big challenge of introspection and self-appraisal, Passover too can be understood as a kind of spiritual “Spring Cleaning,” looking inward at the same time as we examine our physical surroundings.

The entire faculty, staff, and board of Kolel wishes all of our friends and supporters a joyous Passover- may you blessed with liberation, celebration, and the joys of springtime.

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