Kedoshim: Marking Ourselves for Good (warning: long!)

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

This week’s parsha study is a bit too long, I suppose, and yet not
long enough, for the themes of loss and renewal are ones to
which I have given much reflection in past year. I offer this week’s
teaching to you on the occasion of the first yahrzeit of my mother,
zichrona l’vracha; the year since her passing has taught me
much Torah which I would have preferred not to learn.

With that: Kedoshim. The overall theme of the Torah portion
Kedoshim parsha might be described as spiritually centered
ethical sensitivity, including respect for one’s body:

“You shall not make cuts in your flesh for a person [who died].
You shall not incise any mark on yourselves. I am the Lord.”
(Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:28)

Most traditional and modern Torah commentators see the first
prohibition in the context of other religious traditions. Rashi, for
example, says that the Amorites cut themselves when a relative
died. Our Conservative Etz Hayyim commentary, in the historical
notes, says that “pagan priests gashed themselves as they
called upon their gods to answer their prayers.” (Cf.1 Kings
18:28)

OK, so far, so good- the Torah doesn’t want the Israelites to copy
a painful or destructive religious practice from their neighbors,
and in fact this verse continues to inform a traditional Jewish
disapproval of marking or mutilating the body. (Yes, this may
include tattoos, so please see the footnotes for an internet
reference.)

Yet I think there may be an understanding of this verse which
goes beyond distinguishing between Israelite and non-Israelite
religion. Picking up on Rashi’s comment that there were people
who made cuts in their bodies when a relative died, perhaps we
might ask: what does causing oneself pain have to do with grief,
and why is this so problematic from a Jewish perspective?

Emotional pain, like physical pain, can sometimes be
overwhelming, and when it is, the resulting state can be a kind of
internal numbness or emptiness. For example, on many
occasions I’ve heard people say that they couldn’t really
remember what happened at the funeral of a loved one- their
memory was bleary because they felt so shut down with grief
and loss at the time. Most people who go through such periods
experience this numbness or emptiness as a temporary state,
and soon resume their normal interactions and daily affairs.

Sometimes, when these emotions of emptiness or numbness
are profound or persistent, people may do self-destructive things
(addictions, sexual acting-out, risky behaviors, directing anger or
negativity at others) simply to feel anything at all. When one is
deeply disconnected from ordinary joy, then pain becomes a
tragic way to feel alive, as it were.

This idea- that pain is a way to feel alive when nothing else
seems to work- was expressed marvelously by the late Johnny
Cash, in his cover of the song “Hurt,” recorded in 2002. This
song, about drug addiction and grief, begins with a powerful
description of one who literally cuts himself (with a needle):

“I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real . . . ”

To me, this puts our verse in a new light: the Torah is warning us
that indeed, sometimes the pain of loss is so great that the
human heart can empty out or just shut down, and when that
happens, a person is in spiritual and physical danger. I think the
Torah’s perspective is very realistic; Judaism does not deny the
reality of loss, or attempt to gloss it over, but instead bids us to
be aware of what might happen at life’s darkest times. This kind
of loss is not limited to the death of loved ones, but we might
understand grief after death as emblematic of being
overwhelmed by emotional pain.

The question then follows: how do we apply this insight more
generally? For me, the answer lies in Judaism’s emphasis on
committing ourselves to community. Rather giving in to the
temptation of self-seclusion in painful times, Judaism invites us
to make a minyan with others, in order to draw strength from
others and receive the compassion of those further along the
path of healing.

Furthermore, if we join together in prayer, learning, and
engaging in acts of loving-kindness, as part of a spiritual
community, then we are also more likely to see beyond our own
pain to recognizing hurt in others. We can then offer our love and
support, and rediscover our own capacities for giving and
empathy; giving to others draws us out and sets us right. Pain
often makes a person focus on themselves; Judaism
challenges a person to shift that focus to the wider world. In
healing the world, we sense the possibility of healing ourselves;
in loving others, we are offered the hope of overcoming loss, and
reclaiming the gift of life.

Seen this way, “you shall not make cuts in your flesh” becomes
both a warning and an affirmation: a warning about what can
happen when we become isolated in grief, loss and pain, and
an affirmation that we need not add self-inflicted wounds to the
hurts which life will inevitably inflict. We can- with great effort,
self-awareness, the love of friends and the grace of God- choose
life.

shabbat shalom,

rnjl

PS- These thoughts about Torah are offered from a rabbi’s
perspective on grief and healing; there are times when
professional help is more appropriate than rabbinic reflections.

PPS- as usual, you can read the entire text of this week’s Torah
portion and haftarah here:

http://learn.jtsa.edu/topics/parashah/index.shtml

PPPS- Since I know that this verse raises the question of Jews
and tattoos, here’s a link to a good article about it, written by a
Conservative rabbi:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/daily_life/TheBody/
Adorning_the_Body/Tattoo.htm

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