Archive for April, 2006

Tazria-Metzorah: Humility and Respect

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria/Metzorah


It’s a lovely spring weekend, just the right weather for everybody’s
favorite Torah portions, Tazria-Metzorah, which are largely concerned
with the practices of ritual purification after a bodily discharge or
a skin blemish. (Not “leprosy,” let’s be clear.) Tzara’at
[aforementioned scaly skin blemishes] and other outbreaks which can
cause ritual impurity can also occur in cloth, vessels, and even a
house, all of which involves bringing in the priest to declare that
it’s really tzara’at and not something else.

In fact, of the most fascinating aspects (well, at least, to me) of
the laws of “tzara’at” is that no matter what shows up on a person’s
skin or in their house, it’s not a ritual impurity unless the priest
says it is. No matter what it looks like to anybody else, the priest
is the one who must make the final determination- so much so that
Rashi says that even a Torah scholar doesn’t have the authority to
declare that a house is impure. For example, here are the verses
pertaining to the impurity of houses:

“When you will come into the land of Canaan that I will give to you
for a possession, and I [i.e., God] shall put the eruption of tzara’at
in the house of the land of your possession, whoever’s house it is,
shall come and tell to the priest, saying, ‘Something like an eruption
has appeared to me in the house.’ ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 14:34-35)

Rashi picks up on the language of of “something like an eruption:”

“Even if he is a scholar and knows that it is certainly an eruption,
he should not decide the matter absolutely to say: ‘An eruption
appeared to me,” but “something like an eruption appeared to me.’ ”

To me, this is a lovely teaching. People have their domains of
expertise and authority in a community, and there is a certain
humility in respecting somebody else’s position, even if one knows
perfectly well what a particular answer or outcome may be. We might
call this an example of derech eretz, sometimes translated as “good
manners” but really connoting a sensitive thoughtfulness about
conducting fully compassionate relationships. Living with derech
eretz, in turn, builds up a sense of moral dependability and safety
within the community.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying we shouldn’t express our opinion
about things which affect us, nor am I saying that we should blindly
submit to authority in all circumstances. Rather, I’m saying that
communities are usually set up in such a way that people have
positions which they have earned or been granted, and that respecting
those positions can inculcate within us the traits of humility and
grace. To take an obvious example, the synagogue president, the rabbi,
and the cantor may all have strong opinions about each other’s work,
but at the end of the day, a synagogue is stronger when its leaders
have respect for the offices of their colleagues.

In the parsha commentary, a Torah scholar had to acknowledge the role
of the priest in certain situations, which is pretty amazing when you
consider that Rashi and his buddies were all Torah scholars. In other
words- to show derech eretz, they honored the office of priest. All of
us could do well to think about how we show others the respect and
courtesy which dignifies both parties in a relationship. It might be
teachers, clergy, public officials, or the person who bags your
groceries- but in each case, we can choose to act in ways that honor
their soul, and ours. It’s not just good manners- right relationships
are the work of the spirit, and a lifelong project.

Shabbat Shalom,


As usual, you can fine a summary and further commentary (including
another from yours truly) here:

and the complete text of the double parsha and wonderful Conservative
commentaries here:

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Shemini/ Omer: Counting This Day

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

Greetings! I hope everybody had a good holiday and is making a happy
transition back to “livin’ la vida leavened.” This week’s Torah
portion is Shemini, which itself is about transitions– Aharon and
his sons complete their inauguration into the priestly role, but two
of them die as a result of offering “strange fire” in the Sanctuary.
The rest of the parsha concerns itself with priestly offerings and
the dietary laws.

The death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, is one of the most
tragic and moving episodes in the Torah- we will not today explore
the the various theories and interpretations of their deaths, but
only note Aharon’s famous response- he was silent. (Cf. Vayikra/
Leviticus 10:3.)

This silence, described in only two words by the Torah, is a jarring
contrast to the 8 days of festive liturgy we’ve just finished. Pesach
is full of words: the Haggadah, Hallel, Torah readings every day, the
counting of the Omer which begins on the second night. Pesach is a
holiday of gratitude for past blessings and great hope for the future-
as one famous rabbi described it, on Pesach we fully experience the
joy and rightness of life, under the care of a loving God. Life may
have been hard, even unbearable, at times, but Pesach is all about
strengthening our faith in the goodness of life and the possibility
of renewal.

Well. . . then there is the rest of the story. The beginning of
Shemini reminds us in stark terms that sometimes life isn’t so nice
and good- rather than songs of praise, there is the image of
Aharon’s silence in the face of tragedy, death, and grief. Life is
bountifully good, and inexplicably tragic- both are true, and neither
cancels out the other. There are times in life when our response is
Hallel, [the Psalms of celebration sung on Jewish holidays] and there
are realities which would mock any response but silence.

So how do we find the middle path between the outlook of Pesach and
the tragedy of Shemini? As it happens, the Jewish calendar itself
shows the way. Starting on the second night of Pesach, we count
the “omer” for 49 days, until the holiday of Shavuot. In Biblical
times, the “omer” was a sheaf of grain, and there is a Torah
commandment to count the days between the early spring holiday
(Pesach) and the holiday of the first fruits of summer (Shavuot.)
Later on in Jewish history, the counting of the omer became a solemn
time of preparation for the spiritual meaning of Shavuot, which is to
recall the giving of the Torah.

Rabbi Soloveitchik reminds us that counting anything in a series
involves awareness of the past, the present, and the future
simultaneously. In order to count the omer, we have to be aware of
what day it was yesterday, and what day it will be tomorrow- but the
mitzvah is to become aware of the meaning of this particular day.
Counting the omer could be understood as a spiritual exercise of
keeping the past and the future in their proper perspective- we
cannot change the past, and we cannot be sure of the future, but we
can become deeply aware of the meaning of this day, this moment, this
unique link between yesterday and tomorrow.

We cannot always count on life being like a great redemption, nor can
we be sure when the future redemption will come- but neither is it
ordained that we must we be paralyzed by life’s tragedies. There is
yesterday’s omer, and there is tomorrow’s, but the commandment is to
count this day, and no other. By focusing on this day’s count- that
is, its unique existence- we can keep our souls in balance even when
we feel burned by “strange fire.” We remember the past, and look to
the future, but we live in this day, with all its infinite

Shabbat Shalom,


For more about the counting of the omer, click here, and see
associated links:

For the text of the parsha and haftarah:

For a summary of Shemini and additional commentaries:

This week’s commentary was partially informed by an essay on the omer
by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, found in a book of transcribed lectures
on various Pesach themes:

Finally, for those who haven’t seen it, a very special announcement
from your humble cyber-commentator:

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Tzav/ Pesach: Dedicated to Hope

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav and Pesach

Well, earlier this week it was snowing, so the words of the old song
went through my head. . . “I’m dreaming of a white Pesach!”

No, actually, I’m not, so it’s good that it’s nicer today, and I can
imagine that it’s going to be springtime in New England very soon. It
is, of course, no coincidence that Pesach comes in the springtime,
the season of new growth and new life. The central message of Pesach
is one of hope for the future, not remembrance of historical
suffering; we recall the slavery in Egypt as prelude to celebrating
the story of redemption, which is itself but a prelude to the story
yet to be told about an even greater miracle of redemption. To me,
fancy-shmancy religious words like “redemption” or “salvation”
express a simple proposition: no matter how bad things are, there is
always the possibility of getting “unstuck” and moving towards good
things like reconciliation, justice, mercy, and healing.

This might be true on an individual, communal, or national level, but
the idea is the same: the Jews were not stuck forever in slavery,
because there is a spiritual force which gets people unstuck from
their circumstances when they open their hearts and minds to courage
and hope, and that spiritual force, which we call God, is always
present to us. Pesach- and indeed all references to the Exodus in
Jewish liturgy and practice- orients us to be constantly hopeful,
constantly aware of greater possibilities for ourselves and our

Now back to our regularly scheduled parsha, Tzav, where I see a
little hint of the Pesach message in the midst of many details about
the dedication of the priests for service in the Mishkan (portable
sanctuary.) Moshe is told to gather Aharon and his sons and make
offerings for a ritual of dedication of the priests, and this ritual
includes something that’s often overlooked:

” The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:’Take Aaron along with his sons,
and the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the
two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and assemble the whole
community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. ‘ ” (Vayikra/
Leviticus 8:1-3)

That’s right, the inauguration of the priests includes “unleavened
bread”- matzah! I have not done much research on this in the
commentaries, but it’s a fascinating image to me: at the moment when
the Israelites are celebrating the completion of the Mishkan, which
allows them to worship their God totally free from the conditions of
slavery, the ritual includes matzah, a symbol of the liberation.
Perhaps Aharon and his sons hold matzah in their hands (cf. verse 26)
as part of the dedication ceremony so that they as leaders will never
forget the Exodus story, and what it teaches about the possibilities
of history.

Alternatively, we can recall this little basket of Mishkan matzah at
our own seders, which deepens our understanding of the matzah as not
just “bread of affliction,” but also as “bread of liberation.” When
we hold up the matzah at our seders, we are like Moshe in the
Mishkan, bringing priests into the service of God and the people,
priests who don’t make agricultural offerings but who are no less
charged with bringing the Divine Presence into our homes and
communities. The Mishkan means that the Israelites were truly free
from Pharoah; our seders are a like a “Mishkan me’at,” a little
Sanctuary, where we are liberated from despair, fatalism, and

Wishing you all a joyous and healthy Pesach,


PS- here are some great links:

A summary of the parsha, as well as lots of Pesach info:

The full text of the parsha, and a great commentary on the plagues,
is here:

This Shabbat is “Shabbat HaGadol,” the “Great Sabbath,” named for its
special haftarah, which is explained here:

Finally, don’t forget Rabbi Lerner’s great feast of Pesach downloads,
for wonderful seder ideas and inspiration:

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