Archive for April, 2016

Tazria: Seeing Ourselves

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria/ Shabbat HaHodesh

When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzara’at, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 13:2)

Good morning!

This week’s Torah portion is difficult, concerned mostly with scaly skin eruptions and the ritual impurities of garments. However, as I and many others have written about (here and here, for example), it’s important to note that the Jewish tradition has always seen these skin afflictions as the outward manifestation of an inner condition, perhaps the sin of gossip, in one view, or more generally a kind of spiritual unreadiness to be in community after encountering the boundaries of life and death.

This metaphorical reading of the scabs and skin eruptions is important to keep in mind when we look at the verse above, which reminds us that one cannot “diagnose” these problems in oneself or another. The person with the eruption must be brought to the priest. Again, see links above for my comments in the past on this, but for today let’s just say that the Torah seems to be teaching us how hard it is to truly see ourselves, and how sometimes the job of spiritual leadership is to help us see ourselves more honestly- after all, we’re all blemished in some way or another! The Talmud, in Mishnah Negaim, explicitly uses the language of “seeing” to teach that we cannot “see” certain problems in ourselves, but must go to another to be truly “seen.”  Note as well that in Biblical times, this role was reserved for the priest, but today might be a spiritual leader, wise elder, trusted friend or specialized counselor- the priestly role can be assumed by anyone with humility, love and compassion.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra pointed out that in the verse above, the one who is to be brought to the priest is adam, a human, rather than an Israelite, citizen, or even just “man.” He reads this to teach that anybody, Israelite or not, must be brought to the priest if they have a scaly skin blemish. One would instantly ask why a non-Israelite would be brought to the priest for purification, since they have no obligation to be ritually pure for bringing sacrifices, so Ibn Ezra says all humans are brought to the priest lest an Israelite contracts impurity through them.

On the other hand, contra Ibn Ezra, perhaps the verse says adam, human, because it’s reminding us that it’s a universal truth that people need help “seeing” themselves; by definition, we don’t know when we’re self deceived. (See, for example, psychological phenomena like confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and the fundamental attribution error). For all of us who are adam, humankind, it’s much easier to see the blemishes of others and hard to see our own; thus the Torah teaches that we must not rush to judge others but help them find those they can trust and do the same ourselves. The Mishnah quoted above wisely suggests that we can’t even see the blemishes in our own families, presumably because we’re too close and can’t be even slightly objective.

The good news, of course, is that our Torah portion isn’t about proclaiming others as blemished or plagued, but finding healing from that which afflicts us all. Nobody’s perfect, and everybody goes through cycles when we feel more or less distant from our better selves. The Torah says: see each other like priests, with a heart of love and service, to bring each other back into relationship with God and community. This is what it means to be adam, a human being.

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Shemini: Blessing the People

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini/ Shabbat Parah

Moses and Aharon then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 9:23)

Good morning! Sorry my commentaries have been sporadic lately; I thank you for reading when I’m able to write!

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, has three main themes: the conclusion of the dedication of Aharon and his sons as priests, the tragic death of Aharon’s sons and subsequent rules for the priesthood, and the dietary laws at the end. While the first chapter of the portion feels rather technical with all sorts of. . .um, meaty details about the ancient offerings, there’s actually a story being told.

To wit: at the end of the previous week’s portion, in Vayikra chapter 8, Moshe is commanded to do some special rituals for Aharon, his brother, and Aharon’s sons, to dedicate them as priests, after which they are secluded in the Tent of Meeting for a week. After the end of that week, we begin this week’s portion- on the eighth day, from which our portion gets its name- with Moshe bringing out Aharon and his sons from the Tent, promising them that the Divine Presence will appear to them today (verse 9:6), after they do more animal offerings of the various types. They do that, and when Aharon is finished, he comes down from the Altar and blesses the people (9:22), then he and his brother go into the Tent of Meeting again, and they come out together and bless the people again. (9:23).

Then, and only then, does Moshe’s promise come true: the Divine Presence appears as a fire, consuming the offering on the altar. This foreshadows the next chapter, in which the heavenly fire takes the lives of Aharon’s apparently errant sons Nadav and Avihu.

That’s a powerful literary moment, but between Moshe’s promise of the Divine Presence and the appearance of the fire from heaven is a great deal of technical detail about peace offerings and atonement offerings and burnt offerings and all the rest, so if you’re like me, your eyes glaze over a bit when reading verse after verse of ritual particulars.

Yet the story behind the details embodies powerful Jewish teachings. Note well that Moshe promises Aharon that the Divine Presence will appear, but it does so only after Aharon “comes down” off the Altar and blesses the people- not once, but twice. It’s not the ritual itself that opens Aharon to evoke and perceive the Divine Presence, it’s coming out of the private and holy space to bless the people, which I take as a metaphor for religious leadership that is not as much concerned with personal mystical experience as it is concerned with service to others. Aharon doesn’t just commune with the Presence in the set-off space of the Altar, but “comes down” from his place of privilege to bless the people, share his experience with them and raise them up.

This point is reinforced by the image in verse 23 of Moshe and Aharon going into the Tent of Meeting- the place where the Holy was experienced- and then coming out again, to bless the people together, prophet and priest as equals in servant leadership (to use a current phrase but an ancient concept.) It’s not when they are in the Tent of Meeting, but have left it to be in community that Moshe’s promise of Divine Presence is fulfilled! To put it another way, Aharon is fit to be a priest when he understands that his job is to be a blessing for all the people, not just to be the master of ceremonies with rituals and offerings.

Personal religious experience is a wonderful thing, and I certainly hope we all have more of it. To me, however, a genuine spiritual experience changes us to the extent that we become vessels of blessing to the people around us; it’s nice to be holy when set apart, but the real challenge is to be holy in community. Even – maybe especially- the High Priest had to learn to come off his high place to be a blessing for others; surely that’s our challenge too.

Shabbat Shalom,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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