Tazria Metzora: Skin deep

tazriaIt is not easy to be a Jewish Taurus, because there’s a chance you might end up with Tazria Metzora as your Bar or Bat Mitzvah portion. It’s hard enough being 13, but to have to find some meaning in skin diseases, well….that’s just really hard.

Tazria Metzora is a double section of the Torah that deals with, among other things, skin diseases, male and female states of impurity. These all were states of tamei, impurity. They weren’t permanent states, but ones that needed a priest to determine the condition, and prescribe some rituals that would bring the individual back into a state of tahor, purity, after an offering and some time outside the camp.

So here’s the thing. It’s really hard for an older, non-Bat Mitzvah Aries to find meaning in this parasha. The one thing that kept going through my head, though, in reading it over and over, was this idea of being comfortable of being one’s skin.

It would have been extremely uncomfortable to have been diagnosed like that in public. The offering of expiation would have been public. He or she would have been banished from the camp, and wouldn’t have come back in until a certain amount of time had passed, clothes had been laundered, and bathing had occurred. Then the priest would have had to pass judgment again. Few in that situation would have been “comfortable in their own skin” at that point.

Confidence may be a common aspiration, but how many of us really attain that kind of confidence? How many of us find most of our confidence in how we look? We check store windows as we walk by, on our way to a meeting. InStyle magazine reported a few years ago that Mint.com had determined women spend over $15,000 on makeup alone over the course of their lives. That’s a lot of foundation; foundation that is covering up skin imperfections, so all looks smooth and clear.

The most beautiful women in the world will find something wrong with their bodies. Successful, accomplished women will still find something wrong with their bodies. And I suppose men experience something like this too, but I can’t speak to that. Bullying, unrealistic expectations, the entire modeling, makeup, and fashion industry only reinforce this – it’s an old and well-documented story. I am as susceptible to it as anyone else is, especially as I get older. To be honest, buying makeup makes me feel like that Bat Mitzvah girl, reading Seventeen Magazine. But take a look at my makeup drawer, and there’s an awful lot of mascara in there.

If we can take any meaning from Tazria Metzora, perhaps it’s that feeling uncomfortable in one’s own skin is a temporary state. We don’t do the ritual offerings, we don’t have a priest publically declare our status, but we do allow those around us to do that. The priests knew that there was nothing unholy about the afflicted individual; that “impurity” was literally only skin deep. We know in our hearts that confidence goes far deeper. Tazria Metzora can help us remember that.

 

 

 

 

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Shemini: Chicken parmesan

chicken parmesam“These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hooves, with clefts through the hooves, and that chews the cud – such you may eat.” (Lev 11:3)

We started keeping kosher when our older children were in preschool. We were about to move to a new house, new kitchen, so we started with two new sets of dishes, silverware, pots and pans.  Why?  In Exodus we’re told “[not] to cook a lamb in its mother’s milk” (Ex 23:19, 34:26) From this,the Rabbis determined that we are not to mix meat and milk ingredients. Goodbye, cheeseburgers.

But it was also goodbye, chicken parmesan, and this is where the Leviticus text comes in. Meat comes from those land animals that have cleft hooves and chew their cud. They’re mammals. They have live births. The give milk to their young. And they’re mammals. None of those descriptions apply to chickens, yet here we are – no cheese on a chicken salad sandwich or ranch dressing on a salad with chicken. Chicken, as my husband calls it, is the “tuna of the land”, and should be pareve, and just like fish, it’s neither milk nor meat.

So when did chicken become meat? Well, clearly it’s not in the Torah, it’s after that. Rabbinic commentary. Naturally, it starts with a maklochet, a disagreement, a long time ago. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Yose lived in the second century BCE. Rabbi Akiba said chicken should be considered meat, and Rabbi Yose said it was pareve. Over the next couple of hundred years, as the Talmud was completed as commentary to the Torah, the majority opinion was that chicken was meat. By the 16th century, the Shulchan Aruch codified chicken as meat. Some of the reasoning was that “if you do X it could lead you to do Y” that is, the “fence around the Torah” argument. Chicken looks like meat, so if you eat it with cheese, who knows – you may make that mistake with steak next. Some say that in the ancient world, meat was pretty rare, and only served at special occasions, like Shabbat. Chicken was seen as a secondary meat, and therefore was to be separated from dairy.

I know there’s nothing wrong with bacon. Pork isn’t unhealthy, and eating meat and milk together is just fine for your digestion. That’s not why I keep kosher. I do it because it connects me across time and space to Jewish life, and it brings an element of intentionality and holiness to the very mundane act of eating, keeping me alive. At least, that’s what is still meaningful to me. But I admit, I’m really challenged by this chicken thing. I have issues with the “fence around the Torah” defense. The fence gets so far away from the law that you don’t even recognize it anymore, or you’re more worried about getting too close than you are about the law itself. Chicken (and turkeys) aren’t mammals, they’re not meat. They don’t have cleft hooves nor do they chew cud. They’re pareve. If logic applies at all (and let’s face it, kashrut defies logic), chicken Caesar salad should be fine. But thousands of years of tradition have a lot of weight, and it weighs on me. But it makes no sense.

I may start putting cheese on my chicken salad sandwich at some point. But not today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tzav: Action words

action wordsBeing a Priest (kohen) wasn’t for wimps.

It was a really difficult, physically demanding job. He takes ashes to the fire and back to the altar. He carries ashes outside the camp. He keeps the fire in the Tabernacle burning. He chops. He cleans. He slaughters. He handles large animals, wrestling them and lifting them and sprinkling their blood and carrying their carcasses. The holy space was smelly and smoky. He changes clothes throughout the day, so he can do his job, and he keeps track of everyone’s status between pure and impure, so he can bring them back to the state of purity. This week’s parasha, Tzav, details it all pretty clearly, and it’s almost exhausting to read.

Like I said, it wasn’t a job for wimps. This time of year doesn’t call for wimps, either. All I can do, or even think about, is cleaning , shopping, cooking, preparing for Passover, which begins in just a few days.

Judaism is often described as “a way of life.” It’s a verb-faith. We are a community of doing. We have a Torah of verbs. We have a history of action, both within our community and with the outside world. To be a Jew is to do Jewish. The late Reb Zalman Shachter Shalomi, founder of the Renewal denomination, used to ask, “How do you Jew?” How do you actively live a Jewish life, not just with protestations of faith or quiet, personal belief, but through doing. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is known for his statement that, while marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights fight, he was praying with his feet.

Did the Priestly verbs make them better priests? Do my verbs make for a better Pesach, or make me a “better Jew?” No. Simply no, not by the idea that if you follow a certain tradition, you’re a better Jew than someone who follows (or creates) different tradition. But in terms of taking action, then well, yes, because to “Jew is to do.” By sitting around a table, telling a story, dipping, eating, making sandwiches, washing, singing, and all the other Passover verbs – yes, you align yourself with both history and future.

Being a Jew isn’t for wimps, because it’s something that takes our engagement, our involvement, on a daily basis. The Priests may not be with us anymore, but their legacy is a life of action words.  To honor their legacy, it’s up to us to keep acting on our Jewish lives, acting in our Jewish lives.

Wishing you all a sweet (and active) Passover.

 

 

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Vayikra: Tradition and Ritual

offering upIs tradition the same as a ritual?

Does a ritual have more or less meaning over time?

Where does the meaning come from in the first place? From outside yourself, or from within?

How do communal rituals compare to individual, personal rituals?

Welcome to Vayikra, Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, and the one in which it is the easiest to get “lost in the weeds.” Any of those questions could spark a lot of conversation. This first parasha, which is the name of the book (Vayikra) begins “And God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” So begins a very long list of burnt offerings to God – cattle, sheep, goat, bird, or flour and oil. It’s all instructions for the priests, how to accept these offerings, and make them holy for their purpose.

There are a LOT of rules here. But how do they affect the ritual themselves? Are the rules the ritual? If you do something over and over again, and then change the ritual, what happens to its meaning?

Is it deeper or is it just rote?

In a couple of weeks, many of us will be sitting down together for a Jewish ritual that is carried out more than any other in America – the Passover Seder.  There is a set way to do things, and yet it is one of the more rewritten scripts around. Liturgy doesn’t change, but the Haggadah, the “script” has countless variations. The story is foundational, the treatment changes. Traditional, feminist, social justice, immigrant, environmental, children’s, the list goes on.

So what stays and what gets changed, but still maintains the essence of the ritual?

I think you have to do the ritual enough times to feel the essence, before you start making changes. I had to live through enough Maxwell House Seders before I knew how I wanted to change it. (No matter how much my sisters and I laugh at the memory, I can definitely do without the “from whence canst thou deduce that with the finger of God there were 10 plagues….”)And now, I look for ways to make each Seder different, but I had to know different from what.

For the Israelites in the wilderness, the offerings of Vayikra were about opening themselves up to the presence of God, to feel closer to God, to organize the chaotic life of a wandering community into a cohesive society. We still need that; though the rituals may have changed, the foundation is the same.

Knowing there are so many people around the world who will be sitting down to share the Seder experience brings depth and breadth to the ritual for me. Ritual meaning comes from within and from outside, converging into memorable experience for those who seek to come closer to the holy.

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Ki Tisa: Protect us, cover us.

11th_century_unknown_painters_-_Noah's_Ark_-_WGA19708There’s this wonderful aspect of Hebrew that never fails to keep me enthralled. Each word has a three letter root. If words have the same root letters, if they have the same “shoresh”, they’re connected, and it’s our profound challenge and joy to look for a connection.

This week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, is really, really complex. There’s a lot going on.  We have broken tablets of the Ten Commandments. We have the Golden Calf, and the restoration of the Covenant. We have God’s anger blazing forth, Moses pacifying God, and by the end of the parasha, we read that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin” (Ex 34:6-7)  These are the words we say every year on Yom Kippur, the long day of atonement.  With these words, we remind ourselves of God’s love and care. We count on it for another year of life. We offer “Kippur” so we can be forgiven.

Kippur – the root is K-P-R.  It’s a shoresh we see a lot, in Leviticus, Exodus, all sorts of places.  Atonement, expiation, This is the same shoresh we find in the beginning of the parasha. We read that when the people take a census of the community, each shall pay a kofer (K-F-R), so that “no plague may come upon them “ (Ex 3-“11), and “when giving God’s offering as expiation for your persons. You shall take the expiation money…” (Ex 30:15-16), l’chaper and hakipurim. The census “dues” are an offering of expiation.  There’s another place we find this shoresh, way back in Genesis.

We are in the story of Noah, “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make the ark with rooms, and cover it with tar inside and out.” (Gen 6:14)  The word for “cover it”?  Kafarta – K-P-R (remember, in Hebrew P and F are the same letter, just depends on the vocalization).

Now the fun begins. What could be the possible connection between the word “expiation” and “cover”?

Perhaps we go back to Exodus and Ki Tisa. The money that is given for “expiation” is to keep the people safe, to keep them from any plague. Their “dues” gives them membership in a group that will care for them.  Their offerings, in this case, is money, but in other places where the word is used, the offerings may be an animal or some flour and oil.  Those offerings are made to keep the people in the graces of God, keep in God’s protection.  That’s just what the covering of the ark was for Noah.  It carried the future of the world, and the covering protected the ark from danger and harm.  In the ark were the humans and animals that would populate the world after the devastating flood.  The K-F-R in Ki Tisa will keep the people in the wilderness safe from a plague.

When the K-F-R is translated as “atonement” or “expiation”, we think of the individual doing atonement having done something wrong and now needs to be forgiven.  To think of it in the sense of protection, we can see that the act of forgiveness keeps that individual not just alive ,but in a state of holiness. The whole journey of Exodus is to bring the people who began as slaves to become an “am kadosh, a holy people, one that is under the care and protection of God.

We can be comforted in knowing that we are protected not only while we’re floating on the flood’s waters, but as we’re wandering in the wilderness, all in the quest to live as a holy people

 

 

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Tetzaveh and Purim: Extreme Project Runway

maskClothing conceals. Clothing defines. Clothing elevates.

Clothing is behind both this week’s parasha and the holiday of Purim, clothing in all of the roles it plays.  In this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, there is a long complex description of Aaron’s vestments. He is to be the High Priest, and he needs special clothes that are appropriate to his standing.  Aaron’s sons , Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, are to be included in this finery.  These are very fine clothes, indeed: a breastplate, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash.  There are precious stones, and colorful yarns. There are bells along the hems of the tunics. There are braided chains of gold and cords of blue linen.

When Aaron and his sons donned their vestments, they were transformed. They became the Priests. Certainly, without the clothing, there were still rules they had to live by.  But when they put on the garments, something wholly/holy momentous took place. There was an order to getting dressed for their jobs, a ritual in and of itself, preparing them for the work they were to do in the holy space.  Their clothes defined their work. To an extent, when they are wearing those very special clothes, they become very specialized people.  Yes, the clothes do make the priest.

Then there’s Purim. A holiday of clothes, too, but this time we’re looking to escape, be someone else, when we put on a Purim costume. Where Aaron becomes more of who he is, we try to become someone completely different.  Aaron and his sons were “dressed by God”.  For Purim, we choose our own costumes, and lose ourselves in the controlled chaos of the holiday.  Everyone in Purim was hiding, as the rabbis say, even God. God doesn’t appear as a character in the story, whereas God is everywhere in the Exodus passage.

All of the characters have clothes that define who they are…sort of: Achashverus is a king, but doesn’t rule beyond throwing parties. Haman doesn’t wear the clothes of a king, yet he rules the king from behind the throne, hiding his power until he wants to use it. Vashti wears the clothes of a strong, beautiful queen, but is de-throned, stripped of her vestments and her influence. Esther is a young girl who becomes a queen, wearing the clothes but not feeling the part, until she has to step up and finally act the queen she is.  To do this, she throws off her “mask” of hiding her identity, and wears her robes for real.  And Mordechai? His clothes don’t change, he is who he is – perhaps the only one in the story who is: a citizen, a Jew, a loyal subject of the King,  but with unwavering internal center.

Ever since the Garden, clothes have been crucial to defining ourselves. With my very first “corporate” job, I used to get up, put on the suit (back then, it really was suits),the makeup, do my hair, and put on my costume for my job. I looked in the mirror each morning, and asked, “Was it really me?”No, not at all, and I didn’t last long there. Now, however, I do the same thing, but it feels far more like me. I’ve grown into the costume, perhaps. When I get ready to go onstage, and I put on my character’s makeup and costume, it is a transformation that doesn’t happen when I’m just rehearsing in my street clothes. When I put on my tallit to lead or take part in prayer, it changes my behavior, my intention, my very bearing.

Who will you be for Purim?  Who will you be the next day?

 

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Terumah: Over the rainbow?

dorothy-over-the-rainbow“Find a place where you won’t get into any trouble!”

“A place where I won’t get into any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?”

Well, Dorothy and Toto tried to find that place, over the rainbow. It wasn’t exactly a trouble-free place, thanks to the Wicked Witch and the scary Wizard himself (until he’s exposed, literally). But the Israelites found a place like that, in this week’s parasha, Terumah.  “V’asuli mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham…Make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell with them.” (Ex 25:8)

There are so many details in this parasaha about building the Mishkan. Measurements. Materials. Method.  But what sort of a place is this sanctuary? Why have it? Why does God need a place? Isn’t God everywhere? And why the details?

Naturally, the rabbis jump all over this, with beautiful and thoughtful commentary. Some of our favorite commentators – Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban, Sforno,  – each take a different view (of course!)  For Rashi (11th c France), the Mishkan is all about being a place for atonement. There is confusion as to whether this whole episode took place before or after the Golden Calf debacle; for Rashi, it happened after the Golden Calf, even though we haven’t gotten to it in the weekly schedule. Go figure – there’s no “time in the Torah”. For Ramban (13th c Spain), it’s simply that a holy people need a holy place; it has nothing to do with atonement.  For Rashbam (12th c France, Rashi’s grandson), all the blueprints and details simply mean that it’s a place for the community to meet. And for Sforno, (16th c Italy) the language of this section mirrors the language of creation, so the Mishkan is a representation of the creation of the world.

Like so many other moments in Exodus, Terumah represents all of these things…or none of these things…or one of these things…or something totally new. (Don’t you love commentary? It helps if you’re able to hold more than one idea in your head!) This was a people newly liberated, out in the middle of the wilderness, fresh from a ground-shattering communal experience, the giving of Torah. They are on a journey, literally and figuratively. The Mishkan is a literal expression of a virtual journey, one from slavery to freedom.  It doesn’t happen quickly, but rather, it’s a process. The detailed instructions of for building the Mishkan is a manifestation of the process it’s going to take to go from one to the other.  Building the Mishkan as a place for God to dwell is a process for the people to embrace.

Is the Mishkan a place where the Israelites wouldn’t get into any trouble? Well, if this happened before the Golden Calf, then clearly no. But even if it did, the Calf happened outside the holy space. It’s still a place apart from trouble. We all need a place like that – not God, but us. Terumah is outlining a process for the people, for us, to move from whatever is enslaving us to whatever can liberate us, bringing us to a place over the rainbow.

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