To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

- Ecclesiastes 3:1

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Reflections

Dear Friends,
 
          Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27).  It is the center piece of what is known as the Holiness Code:  the foundation of a system of moral precepts which are to serve as our motivation not only to experience the sacred in life (to open our eyes to the holiness around us), but also to consciously be motivated to work to transform the "chol" of life (the base, the common, the profane) into the "kodesh" (the sacred, the holy).
 
          The parsha opens with the raison d'être for our motivation:  "you shall be holy for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy." (19:2)  We have something to strive toward.  It is not corporeal in nature.  Rather, it is an eternal presence which calls upon us to be better than we are, to strive toward a sense of righteousness and emotional well-being in which we engage all of life as the potential Buberian "I-Thou."  If we can sense the sacred in life, if we know in our gut that feeling of something being good, healthy and growth-producing, then we also know its opposite.  We know what is destructive and are aware, if we allow ourselves, of the detrimental effects the unhealthy behavior can (and often times will) have on ourselves and those around us.
 
          We are called upon to "be holy" because to strive for anything less is to not live up to the uniqueness of life afforded each of us. Is this not the message Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Juliet when she calls upon Romeo to be himself (Act II, Scene II: "a rose by any other name...")?  Is it not the self-reflection the Divine asks of Adam and Eve (asks of each of us) when G-d queries, "where are you?" (Genesis 3:9)?  We lament, in our moments of greatest challenge, that G-d is hidden from us.  Yet our deception, our personal conceit, is that we hide ourselves both from the Divine and from our true selves.
 
          These moral precepts listed within our Torah portion call upon us to look deeper into life, to push ourselves harder, to not accept the mediocre as good enough.  With that in mind, let us look for a moment at one of those precepts: "you shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear G-d:  I am Adonai." (19:14)
 
          Let me suggest that both "the deaf" and "the blind" are other than who we think they are.  We need to look beyond the most literal understanding of these terms to sense that there are moments when each of us feels the frustration of not getting through to others and so we would curse their inability or unwillingness to hear us.  And there are also moments when we sense the lack of self-awareness in others, their inability to act in ways to enhance themselves and we are motivated to take advantage of that blindness to benefit ourselves.
 
          It is in these moments of moral decision that we are called upon to seek better ways of communicating and resist the temptation to take advantage of others in their moments which lack self-clarity.  This is what it means to strive to be holy.  The challenges present themselves each and every day.  The striving is goal-oriented and everpresent if we allow ourselves to be open to it.

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion for this Shabbat is a special reading for the Sabbath during Passover (Exodus 33:12-34:26).  It is also the same special Torah portion read on the Sabbath during the fall festival of Sukkot.  The concluding verses of this parsha connect us to Passover and the other two festivals which are known in Jewish tradition as the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals acknowledging the various harvest seasons throughout the year; 34:18-26).

But this section opens with a request from Moses that he and the community of Israel might find grace in the sight of the Divine.  In the intimate exchange between Moses and G-d (33:12-23), we are reminded that our awareness of the sacred in life is always before us, if we but open ourselves to its presence and work toward its revelation.  How might we become more mindful of the sacred?  Our parsha affirms that G-d "will make My goodness pass before you" (33:19) when we use the Divine Attributes (34:6-7) as a moral guide.

Of these thirteen attributes, let us look for a moment at the nature of mercy and judgment, as the Torah states in verse seven that mercy will be extended to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. Yet, that does not clear the guilty, where the wrongdoing of the fathers will be brought upon their children and their children's children through the third and fourth generations.

Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE) comments that forgiveness can only be realized through acts of repentance.  A person must acknowledge his/her wrongdoing, repent for the misdeed and strive to live a life in which the past transgression is not repeated.  Only through these stages of contrition can grace and mercy find the light of day.

It is in this spirit that the contemporary colloquialism, "my bad," grates on my ears.   The terrible grammatical construct notwithstanding, it is used to dismiss bad behavior devoid of the act of repentance as if the wrong is corrected with insincere verbiage.  We also like to say that "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." This expression is used mostly as a positive reflection on the fruitful influence of a parent on a child.  But I would suggest that a crabapple tree will always bear crabapples.  It will take an act of grafting (commitment to change) to potentially produce a delicious apple from a crabapple tree.

Saadia Gaon offers a subtle yet powerful insight when he suggests that we might understand "the visiting  of a parent's iniquity upon a child" as "with" rather than "upon."  The individual who does not repent his transgressions and redeem himself infects his children with them.  It should be noted that here "parent" needs to be understood as anyone who serves as a model/teacher for another (the "child").

A news item last year told the story of a public school system which was sued by the parents of three Jewish children because of harassment perpetrated on the students by a number of their peers.  The harassment blatantly targeted the children because they are Jewish:  a hate crime.  When one of the parents expressed concern to the school district superintendent, the reply was "Your expectations for changing inbred prejudice may be a bit unrealistic."

Hatred comes in various forms.  It may be religious, racial, age or gender-based but it is hatred nonetheless.  Its infestation will remain with us if we don't consciously work to eradicate these evils wherever and whenever their ugliness arises.  It is through our commitment to positive change that mercy and grace, so available to us, can be shared and the vile disease of hatred overcome.  The tragedy of this past week in Kansas reminds us that when hatred is directed at one group, no one is spared its malignant consequences.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Achare Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30).  The parsha opens with a warning limiting Aaron's access to the inner sanctum of the sanctuary.   But there is more, and it might be best offered as an admonition:  "It's not about you!"

Achare Mot (after the death), three parshiot after Shemini, we return to the tragedy of the death of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's son.   Why the gap?   What is the reason that Shemini is not immediately followed by Achare Mot?  In the last two weeks we have learned about what is clean or unclean, what causes us to move from one state of being to another.   It seems that the Torah is continually challenging us to understand that there is a fine line between correct and incorrect, clean and unclean, kosher and treif, and that we need to be very clear in our own minds so that we can distinguish between the two.

A friend recently reminded me about a group discussion on parenting which took place many years ago.   He said that a parent needs to constantly be thinking, "Am I doing this because it is good for my child or good for me?"   Will the outcome help in the child's healthy attitude toward life or is it a validation of the needs of the parent?  There is a fine line between sacrificing for our children and sacrificing our children--the binding of Isaac story being a case in point.

Following the tragic and untimely death of Aaron's two sons a few weeks ago, we are left to wonder if there is any learning, any helpful lesson to guide us in its aftermath.   Aaron and Moses dazzle the community with the spectacle of the Priestly Ordination, but the sad events which immediately follow make us realize that something is amiss:  what Aaron did satisfied his need in his role as High Priest, but he neglected to make sure that the next generation (his sons) were aware enough of the ramifications so that the model could serve to benefit them and the roles they would be called upon to play as priests.

Our parsha is called, Achare Mot, meaning "after the death."   When mentioning the portion, it is often just called "achare" to somehow perhaps soften the blow or, as superstition may have it, to not bring the evil eye on anyone else (cause the same tragedy to happen again).   But a number of the commentators including Rashi, the Rambam and the Ramban suggest that we return to the aftermath of the sad event to remind Aaron and Moses of their responsibility as parents and to reiterate that this is a lesson for every parent:  do not confuse who will benefit from the acts you perform.   At every turn be clear in your mind about who will benefit.   My friend, mentioned earlier, says, "It's clear who a diaper change at 3:00am benefits (would that all parental decisions were so clear)!"

This past week, a drama played out in the waters of the Pacific Ocean as a family of four sailing around the world found themselves in need of help as their vessel encountered troubles and the younger of the two children became very ill.   The ages of the two children were three and one.   The parents had embarked on this journey as a family adventure, something they would always remember.   Fortunately with the help of many trained professionals, the family was rescued and the child received the medical attention she needed.

There has been much social media coverage of this drama, in great part because the parents posted on a blog and people interacted with them.   My question would be, who was this trip supposed to benefit?  Was it a family adventure that the children, ages 1 and 3 would remember for the rest of their lives or was this a selfish need fulfillment of the parents?

For a while there will be ongoing media attention and public debate, but eventually the parents of those children will be left to confront the profound silence as Aaron did.   Fortunately, for the present-day parents, their children are safe and in good health, but "achare" (after) how will they, and how will we, be able to differentiate between what is done on behalf of our children and what is done to satisfy our needs at our children's potential risk?

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33).  Following last week's parsha, we enter into a detailed description of the purification rituals for one who has contracted the illness which the Torah describes as leprosy.  The infection is not limited to the person, but has the potential as well of contaminating the individual's entire home, so not only must the person be helped to move from a state of uncleanness (ill health) to cleanliness (health), but all that he has come in contact with also must be disinfected.

Yet the requirements for well-being are not explicated for the person who has contracted the disease as much as they are for the priest who is obligated to make sure the purification rituals are explicitly fulfilled.  We might then ask ourselves why those who are not priests need to study these admonitions at all.

The answer to this question, I believe, is the underpinning of what it means to be part of a covenantal community.  It goes to the very heart of what relational dynamics are all about.  The health of a community rests on a key premise:  we are responsible for one another.  That statement is more than just an ideal wish.  It is both an implicit and explicit assertion of an interdependency.  No one can do it all by him/herself.  We need each other and that need is so often taken for granted that we only realize it is not being accomplished when a part of the system breaks down.  Here is a simple example:  we contract with our municipality to have our garbage removed on a certain day each week.  Our obligation is to have the garbage in the designated pick-up location on the assigned day, by the appointed time.  The sanitation company's responsibility is the collection and transfer to the dump/recycling center.  Failure on either party's part can potentially have an odiferous effect.  Taken to an extreme, we have the New York City Sanitation strike of 1968.

But our responsibility goes beyond just the fulfillment of our relational part of the obligation; it extends to our being knowledgeable as well about the other's responsibilities.  Contractually, we need to do the background checking to make sure that those with whom we enter into relationship can fulfill what they promise to us.  We need to be knowledgeable consumers.

Some reading this D'var Torah may remember Sy Sims and his famous marketing slogan for his clothing stores:  "a knowledgeable consumer is our best customer."   You only know if you are getting what you are paying for if you have an awareness of the commodity's value.

While the detailed prescriptions for ritual purification in our parsha are the responsibility of the priest, the infected individual needs to be aware of the rites he must pass through in order to return renewed to his family and community.  The health of a community is based on us holding each other responsible to complete our part of the bargain.   We need to know not only what is expected of us and live up to those expectations, but we also need to understand, as fully as we can, what we should expect from our covenantal partner, whether that person is a family member, a person we place in a position of authority, an elected official or a hired contractor.

When, in the Book of Exodus, the community is preparing to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they are called upon to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy people" (Exodus 19:6).  The message is not that everyone will become a priest, rather, that the sacred bond which makes us a community comes through a shared knowledge and a commitment to uphold our obligations.   We may designate to others the commitment to fulfill certain roles and administer certain tasks, but if we abdicate our responsibility to be knowledgeable members of our community then we risk the fraying of the very fabric which makes us a healthy society.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch