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 Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59).  The parsha explores the nature of a skin disease described as leprosy and how the priest recognizes the disease, attempts to protect the community from the communicable nature of the malady and finally attests to the ability of the individual to return to his/her active participation in communal life.

The parsha does not explicate a cure, so the role of the priest does not seem to have a medicinal purpose as much as an emotionally reassuring significance:  affirming that under the watchful eye of the priest, the illness will not become an epidemic.  Is it perhaps, as the classic commentators of the Torah surmise, that this is not so much a physical illness even though the Torah describes its symptoms in bodily terms, but rather a moral malaise known as "leshon hara," literally "evil or bad speech," better understood today as malicious gossip?

Reflecting on a bodily outbreak of the disease upon a person's head or face the Torah states (13:29-36), the priest takes the following precautionary measures:  an examination to see if the infected area is deeper than the skin, a noting if there is discoloration of the hair and if, over time, the infection spreads.  Any of these outward signs makes the individual unclean.  A period of quarantine and then reexamination will let the priest know if the situation has improved or deteriorated.  It seems clear from the description that the priest's concern is two-fold:  to protect the larger community from the spread of the disease and to provide a safe place for the infected individual while the illness runs its course.

If this is a disease of the soul, as commentators have implied, then the attempt is to see if the individual can be made aware of his/her moral illness and work to guard his/her tongue from evil speech.  Time away from involvement with others--a time out, if you will--might offer the individual a new perspective on how he/she might engage in civil discourse.  Sadly, if it is found that the "dissing" of others has become so ingrained in the individual's way that he/she approaches relations, then clearly the disease is "deeper than the skin" and has "discolored" the way the infected individual sees the world around him/herself.

Over the years, I have had the good fortune to go to a wonderful health spa.  Historically it was established as the first such "retreat" in North America.  It is known simply as "The Ranch."  A week there is time away, but also time to reassess and take stock to rebalance both one's physical and emotional well-being.  It can be, if one allows oneself, a break from the negative aspects of how we perceive others and a looking inward to strengthen our emotional core.

I remember the beginnings of one of our visits when people were gathering for the weekly orientation.  For returning visitors you could already sense that just being at "The Ranch" had a calming influence. Yet, that day a first timer had not yet "gotten it" and was still in her "dissing" mode.  As I heard her bad mouthing from a distance, I observed a phenomenon happening around her.  People were slowly moving away from her.  They were both giving her space and also protecting themselves from the same contamination:  a malady they were all too familiar with, a dis-ease which was their motivation for their own personal journeys to this quiet refuge.

We live at a time when malicious gossip is the standard fare of daily discourse.   Some will say that it has always been this way, but it seems to me that we are enveloped in a pandemic which is tearing at the fabric of our civility.  While we may not be able to all head for The Ranch, each of us has the power to stop the outpouring of verbal viciousness. We need to examine ourselves to see how deep and insidious the malady has become and consciously work to quarantine ourselves to prohibit it from spreading further.  As it says in Psalm 34:14-15, "guard your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech; shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it."

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47).  The parsha opens with the pageantry of priestly consecration and concludes with detailed dietary regulations of what may and may not be consumed.  The link between the two is the ability to discern between the sacred and the common in all life experiences.

Opening with the celebration of the priests' commitments to their public role as officiants of communal ritual (9:1-24), the parsha offers an insight into the fine line between celebratory exaltation and communal despair.  Aaron fulfills his role to the letter of the law ("and he offered it according to the ordinance" 9:16), acknowledging a commitment to the Divine.  Yet the priestly drama is not done as a personal act, but rather as a testimony of the community's dedication to its sacred identity, culminating in the leadership serving as a conduit between the Divine and the people through the offering of blessings (9:22-23).  It should have come with a disclaimer.

Have you seen the TV ads which offer the disclaimer, "Don't try this at home" or "Professional stuntmen performed these acts on closed courses; do not attempt this yourself?"  In our parsha, a similar kind of disclaimer might have spared Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu (10:1-3).  The sublime in life is often measured in our ability to distinguish between that which is sacred and needs to be approached with a sense of awe and respect, and that which is common and is fulfilled to maintain the basic necessities of human existence.  When we confuse the two, it can lead to dire consequences.

Nadab and Abihu seem like young, naive boys trying to role play the public drama which they just saw their father enact before the community.  They are so drawn to the majesty of the experience that they forsake the cautionary preparedness which allowed their father to elevate the entire community.  Exaltation gives way to tragedy.

We need to not only perform the rites, but we must also teach the sacred lessons, making the rites we perform an elevation of the common into the sacred nature of a life well lived. To be too cautious may stunt growth, but to throw caution to the wind is foolhardy.  Finding the right balance is the challenge. This may be the underlying message of the dietary proscriptions detailed in the latter part of the parsha.

The inclusion and exclusion of certain animals, fowl and sea creatures, for human consumption serves not as a lesson in dietary hygiene, but rather as a sensitivity or awareness of how we need to elevate that which is done routinely and quickly forgotten to the level of meaningfulness and purposefulness.  To acknowledge how and what we eat may allow us not only to be more sensitive to our physical and emotional well-being, but also to be more acutely aware of the blessing itself that we have food to sustain us.

Like so much in life, our parsha instructs that these are lessons that one generation needs to teach the next. The public drama of human consumption needs to come with lessons about the sacred nature of not only why we eat, but also how and for what purpose we sustain ourselves.  The all-consuming flame of the need for physical satiety must be balanced with lessons of limit-setting, care and nurturing of the spirit as well the body.  Rather than "Bon Appetit" (a good appetite), perhaps we would be better served to wish each other "Labreiut" (to your health).

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

The Torah portion for this Shabbat is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36).  The early parshiot of Leviticus deal with the sacrificial cult:  the rules and ordinances regarding the offerings brought to deal with a range of emotional issues.  From a guilt offering to a free-will offering, the spectrum of human concerns are acknowledged through public acts of contrition, thanksgiving and ongoing commitment to the well-being of the community.

It makes sense that when the sacrificial cult eventually came to an end, the community had already started to evolve to a new form of offering:  the offering of the heart, better known as prayer.  Yet prayer, too, has at its core an acknowledgement which needs to come through action, for there is a hollowness to prayer when it fails to motivate us to live healthier, more productive lives.  "Pray as if everything depends on G-d, but act as if everything depends on you."

Our parsha moves from the sacrificial obligations of every member of the community described in the opening portion of Leviticus last week to the detailed commitments of the priests.  The focus on the communal leadership  makes it clear that, contrary to what some in leadership positions would like to believe, those in authority are not exempt as a privileged class.  Rather, they must model a greater commitment to affirm the laws and precepts which serve as the hallmark of a viable society.

Yet, how are we, so removed as we are from the drama of the offering of livestock and crops, to understand the importance of the early Levitical precepts?   I would suggest that we examine the emotional circumstances which served as the underpinning of the various offerings.  They are a transcendent connection for us of how we may experience an attachment to a greater sense of community.

The guilt offering (7:1-10) is an attempt to expiate the feelings for something we have done which we know is wrong.  It did not take the place of making restitution for our actions.   Rather, it served as motivation to change our attitudes and behaviors in the hopes that we might resist the temptation to commit a similar offense again.  In contemporary slang simply saying, "my bad," is not enough (besides being a disgusting phrase!).  Verbal acknowledgement is only the first step and needs to be followed by actions (offerings) which attempt to right the injustice we perpetrated.

The thanksgiving offering (7:11-21) provides a way to show appreciation for the restoration of one's wellness or the overcoming of danger that a person might have experienced.  It is the action which fulfills the vow promised at times of stress in a person's life.  In a way, it is the answer to the often quoted comment:  "be careful what you wish for."  There have been times when I have talked with individuals who insist that if they or a loved one come through a difficult surgery or survive a disease, they are going to live a more religious life.  The thanksgiving offering was a way to publicly commit oneself to doing more for others, living a more meaningful life, helping in ways that one had not helped before.  Sadly, all too often, when the wellness returns, the immediacy to the fulfillment of the vow frequently fades.

Perhaps that is why the first offering mentioned in this parsha, which is a link to the communal obligation described last week in chapter one, is the burnt offering  (6:2-6).  It was a to be brought twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, and it served as a free-will offering, a conscious reminder of the high ideals we need to strive toward in order to live meaningful and productive lives.  Traditionally, when a person awakes in the morning, he/she is called upon to offer an initial affirmation of the gift of another day.  The implicit message is: "Thanks for this new chance to make the most out of this new day."

Someone once told me that he took the time at the end of the day, before he went to sleep, to think about all that he had done during the day.  He hoped that his deeds tilted the scales of life for good.  When he was able to see that he had lived a good day, then he offered an evening prayer of thanksgiving.  He also told me that on the days when he realized that he could have done better, when he was not as kind, not as caring as he could have been, then he prayed that he be given another day to try to make amends.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:35).  It opens with a brief statement about accountability.  While last week's parsha focused on the obligations imposed upon the priest as leader of the community, this week's portion begins with a reminder that each member of the community, having reached the age of service, is both counted as a part of (through a census) and counted on by (through an evenly shared tax) the community as a whole (30:11-16).  In essence, each person makes an equal offering to "memorialize" a dedication to the community as a whole.  The leader (priest) may have specific obligations as an authority figure, but that does not excuse any member of the community from being counted on to uphold tenets which affirm the group's unique identity.

The portion then returns to the accoutrements of the Tabernacle and identifies Bezalel as the chief architect for the Mishkan because he has been imbued with "the spirit of G-d, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship." (31:3)  Stated in this manner, it is an admonition to each of us to remember that we are but "klay kodesh," "a holy vessel," through which the divine spark flows.

Rather than our becoming arrogant about the talents we exhibit, the recognition of our individual skills and understandings can hopefully lead us to a profound sense of humility.  We "build" not to aggrandize ourselves, but rather so that we may acknowledge the divine spirit as it dwells within us.  When we allow ourselves to lose sight of life's sense of awe, when we permit ourselves to be numbed to what Abraham Joshua Heschel called "the radical amazement," then our actions rather than affirming the sacred in life become acts of shallowness and ultimately idolatry.

Perhaps that is why in the midst of all the details for the work of the Mishkan, there is a reminder about the importance of the Sabbath (31:13-17).  The Sabbath is a "sign" throughout the generations of the sacred bond between the Creator and the created, a remembrance of who is the Creator and who is the created.  To recognize it is to pause, like the rests between notes in a musical score, for the true value of the melody of life can only be heard when we periodically stop and "catch our breath."

Our unwillingness to take this weekly "time out," will cause our untimely demise (31:14, 15) and we will be "cut off" from our community (31:14).  This is to be understood, I think, as a spiritual warning:  to ignore the Sabbath is a potential death of the soul and a separation from a link to a spiritual community.  It is the idolatrous conceit that we are in this alone, that we are the captains of our own destiny, to which we hear the echoed murmur of the Yiddish proverb, "Man plans and G-d laughs."

The warning about the soul-refreshing nature of the Sabbath is juxtaposed against the sorrowful story of the Golden Calf and the destruction of the initial tablets which Moses brings from the heights of Sinai. (32:1-35)  The Golden Calf is not only a warning about what we build, but what we believe, for is it not hubris to worship the work of our own hands and envision that it has power beyond our own limited nature?

When we choose to discard the Sabbath as unnecessary or inconvenient, we choose at the same time to substitute the notion that rather than being created in the Divine Image, we can create whatever image of ourselves works at any given moment, at any given time.  This, it seems, is as potentially idolatrous as sculpting a golden calf.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

PS:  I will be taking a three-week hiatus from writing the D'var Torah, returning for Parshat Tzav and Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance preceding the holiday of Purim.   As always, I am appreciative to all who take the time to read these D'vrei Torah and for your comments, insights and the community of learning which we share.  May we continue to be blessed to grow from strength to strength. H.