Up to Code – Parshat Metzora 5779

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A year and a half ago, Duncan and I decided to move forward with a major renovation of our home. We were desperate for more space for our growing family and wanted our house to fully function for our daily needs. As we started the process, it became clear that given the age of our home we needed to test for lead and asbestos. Chances were slim, but better safe than sorry. Different people came to our house and took what you might call biopsies of our walls to determine if there was anything that would be poisonous to the people who would come in contact with the inside of those walls as they reconstructed our space.

Even though we believed our house was pretty low-risk (it was built in the 1980s), was it possible we had been living in our house for four years while our son and daughter were being exposed to dangerous substances? Was our house suddenly no longer this safe space we assumed it was to raise our family? And then if they started construction, would the dust particles spread and contaminate everything? We couldn’t be 100% sure until the tests all came back safe.

Asbestos and black mold might be the modern dangers of the past few decades, but concern about the safety of our living spaces goes back as far as the Torah. This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, is a pause in the narrative between the death of Aaron’s sons and his mourning process and then rejoining the community. The text details the healing and purification processes of physical buildings and our nation of Israel. These processes require different actions for different circumstances.

Chapter 14, verses 33-53 deal entirely with construction. That is to say that this section of text is entirely devoted to making sure that we are aware that our homes and buildings are holy vessels that help to sustain life, and if they are not safe spaces, then our community is at risk.

It is a Torah mandate to make sure that our living spaces are safe. Whether this means making sure we are lead free or asbestos free, or that our homes have safety measures in place for fires or other destructive forces, it is imperative that we are creating warm, loving, and safe environments for our children to grow in. While doing the construction served a much bigger purpose than checking for harmful toxins in our sacred family space, I was still glad to know that our home was and is as safe as we can make it for our children and all who come to play there.

In the Heat of the Moment – Parshat Tazria 5779

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I’m in that category of women who have never actually experienced a contraction or labor pains. Because of a fluke eye hemorrhage, I was required to have my daughter via C-section and subsequently chose to deliver my son that way as well. I didn’t go into early labor in either case, so clearly both of my children were perfectly content to remain where they were. Both arrived at full term on their due dates via the skilled hands of my medical team.

It may sound like I ended up with the easier option, avoiding labor, but a C-section is no picnic either. There was plenty of pain and discomfort involved, especially in the recovery process. In fact, I’m sure when I took those first few steps in my hospital room after Shiri was born, I vowed I would never go through that again. But then of course I did. And I’m certain I’m not the only woman to have sworn off childbirth while in the pain of labor or the recovery after a C-section. Even our ancient texts cover birth in a variety of ways besides just the ancestry side.

This week we read from Parshat Tazria, one of two portions in the Torah that deal explicitly and fully with transitioning in and out of states of purity. The text begins with the notion of “impurity,” specifically the transitional states after childbirth, and continues with the treatments and prescriptions for what to do when a person is in need of cleansing of both body and material items in order to reenter the world.

The text begins with the offerings a woman must make after she gives birth. This is seen primarily as an offering of gratitude for having survived the experience of childbirth; however, a commentator from the Talmud in Tractate Niddah teaches that this offering is to annul a vow of “never again” that a woman might make after the pain of giving birth. The creation of new life is powerful, spiritual, and painful, and the text in this week’s parshah is aware of this enough to understand that in the heat of the moment we might make statements we don’t mean to uphold.

Whether in regard to childbirth or any physically or emotionally draining experience, the Torah gives us the ability to atone for our poor choices, even our choice of words. While we always want to choose our words carefully, this is a helpful reminder that no one is perfect. The best we can do is acknowledge our shortcomings and our unintended vows so we can move on and do better.

For Shame – Parshat Shemini 5779

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Going through the potty-training process with two kids has taught me a lot about the ways in which we display positive and negative reactions as parents. One of the biggest lessons for us has been the need to show some emotional self-control in order to keep up the positive reinforcement. For the most part, Shiri stopped wearing diapers fairly smoothly and had herself basically potty trained by three. In fact, it was the day of Matan’s bris she came home and told us she was done wearing diapers. Nights and naptimes were easy, but for some reason, regular trips to the bathroom during the day were a struggle. We’d have weeks of success, then three accidents in one day. This went on for almost a year. Of course we tried to be supportive and compassionate about the accidents, hoping that a sticker chart or other positive reinforcement would help move the process along. But when it kept happening, our patience often turned to frustration. Unfortunately, our frustrated response almost always elicited the same frustration in Shiri, and that led to her embarrassment and fear of even telling us what happened. You can see the cycle forming.

One of the important parenting lessons we learned was the way that we react to situations around us can affect the way others react. This lesson is clear in our portion this week too. This week we read Parshat Shemini, which details the specifics of kashrut and what it means to eat Jewishly. The text begins with the anointing and first acts of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, as they make their entrance into the celebrity of the priesthood, and continues with the specific details of how they should act in giving an offering.

Aaron was the original priest and was supposed to be taking on the role of leading sacrifices and other official business at the altar. However, given his rocky past as a leader, specifically the incident of the Golden Calf, initially he is afraid to take on the role. Moses has to call him specifically to come forward and participate in the purification offering of expiation. Aaron feels the shame of his past and is unsure of his fitness to lead.

Shame, however, is a defining characteristic of a moral human being. The mere fact that Aaron knows right from wrong and feels shame shows his morality and that he might have learned from his previous sins. Moses and God see the shame Aaron feels and respond with compassion. Our parshah this week reminds us that emotion is a two-way street. When we treat others with dignity, especially when it is clear that they have recognized their faults, then we are creating a world that is more just and more compassionate.

Preparing for Change – Parshat Tzav 5779

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I’m fascinated by the ways in which we prepare for major events in our lives. Some events have a prescribed preparation activity, like a doctor preparing for surgery with the rituals of sterilization or a bar mitzvah working to learn each part of leading a service. Some preparations take years, like going to school for certain careers. Some preparation, like we do on Passover, requires physical labor, cleaning and cooking, or other moving and preparing. And some are spiritual, like going to the mikvah before getting married or to mark another major milestone transition. It’s not just the preparation that helps us through life, but the way that we prepare for life’s events can help us better grasp their importance or impact on our daily lives.

The Torah also shows us a variety of methods of preparation for life events. This week’s portion, Parshat Tzav, contains one such example. The parshah begins with a review of the instructions for the priests regarding various types of sacrifices. The instructions detail what time of day they are to be made, what they are to wear, and who they are to be consumed by. The text continues with instructions on kosher eating and concludes with a review of how priests are sanctified in their roles as leaders.

At the end of the portion, Aaron’s sons are getting ready to undergo the process of ordination. The work involves anointing oil, altar blood, special clothing, and then a seven-day period when they are not to go outside the tent of meeting. The preparation to become anointed as a priest takes seven days, and is meant to mimic the seven days of creation. It’s also considered a “perfect” number in Judaism, as it equals the number of our forefathers and mothers as well as the colors in the rainbow of the covenant. That’s the heft and significance given to this transformation from civilian to priest; it’s as powerful a symbol as these other markers.

We’re often told just to adapt and roll with the changes. Reading this section of Torah reminds us that it’s ok to treat big transitions with all the pomp and preparation they need. That’s how we acknowledge the change.

From “To Do” to “Done” – Parshat Vayikra 5779

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As many of you know, I spent the first half of this week in Washington D.C., where I met with representatives and agencies to advocate on behalf of human rights efforts in Guatemala. This was the culmination of the American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellowship for rabbis. Prior to the Guatemala trip itself, I spent six months learning about the work that AJWS does globally to promote rights-based advocacy and global justice. Then I spent seven days in Guatemala hearing firsthand accounts of the corruption in government, the difficulty of making a living, and the triumph of human beings who fight daily for their dignity.

As life-changing as the experience has been, this was not an easy trip for me to commit to. When I was considering the trip, my list of drawbacks was long. I was hesitant to leave my family for a week with little communication. I was still nursing my son and didn’t want to break that connection. It wasn’t fair to my community for me to take time away. The expense would take funds from other efforts. The list goes on. Apparently I’m really good at coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t do something. My list of why I should attend was simple: I have a moral imperative as a human being to offer help when I’m able. I should find a way and the time to make this happen.

Even once I committed, the concerns remained (and changed). For months ahead of time, I sat in anxiety about the trip. Was I prepared? Was I the right person to do this? How would I be without my daily snuggles from my babies? Should I even go?

I drew strength, as I often do, from my core text, the Torah. This week we read Parshat Vayikra, and we begin the third book of the Torah, which details the many sacrifices and daily, active mitzvot of living as an Israelite. This begins with the explanation of the sacrifices that we are to give daily, weekly, and yearly. We learn that there can be a sacrifice made in times of joy and in times of sorrow. There is a special sacrifice for being guilty of a sin and others for complete thanksgiving. As Sefer Vayikra continues, we learn about the laws of how to treat one another, how to engage in holy relationships, and how our calendar and meals should reflect our innermost values and desires.

As the types of sacrifices are listed, we learn about the “guilt offerings” in chapter 5: “If a person incurs guilt – when he has had a public imprecation and – although able to testify as one who has either seen or learned of the matter – he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment.” Basically, we are responsible not only for the things we do wrong, but for the things we should have done, but neglected. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Kama calls this “innocent before a human court but liable in the sight of God.”

Ultimately, we can all find reasons for why we “can’t” or “shouldn’t” do something that might help others, especially if it’s an inconvenience to our daily lives or a big step forward; however, our Torah reminds us that the call to action is one we cannot ignore. That when we have the ability to make a change in ourselves or the world, we must take that action.

I spent the week in Guatemala missing my family dearly, but I don’t regret it for a second. Taking the action – making this a “done” instead of a “to do” – meant I was witness to both the atrocities of injustice and the persistence of the human spirit, and now I will speak out about how to help others, not because I should, but because I must.