Staying Strong – Parshat Tazria-Metzora 5781

I’m sure you’ve heard the message in one form or another: just because you’re vaccinated does not necessarily make it safe to return to life as we knew it in 2019. As we work toward what’s been referred to as herd immunity, more spikes in infections would reverse the progress we’ve made. That means the safest course of action for the time being is doing the things we’ve been doing for the past year, like keeping our gatherings small and with the same people, wearing masks, and washing our hands. 

As Jews, this is familiar territory. We are acutely aware of what comes in contact with our bodies, from the laws of kashrut to ritual hand washing to visits to the mikveh to the burial process, just to name a few. Jewish ritual practice brings an awareness of our physical selves, the world that surrounds us, and the connection between the two.  The book of Vayikra, which contains so many laws about food and daily activity and also sacrifices, serves as a bridge between physical and spiritual. Specifically our double Torah portion this week, Tazria-Metzora, is the essence of this connection. 

The text of these parshiyot tell us of the laws for the purification of our homes and our bodies after disease or death has occurred. The laws remind us that our bodies and our places of residence need to be treated with utmost respect. We also have the obligation to help one another maintain healthy lifestyles and to support one another when we find ourselves with impurities. While our human nature tends to lean towards picking ourselves apart based on what we wish we could change, the Torah reminds us that what might be seen as an “impurity” in our eyes is seen as a “tabernacle,” a holy space, by God.

The parshah we read last week, Shemini, lists in great detail the food that is permitted to enter our bodies and how that food can make us ritually impure. The text this week discusses how the things that come out of our bodies can do the same thing with regard to infections, and other ailments. Being attune to our bodies means focusing on what we put into it, how our body reacts, and how we care for it. In a similar way, in Metzora we read about how buildings can become impure too based on what we do or put inside them. 

These sections of text remind us of the intimate connection between our actions and our health, a reminder that’s all the more important to take with us as we head into another new stage of coping and living.

Emotional Outburst – Parshat Shemini 5781

On a family trip a few years ago, things were not going how we had planned. The kids were cranky, the lines at the airport were long, and TSA was not particularly helpful or friendly. Nothing seemed to be going our way, and it didn’t help that Duncan and I weren’t quite seeing eye to eye that morning, to put it mildly.

As we were walking into the airport, I had Matan strapped to me in a baby carrier on my front (he wouldn’t go on my back), my backpack on my back, two kid backpacks, a bag with food and snacks, our checked bag, and the car seat carrier in my hands. No fewer than three people stopped me before we even got to the check-in counter to ask if “she had her own ticket” (indicating Matan, who still had long hair at the time). By the time the third employee asked me, I snapped back, “He is two and a half, and he has his own seat!” The woman was rightly offended at my overreaction, and Duncan stepped in hoping to diffuse the situation with, “She’s mad at me, not you.” He was right, I was annoyed at him, and I took my anger out on the first available target in my path. We all express misplaced anger sometimes, but that doesn’t make it any less hurtful when it happens. 

It’s probably no surprise that misplaced anger can often be seen in the Torah. This week we read Parshat Shemini, which details the specifics of kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher) 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. Tragically, Nadav and Avihu take advantage of their role as priests and pay the ultimate price for it. Moses, Aaron, and the remaining sons Elazar and Itamar are left to move forward with ritual and leadership all while deep in their own grief. The Torah doesn’t dwell on Nadav’s and Avihu’s deaths or the surrounding circumstances. There is work to be done, and onward the Torah moves.

In chapter 10, verse 16, Moses goes on a tirade against Elazar and Itamar. The Torah actually reports that Moses is angry with them and then berates them for not doing the purification offering the appropriate way. Aaron steps in after Moses expresses his rage to remind him that priests in mourning are not permitted to eat of the sacrifice. And again, Moses moves on.

A commentary on the text from Leviticus Rabbah hypothesizes that Moses was still so consumed with his grief that his knowledge of the law left him. His ability to maintain emotional stasis for himself and toward others was simply clouded over during his mourning. Parshat Shemini offers the reminder that the best way to manage stressful or traumatic situations is to know ourselves, check in with our own emotions, and if possible, find a way to channel those emotions in more productive and less destructive ways. Fortunately my airport outbursts are few and far between, but it’s these exact types of moments that allow us to grow and learn and work to be the very best version of ourselves. 

The Feedback Sandwich – Parshat Tzav 5781

Why is it always easier to jump to the negative and harder to keep focused on the positive? In my rabbinical school pastoral counseling class, we had many conversations about what is referred to as the “feedback sandwich.” You share something nice (the bread part), then give the troublesome news (the meat part), and then add the second piece of bread with something kind again. It can make it easier to share something difficult, but I tend to be more direct. As someone who always wants to just say what she means, the feedback sandwich can trip me up. For example, what if there simply is no bright side? Rom-coms have spoiled us with impossibly happy endings, but we know that isn’t really how life always works. 

The Torah struggles with this notion as well. In fact, when reading Torah, there are rules about how you can end an aliyah, and the section of verses can’t end in the middle of something terrible happening. Why? Perhaps it is because when we are left in that dark space, our minds wander in the negativity and imagine the worst possible outcomes . . . even when we already know how the story goes!

Our Torah portion this week, Tzav, exhibits this for us. Parshat Tzav begins with the instructions for the priests with regard to the different sacrifices. After discussing the need for the eternal flame, the text continues by teaching the prohibition against eating milk and meat together, and then offers up a final review of the sanctification ceremony of the priests and their roles.

The end of the parshah foreshadows what will happen next. It warns that if you don’t follow the rules, you will die. And in the very next section of text, Aaron’s sons break the rules, make their own rules, and end up paying with their lives. But the verses just prior to that moment seem to soften the blow by explaining “And Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Lord had commanded through Moses.” 

People are seldom purely good or purely evil. The same people who are kind or humble or philanthropic can also make mistakes, though some of those mistakes may have more dire consequences than others. The feedback sandwich isn’t just a way of sharing bad news or adding variety to a narrative. It’s also a reminder that individual actions don’t have to define us; rather, we are the sum of everything we do.

Becoming Whole – Parshat Vayikra 5781

Believe it or not, I sat down to write this d’var Torah a year ago. I like to at least have drafts done far in advance so that I can pivot and adjust if needed. As I sat here to write, I remember in detail receiving the startling information of a tragic loss in our community that would have ripple effects for years to come. I rushed out of the office (the office was still open at that point) to hold the family and take care of logistics and other pieces before returning to finish this drash. But it was clear to me what I needed to write about. I came back and sat down five days later to try in some way to “become whole” through the writing and my writing process.

This week as we begin Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, we find ourselves immersed in the listing of mitzvot (commandments) on how to live our lives. 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.

One of the offerings we are asked to give is the zevah shlamim. This offering is brought by someone who has had something to celebrate. It is almost always an individual offering, never communal, because gratitude is personal and individual. Further, the word shlamim comes from the same root as shalom, which can mean “to be whole.” The offering is made with a sense of being at peace. The Torah teaches us that this offering must be eaten on the day that it is brought or the next day at the latest. Perhaps this is to encourage those with gratitude to invite others to join their celebration, because typically joy increases when we come together. 

On that fateful afternoon when I was writing this drash I received a call. Vayikra. And that call brought a community together to hold the broken pieces and find a way towards wholeness and towards peace. The Torah is not suggesting that all communal moments must be joyful, and needless to say this moment was not. Instead, our sacred text is meant to give us, on the one hand, guidelines for holding those moments of joy and gratitude and, on the other hand, guidelines for holding each other in grief and sorrow. As we pass another year anniversary, the anniversary of when COVID-19 changed all our lives, it’s yet another reminder that we are still holding broken pieces, and there’s much work left to be done to make ourselves whole again.

Community as a Verb – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5781

It’s been a year. A year of mask-wearing, a year of Zoom meetings, a year without physical gatherings. Has the word “community” changed for you over the past year the way it’s changed for me? 

The thing is, global pandemic or not, there’s no denying that part of being Jewish is being in community. In fact, from our earliest communities spoken about in the Torah in this week’s double portion, being together is tantamount. This week we read Vayakhel and Pekudei. The narrative continues with the requirement to observe Shabbat and then includes the request to bring gifts to build the Mishkan, the sacred space that God will dwell among the Israelites. Following that, Betzalel and Ohilav are appointed as the taskmasters of the construction project, and we hear about the abundance of gifts the Israelites brought to the Tabernacle. Parshat Pekudei deals with the final judgments about who will work on the Tabernacle and what the priests are supposed to wear. Finally, the text takes up the building and establishment of the Mishkan

The word va’yakhel (where one of the parshiyot gets its name) is translated to mean the verb “convoked,” but in modern Hebrew the root is the same as the noun kehillah, community. This verb is only used for a gathering of human beings. The text teaches that Moses communitied, as it were, the entire body of Israel and spoke to them. Why and how did he “community”? 

The Israelites are still healing emotionally from the incident of the Golden Calf. They are a fractured nation. In this moment as the Tabernacle is being finished, Moses is trying to rebuild community. He wants to gather the people together, despite their differences, to rebuild trust and unity. While each individual has their right to be alone, or even have some privacy, in this moment, after a national tragedy, Moses understands the need for everyone to be together. 

One of the first mishnayot I have a memory of internalizing is from Hillel: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” In moments of strife or conflict or even loss, it is easy to separate yourself and hold back. However, Hillel and Moses remind us that we are meant to work through our problems and grief in community. It’s the same reason why you need a minyan to say Kaddish, or why we hold sheva brachot for a wedding. I don’t have to tell you this past year has made community (whether a noun or a verb) challenging. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a part of who we are. Judaism is full of big emotional moments, whether in celebration or in mourning, and we’ve always held each other up because we go through these moments together. We may have redefined togetherness, but we will never stop holding each other up, even if it’s from a distance.