Sick and Tired – Parshat Tazria-Metzora 5777

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Living with two young children who go to two different preschools, there’s really no such thing as “cold season” in our house. Someone always has a cold. The kids usually mange to take it in stride; they’re perpetually upbeat and energetic, so it’s rare when they’re not themselves. On the other hand, Duncan and I are miserable when we’re sick, and the recovery process seems to take more out of us.

As someone whose job requires maintaining personal relationships and being in social environments for at least part of the day, being sick doesn’t just take a toll on my body. Because it strips me of my productivity as well, it also leaves me feeling isolated and worthless. And as much as I loved pregnancy, being on maternity leave was equally painful for me for the same reasons. There’s no question I treasured the one-on-one special time with the baby, but I spent much of this time without contact with other adults. It sounds strange to say, but when I’m alone, I’m just not myself. On a conscious level, I know my body needs time to heal, but any time I’m cooped up, the isolation weighs heavily on me, and I feel a strong desire to get back to “it.”

Our beautiful tradition has plenty of ways to help both the community and the person in recovery to deal with these feelings. Specifically, this week we read a double portion, Tazria and Metzora, which focus on different ailments and healing processes.

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.

Within this text we learn in chapter 14 about the different offerings that would be given for skin ailments and other healing opportunities. The offering included cedar wood, which is from the tallest and strongest of all plants, and hyssop, described as the smallest and most vulnerable of all growing things. The tallest and smallest. The strongest and most fragile. What we have is not set of polar opposites, but a continuum. When faced with an illness, the strongest, the most vulnerable, and everyone in the middle all need to heal. And for each healing process, as the Torah teaches, there are steps to take that will keep you on track for recovery. This way you can be sure you’re really ready when it’s time to reenter the community.

We all heal, grow, and change in our own ways and at difference paces. Any illness, from the flu to a broken bone, can feel isolating and lonely. Still, it is our job as a community to support one another. To lift up both the hyssop and the cedar.

In the Middle – Parshat Shmini 5777

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I like to find symmetry in life. Symmetry in the sense that there’s balance between what came before and what will come after. In other words, I feel most confident when I know where I’ve been and how far I have to go. On my morning walks, I pace myself by remembering where the middle of the walk is. Knowing I have two miles down and two to go gives me tremendous energy to keep moving. When you’re pregnant, reaching the 20-week mark is a relief to know that you’re halfway done. Flying with kids, I’m always thrilled to get to the halfway point of the flight to reassure myself that we’ve made it through to that point without a major meltdown (if in fact we have). Similarly, on a long car ride, the halfway point is a good indicator and helpful way to answer “How much longer?” and “Are we there yet?” Marking milestones is a part of moving forward. Whether it’s the milestone of a birthday, years passed since a historic event in your life, or looking forward to one coming up, counting and marking life is what we do.

The Torah also counts certain milestones. When the Torah marks how far from Egypt the Israelites have traveled, it denotes not just the story of the present journey, but what’s yet to come and what ground they’ve covered. In Parshat Shmini, the Torah reading for this week, we cover another Torah milestone. The parshah begins with the words, “On the eighth day,” after the priests had been installed. The text picks up with the narrative of creating a holy leadership team of Aaron and his sons, who unfortunately make an offering without the appropriate directions or intentions and end up losing their lives. Following this tragic story are the laws for making time holy with sacrifices and laws for making our bodies holy by following kashrut.

Interestingly, chapter 10, verse 16 is commonly regarded as the middle of the Torah. It begins, “Then Moses inquired about the goat of the purification offering.” Specifically, the word darash (inquired) is said to be the word directly in the middle of the whole Torah. Clearly, since we are a people of perpetual learning and inquiry, there is significance in this middle marking, this halfway point. Emet v’Emunah, which is the Statement of Principles created by several organizations within the Conservative movement, teaches, “The ideal Jew is not so much a learned Jew as a learning Jew.” That is to say the essence of the Torah – study and inquiry – is found in this central word of its body.

The ideal Jew is not so much a learned Jew as a learning Jew.

I find comfort in this reminder that what sets Judaism apart is a constant, unfailing curiosity. After thousands of years of interpretations, we’re left with more questions now than ever before, which is kind of the point. The middle brings meaning, but in a “glass half-full or half-empty” kind of way. We’re halfway there, but we still have a long way to go. Shabbat shalom.

Passed Over Passovers – Pesach 5777

This year, I thought it might be interesting to revisit my writings from three different Passovers. Feel free to read them chronologically, although I recommend you read them in the order below, newest to oldest, since they follow a more interesting progression that way. You’ll understand why in the descriptions/excerpts. Chag Pesach sameach!

The Definition of Slavery (Passover 2015)

definition-of-slaveryWe say in the Haggadah “This year we are still slaves; next year, may we all be free.”  And I have often wondered what am I a slave to?  How am I in bondage?  What makes us slaves? Perhaps one answer is time. As much as I try to live each week fully, they fly by and the months are over so quickly. Read the rest.

On the Brink (Passover 2008)

on-the-brink-pesachWe stand here, on the brink of our own transition. We’ve cleaned out the chametz, cleaned out the clutter and dirt of our homes. We’ve made it 6 days out on the journey. Passover stands on the balance of rebirth and renewal, will we go back to our old ways, or will we take the leap of Nachshon Ben Ami Nadav? Read the rest.

This Year, Only in Jerusalem (Passover 2007)

only-in-jerusalemLast year I said “Next year in Jerusalem” and now, here I am! And to make it better, my Tanta and my sister are here with me! Finally, after seven months I see people related to me, people who love me unconditionally, I see my family. Read the rest.

Tempting – Parshat Tzav 5777

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It doesn’t take much to convince me to take a taste of anything chocolate, even if I’ve made a promise to myself to eat healthier. The same goes for French fries and ice cream. Basically, anything that isn’t healthy for me, but is extremely delicious, leaves me powerless. Too often I end up caving to the craving.

Sadly, I got stuck in a spiral of poor eating choices years ago. This behavior left me with an unhealthy weight, clothes that didn’t fit, and a genuine fear of my genetic predisposition of diabetes. I had tasted the joy of giving in to temptation and then faced the consequences. That’s when I began a plan of attack at getting healthy. Over the course of two years, I lost 50 pounds and learned about moderation and exercise in the process.

As with so much in our lives, balance and moderation are key. The Torah is full of stories of leaning too far to one end of the spectrum or the other. What if Cain had tempered the anger and rage against his brother Abel? What if the Israelites exhibited patience and trust in the wilderness rather than building the golden calf? Of course you could argue that perhaps then we wouldn’t have these great moral lessons to teach.

This week we read Parshat Tzav, which reviews the instructions for the priests with regard to the various sacrifices. We learn about offerings of thanks, offerings of well-being, offerings of guilt, and offerings of free will. This is also the parshah in which we receive the commandment against mixing milk and meat and learn about the gifts that the priests receive from the well-being offerings made.

In chapter 6, verse 10 we learn about the purification offerings and the reparation offerings. They are specifically referred to as “most holy.” It is interesting that the offerings that are meant to remedy a mistake, to heal an overindulgence, or to make amends for a wrongdoing are considered the most holy. The commentary teaches that a greater degree of holiness is ascribed to the person who has struggled with sin and overcome it than to the person who has never been tempted.

Is an occasional sweet treat ok? By all means. Are mistakes allowed? Of course. We’re not perfect, we make mistakes, we cave to temptation, we misstep. As far back as the Torah we learn that temptation is not only natural, but expected. We are expected to slip because how we learn from the slip determines how we move forward.

Catch a Whiff – Parshat Vayikra 5777

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Have you ever had the sensation of breezing past a department store perfume counter and suddenly conjuring a vivid memory of a grandparent? Or walking into someone’s home and having the smell of dinner carry you away to your childhood? It is widely accepted scientifically that brain anatomy is responsible for this strong connection between smells and memory. The olfactory bulb, which starts in the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain, is directly connected to two of the brain’s emotion and memory centers: the amygdala and hippocampus.

I don’t need to understand the anatomy to know there are certain scents that just make me happy in an instant. The smell of Olga bread from my favorite restaurant in Detroit can make my mouth water. The smell of good Texas barbecue is enough to make me ravenous no matter how full I am. The smell of the challah on Friday or Havdalah spices on Saturday bring me to a place of instant peace.

Of course it’s not just food. The sweet smell of Shiri’s head as she rests it against me when she cuddles makes my heart melt. I have one particular sweater that belonged to my father; if I hold it close, I’m embraced with the faint smell of his cologne. More than sight, sound, or touch, our sense of smell has a unique way of tying into our taste buds and our memories so that we are instantly moved by the various odors around us.

This week we begin reading the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), the third book in the Torah. This book contains many practical laws to guide our communities as well as the original laws of sacrifice, and it’s filled with rules and laws about gifts we should be making to God: gifts of well-being, gifts of thanks, gifts of apology. It also has within its chapters the text known as the “holiness code,” which directs us in how our relationships with others should be created and managed. But the first portion of the book, which we read this week, focuses mostly on the types of offerings we will make to God as both individuals and as a community.

As God in the Torah starts to outline the different sacrifices that the Israelites are expected to make for various reasons, we begin to see God’s reaction to these sacrifices. Chapter 1, verse 9 evokes “a gift of pleasing odor to the Lord.” We know that it’s our physical makeup that makes smells pleasing to us, but how is this possible for God, with no physical makeup? Does God have the same human reaction that I have? The commentators emphatically reject the notion that God is actually smelling the sacrifices. Instead, what is described as pleasing to God is that the Israelites are doing what is asked of them.

I see a direct parallel to how we interpret memories and behaviors. It’s not the chemicals in the odors, but the feelings associated with them that matter. Traditional sacrifice has long been abandoned in favor of more modern interpretations of how we offer praise to God. It’s not the sacrifice itself, but the intent behind the sacrifice that is “pleasing to the Lord.” Obviously it was because my dad was who he was that the memory is so special; the cologne is simply a reminder of that. These emotional triggers are superficially enjoyable, but it’s up to us to create those memories in the first place.