Uncommon Cold – Parshat Tazria-Metzora 5783

How many of you have had the experience over the last four years of looking at someone who was coughing or sneezing (or had any signs at all of being under the weather) and pulled back just a little because “Oh no, Covid”? How many times did you have to excuse your seasonal allergies so that you weren’t shunned for “Covid-like symptoms?”

In a pre-Covid world, we might have assumed the best, if you can call a cold or allergies “the best.” In our post-Covid world, we have to do extra work to decipher what’s a cold, what’s the flu, what’s allergies, and what’s a potentially life-threatening virus we can spread to others. That’s not to say these other illnesses can’t be deadly or highly contagious, but simply that we have a whole new understanding of how to recognize and classify symptoms.

The truth is, our Torah has been guiding us on quarantining and recognizing ailments since the very beginning, and it kicks off in this week’s double Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora. 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 the utmost respect. We also have the obligation to help one another maintain healthy lifestyles and support one another when we find ourselves with impurities. 

It’s interesting, in our modern, post-Covid world, to read laws about how we purify ourselves (sanitizer, anyone?) and about quarantines well before modern medicine and our current support systems were in place. What it comes down to is the human connection we feel when we care for one another. Illness doesn’t mean that you’re somehow morally flawed; it means that we have work to do to bring healing. As we read this week’s double portion, we’re reminded just how important it is to be both aware of our own bodies and respectful enough of others to keep our fellow community members safe. 

You Are What You Eat – Parshat Shemini 5783

I have a finicky relationship with food. It’s not that I don’t like food; on the contrary, I LOVE food. I’m the type of flavor seeker who adds spice and weird combinations of sauces (some might call it fusion) to every meal. Trust me, I wasn’t always this way. When I was a child, my parents thought they were raising the world’s pickiest eater. How could they have known back then that my own children would make my younger self look like a dream eater?

As a parent of picky eaters, we’ve had so many conversations about what foods are healthy, what fuels our bodies, and why trying new foods can be fun. And, as a kosher-keeping family, we also have the conversations about why we can’t have a quesadilla if we’re still hungry after we have hot dogs for dinner. Ultimately, it comes down to finding the balance between eating both for pleasure and for fuel. 

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Shemini, digs in to this conversation in a way that allows us to elevate our food choices. The parshah begins with the words “On the eighth day” after the priests have 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 the laws of kashrut.

At the heart of this portion are the laws about which animals are kosher and which are not, how we’re supposed to treat the animals, and the reasons why. It boils down (no pun intended) to some general rules. Animals that cause harm to others are not kosher. Animals that are “unclean” or don’t clean themselves are not kosher. Animals that torment or stalk others are not kosher. The Torah gives us these categories because our insides should support our outsides. In other words, we are a people that lifts up bodily care and cleanliness, and we discourage waste and excess.

These laws are inconvenient in our modern world and often challenging, and yet they fill mealtime with intention and presence instead of gluttony and indulgence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally willing to indulge on occasion, but I do so with the full intent of understanding that nourishing my body is a mitzvah. And of course I try not to overdo it. 

To Be Cared For – Parshat Tzav 5783

As a community leader, it’s hard to find time to care for myself. My daily walks help, and occasionally I’m able to find time to relax, but I’m often so busy that self-care falls by the wayside. However, I’m also exceptionally blessed, because in those moments when I’m giving to others, so many give back to me. Whether it’s chocolate dropped off on a day when I’m feeling down, or a lasagna and bottle of wine left at my door because we’ve got a sick kid, or even a simple text to ask how I’m doing, it’s uplifting to see the genuine care we have for one another in our community. In those moments it refreshes my soul and mends my spirit. Caring for one another – whether parent to child, child to parent, friend to friend, congregant to clergy – is a way in which we humanize, connect, and lift up those close to us.

This act of mutual care appears throughout our Torah, but is poignantly described in our portion this week. In Parshat Tzav, God tells Moses about the sacrifices that the priests are to perform. The sacrifices are divided into two categories: sin offerings and burnt offerings. Sin offerings are offered to atone, while burnt offerings are offered as a way to show devotion to God.

The priests are also to undergo a process of ordination, which will make them holy and allow them to perform the sacrifices. As Aaron and his sons are being readied to lead the people as priests, there is a brief moment when Moses takes them and washes them. This act of cleansing serves both as hygienic and a purification ritual. But the point isn’t just that Aaron and his sons clean themselves; Moses does it for them. Like a bride on their wedding day being pampered, a baby being washed, or our traditional act of tahara, the ritual purification of the dead before burial, the act is tender and intimate, connecting through human touch. 

In this chaotic creation of a new society, Aaron and his sons are being pushed forward to lead, and you can imagine the pressure they must have felt. To read that this moment of cleansing and care comes from Moses to his brother and nephews reminds us that our most important job is not to lead or influence others, but to care for them. That is the core of our Torah.

Act Now – Parshat Vayikra 5783

I used to be very on top of things. I never missed a moment, a birthday, a call, an email. And then, as the needs of my children changed, and later as much of the world shifted to online communication, I suddenly wasn’t as on top of communication as I had been. I found myself constantly apologizing for missing reaching out to someone in need or missing those key moments I was previously present for. If you’re like me, you’re now discovering the challenge of reversing a long period of inactivity and disconnection. So how do we re-engage? 

This week we read Parshat Vayikra, and we begin the third book of the Torah, which details the many sacrifices and the daily, active mitzvot of living as an Israelite. This begins with an 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 earthly needs like keeping our calendar and eating meals should be rooted in our faith.

As we read the extensive list of sacrifices for wrongdoing, I’m drawn to the notion that we’re held responsible, by God, for those things we should have done, but didn’t. I love this moment of Torah. Why? Because it’s yet another reminder that Judaism compels us to act, whether that’s checking in on a friend or standing up to injustice. It reminds us that when we fail to act, we’re guilty of inaction. Have you heard the phrase “easier to ask forgiveness than permission”? It’s true in some circumstances, and it’s one way of looking at the Torah of Vayikra.

This is not to say we should act irrationally or without purpose. Rather, it means that we’re asked to listen to the needs of others and take a stand when required. To me, the idea that I’m held accountable for the times when I don’t act is something of a wake-up call. If you’re looking for an excuse to re-engage, answer the call with me.

Can You Repeat That? – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5783

I have the bad habit of repeating my favorite stories. I don’t mean children’s stories, I mean personal stories. The ones I repeat are usually those that have changed my perspective somehow or have been otherwise impactful in my life. Despite their significance (to me) I often hear, “You’ve already told me that story” from my kids and my friends alike. Truth be told, I often have to reread my past weekly articles to make sure I’m not doing the same thing here.

The urge to retell a story isn’t just because of loss of memory. It is precisely the opposite; it is because of the importance of that moment, the outcome, or the lesson that we retell a story. It’s not the act of forgetting we said something, it’s the act of remembering how important it was. It’s easy to point to our yearly Jewish cycle and the repetition of stories from Passover, Purim, Hannukah, and Sukkot. We tell those stories and they become alive because we actively celebrate. We dress up, eat special food, and sleep outside. We do something to mark the moment. But what about the rest of the Torah that we read each year? How does that repetition benefit us? Furthermore, what about the repetition within the Torah?

This week we read a double portion, Vayakhel and Pekudei. The narrative continues with the requirement to observe Shabbat and then includes the request to bring gifts to build the Mishkan. 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 sacred space where God will dwell among the Israelites. 

When we read any of our sacred texts, we’re told that no word should be taken for granted, that every word has meaning and then some. However, this section of text, which closes the second book of the Torah, is repetitive in nature. So, why would God or Moses include this repetition? Often, repetition is meant to emphasize something in storytelling, like the chorus of a song. Perhaps the Torah is suggesting that creating a space of gathering is so critical for our people, it bears repeating.

During the height of the pandemic, we felt the strain of not being able to gather together. It reinforced the importance of a physical structure, the meeting place, where we know we’ll be welcomed and connected. That’s not to say that my retelling of old stories holds the same value, but it is often the case that we repeat what is most meaningful. In the case of this week’s Torah portion, clearly that means gathering together as a community. When we do that, we are indeed fulfilling the words we say at the end of each book, which of course have their own internal repetition: “Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek.” Let us be strong, and strengthen one another.