Body Piercing vs. Body Image – Parshat Kedoshim 5779

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My dad told me I couldn’t have my ears pierced until I was 16. Over time I eventually wore him down to 8 years old, and then when I turned 16, I put a second hole in my ears. When I was 17 years old, all I wanted was to pierce my belly button. I begged my parents for permission to do so, but they kept telling me no. I vowed that when I was 18 I would just go do it myself. I was convinced that a belly button piercing was what I needed, but my father kept reminding me that as Jews we don’t pierce our bodies beyond our ears. I was a teenager, so needless to say I didn’t care. Right after I turned 18, my parents gave in (or gave up) and said they were ok with a pierced belly button as long as I went to a clean and safe place to do it. Of course once I had their permission, my rebellious urge was gone, and I never went through with it. To this day, my mom claims that was their plan all along.

When it came to body piercing (and ear piercing), my dad’s argument had always been that the Torah says we don’t pierce or permanently change our bodies. Supposedly the consequence for doing so was that you could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery after you died. Well, he was partially right.

This week we read Parshat Kedoshim. The structure of this section of text pushes us to look at our relationships with both God and others and see the boundaries and intimacies of each relationship. Parshat Kedoshim deals with what is known as the “Holiness Code” that helps us to understand how we can walk in God’s ways and create a community of relationship and understanding.

The Holiness Code goes deeper than our standard interpersonal relationships. It focuses on the holiness of the relationships we have with ourselves, our neighbors, and with God. One of the ways in which we establish and maintain holiness is through our bodies. Chapter 19, verse 28 teaches, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” We are taught through this verse that holiness means respect for one’s body. The prohibition against incising any marks on your flesh is meant to teach us that our bodies are already perfect vessels, and we shouldn’t permanently change them with piercings or surgery.

While tattooing or piercing does not prohibit a Jew from being buried in a Jewish cemetery, those things are technically prohibited. But I’ll be honest. As far as I’m concerned, what you do to your body is really none of my business. The real takeaway here is how the Torah reminds us of the importance of positive body image. Parshat Kedoshim reminds us that holiness is not reserved for the synagogue or prayer or even politeness around others. We have a sacred mandate to view ourselves and our bodies as vessels for holiness and to treat them as such. And if my children ask to pierce their ears before 16, only time will tell if I can hold out longer than my parents did.

One for Me, One for You – Parshat Acharei Mot 5779

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My five-and-a-half-year-old is well aware of the concept of fairness. When her little brother gets to do something she doesn’t get to do, or if someone has a slightly bigger dessert than she has, she doesn’t hesitate to let everyone know. Even when it’s just pretend play, she might set the table for her “guests” and strive to make sure there’s an equal distribution of food, plates, and chairs. Everyone gets one of whatever it is, regardless of the fact that the friends are stuffed or imaginary. What matters to children is the sense of equality. Children are marvelously quick to sense inequality in their space and often have a hard time moving forward until the equality is again restored. Whether we’re talking about personal possessions, food, or time, a sense of equality is a basic need for children and adults alike.

This week we read Parshat Acharei Mot, the portion that details the laws and rules for healthy relationships. It begins with the cleanup after the loss of Aaron’s sons to their own out of body experience while breaking the rules, and continues with the laws about how we are supposed to atone for our sins on Yom Kippur. The final chapter of the text deals with appropriate and inappropriate relationships between family members.

As Aaron is making his offering, it is described in chapter 16, verse 8 as follows: “And he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel.” The goats are offered as a sacrifice, with the one marked for God going up as an offering, and the one marked for Azazel sent off into the wilderness. The meaning of Azazel is unknown, but assumed to be some kind of demon that leans toward evil or self-destruction. Despite the two opposite uses, the goat meant for God is equal to the goat that represents our earthly desires. In other words, what we give to our own earthly desires, like time, money and energy, we should also give equally in service to God, or our faith-based life.

The text is about finding the balance. When we lean too far into our earthly desires and possessions, we can find ourselves off kilter, becoming greedy, or coveting what others have. Life then becomes about what others have as opposed to focusing on the gifts that we do possess. On the other hand, when we’re too focused on our relationship with God, we might miss out on worldly connections or make decisions that are blinded by faith.

One for God, one for Azazel. One for you, one for me. Perfect equality or fairness might never exist, but the parshah this week reminds us to look for the ways in which we can bring at least some semblance of balance and order.

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.