The Torah Says Stay Home – Parshat Tazria Metzora 5780

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This novel coronavirus has completely changed our rules of acceptable interaction. However, even before the outbreak, there were certain procedures in place for how to handle illness and bodily fluids in public. For example, there are rules about when children can attend school. If you have to wipe your nose more than five times in five minutes, or your snot from said nose is an alarming color, you are to stay home from school. Then there are the other ailments, which I won’t mention here because even seeing the words cause me to break out in itchy paranoia. Of course these precautions are mostly for the benefit of the teachers and other students. In general, public health and safety is at the center of so many policies regarding our places of work and education, and even more so now. These concerns also happen to be front and center in the Torah too. 

Our combined Torah portion this week, Parshiyot Tazria and Metzora, remind us of the healing properties of water as well. The text of these parshiyot tells us of the laws for the purification of both our homes and our bodies after disease or death has occurred, and the laws remind us that our bodies and our places of residence need to be treated with respect. We also have an obligation to help each other maintain healthy living and to support one another when we find impurities.

In all of this text, the Torah is focused on both what is best for the community at large, and what is best for the person with the ailment. Two full sections of text focus on cleaning and healing, separating and rejoining, and caring for and letting go of various ailments and bodily issues. The Torah even has a prescription for how we’re supposed to disinfect after an illness. Sound familiar? 

So why are there such detailed procedures laid out? Because everyone gets sick at one point or another. Everyone goes through some type of ailment. There’s a reason the common cold is called “common.” This universality means we need to learn how to care for ourselves and each other. It is a Torah mandate to stay away if you’re contagious and also a Torah mandate to care for others when they are sick.

As a working parent (in a two-working-parent household), I admit I try to push the limits a little when my own kids are sick, simply because the change in routine by having them home is difficult. However, I understand that the rules are there to keep us all safe and healthy. These two portions, Tazria and Metzora, are about our ability to help others heal and protect others from illness. And above all, it’s because you would want others to do the same for you. 

Baby Steps – Parshat Shemini 5780

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When I met Duncan, he had never kept kosher in his life. On our second date, when it seemed like there might be more dates in our future, he asked me about what it meant for me, a conservative rabbinical student, to be dating him, a life-long bacon cheeseburger-eating reform Jew (his words, not mine). So I stated my bottom line for what I wanted my life to be. I will always have a kosher home, and my family will always keep some moderate degree of Shabbat. Well, clearly my answers were satisfactorily non-threatening, because here we are more than 12 years later. But now you’re dying to know – does Duncan keep fully kosher? Did his diet change immediately overnight?  The answer is in a related lesson from this week’s Torah portion. 

This week we read Parshat Shemini. 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 of making our bodies holy by following the laws of kashrut

The rules and laws of kosher eating, the Jewish dietary code, are listed in this week’s text. These laws are not based on health, as commonly thought, but rather the ability to sanctify ourselves and be holy, as God is holy. The food we put into our bodies is representative of how we feel about ourselves and our connection to God.

Interestingly, however, choosing this lifestyle is not an all-or-nothing, all-at-once commitment. The dietary laws are given incrementally because the Torah recognizes that any change in diet is best done over time and with thought and care. At first, Duncan started keeping kosher when we were together while dating, meaning he wouldn’t eat pork or shellfish or mix milk and meat while we were eating together. At some point he stopped eating non-kosher meat. Gradually, he found his way into the kosher lifestyle in a way that was both meaningful and not overwhelming. 

For me, I’ll just say my relationship with food is complex. When I was younger, I was a picky eater, sticking mostly to peanut butter and jelly. As I aged, I learned to like a wider variety of foods, but always struggled with portion control. At 11 years old, my family took a break from keeping kosher outside the home, and I ate my first ever chicken finger. The clouds parted, a choir sang, and I thought the world was an even more incredible place because of this new ambrosia, not realizing I was significantly late to the McNugget game. Having kept kosher for most of my life, I’ve always been at least somewhat aware of the food I put into my body. I learned how to ask “Is there pork in this?” in multiple languages so I could be safe on trips. And later I endured salmon for dinner six nights in a row on what was otherwise a wonderful cruise because that was the only entree option available to this kosher-keeping non-vegetarian.

While kosher is right for me, it might not be for everyone, and treating your body as a holy vessel is more than keeping kosher and portion control. It is slowly and carefully paying attention to what nourishes you and leads you to being the best version of yourself. Parshat Shemini reminds us that the reason baby steps are successful is because each step doesn’t just move forward, it builds on the knowledge of the one before it.

It Takes All Kinds – Parshat Tzav 5780

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I know this might come as a surprise because I’m a rabbi, but I actually don’t find much personal spiritual fulfillment in daily prayer services. Occasionally, if the mood is right, the melody particularly poignant, and my mind just open enough, I might have a transcendental moment in prayer, but most of the time, my spirituality is found on a walk with my family in the sunshine or a long drive through our beautiful Oregon landscape. Mostly I find my connection to God in nature and in my family moments. I can feel that connection during shul too, perhaps just not as much as you might expect.

I’m guessing I might not be alone when it comes to how I approach spiritual fulfillment. Parshat Tzav, the Torah portion we read this week, tackles this question in an eloquent way. The parshah begins with a review of the instructions for the priests with regard to 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.

The beginning of the text teaches us, “Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering.” The Hebrew word used for ritual is “torat,” and the Talmud interprets this word as “Torah for,” meaning that in our day, the study of Torah takes the place of bringing animal offerings. Further, the Hatam Sofer asks, if this is the case, why is Aaron commanded? He answers that it’s because Aaron might be reluctant to tell the people that the study of Torah is equivalent to bringing sacrifices. It would cause confusion, presenting the people with an alternative form of worship. And maybe Aaron himself was afraid of presenting an alternative because it would weaken the priestly role in ritual.

I take the opposite view. As a rabbi, I encourage you to find your alternative way of connecting spiritually and with God. It’s very likely not every Israelite connected to God through sacrifice, and today not every congregant connects through prayer. While I would love to see you in the pews enjoying community and time together, I’d also love to go on a walk with you, taking in nature together and hearing about the unique way you yourself find God. 

The entire book of Vayikra is about the way in which our actions can connect us to God. Parshat Tzav encourages us to find that connection, and then actually use it. 

Open Gates, Open Mind – Parshat Vayikra 5780

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I tend to be pretty hard on myself after a mistake or misstep. When I do something or say something that I later regret, especially when it might make someone else uncomfortable or hurt them, I hold on to that pain and regret almost like a security blanket. I tend to beat myself up for days and weeks afterward, thinking about how I could have done better, worked differently, or simply made a better choice. Worse is when I realize my wrongdoing, then apologize, but the person isn’t ready to forgive or even engage in that conversation yet. That leads to my own frustration that I just didn’t avoid the situation in the first place. I’m a people pleaser after all, and because of that, my ideal is creating community and connection with everyone I encounter.

While the first step – recognizing the wrongdoing – might be easy for me, it certainly isn’t the only step necessary on the path to forgiveness. This week we read from Parshat Vayikra, the first section of the third book of the Torah. 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.

The end of this week’s portion deals with the ways in which we might ask for forgiveness or make strides in righting the wrongs we have committed. Chapter 5, verse 26 ends on this positive, simple note: “He shall be forgiven.” This statement follows an explanation of the actions that might be used to make reparation for our misdeeds. Ultimately, if we partake in the prescribed action and ask for forgiveness, then we are forgiven. 

A Hasidic master taught, “The gates of repentance open for anyone who does wrong and then realizes it and seeks to make amends.” In other words, the road to forgiveness must begin with the desire to get there. I can beat myself up all I want about my misdeeds, but unless I have a willingness and desire to change, those gates remain locked. 

As we read Parshat Vayikra, especially at a time when our community simply is not physically able to come together in person to apologize, to forgive, and to move on, we are reminded that each of us holds the key to our own journey to forgiveness. And perhaps an added benefit of this period of isolation is merely the time to look inward and finally use that key. Shabbat shalom.

This I Promise You – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5780

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When I was preparing to go to Guatemala last year I was reminded that we weren’t supposed to bring any jewelry or anything flashy or expensive with us. The crime rate is high; theft is a problem. We were told not to wear our wedding bands or engagement rings for fear that they might be stolen while we showered or slept. This caused me a minor moment of panic. For 10 years I’ve worn these rings on my fingers, ever-present reminders of my wedding vows. Not only that, the words on my wedding band are the same as those on my parents’ bands, and the diamond on my engagement band belonged to Duncan’s Bubbe. These rings are more than jewelry; they bind my spouse and me to our past and hold in them the promise of our future. Not having that with me made me nervous. 

In the Torah there are many covenants made up of words and very few of physical items. However, one of those items is the “Tabernacle of the Pact” as we read about in our Torah portions this week 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. 

This Tabernacle is the focal point of the entire covenant with God. Everywhere the Israelites traveled, the covenant – through the Tabernacle – was there to help remind them of the pact they made. Today, we don’t have a Tabernacle, or even a daily reminder that we’re in covenant with our community in different ways. We don’t wear a ring to show that we belong to a synagogue or are on the board of the food bank. We don’t walk around with nametags every day that list our many contributions, although for a while cause-based bracelets were a thing.

So, as we read Parshat Vayakhel and Pekudei, we are gently nudged to ask ourselves, what is the reminder of our covenant that we carry each day? For the covenant I made with Duncan, my Guatemala solution was to get silicone rings to wear for the eight days of the trip. Today, I believe that our covenant with God is shown in our words and our actions. Our society has evolved that we don’t necessarily need a separate physical reminder in our community to be good; the reminder is how we act toward each other.