Snowball’s Chance – Parshat Behar-Bechukotai 5781

I despise snow in Portland. As I’ve shared with many of you, I was never really a big fan of snow when it happened in Michigan when I was growing up either. Primarily it’s because I don’t like to be cold, and I don’t like to be wet. Snow manages to combine both of those elements into one, and being cold and wet at the same time has never been my thing. In particular, I don’t like snow in Portland because it means the city will be shut down for who knows how long. It starts out beautifully idyllic, but then as things melt and freeze again, and the microclimates laugh at us for wanting any sort of consistency, we could be looking at two to four days without reliable transportation. The worst year had us trapped in our house for eight days, and that was with a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. If you ask me, snow in Portland snowballs out of control. (HA!)

It’s actually the snowball effect, not the snow itself, that I’m reminded of in this week’s Torah portion. I’m talking about a situation that continues to build on itself until it’s out of control. Whether it’s a global pandemic or a cycle of systemic oppression, when enough “snow” builds up and starts rolling away from us, it can quickly get out of hand. 

Our double Torah portion this week, Behar-Bechukotai, warns us of the implications of the snowball effect in our own lives. Behar-Bechukotai focuses primarily on the laws of agriculture and land. What makes this section of text unique is that it takes the notion of land ownership and farming and uses that to create a society in which no one group holds complete control forever. We read about the 50-year land ownership cycle, in which we are required to allow the land to rest every seventh year. In the 50th year of the cycle, all land returns to its original owner. Imagine a farmer who falls on hard times because of a drought or poor crop. In order to sustain his family, he might sell off parts of his farm acre by acre. After 10 years he might have nothing left, and he might be forced off the land or have to find another way to make a living. According to our Torah laws, in the 50th year this farmer would receive back all his land and become his own landlord again.

In the midst of these laws, we read chapter 25, verse 35: “If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though he is a resident alien, let him live by your side.” The Sifra, a midrashic commentary on the book of Leviticus, reads this verse literally as “If your kinsman stumbles.” In other words, it’s easier to support a person when they first begin to stumble than it is to pick them up after they’ve fallen. Like a snowball, problems are easier to control when they’re manageable in size before they’ve snowballed out of control.

In all the words of these parshiyot we are made aware that working to solve a problem before it becomes a catastrophe is of the utmost importance in maintaining a thriving, supportive community. As for the literal snow, well, there’s not much we can do about that.

Off On a Tangent – Parshat Emor 5781

I’m a tangential thinker. What I mean by that is that I can be in the middle of doing one task when something reminds me of another task I need to do, so I stop task one to either make a note of task two, or I actually go do task two before coming back to task one. Hopefully task two doesn’t remind me of a third task, otherwise it just spirals out of control from there.

For example, I can be writing one of my weekly Torah reflections (like I am now), when someone comes into my office and asks me a question. That question leads me to another task, and I totally lose my train of thought. To combat this, I’ve recently started asking people to wait when I’m writing so I can write down my thoughts and outline where I want to go so I won’t forget. While this strategy is only about 85% effective in keeping me on my current train of thought, it does help trigger my memory so I can mostly recall where I was going and how I wanted to get there.

We see tangential thinking happen all the time in the Talmud. The rabbis are engaged in a conversation about one topic when someone brings a proof text that reminds a rabbi of a different topic, and then they veer off course for a bit before returning to the original topic. It is how human beings often work in relationship with one another. It is less common in the Torah, where the narrative generally has a clear path from one part to the next. However, in this week’s Torah portion, we have a few of these moments of tangents. 

As we read Parshat Emor, we once again find ourselves deep into the commandments surrounding Jewish practice. Parshat Emor focuses on the rules and regulations for the priests, along with the obligations of the Israelites. It covers the observance of certain holidays, including mentions about the holiness of Shabbat, other holidays we are to celebrate throughout the year, and the ways in which we are to treat one another and even animals. The majority of these rituals are meant to be done in public, with the entire community a part of them.

The general flow of the text moves from one holiday observance to the next with clear understandings of how each holiday will be celebrated. But, when you get to the laws of Shavuot and the harvest season, followed by the transition to the laws for Rosh Hashanah, called the “Day of Remembrance” in the text, there is a single verse between them that is not a directive about either holiday specifically. In the midst of all the specific guidelines for holiday observance, we read chapter 23, verse 22: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.”

This verse speaks of the general harvest and cleaning and interrupts the list of festivals. Why? The Sifra, a Midrashic commentary on the book of Leviticus, suggests that perhaps it’s either because Shavuot itself occurs during a time of harvest, or because on Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, which magnifies the principal in this verse. Yet a third reason could be because when you share your bounty with the poor, it is as if it were offered on God’s altar. 

A tangent it may be, but this tangential verse opens our eyes to the ways in which each task is connected, even if we may not see it right away. Shavuot is a holiday honoring God through the harvest, but the way we harvest can honor other members of our community. The opposite is also true in Judaism. In addition to our everyday blessings and prayers, every opportunity to lift each other up is another opportunity to honor God.

You Are the Tradition – Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5781

While we’re not currently in the season of Hanukkah, a Mishnah that I love to teach about Hanukkah comes to mind as I read this week’s Torah portions. Hillel and Shammai, the great rabbinic sparring partners, have a debate about which way to light the candles. Should you add one each night or subtract one? At the same time, the Mishnah also introduces the concept that our rabbis taught that the mitzvah of Hanukkah is (for one person to light) one candle for the household. And for those who embellish, one candle for each and every member of the house. Then Hillel and Shammai get into the debate about eight candles and their significance. 

This debate is about more than a ritual. It symbolizes our desire to assign deeper meaning to the ordinary objects we’re using. In the case of Hanukkah, the candles represent something bigger than just glowing light. They represent ourselves, our community, our world.

This week we read a double parshah, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Parshat Acharei Mot deals with what happens after Aaron’s sons have offered up “strange fire” to God and with certain forbidden relationships between human beings. 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.

In the context of these two Torah portions, we read about the way Aaron was supposed to prepare for Yom Kippur, specifically the public cleanse and purification for atonement. Aaron is to take a bull, a ram, and two goats, and wear (four) sacral linen garments. Leviticus Rabbah interprets each of these items and connects them to stories of Aaron’s past through his ancestors. The bull recalls the merit of Abraham’s offering when the messengers of God came to him. The ram is a reminder of Isaac’s readiness to be sacrificed at the Akeidah. The two goats symbolize the meal Jacob prepared for his father when he received his blessing instead of his brother. The four linen garments represent Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. In essence, the midrash reads this offering as a way for Aaron to enter into his holy work knowing that he carries on the legacy of his forebears.

This brings us back to Hanukkah and the idea that the objects aren’t just objects. They are us. This concept of hearkening back and assigning human identity is part of contemporary Judaism on other holidays as well. On Shabbat we can light two candles, as has become tradition, or we can light one candle for each person in our house. When we atone at Yom Kippur, we know that we stand in atonement with the merit of ourselves and also the merit of those who have come before us in all generations. What’s so beautiful about Judaism is that you can look at our observance and see a lot of traditions, or you can look at our traditions and see a lot of us.   

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.