A Strong Core – Parshat Metzora 5782

If the core isn’t solid, the integrity of a structure suffers. This is true for homes and commercial buildings as well as the structure of the human body or even the “structure” of a community. When we were doing renovations on our house a few years ago, I was very interested in the steps the builders took to make sure we had a sound structure. Naturally, I wanted our house to be strong and remain standing, but it went beyond that. I noticed the places where they used reinforced materials. I noticed where they pointed out a little bit of wood rot or gaps in insulation from old construction. All of that information was helpful to understanding the core strength of our home. 

On a personal and very physical level, it was around this time when I also started exercising regularly and often with my coach. As we cycled through the strength exercises, I would notice that some days worked muscles I didn’t know I had, resulting in incredible soreness, while other times, I hardly felt anything the next day. The muscles I used frequently were already strong and didn’t feel the strain, while the muscles I used less often made themselves known. The key to it all was building and maintaining a strong core. When my core was engaged, my body was more stable.

The idea of identifying the core of a structure, a person, or even an organization is at the center of this week’s Torah portion. This week’s portion, Metzora, is a pause in the narrative of the death of Aaron’s sons, his mourning process, and his rejoining the community. The text details the healing and purification processes of physical buildings and our nation of Israel. As you might imagine, these processes require different actions for different circumstances.

There’s a focus on literally scraping apart buildings and looking at materials to find the source of an impurity. Find the brick, scrape the mud, cut a hole, etc. When all else fails, the Torah asks the community to tear down the building altogether, because at its core, it isn’t sound and must be rebuilt. The commentators read these verses and liken the idea of building strong physical buildings to that of building strong communities.

In chapter 14, verses 43 through 45, the question we’re to ask is whether or not the building as a whole has superficial issues or “wounds,” or if it is the entirety of the building that is broken and must be torn down. In the commentary, we’re asked to use this same lens on our own organizations when there are problems, struggles, or stumbles. Is it the entirety of the institution that is failing, or are there individual boards that need replacing or screws that need tightening?  

Not every problem can be solved with a repair. Sometimes what you really need is an overhaul. Parshat Metzora reminds us that to be problem solvers means knowing the difference.

The Little Things – Parshat Tazria 5782

I like to think of myself as a pretty observant person. I take in small details and notice when something has changed, whether it’s a haircut, landscaping, or new jewelry. I’m pretty sure I’ve been like this for most of my life. In fact, I like noticing little changes, and it can make other people feel good and feel very seen when someone notices those little changes. Not only that, but being aware of tiny changes can actually save lives.

About 18 months ago, I found a small lump in my armpit. I was doing my monthly self check and noticed something small, like a ball rolling around. I did my best not to panic, but inside I was going through every worst case scenario I could think of. I scheduled a virtual doctor visit to get some clarity and then ended up with a quickly scheduled mammogram and ultrasound. Turns out, it was just a harmless little cyst that I then had removed. Being aware of my body’s tiny changes was enough for me to catch something that could have been a lot worse. 

Our Torah portion this week is a call to notice those small changes so we can take care of ourselves. 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 needs cleansing of both body and material items in order to reenter the world.

As the Torah lists all the different ailments to watch out for – and there are many – it draws great attention to noticing change: hair that once had color but is now white, or skin that was pink and is now ashen or dry. Each of these little changes might be a sign of a different ailment. And the awareness of these changes can be lifesaving for the person infected and even the community around them.

Consider this your reminder to schedule that annual physical, go to the dentist, get a haircut, and get to know yourself. Like that postcard from the dermatologist, Parshat Tazria is our biblical yearly reminder to pay attention to our bodies. The Torah is not suggesting we be hypochondriacs, but simply to be knowledgeable and aware so that we can take the best possible care of ourselves and others.  

Lashing Out – Parshat Shemini 5782

When does your temper flare? Like everyone, I have my limits. I’ll lose my temper when I have simply been pushed until I cannot contain myself anymore. In these heated moments we’ve all experienced, it’s nearly impossible to offer compassion, space, or understanding as to what others might be feeling. Whether well-founded or not, feelings of betrayal and disrespect block us from seeing the bigger picture, and it can take time to reconcile these feelings. While a temper isn’t a trait we necessarily admire in our leaders, I can take comfort knowing that leaders in the Torah, like Moses, have also let tempers flare. 

To change the subject briefly, the Torah provides interesting insight into the grieving process, particularly in the portion we read this week, 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 for making our bodies holy by following kashrut (keeping kosher).

In the moments after Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu fail in their roles as priests and die in the process, Moses has a hard time containing his rage. He lashes out at the remaining priests, Eleazar and Ithamar. He questions their frame of mind; he yells at them. Why? Because in this moment Moses cannot be reasoned with. He can only express his rage.

Is it right for a leader to rage publicly? That might be up for debate. But what’s clear is that lashing out doesn’t prove useful. Yes, Moses needed to grieve in his own way, but for his nephews and brother, he really needed to share words of comfort, of understanding, of guidance.

Parshat Shemini brings to life the realities of emotions, and emotions like grief and anger hit each of us in unique ways. It’s a complicated lesson to learn: being able to control our emotions while acknowledging that our emotions need to be let out in healthy ways. But that’s Judaism in a nutshell, being able to hold more than one idea at a time. 

The First, Not the Last – Parshat Tzav 5782

On this Shabbat 100 years ago, a young woman named Judith Kaplan celebrated the first public bat mitzvah in an American congregation. It was March 18, 1922. Judith was the daughter of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and Judith herself went on to become a talented composer and renowned musicologist. 

Marking this anniversary, I can’t help thinking of my bat mitzvah, which, in its own small way, was a break from the norm at my synagogue. I was the first girl in my congregation to lay tefillin, and I fought to lead so many parts of the service that were considered inappropriate for women to lead in Conservative Judaism at that time. Yes, we’ve come a long way, and it’s important to acknowledge where we came from and to whom credit is due.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tzav, begins with a review of the instructions for the priests with regard to various types of sacrifices. The instructions detail things like what the priests will wear, what time of day the sacrifices are to be made, and who should consume them. The text continues with instructions on kosher eating and concludes with a review of how priests are sanctified in their roles as leaders.

Toward the beginning of this week’s reading, we come to the commandments concerning who can eat of specific sacrifices. The Torah is clear in Leviticus chapter 6, verse 11 that only the males of Aaron’s descendants may eat of it because of their status as God’s holy ones. Since the beginning of Jewish law, this simple statement has been the reason women have been prohibited from taking leadership roles in the Jewish community. Why? Many explanations suggest that it was thought that men could understand the laws more clearly. Although when you consider how much of Judaism was guided, taught, and passed down by women and mothers, this argument is fundamentally flawed if not outright misogynistic.

Other explanations lean on women’s supposed lack of purity or focus, and we now know those arguments fail for their own reasons. So without any rational explanation for the practice of excluding women, the Conservative Movement eventually started ordaining women as rabbis. There was no longer a reason not to. (Of course there never was, but they didn’t realize that until later.) 

All humans are created in the image of the divine, and characteristics like gender and race don’t decide one’s leadership potential. And we should remember that having women leaders is about much more than proving a certain level of competence to men. It’s about showing other women what’s possible. 

Fourteen months ago, when Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female, BIPOC vice president of the United States, regardless of your political leanings or the color of your state, this moment held immense significance. She was not the first woman to run for this office, but she was the first to take the vice presidential oath of office. Across the nation there were tears of triumph and joy at this further confirmation of what women senators, governors, Supreme Court justices, and presidents of other countries have been proving for decades.

Thank you to Judith Kaplan and women like Regina Jonas, Sally Priesand, and countless others who came before me, so that I could stand before you. 

Complete Wellbeing – Parshat Vayikra 5782

The concept of self-care has pushed its way into every aspect of pandemic life. Are you prioritizing care for others over care for yourself? Are you setting aside enough “you” time? Are you respecting the needs of others for their own self-care? Self-care is now the pressure-filled obligation we were trying to avoid by giving ourselves more self-care in the first place.

What if we looked at the entire spectrum of care (care for ourselves, care for others, and everything in between) as general wellbeing? It’s not necessarily prescriptive, but more of a reminder that wellness, wholeness, and care are interrelated. And that concept is actually central to many of the laws of Torah that we receive.

This week we read Parshat Vayikra, and we begin the third book of the Torah, which details the many sacrifices and daily, active mitzvot of living as an Israelite. In the explanation of these sacrifices, 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 there are 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.

In the list of offerings that are made to God, we receive the requirement of an offering of wellbeing. This offering is specifically brought by someone who has something to celebrate. It’s called zevach shelamim in Hebrew, which loosely translates to a sacred gift of (fill in the blank). But why would it be “fill in the blank” instead of the actual gift? The root of the word shelamim is shalem: shin, lamed, mem. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the same root for the Hebrew word shalom, which can mean hello, goodbye, or peace. That leaves the item open to interpretation. Is this supposed to be an offering of peace? Of greeting? What did God mean when this offering was mandated?

I believe this particular offering was left purposefully vague. Sometimes you might need personal wellbeing or peace; other times you might need to “greet” God (or yourself) again. This ambiguity allows us to check in with ourselves to see what we actually need and the flexibility to decide if it’s “me time” or people time. 

Parshat Vayikra and each of these sacrifices listed remind us that our life is built on a multitude of offerings, and those offerings are not only meant for what we give to others but also, and just as importantly, what we gift to ourselves. Another meaning of the root word shalem is “wholeness,” and feeling complete is about filling each of our physical and emotional buckets. Perhaps this is the offering or the sacred gift of finding our whole selves in the work of helping others and helping ourselves.