Doctor’s Orders – Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5780

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It has been many years since I have fasted for the full Yom Kippur holiday. The last time was Yom Kippur 2012. This year is the first time since then that I am neither pregnant nor nursing, so I had the obligation to return to the traditional fast. It kind of reminded me of when I was 12 and fasted for the first time. I had dry mouth and a headache, and it was hard to concentrate, especially while leading long services and standing for much of the morning. By mid-afternoon I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the fast. I had two more programs to do, and my head was feeling a bit woozy, so I caved. I took a big sip of water, and my body instantly calmed down. I made it 20 hours through my fast. I felt a twinge of disappointment that I couldn’t push through, but I also felt proud of the work I’d done both spiritually and physically to get through the day. I still had a meaningful Yom Kippur, I wasn’t smited (at least I don’t think so), and I ended the holiday on a spiritual high. 

The Torah would actually support my partial victory. 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 relationships and understanding.

It’s Parshat Acharei Mot that carries with it many of the laws for Yom Kippur and how we should atone. Chapter 16, verse 31 expresses that Yom Kippur shall be a Shabbat of complete rest and that we should practice self denial. This is the basis for fasting on Yom Kippur as well as the abstentions from bathing, sexual activity, and wearing leather. We indulge the rest of the year; Yom Kippur is the one time of year when we focus outside of ourselves. 

While the intention behind giving up certain things is good, self-denial can be more difficult for some than others, and also potentially dangerous. The Talmud insists that all who are ill or infirm should follow doctor’s orders to eat, drink, and take medication, including on Yom Kippur. Further, if it feels necessary for your own health, you’re allowed to – in small quantities – take a sip of water or a small bite of food. 

The fact that Parshat Acharei Mot is followed by Parshat Kedoshim, which literally means holiness, is a not-so-subtle reminder that it’s our laws and traditions that lead us to holiness. However, holiness is more than individual instances of self-denial. It’s about all-around self-care, and that’s something we should be practicing all year long. 

We Are Not OK, And That’s OK

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I’m not OK. My kids are not OK. Isolation and fear have put us in a deep grief. But I’m trying to remind myself that doesn’t mean I’m a bad parent. It means the same thing a period of grief normally means: we’re allowing ourselves to feel.
This type of grief is new and scary, especially because the normal outlets for mourning and releasing grief are closed to us; in fact, their closure is the cause of the grief. I’m a rabbi. I’m a doer. It hurts when I can’t take some sort of close, personal action with those around me.
This past weekend was supposed to be our synagogue’s family camp weekend. A weekend my community, my family, and I look forward to every year. As the weekend drew near, my heart was hurting at the thought of not being together. An idea formed in my head that maybe we could run a virtual family camp, and we actually pulled it off. We used Zoom meetings for services and a couple of short sessions in combination with tons of activities families could do on their own. We included our traditional glow stick Havdalah and grown-up social time. We went on individual nature walks and posted pictures in a shared album and with a hashtag. I was stoked.
While it seemed to be mostly a success, it also backfired emotionally for me. Not only was it obviously not the same as real camp, it made me miss our friends more. At times it felt like I was painting on a happy face to trick myself into believing we (and everything) were OK.
But in reality, that’s a lie. I can’t call this OK. I’m tired, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, overworked, alone, smothered, scared, and anxious, and I can’t help feeling like I’m failing my kids and congregation, though I know I can’t fix everything.
We’re a family with two full-time working parents and two kids at the super needy ages of three and six. Our kids just want and deserve undivided attention. Our jobs expect us to continue to answer emails and Slack messages and be productive during the workday. Yes, they’re trying to be flexible, but we’re both working what feels like our 40-hour weeks every day in order to keep up. And why, for the love of everything, are there so many dishes?!
We are not OK, and we have to stop pretending we are. Ignoring or wishing away the grief doesn’t make it go away. Last night after the end of Shabbat and virtual family camp, both kids had epic meltdowns. After they finally got pajamas on and got into bed, I lay in bed with the six-year-old. I was there mostly to apologize for losing my cool. She looked utterly defeated, and I asked if she was OK. She shook her head no with giant tears in her sleepy eyes. I hugged her, and I said, “I’m not OK either. I miss friends and school. I miss going to shul. I miss putting down our tech. I hate wearing a mask when I’m with people. I’m scared and I’m sad. Are you, Baby?”
By this point she was crying hard and squeezing me so tight I could barely breathe. And this isn’t the snuggly one of my two children. I had worked so hard to create routine and stability for everyone that I hadn’t allowed room for the tears. I kept on my positive face and comforting persona to help others, but it turns out, we need to allow it out. The grief needs an outlet.
So I am proclaiming here: I am NOT OK, and that is OK. But I will be OK. We all will be. What we should do in the meantime is own our feelings. Let them out.
As an aside, I’m always here for you, and ready and willing to cry together just like I did with my daughter.

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.