Washing Your Mouth Out with Soap (And Other Weird Punishments in the Torah)

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I’ll never forget the one and only time I made the mistake of not listening to my mother’s warning of “Say that again, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.” I had been practicing asserting my “maturity” in language by using certain curse words. I was asked repeatedly to stop and didn’t heed the warning. Yes, she actually washed my mouth, and rest assured I learned my lesson. Soap leaves a terrible taste, not unlike the words I was using.

I’m not advocating this antiquated consequence, but engaging our senses in symbolism and to understand how our actions might affect others is powerful. Think of how we eat bitter herbs on Passover to remember the bitterness of Egypt. On the happier side, think of the candy thrown and eaten to taste the sweetness of a simcha.

The Torah is full of reminders of ways in which we might physically experience our missteps or cruel actions. One of the most prominent stories of “eating your words” comes out of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Naso. This section of text is one of the longest in the Torah. In it we read of the different roles of the chiefs of the tribes, the number of Israelites in the army, and the ways in which the camp deals with those who are “other.” We also receive the blessing of the kohanim (the priests) and the laws of the Nazirite.

Also within the words of the text is the story of the Sotah. The Sotah is the woman suspected of betraying her husband, and it involves a strange and somewhat demeaning ritual. The man is to bring his wife forward, and she is put through a series of rituals that include eating barley flour (the flour used for animals), drinking the water of bitterness, and the “loosening” of her hair. Once the woman drinks the potion, if she has betrayed her husband she will show physical signs of change. If not, her body will remain unharmed.

This is a pretty severe take on washing out your mouth, with waters of bitterness matching the bitterness of the situation. It’s similar to when Moses made the Israelite camp drink the ground-up powdered Golden Calf after that bitter incident, a part of the story not as well known.

We might not agree with the severity of these examples from the Bible, but the overarching idea is true. Things that involve more of our senses stick with us. From those certain smells that take you back to your grandmother’s kitchen, to the way you can pick up a musical instrument after many years and still play a song, our senses define our experiences. The more you involve your whole being in anything – Judaism included – the stronger your emotional ties will be.

 

 

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Godlike – Parshat Naso 5777

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There’s something very magical in looking at your child for the first time – that first gaze at the human you created. Especially as a mother, I distinctly remember this moment. I was in awe of what my body could create. I studied every inch of my daughter’s body, her sweet ears that were uniquely shaped liked the letter E on the inside, her silvery eyes, the way her little feet sat together. It was hard to imagine that this body was created inside my own body. And then as she grew, she started to show some features of mine and some that matched Duncan. In fact, there are days when she’ll look particularly like me, other days when Shiri is the spitting image of her daddy, and other times she looks like her grandparents. Sometimes I just don’t know whom she resembles most. It is in all of these moments that I am reminded of the miracle of our very existence in the world. Had it not been for the moment God recognized the need for the creation of human beings, these wonders would not exist.

As we read Parshat Naso this week, we read about the Israelite society trying to move forward after leaving Egypt and about the establishment of a successful community. The narrative picks up with a second counting of the people; laws about how we are to treat one another and the property that we own; the blessing of the priests to the people; and the laws of the Nazir, detailing how we might dedicate ourselves directly to God. Among these laws is the notion of connection to a community, to God, and to the greater “people.”

As the section of text makes its way through the establishment of a new society, we learn about the confession, atonement, and ramifications of wrongdoing. The text teaches, “Any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord.” This small verse becomes fodder for much debate among the commentators, but when I read this verse, I see the reminder that we were all created in God’s image. Therefore, an affront to a creation of God is an affront to the God of creation. Logically, if all human beings are created with the spark of the divine in them, then the person who pushes your buttons in all the wrong ways, and the person whom you can’t live without in the world, were both created with a divine spark.

It’s events like last week’s tragic attacks that occurred in our own backyard in Portland that make it especially hard to reconcile our belief in this inner divine spark. The horrendous news of the brutal attack on Portland public transit reached a new low this week, as it was reported that personal possessions of one of the men slain were stolen off his corpse by someone else on the train.

We are living in a time in which we are constantly reminded of the simple, sad truth that a spark is not enough. A spark is not a flame. A spark dies instantly if it is not ignited, and who is responsible for igniting that spark? We are, not God. God was responsible for placing the spark within each of us, but we are responsible for the flame. I read this single verse in this week’s Torah portion and can only imagine what the world would look like if every time we looked at one another, we not only recognized something greater than ourselves, but also our mandate to make sure that the spark of recognition is never extinguished.

Should You #PrayForSomething – Parshat Naso 5776

Pray For Something

Does prayer for healing after a tragedy actually work? I’m not sure the answer is black and white, but I’m sure it’s a question worth asking.

As you can imagine, it’s difficult to write a d’var Torah this week without the tragic loss of life in Orlando influencing my thoughts. Every day this week news outlets have tried to put more pieces of this devastating puzzle together, and every other post I see as I scroll through my social media feeds is a commentary on gun rights (and wrongs). Obviously no two events like this are exactly alike, but one thing that always seems to surface in the wake of tragedy is the plea for prayer. You may have even seen the #PrayForOrlando hashtag, similar to the #PrayForParis hashtag shared following the Paris terror attacks last year.

What is the goal of this sentiment, and if the goal is some form of healing to those most deeply connected, is it successful?

While we may not have a definitive answer, our Torah portion offers some insight. As we read parshat Naso this week, we read about the Israelite society trying to move forward after leaving Egypt and the establishment of a successful community. The narrative picks up with a second counting of the people, laws about how to treat one another and our property, the blessing of the priests to the people, and the laws of the Nazir, detailing how we might dedicate ourselves directly to God.

This week’s parshah also contains an iconic section of Torah, the priestly blessing. This section of text is invoked every Friday night as the blessing over the children, it’s used to bless a bar or bat mitzvah, and it’s bestowed upon a couple under the wedding canopy.

May God bless you and keep you.

May God smile at you and be gracious to you.

God lift God’s face upon you and place upon you peace.

Each line is itself a noble, yet modest blessing. However, what is noteworthy is that God is invoked in each one. Why is it necessary to recall in each line that we are praying to God? Perhaps with the transition from slavery to freedom still relatively fresh for the Israelites, we need to be reminded that it was only with God’s help that we were able to establish ourselves as a free people. That would certainly be an argument for prayer as an agent of change, or at least a viable form of gratitude.

Or perhaps it’s the opposite. Perhaps it’s what is not included in these three lines that speaks to how our partnership with God works. In the priestly blessing, we are given abstract concepts like graciousness and peace, but these are simply wishes we would like fulfilled. It’s the rest of the Torah that acts as a blueprint for action. As we learn throughout the Torah, our relationship with God is one of give and take, and it’s only balanced if prayer and action work hand in hand.

On Monday night while Congress held a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting, Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut walked out of the House, a gesture meant to decry “silence” without action. The Dalai Lama shared a similar sentiment the same night at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Although he asked for a moment of silence before his talk, he followed it by warning that prayer without action is empty.

Our prayers should not be empty words, just as our partnership with God should not be one-sided. By no means am I saying we shouldn’t pray for the victims and loved ones involved in a tragedy. The message I take away from the priestly blessing is that regardless of what you’re praying for or what policy you support, peace and healing depend on more than prayers and hashtags alone.

Parenting by the Parshah – Naso

The contrast between joyous Shavuot (when we receive, along with the rest of the Torah, the commandment “Thou shall not kill”) and the horrific events in Orlando and Tel Aviv is jarring and nauseating. Today I offer a departure from my usual lighthearted parenting lessons as I grapple with what it means to give and receive blessing in this world my daughter will inherit. But perhaps this struggle too is Torah.

I Forgive Me – Parshat Naso 5775

I Forgive Me

When it comes to the art of asking for forgiveness, there’s nothing worse than a canned apology. You know the kind I’m talking about. A politician reading a few lines of carefully scripted empathy off a teleprompter or a business owner covering up for something that was “taken out of context.” The real problem with a fake “I’m sorry” is that even if it appeases those who were wronged, it carries no weight for the person apologizing. You see, when you’re to blame, the first person you must ask forgiveness from is yourself. Only then can you accept the feelings of guilt that help you to change.

As we read parshat Naso this week, we read about the Israelite society trying to move forward after leaving Egypt and the establishment of a successful community.  The narrative picks up with a second counting of the people; laws about how we are to treat one another and the property that we own; the blessing of the priests to the people; and the laws of the Nazir, detailing how we might dedicate ourselves directly to God.

Chapter 5, verse 7 focuses in on the notion of confession.  “He shall confess the wrong that he has done.”  While this sounds straightforward enough, the “confession” is loaded with ritual and with meaning. The Hebrew word used for confession is “hitvadu.”  This is in the reflexive form, which suggests that we must confess to ourselves the wrong that we have done.  Confessing to ourselves, and even forgiving ourselves, is essential in moving forward and growing as humans.

Too often as parents, children, siblings, and teachers, we only halfway apologize for our mistakes. We publicly ask for forgiveness, but we never truly move forward by personally taking ownership of those wrongdoings.  We give lip service to our wrongs, but don’t learn anything from them.  The text this week reminds us that in order to properly confess, and to properly forgive, we must forgive and believe it first ourselves.

One of the essential tools of the rabbinical trade is a thick skin.  This isn’t just because of the pastoral duties, which require a specific temperament. It’s also because as someone who must choose words carefully, I tend to be hardest on myself when my words fall short. Maybe I wasn’t able to respond to a question fast enough or I wasn’t able to be there physically when you needed me. I take these moments to heart and often hold onto them  longer than I should. You may have even forgiven me before I have forgiven myself.

Here’s my promise to you: I will work on forgiving myself if you promise to work on forgiving yourself too. After all, that’s precisely the point of including the concept of hitvadu in this community-building portion of the Torah. Confession is just one building block of a fruitful relationship, and it’s our relationships that create the society we want.

[photo credit: Sorry in Sydney, Australia -sky writing, National Apology Day , National Sorry Day 2015 “such unthinkable theft” via photopin (license)]