Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Pooh Bear & the Pox

This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Tazria-Metzora.  It’s a double portion and it has a lot of information about how to identify sores that are oozing and contagious from sores that are passing and benign.  Yes, there are ways to know. They include whether or not a hair spontaneously grew in the middle of the sore and what colour that hair is (I’ll spare you any more details than that).  Buried in the material are relevant concepts for our world today, as is always the case with Torah…but with your permission, I’d rather not immerse myself in the details of leprosy and contagion right now.

AND HAPPILY, IT’S ALSO ROSH CHODESH!

It’s not just any Rosh Chodesh, it’s Iyar. It’s the second month of the Jewish ritual year (remember we have two new years: Rosh Hashanah, which is the universal for humanity and Nisan, which is when Pesach is, when we became the Jewish people).  Iyar is the month after Nisan so it is the second month of our year – it’s the Jewish February. January has all the excitement and hype of newness and February has…28 days. Nothing special going on in February. It’s about the number of days, really similar to Iyar.  Iyar is the month of counting the Omer as we head to Shavuot. The entire month is a month of counting, it’s about the number of days.

I have to imagine that’s why I always get funny messages about how Iyar is like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood.  Eeyore, the dismal donkey, the flatlined monotonic friend who cannot rise to the excitement of anything. 

And so, sitting at home in isolation these days, I’ve decided to explore the Jewishness of the Hundred Acre Wood.

Pooh bear is the innocent kid who goes to the Jewish after-school program at shul.  He can’t really see how much of the Jewish stuff fits into anything else, but in the end, Pooh finds that the information always speaks to him in some way.  Eeyore is Iyar (how could I resist?), the ‘goes along to get along’ person in the shul who anchors and comforts with their very presence but seems to always know what’s wrong with what they just saw. Piglet is the loyal bubbly shul goer who gets excited about everything and is always the first to arrive.  Tigger shows up at all our simchas, we’re not quite sure whose guest list he was on but he’s in every hora and kicks up the party to true joy. Rabbit heads the committees to make sure things get done. A stickler for detail, so Rabbit’s always worried about stuff we don’t usually pay attention to but, in the end, he’s the reason things run smoothly.  Christopher Robin is the gabbai who makes sure things are as they should be. Kanga is every parent and Roo is every toddler. Owl is, of course, the Sage Talmudist. And now, with Gopher the industrialist, we have a complete Hundred Acre Minyan.

They are all in our shuls, in our communities, in our schools and, of course, in our homes.  As isolation focuses us more and more toward reflection, it becomes clear that the Sages were correct when they said each person is a universe unto themselves.  I am the Hundred Acre Wood and they are all living in me.

But aside from the philosophical approach to Winnie the Pooh, the month of Iyar does have a beautiful and incredibly relevant voice in these times.  The Chassidic Masters highlighted that the acronym for ‘Iyar’, in Hebrew, stands for the verse “I am the God who heals you” (Ani ‘Yod Yod’ Rof’echa).  And our ancient texts are filled with debates about whether we should rely on only God for healing and medicines. Is it a sin to see a doctor?

The overwhelming response, and certainly the ruling in Jewish law, is that we are to seek the remedies of science and the skills of physicians.  The God who heals us does it directly within our souls and also by imbedding the knowledge of cures and remedies into the world and the ability to discover those cures into us.  In other words, seeing a doctor is part of recognizing God as the Healer.

But the texts also make it clear that we must advocate for our own health and healing.  When Hagar prays for her dying son, Ishmael, the angel first responds to the voice of the child – the one who is sick.  While our prayers support others, their prayers are the leading voices. 

So, in these trying times of challenge and virus, we support ourselves, we support others and we listen to make sure they are likewise supporting themselves.  When speaking of themselves, we want to hear their voice of self-leadership. If not, it is a moment of reaching out we should never ignore.

And now I’ve discussed Rosh Chodesh, I took a trip to the Hundred Acre Shul, had a quick appointment with God the Healer, bringing us to today’s challenge of illness and contagion…and Parshat Tazria-Metzora was, in fact, relevant.  

I knew we’d get there.

Parshat Shemini: Who Knows 8 – I Thought I Did

This week’s Torah reading, parashat Shemini, delves into all the things that happen on the 8th day.  The only problem is, there is no 8th day. I mean, of course there’s an 8th day if we’re counting from day 1 and we just keep counting, but that’s not how the Torah taught us to do things.  The universe was created in 7 days. The world revolves around 7 days. When I get to number 7 I am supposed to start again at number 1 – so really the 8th day is actually day 1 of my second group.

In fact, everything in the Torah revolves around 7 for groupings.  Now that Passover is finished, we are counting the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot.  We are told to count these days in groups of 7: seven weeks filled with 7 days each. We count the Omer by citing which week it is and which day, always aware of how the number 7 is framing our count.  We are counting up to Shavuot, we add in our counting. In Judaism we never count down to things, we always count up to them. Counting down has a sense of doom as we near the deadline (who thought up these terms?). When we count down we have a sense of dread but when we count up we have a sense of anticipation.

I recently asked an engineer why space shuttle launches count down with the phrase ‘T minus 10 seconds, T minus 9 seconds…’ etc.  I was told that T stands for the Time variable and therefore the time variable is set to 10 and the countdown will now reference that variable with the subtraction of 1 second each time.  I asked why they don’t just count down without the ‘T’, like the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. He blinked a few times and said he didn’t understand my question. However, he did tell me that after the launch they switch to T plus formulas.  But even there, the T refers to the deadline for launch and so the deadline becomes the constant reference point, the ‘zero’ – except we all know there is no such thing as zero, it’s a place holder (all our math teachers were correct, we just didn’t get it till we were older).  So everything counts toward and away from something that doesn’t really exist…and we’re all fine with that?

The most I can make sense of all of this is that our physical bodies move forward with a set rate of cellular decay.  Aging is a process of our cells breaking down, not building up. Maybe that’s why we naturally gravitate toward countdowns.

But Judaism speaks to our souls as well as our bodies.  Our souls grow in strength and expression, they count up.  

All of this brings me to how Jewish text teaches us of the numbers 7 and 8.  As I mentioned, 7 frames our week and frames our holidays. Here is how the number 7 stabilizes us:

  1. The world was created in 7 days
  2. The 1st verse of the Torah has 7 words
  3. We count the Omer in 7 groups of 7 days
  4. The Menorah in the Temple had 7 branches
  5. There are 7 Noahide laws guiding all of humanity
  6. There are 7 blessings for a bride and groom
  7. We mourn a loved one by sitting shiva for 7 days (the word shiva means 7)

The world was created in 7 days and we mourn a loved one for 7 days.  Life itself is framed with the number 7.

But then the Parshah says “And on the 8th day” and we are struck!  What 8th day?! And as we read further, we realize the 8th day contains irrational things.  It is the 8th day on which the Tabernacle is inaugurated, the place that embodies holy space that we created.  We take it with us as we move nomadically. It is a threshold of connection between the holy and the mundane, between the physical and the spiritual, between this world and another world.  It is the doorway to the irrational. But it doesn’t end there.

In this week’s parshah, Shemini (the 8th day), Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer foreign fire on the altar and are immediately killed.  We’re never quite sure what foreign fire is and we’re never quite sure what they intended because we’re all so stunned by their deaths. Ritual is supposed to be a safe place, holiness is supposed to be a haven and a relationship with God is supposed to be a protected space.  They entered all of that and were killed. We will never figure out what it all means because it will simply never make sense. It is irrational and we live with it because we have no choice.  

In the parshah we are also told of the laws of kosher animals and fish.  Again, try explaining rationally why an animal with a split hoof that chews its cud is ok but one with a split hoof that doesn’t chew its cud is not ok.  You’ll never explain it because it’s irrational.

And the irrational of 8 continues.  Baby boys are circumcised on the 8th day after their birth (notice we count up from the birth, not down).  Circumcision is irrational. We do it because we are commanded to do it. Even if one argued a medical benefit, there is no medical benefit to be had by saying a bracha – it is clearly a spiritual moment.

Ancient Jewish texts list 8 genders within humanity.  If gender were rational, there would only be 2 to facilitate procreation, yet 2000 years ago the Sages were discussing 8 of them.  

The number 8, the space within Judaism where things exist and impact us but our minds will never catch up with them.  

Pesach just ended and we look forward to Shavuot – we are counting up toward the holiday.  The spirituality of Judaism is moving us toward a positive future moment and we can start to get excited for it.  We are still in our homes, Covid 19 is still not understood well enough and so the world around us has mostly shut down.  It is unrecognizable to us right now – it is the 8th day. But a beautiful Talmudic text states that all the harps of the Temple had 7 strings on them and all the soulful melodies of the Levites were played on those harps, but in the days of Redemption, the harps will have 8 strings on them.

So the 8th day is the day of the irrational, it has both positive and negative within it but it mostly has potential redemption.  It is only negative if we try to force it into the rules of the 7th day – if we fight it. We move through the 8th day often in our lives.  We need to accept it for what it is and understand that it speaks to our souls and in that way it can make us feel redeemed. We will feel it, we will never understand it.

The 8th day teaches us that our eyes are always forward.  It shows us that we are always counting up.

Pesach Message for 2020

This year, Pesach will be unique for the Jewish people everywhere.  The other unique moment it brings to mind is the very first Pesach, the one in Egypt.  Here are some moments to help fulfill the Sages’ proclamation that we should all experience Egypt.

  • The Israelites in Egypt were told to stay in their homes
  • They were surrounded by a deadly ‘wave’
  • They knew that they would emerge stronger than they entered
  • They knew that ultimately they would receive an identity and relationship with God and the Torah that would guide and secure every journey forward

And here we have arrived.  

How is this Pesach different?  How is this night different? We sit apart and yet together.  We have scaled down the preparations so we can scale up the conversations.  Our bodies are frustrated by the confinement while our minds are filled with the debates of Pesach:  justice or mercy; joy or suffering; passive knowledge or prompted questions; the taste of tears or the taste of sweetness;  have I been privileged all along or have I been enslaved and unaware?

The physicality of this Pesach has reduced but the engagement and comfort to openly share everything we feel has opened wide.  

May God keep everyone safe, strong, healthy and redeemed with the coming of Pesach.  When we open our doors and welcome Eliyahu this year, ask him to bring our prayers of strength to the next house he enters.  May we keep connected and look forward to Next Year in Jerusalem sitting together.

Every generation brings its unique moment of history to the growing lessons we teach our children at the Seder.  Let them see that the strength they are showing now is the strength that can serve them always.

Chag Kasher, Sameach veChazak.

Rav brachot,

Rachael

Parshat Tzav: The Greatness of the Grand Sabbath

This week’s Torah reading is parashat Tzav, lots of details on sacrifices.  It is also Shabbat Hagadol, The Grand Sabbath, the Shabbat before Pesach that gains elevation in holiness as it leads us into Pesach and our Seders.

…and all I can think about is Covid 19 and how life has changed.

But I draw my thoughts deliberately to the traditions of Shabbat Hagadol and I find them relevant and helpful.  It’s the Shabbat before Pesach and we first celebrated it in Egypt. Things were very different then but maybe relevantly different.  It was Egypt, the plagues were abounding and Israel was told to stay in their region and ultimately, to stay in their homes. Danger was everywhere outside the front door.  God commands everyone to paint blood on their doorposts as a sign for death to ‘Passover’ that house and yet the image of blood on the door makes it clear that to cross the threshold is to endanger one’s life – to enter the blood zone.

It hits a little too close to home right now.

And then Shabbat Hagadol steps in.  The Hebrew calendar in Egypt happens to be the same as the Hebrew calendar this year.  Shabbat falls on the 10th of Nisan this year and it was the 10th of Nisan in Egypt as well.  It’s starting to get a little too close for comfort, the last thing I need is to layer what’s going on now with the realities of ancient Egypt.

It reminds me of the old Jewish man who is lying in bed fearing the worst.  He calls to his wife, Goldie, and he says: ‘Goldeh, things are looking tough right now but I’m remembering our years together.  I remember when we first were married and suddenly our lives became hard finding a place to live’. Goldie nods her head. ‘And Goldeh, I remember when we opened our first grocery store together and we were robbed within a month.’  Goldie nods her head. ‘And Goldeh, don’t think I’ve forgotten that when we opened our second store together it burned to the ground right after the insurance expired.’ Goldie nods her head. ‘And through it all, Goldeh, you were there, every step, every moment.’  Goldie’s eyes fill and she nods. ‘And so, my Goldeh, in this moment of dire reflection I have come to an important conclusion…’ Goldie leans closer, ‘My Goldeh…I now understand…you’re bad luck.’

I’m not sure I need to be thinking about how much worse Israel enslaved in Egypt with blood on our doorposts makes me feel right now.  We rely on our Judaism and Torah to strengthen us in these moments and not deepen our sense of gloom.

There have been a lot of conversations about Pesach this year and Zoom Seders and the upside to a simpler, scaled down, more doable Pesach.  Jewish families who have never met each other are joining together to create Zoom seders and build strong lines of connection. We are the ones who did that but we did it because the Torah always teaches us to reach outward and not hibernate internally.  We stayed in our homes in Egypt in preparation for leaving and growing strong. We weren’t hibernating, we were incubating.

And now Shabbat Hagadol starts to speak to us with relevance.  It was on that Shabbat that Israel was told to make preparations for leaving.  The time spent not allowed to venture out is time spent envisioning the next step.  Ever since that first Pesach in Egypt, Shabbat Hagadol has built some of its own traditions.  There are special Psalms recited but, interesting, there is also an ancient tradition for making ‘synagogue challah’.  People would take some of the chametz ingredients they didn’t want in their homes (and in later years, was extra and therefore they didn’t need to sell it) and they would bake challah to give to the synagogue so every Jew could have a home baked, fresh challah for the Shabbat before we all have to stop enjoying challah.  Everyone baked what they could, so some challot were large and braided and some were little buns. It was all anonymous, no one judged and no one knew who was going into the synagogue to drop a challah off or who was going to pick up a challah. I can’t imagine anything that would make a Shabbat more grand.

But, we also learn that the 10th of Nisan is the day Miriam, Moses’ sister, dies in the desert.  With her death, Israel loses her ‘well’, their source of water in the wilderness, as well as her unique leadership and her guardianship.  

And so the 10th of Nisan is a day where we choose our perspective.

I will think of Miriam and everything she brought to Judaism on this Shabbat, I choose not to dwell on the loss of her.  Perhaps this Shabbat, the Grand Shabbat, is a time to think of taking something from our pantry and setting it for donation in whatever amount and way we feel is secure.

I believe our nation is full of Goldies who stand with us every step of every challenge.  Goldie is the hero of that family – of all our families – may we never be the one who doesn’t see it.

Wishing everyone a meaningful, connected and beautiful Pesach.