Friday, April 24, 2015

Parshat Tazriya/Metzora 2015 -- Who's In and Who's Out

I will begin with three short stories of scenes in my life.

Story #1: Ken and I find ourselves a few times monthly in Baltimore at Tudor Heights, the assisted living facility that is now my parents’ home, in spite of the fact that my mom, who has dementia, is never sure where she is, and the frustration of my dad who still has quite a clear sense of where he is. Sometimes I can go with a cheery countenance and interact with all the people who want to interact with me, whether or not their speech is clear, regardless of how bent over they are, and without regard to their appearance. Other times, it is hard as I am confronted by the frailty of our human condition and its natural state of deterioration in the people who call Tudor Heights home. So it is with those of us who have our parents who are living well into their nineties and beyond, who cannot live with the rest of us in our daily world.

Story #2: Years ago, at the beginning of my career when I taught in an elementary Jewish Day School, I was not quite sure what to do with this particular Parsha. So, I focused on the discussion of those with Tzara’at and explained how people had a disease that made it difficult for people to be around them and they would be separated from the larger community. At that time, Elephant Man was making the rounds and one of my students knew about the story from his parents who had just seen the show. He asked the following question: Isn’t it possible that the reason for their separation from the larger community was to protect them from being called names or made to feel badly because of how they looked and not to protect society from them? So, while this is not a reason that the text necessarily provides us with directly, one is left to consider the notion of this additional reason and its potential benefit.

Story #3: About four years ago, when I was spending the summer at the Hartman Institute, I chose to take a “tiyyul” to the former Leper Colony across the street in the German Colony. I spend an afternoon learning about the life of those who were quarantined in this institution and what their lives were like – being set apart from their families, communities, friends and all normalcy of life, as they knew it. There are pictures that show slices of life from that time that leave us to question what it was like for those who were separated from society because of a condition that was the reality of their existence and its potential harm to others, while this separation was no “fault” of their own. Nonetheless, their compound was fenced in and isolated from the world that they had known previously. Potentially, they might have returned to that life but not without the stigma of having been in this colony.

While all of this is clearly understood, it leads to difficult discussions and sad considerations. How do we discuss the content of these Torah portions in a manner in which we can extrapolate important lessons for the reality of our lives today? How do we discern these lessons given the focus of the text itself?

As we read in Leviticus/VaYikra 13: 45 - 46:

The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, 'Unclean, unclean.' He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. [As long as] he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.

Is this quarantine or ostracism? How do we balance concerns for public safety and health with our compassion for the individual? What will life be like when the leper returns to society, which he or she can do, once the disease has abated? Will he or she always carry that title – the leper? Is this a case of attempting to keep the community itself ever so pure or is it a matter of considerations of health for all members of the community? What kindnesses are there to find in looking at the situation of the one with leprosy?

As Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg comments: …understandably, [this portion] has a reputation as the portion about which rabbis least want to preach. But there is little more important in human society than our attitudes toward illness and those who suffer from it.

In Moed Katan 14b to 15b the lot of the one with leprosy is discussed. Within the context of this conversation, there is an attempt to come to a better understanding of the reasons for separation. As is often the case, the methodology used in the Gemara is employed and in attempting to find the explanation for this separation, the Leper is compared both to the one who has been excommunicated from the community and the mourner who is exempt from all aspects of community life. These comparisons range in topics such as permissibility of studying Torah, wearing of Tefillin and Tzitzit, greeting others in the community, laundering their clothes, eating together with the individual and so much more.

In one case, that of the one who is Menudeh or the one who is excommunicated from the community, the individual has done something wrong and in the second comparison, that of the Ovel or the mourner, we are dealing with someone who is in distress over their loss, so all expectations of society are removed from him or her. Is this exclusion in the case of the Metzora an expression of kindness and compassion as in the case of the Ovel or something else?

If you look back at our text, the Metzora lets his hair grow, does not bathe and wears torn clothes. So too does the mourner. Clearly, there are elements that are so similar, as Wittenberg and others point out. Yet, there is one profound difference. The Metzora, as we learn in the Gemara, must remain alone. This is not true for the mourner. In fact, we bring the community into the home, that is, the space of the mourner to comfort him or her; how do we do this for the one who suffers from leprosy and is very much alone in isolation and outside of the city?

Rav Soloveitchik explains this contrast between the ovel and the metzora in one of his published lectures (Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mari, vol. 2, pp. 192-194), when speaking about Yom Tov and its status regarding these two categories of people. Mourning observances are suspended on Yom Tov, because, as our Gemara in Moed Katan (14b) explains, the public festival celebration in the community overrides the personal obligations of mourning. A metzora, by contrast, is not permitted to re-enter his city or go to Jerusalem to offer the festival sacrifices; in this case, the public mitzva of the holiday celebration does not override the individual’s personal restrictions. It is interesting to note that in Masechet Hagiga, where there are so many excluded classes of people in discussing the offerings that all of Israel comes to present, who are then discussed and reconsidered so that they can be part of the Kehilah, the metzora is never even on the list. Rav Soloveitchik explains that part of the definition of the metzora status is exclusion, as implied and reflected by the command of “badad yeisheiv.” A mourner, however, is still included within the community, who, in fact, bears an obligation to embrace him and support him during his time of anguish. So again, who is there for the metzora? What obligation, if any, does the Jewish community have to be there for this person, one of their own?

What exactly is this Tzara’at? Are we immuned? There are those who suggest that given that Tzara’at comes to our attention as the punishment that Miriam suffers in BaMidbar due to her crimes of speech; perhaps this disease that is seemingly of the skin is truly of the heart. That is to say, if our actions are not coming from a place of true intentionality, we can suffer surface indications of this inner turmoil. Think of what we know all too well today about physical and external indications of stress that is internal.

We should note at this point that this Tza’ra’at in our Parsha does spread to the house, that is, to the possessions of the person afflicted. There are many discussions that correlate this spread to all that is owned to a preoccupation one may have with their material wealth to the exclusion of their more honorable intentions regarding society. This is clearly an interesting direction to take this discussion, as it gives us something to work with. If we step back and re-examine our lives, then supposedly we can eradicate this scourge from our lives and the isolation and quarantine that accompanies it.

But even if this is the case, this has not resolved the problem of those who are excluded from our society. We have spoken often here about so many groups that were once maligned and marginalized in our community of observant Judaism that now have their place or are in the process of being accorded their rightful place in our community with all inherent rights. But here, we still have the problem of those who are too sick, old, infirmed, or compromised to be part of our community. How do we include them? How do we use our own purist intentions, acknowledge the many ways in which we are blessed, and show these members of our community, these people in our lives that we have not forgotten them? How do we bring the community from the outside into their lives as we do with the ovlim in our community?

I will end by using the inspiration of a written text by Rabbi James Jacobson Maisels, an alumnus of D’var Tzedek, one of many Social Justice institutions that are popping up and doing wonderful work in our larger community. Fortunately, the message of our parshah is that the plagued person as well as space —or our own plagued hearts—can be cured. Parshat Metzora provides us with a process. First, the affected area is inspected and isolated. Then, if necessary, the specific affected area that bears the tzara’at is removed and replaced in the case of a home and treated and cured in the case of a person. The process for healing the biblical home as well as the one who dwells in it should provide a blueprint for healing our own ailments of the heart—greed, selfishness and failure to mend the world. Whenever our hearts stray from kindness and compassion, we must first inspect and investigate the selfishness, apathy or hardness inside of us. We can then attempt to remove these malignancies, and allow our hearts to be filled with compassion.

We may not be able to completely discern the actual lot of the Metzora in Biblical society in terms of the need for compassion, but we can and should use the reality of their existence to consider how we should work to NOT exclude individuals from our lives today and insure that the compassion that God consistently shows as RACHMANA pervades our actions, our intentions and our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

PARSHAT SHEMINI 2015 ESHEL Parents’ Retreat

Please note that this D'var Torah was presented this past Shabbat to the parents of ESHEL, the Orthodox LGBTQ Inclusion Community. Please note that there are minor changes for the purpose of this posting and that while the message was "keyed" for a specific audience, it holds relevance for us all. Have a great week, all!

Shabbat Shalom! How wonderful it is to be in this special and intentional space for the third year in a row. What a beautiful, enlightening and empowered Kehilah this truly is. It is always an honor to be included in this gathering. At this moment, I would like to share a few words of Torah with you, my Kehilah.

In Parshat Shemini, which we just heard a little while ago, we continue with the detailed explanations of the sacrifices and the high level of specificity of instructions provided by God to Moshe, Aaron, his sons and the nation. At this point this explanation is about the inauguration of the Kohanim and their taking of office, so to speak. After the detailed instructions are followed, we come to part of the process of the consecration of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim, culminating with this verse:

9: 24 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces.

Immediately after this, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, offer their own fire, which is not such a great idea, as we well know.

9.1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.

It is then at this point that the laws of Kashrut as we know them are given in Perek Yud Alef.

How do we tie these three elements together and what does their connection indicate for us in our lives today generally as well as the lane in which we all specifically walk?

To begin this discussion, we acknowledge the joy that the B’nai Yisrael must have been feeling as their leaders, their Kohanim, and place of gathering are all given more profound meaning in their lives. We get a clear sense of what is at stake in verses 5 – 6 of Chapter 9, when we read that:

5 And they brought that which Moses commanded before the tent of meeting; and all the congregation drew near and stood before the LORD. 6 And Moses said: 'This is the thing which the LORD commanded that ye should do; that the glory of the LORD may appear unto you.'

At the same time this joy is mixed with a tinge of sadness and loss according to Sforno and others, for this solidifies the need for a central dictated place of Kedusha that would also potentially limit the degree to which the B’nai Yisrael would communicate with and feel the presence of God in their midst. Nonetheless, as Nehama Leibowitz acknowledges that the people who have already exhibited the need for concrete and tangible elements, may very well ask “How will we know what this is and when it has happened, that the glory of God is amongst us?” She then teaches the notion that G-d will be sanctified in the midst of the people and in this special place; and that God will be BROUGHT into this space by proper actions and intentions is to be emphasized. So here we see an admixture of joy, loss, questions, and needs met as well as a clear potential for empowerment through intentionality.

It has been suggested by Sforno that the fire of God at the end of Chapter 9 indicates that the nation, that is the B’nai Yisrael, was now unified in a central mission and place and in so doing – and as some point out, this is the true miracle – would be forgiven by HaKodesh Baruch Hu for the long ago misdeed in selling Yoseph; while Aaron was forgiven for his misdeed in allowing the Egel HaZahav to be constructed. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that the lesson of the Egel was poignant both for the people and for HaKadosh Baruch Hu – namely, reinforcing the need of the B’nai Yisrael for a tangible place in which they could associate the presence of God, suggesting that while the limits are acknowledged, the needs of we limited humans are met as well by God. Sacks and others often talk about this aspect of our relationship with God and God with us – God’s meeting our needs and reformulating and refining, if you will, the context of the relationship that God continues to have with us.

Precisely at this point we turn to the offering of Nadav and Avihu. How do we address and interpret the fire that Nadav and Avihu offered? Note that in our text their fire immediately follows that which is sent by God. Could this have been an honest response, an attempt to indicate closeness to God? This thought has been entertained by several of our commentators, including Rav Aron Tendler, in more recent years. Nadav and Avihu were after all separated from the rest of the nation and given a place of honor early on, as we read in Exodus 24:1 and 9:

To Moses [God] said, 'Ascend to God, you, and Aaron, and Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders of Israel, and they shall prostrate themselves from afar ...' Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders arose.

So they were set apart, yet look at their reaction and compare it to that of Moshe Rabbeinu when he first saw the fire of God at the Burning Bush. Moshe hid his face and moved back; Nadav and Avihu responded with their own fire to that of God. The Midrash teaches that Aaron’s sons missed the opportunity to react appropriately to God and show the humility and awe that the presence of God was to instill; rather they tried to “equal” the action of God. This was never meant to be the model of observance for us as members of the Jewish nation and our relationship to God – this reaction that seems to say “Look at me and how far I can go.”

But this does not really help for this is not the only time that sacrifices were offered without specific instructions from God. Noach, Jacob, David, and Yitro are just some of those who offered sacrifices to God at moments of awe and personal epiphanies. So what else could it have been?

In Masechet Pesachim, we learn that there are five elements to offering of sacrifices so that they will be accepted. These elements are (a) who is offering the sacrifice; (b) where the sacrifice is offered; (c) the details of the sacrifice that is offered; (d) the proper timing of the sacrifice; and (e) the proper intentions of the sacrifice. In the discussion in Pesachim, we learn that even with following the myriad of instructions and restrictions and details related to the who, where, what and when elements of the Karbanot, if the proper intentions are not evident, then the entire sacrifice can very well be rejected.

Perhaps, posit several of our sources and teachers including Bar Kapara and Rabbi Yishmael as well as Midrash Rabbah 20.10, this is what the problem was with Nadav and Avihu. Were they inebriated at the time they offered their sacrifices; did they feel that they were so special they could create their own experience and negate that which was ordained by God; in short, were their intentions less than honorable and humble, becoming of those who serve God? Could this have been a result of their self-perceived exalted position in the community? If this is so, the words of BaMidbar Perek Yud Bet ring true, when God states that Moshe is indeed such a humble servant and that there has never been another like him. This is not to say that he was above making mistakes or errors, for surely that happened, but rather we are to consider his intentions. So we are still left with the question – Were the intentions of Nadav and Avihu honorable and correct or not so?

I find it fascinating that the laws of Kashrut come on the coattails of this text. It is known in general history that when there are signs that a society is falling apart, becoming undisciplined or losing its moral compass, we add rules. Think of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the amendments and the continuing plethora of codicils that are continually added to the tomes of law that govern this country as an example. Think of the layers of fences that have been continually built around the Torah and its laws to ward off that process as well. Could this be one of the ways to interpret this ordering of the Torah in our Parsha?

Clearly, the wording of VaYikra 11: 44 – 45 seems to provide this sense of understanding:

44 For I am the LORD your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy; for I am holy; neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moveth upon the earth. 45 For I am the LORD that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.

We are to remember that it is not just the details of what we do but the reason behind the details that may be God’s alone to comprehend fully. Here we may not understand all of the specifics of Kashrut and the features that Kosher animals must have and the resulting system of laws that are so central to our daily lives. Nonetheless, when we have questions or doubts, there is a process we go through – maybe some “fences” to contend with – a process that perhaps eluded Nadav and Avihu regarding their very possibly well-intended response to God.

Intentionality is everything. How do we function in our dictated religious spaces while responding the best we can in ways that are acceptable and appropriate given the confines of the dictates of Torah Law and practice? How do we work within the system and not outside of it, while accepting its correctives as the reality of our very human history plays out? How do we, as seen in this Parsha, join the human and specifically Jewish dilemma of confronting that same admixture of joy, loss, questions and needs met as well as a clear potential for empowerment through intentionality in our lives?

Specifically how do we help our children negotiate those dictates and practices when they are challenged due to their being gay? How do we help them find answers and approaches that will validate who they are and allow them to function within the parameters of the limitations of being human to which we are all subject? How will we help them on their “derech” and to maintain their somewhat altered path, without going too far, as perhaps Nadav and Avihu may have, for whatever reasons? How will we show them the continued love for and satisfaction from living a Jewish life that is as rich and complicated as the laws of Kashrut themselves?

Here is, I believe, our sense of purpose and what makes this community so special. We rejoice in our Jewish celebrations and spaces as we see in the beginning of this Parsha. We do not take the problematic route of Nadav and Avihu. We do observe the additional dictates that are set out for us. We also work to find continued and enhanced meaning for us and our children and all in our community in ways that are acceptable and motivated by the most honorable of intentions. For me after decades of being dedicated to Inclusion as a core principle, and as a proud mother of my Jewishly committed children, I feel that this is truly a wonderfully encouraging and hopeful moment in time for us, our children, those we love and care about and our larger community.

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, April 13, 2015


This coming Thursday, April 16, 2015 (the 27th of Nissan of 5775) is Yom HaShoah, the Jewish observance of Holocaust Memorial Day for the Jewish community. This is not to be confused with January 27, the annual world-wide International Holocaust Memorial Day. During this week there will be many ceremonies, special services and memorials as well as inspiring and horrifying speeches for us all. As happens every year, our area’s Sunday paper marked this timing with an article about the reunion of the survivors of Buchenwald and their U.S. liberators on the specific anniversary of the liberation of that concentration camp this past Saturday/Shabbat in Germany. As with all such ongoing and present reminders of this profound atrocity, the article was difficult to read and as always when thinking about this horrid catastrophe of our lives, so hard to put behind me once read.

In the same Sunday paper was a piece entitled “West Looks Past Islamists’ Persecution of Christians” (authored by Nina Shea) in which there was a horrifying account of how Christians have been the target of Islamic extremists throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia for too long, while the reaction in the West is often minimal at best. The article describes the methodical selection of victims and how “black-clad al-Shabab militants” broke into Christian religious spaces to carry out their slaughter in the name of Allah. This reading goes on to ask where is the West and where is the outcry while too many Christians are murdered without thought just for believing as they do. The Kenyan slaughter of this past week is highlighted while it is also listed along with the one-year anniversary on April 14 of the kidnapping and disappearance of 219 Nigerian schoolgirls; the March 15 blowing up of a Catholic and a Protestant church in Pakistan, the attack in early March of 33 Khabour River villages in Syria and so much more. We are all aware of the recent flight of UN peacemakers to Israel when their lives were in peril trying to bring relief to those who are suffering in Syria. Interestingly enough, none of this is about Israel. Rather, it is about extremists deciding who should live and die and the growing threat of this element in our world today.

Here is yet another horrifying chapter in our world history of extremists determining who is acceptable to them and who is not, including Moslems who do not believe as they do. So should we care? Should we read these articles too, watch these videos as well and consider the ramifications as we observe and remember the horrible affront to the Jewish people for just being Jewish a mere 70 years ago? Or should we only focus on and be concerned about “our own” as more than a few members of our community suggest?

I would submit, that on a very profound level, we need to think of all of these people who are persecuted and threatened as being “our own.” Further, yes, we MUST be concerned about them and the threat to their lives and well being; just as we should be mindful about commemorating ALL victims of Nazi Germany during the slaughter of so many at their hands seventy years ago. Remember the message of Maurice Ogden’s chilling poem, The Hangman. If you wish, here is a presentation of it.

As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks consistently reminds us, we must all stand together as people of faith and work to protect and bolster each other. This is all the more true in this troubled time of ours with much too much extremism that chokes the good name of legitimate religion and honest belief. We all stand to lose much too much if we do not heed this message. Consider the message of Passover that we have just completed. Thirty six times, we are enjoined in our Torah to “remember and not oppress the stranger” and care for them; for we know all too well what it meant to be a slave in Egypt and a prisoner in Auschwitz, and persecuted in too many other instances.

There are many programs of commemoration that have reunited liberators, Righteous Gentiles and those they have saved throughout the years. At Yad VaShem, one of the many powerful elements is the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, in which we give honor to those who risked their lives as human beings to save Jews during this unspeakable chapter of our collective history. What are the message and the questions left for us to consider at these observances as we carefully consider that there have in fact been others who have taken risks for us just as there have been those who sought to destroy us?

What have we learned about being UPSTANDERS and not merely bystanders from the difficult and horrifying stories we have heard? Are we paying attention today to others who are suffering from genocidal actions? When we say “Never Again,” it is so clear that we are referring to the terrible challenges of Jewish history and attempts at annihilation of our people. That being said, we must say this as human beings and stand and protect all those at risk in our world or the message of Ogden’s poem could, G-d forbid, come to be.

The article about Christian persecution by extremist Islamists ends with the simple sentence “So far, the West looks away.” Let us all stand together this Yom HaShoah and scream as loud as we can, NEVER AGAIN! Not for us nor any other good honest people in our world! NEVER AGAIN! And let us learn the important lessons of the Righteous Gentiles who saved our families and friends and do the same for others. Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah – let one Mitzvah of rescuing the captive from which we have benefited lead us to take it on for the sake of others.

Friday, April 3, 2015



This message comes from my heart which is at the same time so full and so heavy as I put the finishing touches on our Pesach Sedarim. So many different Haggadot are already on our kitchen table awaiting their place on our Seder table for tonight. They are there because of three classes I have given in the last week on Lessons of Inclusion from the experience of the Going Out of Egypt.

Why is Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Jews’ leaving of Egypt such a pivotal story in our collective history as human beings, not to mention to those of us who share the Jewish faith? One powerful reason, and I would suggest the most meaningful and life-changing of all, is that this is the first time in history when a people CHANGED their destiny by changing their place on the “Wheel of Life.” In a world where slaves’ children would be slaves and masters’ and rulers’ children would be masters and rulers, this group of oppressed people who had once been included in the Egyptian ways and world were now EXCLUDED and OPPRESSED and made to feel so very little and unimportant. They then CHANGED the trajectory of their lives so that THEIR children and their children’s children would have a different experience in being masters of their own destiny. They did not do this alone, as we believe, but rather through the outstretched arm and strong hand of God, who watches over all.

The Jewish Nation now had a different legacy. They were tasked to teach and remember that legacy – you shall teach this to your children and their children in every generation and every person is OBLIGATED to remember that they left Egypt! That is to say that we left oppression, prejudice, a lack of social justice and the demeaning of human beings to the point of desperation and so much loss. Part of this obligation is to care for others and to work on behalf of others who are subjected to the same misuse and misappropriation of human power and agency. That is, we are not only obligated to remember but to open our door so that the poor and those who need to can come in and join us at our Pesach Seder. We are not just to do this figuratively but LITERALLY.

So, are we living up to our mission to INCLUDE ALL as bequeathed upon us by our own experiences of so many “leavings” that we had to engage in as a result of this oppression? We were forced to leave Egypt. We were forced to leave so many Arab ruled lands. We were forced to leave so many European lands during the Middle Ages. We were forced out of our homes in Russia, Nazi Germany and so many other places – Ethiopia, India, Morocco, and so on.

WE KNOW HOW THIS FEELS, THIS EXCLUSION. And now tonight (and tomorrow night for those of us not in Israel) we celebrate OUR freedom. That is truly a wonderful and important celebration. BUT are we not only celebrating our freedom but also intentionally passing on the lessons of exclusion to our children and our children’s children by truly being INCLUSIVE of all members of our community.

We have made some progress but we still have so much to make. Let all who are Sephardic, Mizrachi, and Ashkenazic come to our tables. Let us remember that women have been excluded as well and are welcome to ask questions, provide answers and share our wisdom. Let us sit around our table with people of different ethnicities, racial backgrounds, languages, lands of origin, and so many other differences that enrich and make our community so much better. Let us listen to ALL of our children and their questions, including the ones with various learning differences and challenges from which we can learn so much. Let us embrace our LGBTQ children and family members. And finally, let us all take a moment to consider all of those in our fractured world who are still excluded and not accorded the same rights and privileges of being part of our human family; promising to work on their behalf so that they too can share in the lessons of Yetziat Mitzrayim.

A Happy Passover and Chag Kasher v’Sameach to all—from our family to yours!