Tuesday, June 2, 2015

PARSHAT NASO 2015/5775

Please note that this was a Shabbat Drasha this past week but continues to be relevant as we move through the texts of BaYikra/Leviticus.

Throughout our Torah and the texts of our heritage we interact with various aspects of God’s persona, ranging from Rachmana (The Compassionate One) to Dayan HaEmet (The Judge of Truth) to aspects of what would be called in anthropology and mythology the Warrior God, the Creator of All, in our case, who is so zealous for all of those beings that God has created with a special place reserved for those members of the Jewish Nation with whom we are taught God has a special relationship. In thinking about our Compassionate and Protecting God, it is sometimes difficult to interface that set of characteristics with what we read in VaYikra, the middle of our Hameshet Humshei Torah that is dedicated to the particular stringencies of Jewish practice and to be sure, there are many. These are some of the most difficult texts to address on so many levels, yet once again I will try to do exactly that.

We will focus on the first set of instructions in our Parsha after the B’nai Yisrael are counted and accounted for as each and every one is important in and of themselves as well as to the community and as a Created Being of God. We read as follows in Chapter 5: 1 – 4:

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 'Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath any type of discharge, and whosoever is unclean by the dead; 3 both male and female shall ye put out…; that they defile not their camp, in the midst whereof I dwell.' 4 And the children of Israel did so, and put them out without the camp; as the LORD spoke unto Moses, so did the children of Israel

As we are so hyper-aware of exclusion of any kind, this text begs that we attend to it. What is going on here? What is being suggested that would be consistent with God as Rachmanah? In Masechet Pesachim, there is a lengthy discussion about what exactly occurred and whether people who needed to be pushed out of the camp were indeed forcibly removed; or did something else transpire?

First of all we need to understand the context of this situation. We are discussing the set up of the camp of the B’nai Yisrael and the entirety of the EDAH, the congregational grouping. The camps were set up in concentric circles with the Mishkan in the center serving as the focal point for the community and indicating the everlasting presence of God within the camp. Immediately around the Mishkan was the encampment circle of the Levites who were attending to the direct service of the Mishkan and all it entailed. Then finally the third circle was filled with all of the B’nai Yisrael, arranged by their tribal units.

This encampment brought together the people individually, tribally, their central focus of the Mishkan and the presence of God. It was in the full sense of the word a truly Holy Assembly, elevated in so many ways. So after this explanation, we come to the aforementioned exclusions.

1. Those with leprosy 2. Those with any type of bodily emission that would render them spiritually unclean. 3. Those who had been in contact with a corpse.

In Masechet Pesachim, we are taught that the individuals themselves exited from the main camp and were not forced out. In fact, this is correlated with the notion that for the Metzora to leave the camp is a positive commandment for them to observe. To be sure, there is a great deal of discussion of what is Tum’ah/ ritualistically impure and what is Tehorah/ ritualistically pure throughout Torah, Gemarah and so many sources. How do we understand what this means in a way that does not feel excessively restrictive or exclusive of one’s ability to participate? How do we discuss this without in any way detracting from the value and validation of individuals?

Rabbi Avi Weiss teaches as follows:

"The truth is that there are several terms in the Torah that have no suitable English equivalent. Such terms should not be translated. Leaving them in the original Hebrew makes the reader understand that a more detailed analysis of the word is necessary. Tumah is one of those words that cannot be perfectly translated and requires a deeper analysis. Rav Aharon Soloveichik suggested that the real meaning of tumah might be derived from the verse in Psalms, which says: "The fear of the Lord is tehorah, enduring forever." (Psalms 19:10) Taharah therefore means that which is everlasting and never deteriorates. Tumah, the antithesis of taharah, stands for mortality or finitude, that which withers away.

The point is that the skin of the one with leprosy will heal and then he or she, along with the one who has had an emission, can go to a Mikveh and be admitted to the camp. The waters literally revive the person and the soul after the Tumah is expunged. The corpse withers away and we are left with our memories of the one who has departed. Here too, through Tahara we “water the soul” of the one who has left us. We validate and protect the integrity of what is Tahor, that which is pure and everlasting; while we let go of Tumah, that which is finite and will leave us."

This notion that what is to be excluded from the camp is not the person per se but the Tumah – that which is NOT lasting – makes sense in that the Mishkan and the camp in its very formation celebrates and is based upon that which lasts forever, namely Ribbonu shel Olam.

Later in our Parsha we learn about the Nazir, the one who takes specific vows that separate that person from the general population. In this case, the individual is choosing to not be part of the collective and not celebrate nor participate in several aspects of communal life. We read as follows in Chapter 6: 1 - 8

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to consecrate himself unto the LORD, 3 he shall abstain from wine and strong drink: he shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat fresh grapes or dried…. 5 All the days of his vows … no razor shall come upon his head; until the days be fulfilled, in which he consecrates himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long. 6 All the days that he consecrates himself unto the LORD he shall not come near to a dead body. 7 He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die; because his consecration unto God is upon his head. 8 All the days of his Naziriteship he is (exclusively) holy unto the LORD

Here the individual is choosing a life of solitude, in which his dedication to God pre-empts any connection to other people. We learn very quickly that these periods are to be limited and that the Nazir is to bring very specific and particular offerings; to indicate that he will now embrace being part of the entirety of communal life that he has exited from during the period of this self-imposed seclusion. This is not meant to be permanent, nor is it set up as an ideal state in the context of Jewish living.

So here we have two types of exclusion – one that is required due to a condition of one’s present status and the second that is taken on by personal choice. In both cases, we are shown that this separation goes against the intended nature of community as taught by the maxim AL TIFROSH MIN HATZIBBUR (Do not separate oneself from the community) and that there are remedies for what is seen as a temporary condition.

Clearly, it is the community, that is, the collective, which is seen as lasting and permanent. Consider for example, the complicated instructions regarding offering of the Pesach sacrifice, which is incumbent upon all members of the B’nai Yisrael, both as individuals and as members of the group. There are two specific teachings in these sets of laws that are quite remarkable in their relevance to this topic. First, the Pesach offering is to be offered in CHABUROT, or in groups, in which individual members are to be registered. Secondly, the Pesach is to be offered in a state of TEHORAH and those who are individually Tamei can delay their involvement until Pesach Sheni. However, if the community as a whole or a reasonable number of members of the community are Tamei, then one insures that this is the case with the majority of the group, even going so far as to intentionally have an additional group member touch something that is Tamei; and then the offering is given with the majority in this state. Why? Because the importance of group participation trumps individual states of ritual purity. This is not to say that the latter is not important, just not so core as to invalidate participation of the masses.

There are many ways that we try to achieve this state of TAHARA, of ritual purity and raised spiritual existence. Jewish law gives us strategies to do so, though sometimes we get lost in the details and forget the ultimate goal. We have to remember that God as RACHMANA wants all of us to participate, to be counted, and to be able to reach our own spiritual heights. This is fundamental to the structure of Halacha and should not get lost in the details of how we work towards this goal. VaYikra gives us the parameters of what to do; it is up to us to figure out how and why through the use of CHAZAL and our own sense of purpose in trying to achieve that which is permanent and not subject to deterioration!

Shabbat Shalom.

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