Archive for the '3.04 Tazria / Metzora' Category

Needing as a Blessing: Connecting,Covid-19, and Metzorah

In the beginning of Genesis, we read of the curses that God meted out to Adam, Eve, and the snake upon their violating the prohibition against eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam needs to work the land to get food. Eve will have pain in childbirth. The snake received the different punishment. There we read, “and the dust of the earth you shall eat all the days of your life.”( Genesis 3:14 ) The Hassidic master Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa asked why this punishment at all. Now the snake, by virtue of this curse, would be able to subside on dirt. This being the case, the snake would never have to work to obtain sustenance, as dirt is everywhere! This seems like more of a reward than a punishment.

Juxtaposed the snake, when a person is having difficulty sustaining themselves and will turn to God for help. While people have to endure hardship in order to achieve certain goals, they can turn to God to ask for assistance. Rav Simcha Bunim argues that God wants us to ask for help when we need it. The process of asking for help itself helps us to develop a bond between us and God. One should feel that he or she is asking a friend, someone who is close, caring, and willing to help. God wants a close bond to exist between us. In this way prayer is a way of creating and strengthening this bond.

Ironically, the snake is fortunate in that it has all of his needs provided for. It has nothing to ask of God and nothing for which to request God’s assistance. The curse for the snake is no reason to develop a relationship with God.

Woman finds giant snake - YouTube

I was thinking about this when reading Metzorah, this week’s Torah reading. Here we learn about a ton of maladies. Fear of COVID-19 has sparked a vigilance for various symptoms. Before this we have never been so attuned to all of the ailments, impurities, fevers and rashes in our lives. Spending so much time stuck at home has made us much more aware of what is and not coming into the house. Strangely Metzorah is more relevant then ever. There we read:

When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Leviticus 14:35)

There is an interesting way in which we need to go to a priest to explore how to make meaning of the plague. There is an assumption that there must be meaning behind the plague and we cannot claim to  know what it is. Therefore we say that there is “something like a plague has shown itself to me”, without certainty (see Rashi there). We must seek connection with another person to make meaning out of this event.

We see that this plague mandates that people reach out to make a connection with a priest. In the spirit of the Rav Simcha Bunim’s lesson on the curse of the snake being its disconnection from God, the blessing of Metzorah is the connection to people. Needing is a good thing. It is the foundation for growth and connection.

Covid-19 and all of its variants has been horrible. We recently passed 6 million deaths due to this disease. But in light of this Torah portion, we see that another curse of Covid-19 is the compliancy and comfort we have developed for social isolation. Like Rav Simcha Bunim, Brené Brown, my Vulnerability Rebbe, writes:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

The question for us as we emerge from Covid-19 is if we will allow ourselves to express need, be vulnerable, and reach out to make human connections. That will surely be a blessing.


Defining the Problem: Be a Part of It

One of favorite quotes by Albert Einstein is:

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

We need to define the problem before you trying to solve it. This approach always saves time and energy, regardless of whether the issue is big, small, complicated or complex. And the time and energy saved increases with the number of people involved.

I got thinking about this in the context of reading Tazriah – Metzorah, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn the laws of tumah v’taharah, ritual impurity and purity. In particular we learn about Tzaraat (often mistranslated as “leprosy”). It is a supra-natural plague, which can afflict people as well as garments or homes. If white or pink patches appear on a person’s skin (dark pink or dark green in garments or homes), a kohen is summoned. There we read:

When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean. ( Leviticus 13:2-3)

What is the significance of the priest pronouncement? Time after time we need the priest to share his judgement of the situation. It seems weird. Either the person has the affliction or not, what is the relevance of the diagnosis?

In Kol Dodi Dofek on this notion of “pronouncing” , Rav Soloveitchik writes:

We know well how to ‎criticize, to look ‎for blemishes and to express opinions as self-styled experts. One thing, however, ‎escapes us, and ‎that is that the priest who pronounces defilement must leave the encampment to ‎be with the ‎afflicted sufferer so as to purify him. “And the priest shall leave the encampment … ‎and the priest ‎shall command” (Leviticus 14:3–4). ( Kol Dodi Dofek)

It is easy to find fault in things and be critical of people. It is profound to think that in our commitment to understand a problem we need experience deep empathy. In having to pronounce the problem the priest commits to being part of the solution.

Bertrand Russell said,

The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

It is important to realize that the lesson of the priests’ leadership is that they cannot be cold and distant thinkers. This model of leadership assumes that the solution needs empathy and support and not just thinking. We need to identify our own role in the problem and the solution to get to any change. That might take more than 5 minutes.

Between Tzara’at and Acne

In Tazria, this week’s Torah portion, we read about various forms of biblical ritual impurity. For much of this portion and next week’s portion of Metzora we read about what happens when a person had swelling, rash, discoloration, scaly affection, inflammation, or burn. It was to be reported to the priest, who was to examine it to determine whether the person was clean or unclean. This skin disease (צָּרַעַתtzara’at) is incorrectly translated as “leprosy”.

This disease appears other places in the Torah. First we see it as a tool to help Moshe to convince others that God had sent him to get them out of Egypt. God instructed Moshe to put his hand into his bosom, and when he took it out, his hand was m’tzora’at- as white as snow. (Exodus 4:6). Later on we learn that after Miriam spoke against Moshe, God’s cloud removed from the Tent of Meeting and “Miriam was m’tzora’at as white as snow” (Numbers 12:10). While it seems that tzara’at lacks context in Tazria and Metzora, what meaning can we make of it in the the context of the cases of Exodus and Numbers?

For Moshe tzara’at represented a symbol of God’s unique control of the natural world. If God could change flesh white, surely God could force Pharoah’s hand to let the Israelites to leave Egypt. For Miriam tzara’at seemed to be a supernatural punishment for her speaking bad of her brother.  At first blush there does not seem to be any connection. On further exploration it seems that there is a connection between their outcomes. For Moshe tzara’at was a means of communicating and bringing about their Exodus. For Miriam tzara’at was the consequence that symbolized her temporary exile. On a fundamental level tzara’at is connected to notions of exodus, exclusion, and shame.  When do we want to leave, when we do not want to be sent out, and what is the shame associated with not being where you want to be.

I was thinking about all of this this week when Yadid went to his first dermatologist appointment. He is 15 years old,  in the thick of teen hormone storm. and dealing with the acne that comes with it.  While neither of us have never experienced tzara’at, my son and I have had plenty of skin blemishes between us. With each zit, cyst, or scab I have had discomfort on one level and social stigma on another. With Tazria and Metzora I am brought back to my 15 year old self with a big zit in the middle of my face. At the same time I wanted to be included in ( Miriam) and liberated from ( Mosche) any and every social environment.  We should all be freed from shame.

Image result for acne upclose

Long Arc of Justice: II Kings and the Wall

In Tazria-Metzora, this week’s Torah portion we read about tzara’at, a skin ailment caused by sins. Similarly in this week’s haftorah we lear about four men stricken by tzara’at.  The backdrop of the story is that King Ben-Hadad of Aram besieged the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The resulting famine was catastrophic, reducing many to cannibalism. These four men suffering from tzara’at dwelled in quarantine outside the city. Hungry due to the famine they decided to approach the enemy camp to beg for food. They arrived only to find a deserted camp. The enemy deserted their encampment because they thought they heard the sounds of an approaching army. Despite being excluded the four men went back to the city and reported their findings to the gatekeepers who, in turn, informed King Jehoram. Though originally thinking that this was an ambush planned by the enemy, the king sent messengers who confirmed the miracle. The people swarmed out of the city and looted the enemy camp, thus breaking the famine and fulfilling Elisha’s prophecy.

The officer who was in charge of the city gates was himself killed by the rampaging crowds. There we read, “The people trampled him to death in the gate.” ( II Kings 7:20) The Talmud in Sanhedrin 90b assumes that the officer died because he doubted the prophecy of Elisha, but maybe that is not the whole story.   It is too easy to depict the officer as civil servant like a TSA agent protecting the city.  I offer you another reading here.


Related image

Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister. In 1853 a collection of “Ten Sermons of Religion” by Parker was published in one of those sermons he wrote:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. (Of Justice and the Conscience)

In the name of keeping the inhabitants safe the officer kept the four men out of the city. He mistakenly thought that they represented a danger and completely missed the fact that they too had what to contribute. Yes people in the city were starving and afraid, but it did not help to keep these four men out just because they had tzara’at. Even if these men had sinned, it did not excuse the sin of the officer who kept them out. The officer was killed because the long arc of history bends toward justice.

Reading this haftorah makes you ask a number of questions about our current political situation. What is going on in our country? What are we so afraid of?  Who are we excluding? Will we be judged well if we build a wall with Mexico?

My Defining Moment

We read in Tazria Metzoria, this week’s Torah portion, that when a person is afflicted with tzaraat they must dwell alone outside of the camp until they are healed. Tzaraat is commonly translated at leprosy but was actually a scaly affection of the skin with some discoloration. It was not contagious, but rather is seems to have been a symptom of an inner spiritual disorder.  Why is dwelling outside of the camp so transformative?

I was thinking about this recently when reading a paper that my Yishama had to write. His assignment was to explore a defining moment in his life to date. This is what he wrote and the drawing that accompanied it:

Before I went to sleep-away camp I wasn’t independent or responsible. I was not responsible because I didn’t ask for any responsibility. I wasn’t as productive at school because I didn’t have a sense of how important school was. I relied on my parents and au pair a lot because I didn’t have to be independent or responsible.

The summer I went to sleep-away camp changed my life. At sleep-away camp I was introduced to many kinds of people. The environment at camp was different because there were all kinds of people and different ways of living, which helped open me up to new foods and lifestyles. When I came home from camp my parents were surprised by how much I had changed and matured.

After I came home from sleep-away camp, I was more independent, responsible, and didn’t rely on other people as much. When I came home from camp my parents trusted me enough to let me do a lot of things I had not been allowed to do before I went to camp, such as staying home alone and making my own plans. When I came back from camp I was more productive in class because I knew the value of education.  Meeting some of my new friends at camp showed me how much they valued education and they inspired me to keep learning more – just like they do. Going to sleep-away camp opened my eyes to the world around me and the person I aspire to be.

For Yishama leaving home and going to camp helped his grow in his confidence and sense of responsibility. Coming into contact with all kinds of people and different ways of living helped Yishama open up. When he returned from a summer at Camp Stone he was transformed spiritually. I can only assume leaving camp was as transformative to the ancient Israelites. And in both cases I assume when they came back they needed a really good shower.

Purification Process: Primaries and Tazria

I recently read the New York Times endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president. While there was nothing particularly surprising there, it did remind me how we are in the midst of one the strangest presidential primaries ever. The Op Ed said:

For the past painful year, the Republican presidential contenders have been bombarding Americans with empty propaganda slogans and competing, bizarrely, to present themselves as the least experienced person for the most important elected job in the world. Democratic primary voters, on the other hand, after a substantive debate over real issues, have the chance to nominate one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history. ( NY Times 1/30/2016)

In its ideal form the process of the primary is to give the nation two vetted choices of people worthy of the post. Unlike in any primary I remember this one is schlepping on and on. It is almost as if this primary is a gestation process that I am not sure who we want to see come to term.

I was thinking about this while reading Tazria, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn that when a woman gives birth she should undergo a process of purification, which includes immersing in a mikvah and bringing offerings to the Holy Temple. Along with creation of a new and pure life of the child the mother is asked to purify herself and provide an offering at the temple.

I recalled  the following image on Facebook.


Regardless about what you think about Bernie Sanders as person, politician, or prospect for President, you have to give him credit for bring authentic back to politics. Good leadership is being honest, present, aware and vulnerable of one’s own limitations, having a robust vision for the future, and having the tenacity and temerity to fight for that vision while making sure everyone gets what they need.

While I am concerned about who will be the next president, I am also concerned for purity of the nation that will give birth to these candidates for next president of this country. What will be our purification process post-election?




Plague of Permanence

My dad was an officer and a lawyer in the US Navy. Some of my earliest memories are of him dressing up and for reserve duty.  Growing up we would always take family trips on sail boats. I cherish those memories. There was something very special about all being together and moving at the same time. My dad would often quip, ” What is the difference between owning a house and owning a boat? A house is a hole in the ground that your pour money into, where a boat is a hole in the water that you pour money into.” Now a quarter century later as a home owner myself I see what he was saying. While it gives us a lot of joy to have a home of our own, there are huge ongoing and unexpected expenses in owning a home.

I was thinking about this when reading Metzora, this week’s Torah portion. The parasha deals with ritual impurities ranging from skin disease (צָּרַעַת, tzara’at), to houses with an eruptive plague, to male genital discharges, and to  menstruation. There we read:

When you are come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession; then someone who owns a house shall come and tell the priest, saying: ‘There seems to me to be as it were a plague in the house.’  And the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the priest go in to see the plague, that all that is in the house be not made unclean; and afterward the priest shall go in to see the house.  (Leviticus 14:34-36)

This brings up two questions. The first question is how could our houses have the same issues as our persons. The second one, why is this plague limited to “when you come into the land”. I think the answer to both are connected to my father’s comment about boats. The comfort we take in permanence of our buildings and bodies is illusory. The notion that we own anything in life is misguided. Tzara’at reminds us that we are but tenants for a short time in our homes and even in our bodies. At best they are like boats bringing us closer to the ones we love: moving us further in life’s journey.



Mark of a Tzadik

In Tazria-Metzora, this week’s Torah portion, we read about various forms of biblical ritual impurity. It addresses cleansing from skin disease (צָּרַעַת, tzara’at). What was tzara’at, this skin disease? The person with tzara’at has to present their case to a priest to determine the right course of action. Why would you need to present a medical case to anyone other than a doctor?

One approach  is simply that  tzara’at not a medical condition.  In the Talmud Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that skin disease results from seven things: slander, the shedding of blood, vain oath, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy (Arakhin 16a.) Even so, how would a priest help you deal with one of these seven sins?

Ideally the priests followed in the ways of Aaron. The priests tried to literally be the “disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace; love your fellow creatures and draw them nigh unto the Law!”( Avot 1:12) They were peacemakers. Who else would be able to deal with these seven sins?

I was thinking about the person of Aaron this past Shabbat. My wife was away and I was having Shabbat dinner with our three children. While I was making Kiddush Emunah (3)  started screaming. In response Yishama (6) yelled at her saying he hates her and her screaming and stormed off to the living room. Emunah started to cry. Without saying a word Yadid (9) went off to the living room leaving me head in hand. I have no idea what they talked about, but a couple of moments later Yadid returned to the dining-room.  He gently but his arm around his crying sister and said, “Yishama apologizes for what he said”. And just like that, we had peace again.

At that moment all I could think about was Aaron.  He was an ideal priest of the people, far more beloved for his kindly ways than was Moses. While Moses was stern and uncompromising, brooking no wrong, Aaron went about as peacemaker, reconciling man and wife when he saw them estranged, or a man with his neighbor when they quarreled, and winning evil-doers back into the right way by his friendly interactions. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12 and Sanhedrin 6b). I grabbed Yadid  and give him a big hug. I said to him that he is the gilgul, reincarnation, of Aaron. Yadid is a Tzadik.  I hope by the time Yadid reads this blog his tender soul is revealed to more of the world. But, for now I am happy that this Tzadik saved my Shabbat meal last week.

Having this experience with my son makes we question what else could restore peace to the world. Other then someone who works tirelessly to help people make peace for themselves, what else could heal the world? What else could remove the blemish of one of these seven sins?

I hope that this Shabbat goes smoother for everyone. Shabbat Shalom.

Rejoining the Community

Camp works. And now we even have evidence to that effect as seen in the recent longitudinal impact study and Avi Chai’s Limud by theLakeRevisited. There is a profound experience of Jewish community at camp by  our campers and our staff alike. Even after not talking for years when I reconnect to people with whom I went to camp the bond still strong. But, how often do I take pause to think about all of the people for whom camp did not work? For many of us, being out of sight is being out of mind. For those who left camp for an embarrasing reason there is a risk that they are lost to our community. There is often a stigma connected to an untimely dismissal from camp that is a barrier to our reconnecting.

It was hard not thinking about these people this week when learning Metzorah, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about those who have been plagued by leprosy and had to leave the camp. There is no question that they needed to leave camp, but it does not mean that they should be lost to the community. There we read,

This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing: he shall be brought to the Kohen. And the Kohen shall go forth out of the camp; and the Kohen shall look, and, behold, if the plague of leprosy be healed in the leper. (Leviticus 14:2-3)

Is the leper being brought to the Kohen or is the Kohen going to the leper? At the core it defines what it means to have a holy community. Both parties need to make the effort to repair that relationship.

Similarly, in our camps we need to kick people out to preserve the safety and sanctity of the community that we are creating. These people might have made some bad choices or camp just might not have been appropriate for them, but does it mean that they are no longer part of the community? And going back to Metzorah, whose responsibility is it to try to bring them back into the community? Clearly both parties need to make the effort.

Dayenu we filled our beds with campers. Dayenu we filled the hearts and heads of all of our campers. Dayenu we trained our staff to do this. Dayenu we had the time to do alumni development with the alumni who left camp under good terms. And I am not just talking about the fund raisers, but the friend raisers. As we read this week’s Torah portion we should all put it on our schedule to get up and go out of camp to bring those people back into our communities. That would surely be enough. We all can serve in this role of the Kohen. But if we cannot think about supporting the work of a camp to enable them to have staff time to do this outreach. Camp is an amazing time and place for people to join community. In the act of helping someone rejoin the community we all become holy.

Apex in Creation

At the end of Shemini, last week’s Torah portion, the Torah went into a lot of detail regarding the laws of Kashrut. What can we eat? What we cannot eat? And why? There we read:

For I am the Lord your God; therefore sanctify yourselves, and be  holy; for I am holy; neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moves upon the earth. For I am the Lord that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.This is the law of the beast, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that swarms upon the earth; to make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten. ( Leviticus 11:44-47)

A simple reading seems that God wants us to imitate God. But what does it mean to be holy like God? What do we make of the out-of-place reference to the Exodus from Egypt? And most importantly this week, what do we make of the transition from Shemini to Tazria, this week’s Torah portion?

At the start of Tazria we read:

Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman be delivered, and bear a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness shall she be unclean. (Leviticus 12:2)

On this Rashi quotes Vayikra Rabbah and comments:

Rabbi Simlai said, ” Just as the creating of man came after {the creation of ]all of the cattle, beast, and fowl in act of Creation, so this law is explained after the law of the cattle, beast, and fowl. (Rashi on Leviticus 12:2)

Rabbi Simlai, my Amoraic hero, points out the sequence of the laws of Shemini and Tazria mirrors the creation narrative. It is telling that the next large section of the Torah deals with a series of aweful dermatologic issues. Before this story of birth we learn all of these laws of Kashrut in which we are told to eat different to separate ourselves from lower creatures. After the story is the birth of children we learn how we fall a part as people. Most of life is controlling how we fend off parasites and other creatures living off your bodies, until ultimately we return to the earth. At our base we are no different from the animals we eat. Birth is the apex of the biblical imagination of creation. Is it any surprise that soon after Adam and Eve are created they eat something they are not supposed to eat and are condemned to mortality? But it is also after this act they become parents. As parents having a children represents our fulfilment of the directive to imitate God as a creator.

And so what do we make of the reference to the Exodus  from Egypt in the middle of all of this? In many ways, when we were slaves we were closest to being seen by others and seeing ourselves as animals. It was only after the Exodus from Egypt  that we became people again. The crossing of the Red Sea was our national birth. Just as Tazria is followed by issues (pun intended)that ailed us as individuals, the time in the desert was a time in which the Israelites were dealing with numerous national problems. In many ways it was our adolescence, with all of the acting out of base animal desires and even the acne. It is fitting that on Shabbat of Tazria in which we allude to a high point in becoming creators with the birth of a child we look ahead to celebrate Passover, the moment of our national birth.  So we keep kosher and remember the Exodus from Egypt to remind us of where we came from and the risk of forgetting our mission. We are all but animals, but we are vested with the infinite potential to create. Birth is just the beginning, we all have a long way to go toward realizing our divine potential.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 242 other subscribers

Archive By Topic

%d bloggers like this: