Archive for the '3.06 Emor' Category

Inner Priest: Looking for the Little Bit of Special

There is a wonderful teaching by Rav Nachman of Breslov in which he writes:

Know that you must judge all people favorably. This applies even to the worst of people. You must search until you find some little bit of good in them. In that good place inside them, they are not bad! If you can just find this little bit of good and judge them favorably, you really can elevate them and swing the scales of judgment in their favor. This way you can bring them back to God. (Likutey Moharan I:282)

It is amazing to think that in each and everyone of us there is something special. Rav Nachman is asking us to be less judgative and more curious about the people around us.

I was thinking about this Torah when reading Emor, this week’s Torah portion. There we read a whole lot of laws regarding the person and conduct of the Priests. To many this is troubling in the adulation of one particular form of perfection. But in thinking about it this week I came to enjoy the idea that the Priest might represent something special as part of the whole of the people of Israel. Maybe our collective sense of being special is connected to the Priest being in our midst. Like Rav Nachman’s teaching, if each of us is a microcosm of Israel, there be a little part in each of us that special like a Priest. Like the Priest there is that little bit of special that is set a side and is supposed to be treated with extra care and even restrictions. What would it be like to not only be constantly looking for that little bit of special in the people we love, but even in the worst people? In the process of this openhearted search we might even discover that very special bit of goodness in ourselves.

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What Is In A Name?

God willing Adina and I are expecting our fourth child at the end of July. In this context we have been giving a fair amount of thought into what to name this child. What is in a name?

This question reminds me of interesting writings in Freakonomics where University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner tackle the importance of names. How much does your given name impact your opportunities in life?

This question of the importance of a name was in my head when reading Emor, this week’s Torah portion, in which we account of the case of the blasphemer. There we read:

And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp. And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed; and they brought him to Moshe. And his mother’s name was Shelomit, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in ward, that it might be declared unto them at the mouth of the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Bring forth him that has cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: Whosoever curses his God shall bear his sin. And he that blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him; as well the stranger, as the home-born, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.  (Leviticus 24:10- 16)

On one level we see the tragedy of this unnamed person who is killed because he uttered God’s name. British anthropologist Mary Douglas suggested that if wordplay is admitted, the story could be read to say that the blasphemer hurled insults at the Name of God, and then God ordained that the blasphemer should die by stones hurled at him. Douglas goes on to suggest that the story told to children could go like this: Once there was a man with no name, son of Retribution, grandson of Lawsuit, from the house of Judgment, who pelted insults at the Name, and God said that he should die — because he pelted God’s Name, he should be pelted to death. In this context even though he does not have a name the names of his ancestors have a large impact on his path. He seems to destined for death row. Another interpretation might be that if he actually had his own name he would not have cursed God’s name.

All of this is to say that we are open to suggestions for good names for our child.

Mixed Blessing

At the end of Emor, this week’s Torah portion, we read a very disturbing story about the blasphemer (Leviticus 24:10-23). He was the child of an Egyptian father and his mother was of the tribe of Dan. As the story goes, he cursed the name of God. In turn, God instructs Moses to lead him out of the camp and eventually have him killed because of his sin.

At first glance, we as moderns are left dealing with the issue of a child of an intermarriage being mistreated. He was a landless person. He could not return to Egypt, and he had no portion in the land of Israel in the tribe of Dan. Where was his place? Where was the justice? This story seems out of touch with the rest if the Torah. We need to find a place for everyone in our community.

Upon second reading we see that he must have been a special person. To be able to curse the name of God, he must have known the name of God. How did this guy know the name of God?  I would like to suggest that it might be the nature of his being alienated which privileged him to know the name of God. We should not aspire to be landless, but this alienation has been a troupe of our existence. For most of our history, from the time that Avram set out on this project called Judaism until the founding of the State of Israel, we have been living as aliens in the lands of others. The memory of being an outsider to a homeland has made someone an insider to the Jewish people.

We learn in the Gemara that 12,000 Chevrutot of Rabbi Akiva died between Passover and Shavuot because they did not treat each other with respect (Yevamot 62). While the Gemara reports that they died from a horrible plague, many believe that they died in the Bar Kochba revolt. This Sunday will be Lag B’ Omer, which marks the succession of the plague/massacre. For those who choose to say that Rabbi Akiva’s students died in the Bar Kochba revolt, I ask you to pause and realize that they died in the name of Jewish autonomy. In our striving to make a home for ourselves we need to ensure that everyone in our community feels welcome even if they do not have land. The rest of us should reflect on how we need to learn the lesson that Rabbi Akiva’s neglected to learn and treat everyone with respect, especially someone who is of mixed lineage in our community.

In many ways we exist in two communities today. One part is so insular and secure that they have grown out of touch with this essential memory of alienation, while the other is left  trying to reconcile the realities of widespread intermarriage. In welcoming in the children of mixed married families into our community we will help renew our own sense of sacred alienation. In embracing  these so-called “half Jews” the community will become whole again. I am not asking to change halacha, but an attitude of wanting to be inclusive. In so doing, I hope that we can all learn to bless God in new ways.


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