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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.

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When Falling Becomes Failing: On Mindset and Shemini

I am always in middle of about a half a dozen writing project. One of the persisting projects has been looking at  Dr. Carol Dweck‘s Mindset through a Torah lens. While her research has come under attack, I still think it is a wonderful book in which she uses her research in psychology to outlines two typological mindsets. Mindsets are beliefs  about yourself and your most basic qualities. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life? People with a Fixed Mindset believe that their traits are just given. People with a Growth Mindset, on the other hand, see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Below you can see a great graphic explanation of these two mindsets:

It is increasingly unclear whether attempts to change students’ mindsets about their abilities have any positive effect on their learning at all. In a recent blog, Dweck defended her work and noted that growth mindset theory ‘is on a firm foundation, but we’re still building the house’. In fact, Dweck argues that her work has been misunderstood and misapplied in a range of ways. She has also expressed concerns that her theories are being misappropriated in schools by being conflated with the self-esteem movement: ‘The thing that keeps me up at night is that some educators are turning mindset into the new self-esteem, which is to make kids feel good about any effort they put in, whether they learn or not. But for me the growth mindset is a tool for learning and improvement. It’s not just a vehicle for making children feel good.’

In her defense, just because parents and educators might adopt her language of mindsets, it does not mean that they are doing the work needed to actually create environments the support Growth Mindsets. Dweck said in an interview in 2015, “We’re finding that many parents endorse a growth mindset, but they still respond to their children’s errors, setbacks or failures as though they’re damaging and harmful… If they show anxiety or over-concern, those kids are going toward a more fixed mindset.” Like many other things, a compelling description lost its efficacy when it was turned into a prescription. And even as a description, I do find her typologies helpful.

As anyone who has been around a child learning to walk knows, we all start off knowing that falling is not failing. We are all born with a Growth Mindset and then we learn to have a Fixed Mindset. I was thinking about this when reading Shemini, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire-pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. ( Leviticus 10:1-2)

Whether their offering of “strange fire” was idolatrous or just their being creative or playful, their immediate death made it clear that in this situation falling was failing. For all of us success and failure need to be clearly defined if we hope to achieve it.  The new research it saying that it is not clear that we can transform someone from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset. It is also not clear if that effort will itself lead to success. That said, I do think that such a harsh response to falling would not encourage anyone to seek challenge in order to grow.  While a critical reading would claim that God was acting as a horrible parent, a more charitable reading would claim that God is setting out the exception which is demonstrating the rule. Falling is not allowed in the Tabernacle or Temple, but it has to tolerated if not celebrated everywhere else in that we are still learning to walk.

Also read:

 

Woven into the Fabric: Tzav and the Jewish Calendar

I look back on almost 10 years of writing this blog and I realize that have basically ignored Tzav, this week’s Torah portion, every year. It is probably because it gets lost in the Purim shuffle. One thing that caught my eye this year reading Tzav was the a description of the priestly garments. There we read:

And the Lord spoke unto Moshe, saying: ‘Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the bullock of the sin-offering, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and you should assemble all the congregation at the door of the tent of meeting.’ ( Leviticus 8:1-3)

On this Rashi comments that it was seven days before the erection of the Mishkan which itself happened on the first of Nissan. That would put it at the 23rd of Adar in the period between Purim and Passover. What is the significance of this happening during this period of time?

It seems that we wear costumes on Purim to imitate Esther. She got her position of power by masking her identity. Ultimately she revealed her hidden identity and saved herself and her people. A month after Purim is Passover. It is interesting to note the Midrash as to why we were worthy of being redeemed from Egypt. There we read:

Another interpretation: “And there they became a nation” – this teaches that the Israelites were distinct there, in that their clothing, food, and language was different from the Egyptians’. They were identified and known as a separate nation, apart from the Egyptians. (Minor Pesikta, Devarim (Ki Tavo) 41a )

Where in the Megilah Esther saved her people by hiding and then revealed her identity, in Egypt we were redeemed specifically because we kept our public identity including our clothes. Our redemption starts with Esther’s revelation of unmasked self, goes to redemption of our ancestors who were advertising their identity with their clothing in Egypt, and then 50 days later on Shavuot we commemorate God as it were taking off God’s mask and reveal God’s self to us at Sinai.

Amidst this cycle we have the priests getting dressed. Like Esther they get their position of power by masking their personal identity. In many ways their garments made them who they were to the people. Like the Israelites in Egypt the priests in their garments were an iconic representation of Jewish identity. It is also through the cult of the Temple that the people would experience the unmasked presence of God as we did on Shavuot.

It turns out the Tzav is not lost behind Purim, it is just woven into the fabric of this longer cycle involving clothing, redemption ,and revelation.

 

Another Woman’s March: Between Purim and Chanukah

A few months ago there was a big tumult regarding the Women’s March of Washington. Three of the four lead organizers had attended events hosted by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made a living off of making antisemitic remarks.  Perceptions that the leaders of the Women’s March had failed to condemn the rhetoric and subsequent accusations of antisemitism within the organization itself led to former co-founder Teresa Shook to call for their resignations and were followed by the disassociation of numerous state chapters. By December 2018, The New York Times reported that “charges of antisemitism are now roiling the movement and overshadowing plans for more marches.”

Questions about alleged antisemitism connected to the Women’s March organizers have swirled for months in response to an article in online Jewish magazine Tablet. While the organizers had repeatedly denied all accusations of misconduct or using inappropriate speech, the issue resurfaced when two of the March’s organizers appeared on “The View”. During the show, March co-president Tamika Mallory was asked why she posted a photo of herself and Louis Farrakhan on Instagram with a caption indicating her adulation of this hatemonger. “I didn’t call him the greatest of all time because of his rhetoric,” Mallory responded. “I called him the greatest of all time because of what he’s done in black communities.” Pressed on the issue, Mallory said, “I don’t agree with many of Minister Farrakhan’s statements,” but when asked directly if she condemned them, she demurred. “I don’t agree with these statements,” Mallory responded. “It’s not my language, it’s not the way that I speak, it’s not how I organize … I should never be judged through the lens of a man.”

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What are the implications of judging a woman through the lens of a man? What is the right lens to judge a person who brings on a foe as an ally? What are the implications of a cause that I find to be just even if the allies brought together to support this cause are deplorable?

There were many voices in the Jewish community who were so triggered by the larger context of rising antisemitism that they could not see through that to the importance of the cause of the March. While I deeply appreciate the sensitivity to an association with Farrakhan being too much, I am curious about those who were against the March on the merits of it not reaching their standards of a purity of allyship. It has been noted by others that it’s a pernicious privilege to demand that a group of revolutionaries trying to make change a system maintain a purity of who they ally with for their cause.

This privilege makes sense from the perspective of Chanukah. That is to say that the Hashmonaim were revolutionaries who were fighting for their lives.  After the Maccabees beat their enemy and rededicated the Temple they found one cruse of pure oil for the Menorah. This oil was enough to last for one day, but it lasted for eight days, which was enough time for them to produce more pure oil. To the Maccabees this miracle was proof that God approved and sanctioned their military efforts. This notion of purity got expanded by the Rabbis future celebration of Chanukah. We learn:

Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Chanukah [demands] one light for a man and his household;  and the mehadrin- more beautiful [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and the mehadrin of the mehadrin – Bet Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced;  but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. (Shabbat 21b)

The most beautiful expression of this ritual is when everyone shows off the purity of God’s sanctioning the Maccabees fight against the Greeks.

This paradigm of Chanukah stands juxtaposed Purim. Similar to the Maccabees with the Greeks, Esther and Mordechai were fighting the existential threat of Haman. Both holidays tell the stories of a small group of people uniting to defeat the bloodthirsty forces of a much larger and more powerful oppressor. But where Chanukah represents an aesthetic of Jewish purity over Hellenistic physical beauty, Esther represents the opposite. She only became the queen by winning a beauty pageant. Esther uses her beauty to save her people, and most importantly to our discussion here, to do this holy work she made some interesting allies. Throughout her efforts he relies on the eunuchs. For a community that has not historically looked on intermarriage so positively we are all too happy to overlook her relationship with Ahashverosh. The strangeness of who she portrays as her ally comes to head in her second banquet with Haman and Ahashverosh. There we read:

Queen Esther replied: “If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.” Thereupon King Ahashverosh demanded of Queen Esther, “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?”“The adversary and enemy,” replied Esther, “is this evil Haman!” And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen. The king, in his fury, left the wine feast for the palace garden, while Haman remained to plead with Queen Esther for his life; for he saw that the king had resolved to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room, Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined. “Does he mean,” cried the king, “to ravish the queen in my own palace?” No sooner did these words leave the king’s lips than Haman’s face was covered. (Esther 7:3-8)

Esther only request is the she and her people not be killed. She would not have bothered him if they were “just” enslaved. The King only acts when he perceives that Haman, who has been courted by Esther to these exclusive banquets, is trying to have sex with his wife in his palace. This seems incredibly strange that this is what provokes action and not his trusted adviser wanting to kill his queen or commit genocide. Ahashverosh is only moved to action when he sees his wife taking a strange bed-fellow.

Both Chanukah and Purim are stories of revolution and salvation. But while Chanukah is a story of purity, Esther is a story of persistence. Esther does whatever it takes to be successful, including using her beauty and not her purity to make strange bed-fellows. While people can still chose a Chanukah lens over a Purim lens to critique revolutionary activity, it should be mentioned that the Hashmonaim were roundly criticized by the Rabbis and were similar to today’s Taliban killing many brothers in name of ritual purity.  It was only after the privilege of winning that the Maccabees would claim that their fratricide was pure.

Coming back to our times we need to say clearly that women’s rights are truly in danger and we need to come together to fight this good fight. While Farrakhan and the larger rise of antisemitism is horrifying and needs to be blotted out, I think we need to be more understanding that revolutions by design get messy. Before we judge the leaders of the Women’s March too harshly in light of the Chanukah story, we need to see that their “misconduct or using inappropriate speech” might just be these women taking a chapter from Esther’s original Women’s March.

Purim Sameakh- Have a revolutionary holiday.

Looking to See: The Blessings of Thriving

We learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Meir said, ‘A person is obligated to bless 100 blessing every day, as the Torah says: ‘Now Israel, mah– what does God ask from you, but only to fear Hashem your God, to go in all God’s ways, and to love God, and to serve Hashem your God, with all of your heart and with all of your soul. To guard the commands of Hashem and His statutes which I command you today, for your good.(Deut. 10:12-13)  (Menachos 43b)

Instead of Rabbi Meir reading  Mah– meaning what he reads it me’ah– meaning 100. But, why say 100 blessings every day?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting at the Positive Judaism Summit at UPenn Hillel.  There we discussed the benefit to our wellness of having a regular gratitude practice. This seems rather intuitive. Having a gratitude practice makes us attune ourselves to good things in the world. The process of looking helps us see. 

The wisdom of Rabbi Meir got much deeper when I thought about it within the context of the theme of yesterday’s conference which was “From Survive to Thrive: A New Approach for Jewish living in the 21st Century”. What might Rabbi Meir say about Positive Psychology?

Looking at Rabbi Meir’s proof text we see something very revealing. We start with fearing God but end with loving God. We start in trying to follow an invisible God’s ways and end with leading in service. Maybe the key to moving from survival to thriving is this move from fear to love. Similarly it is critical to move from following the invisible to leading in service to others. We can make this shift daily by conditioning ourselves with the spiritual technology of 100 blessings. In so doing we habituate ourselves to thrive. 

Hosting Adar

One of my favorite stories tells of the origin story of the Besht. We read: 

Reb Eliezer, the father of the Ba’al Shem Tov, lived in a small village in the Ukraine and was particularly devoted to the mitzvah of hospitality. It was his practice to send emissaries to bring visitors to his home, and after he had filled their needs with food and drink, he would supply them with more provisions for their journey. In heaven they were very impressed by his practice, but the heavenly prosecutors claimed that Reb Eliezer had not yet reached the level of hospitality that Abraham and Sarah had reached. Just as with Job the devil asked for permission to test him, however, upon hearing of this, the prophet Elijah said that it is not proper that the devil be the one to carry out this mission, because Reb Eliezer might not be able to withstand his exacting judgment.

And so it was that one Shabbat afternoon, in the guise of a poor man on foot, Elijah descended to visit the Reb Eliezer. Upon entering Reb Eliezer’s home, he called out, “Good Shabbos!” It appeared to Reb Eliezer that his guest had desecrated the Shabbat, God forbid, and was not even embarrassed by his deeds, yet he did not become angry at him.  Instead, Reb Eliezer immediately offered the pauper food for the third Shabbat meal and after Shabbat was over, he served him the Melave Malka meal. The following morning, on Sunday, Reb Eliezer provided his guest with a generous donation, still making no mention of the sin of desecrating the Shabbat. 

Then Elijah revealed himself to him and announced, “I am the prophet Elijah, and in merit of your exceptional deed, you will be privileged to bear a son who will light up the eyes of Israel.”(adapted from  Reshimot Devarim 4, p. 35)

This story speaks to the centrality of hachnasat orechim-hospitality in Jewish life. 

I was thinking about it today as the second day of Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheni. As we learn in the Gemara:

Mi’SheNichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha– One who welcomes Adar increases joy. ( Taanit 29)

Nichnas and hachnasat have the same root. This makes me translate this differently. One who hosts Adar increases joy.

This makes me go back to the story of Reb Eliezer. What does it take to really be a good host? Yes it means opening up our homes, but that is the easy part. The hard part is opening up our hearts. In Adar we need to get into the spirit of putting on the mask of being hospitable so that we can actually get to the level of Abraham and Sara If we do that we will increase joy by lighting the eyes of Israel. 

Hodesh Tov

I Love Israel: Growing Past Hope

For the past week I have had the Winona Oak and Chainsmokersearworm Hope stuck in my head.  This song tells the story of a woman’s reflection of the abusive relationship that she had with a partner when she was younger.  The chorus is particularly sticky. They sing:

You made me feel high
‘Cause you had me so low, low, low
You only seemed tall
‘Cause you stunted my grow-grow-growth
I only wanted you ’cause I couldn’t have you
Now that I know
That wasn’t love, that wasn’t love, that was just hope

The protagonist realizes that what she thought was a strong relationship was just an immature dependency. The song is catchy and worth a listen:

I really did not give it much more thought until the merger between right-wing parties Habayit Hayehudi and Otzma Yehudit, whose members are supporters of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Rightly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under fire for endorsing this merger. While one should not be surprised with the rise of nationalism and xenophobia all over the world (e.g. Brexit and MAGA), but it is still saddening to see this strand of hatred and fear-mongering in Israel.

For Jews around the world, Israel represents our aspirations for a different future. We see this most clearly in Hatikvah, our national anthem. There we sing:

Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope two thousand years old,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

In my mind Israel is the realization of thousands of years of our yearning and suffering in Diaspora. This pernicious move to the right to normalize Kahane in the name of keeping us a “free nation in our land”, is actually losing the hope itself.

Thinking about  Hatikvah in this moment I found myself singing Hope by the Chainsmokers. Normalizing racism like Kahane isn’t love, that is just hope. After over 70 years of this imperfect but majestic history of the State of Israel, we need to grow up. We need to reflect on what kind of relationships we want to have and what kind of nation we want to be. We need to be bold and say that we love Israel, and immature hope is insufficient. If we push ourselves past hope to love we will expect more from our leadership and ourselves. Netanyahu is only perceived to be high in the polls because he has kept us so “low, low, low.” We need to reflect on this moment and “grow-grow-grow.”


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