Tazria / Metzora

The double portions of Tazria and Metzora continue the Torah’s discussion of ritual impurities. Tzara’at, often translated as leprosy, is a plague that can afflict people’s skin, their clothing, or even their homes. If someone suspects tzara’at, a priest is summoned, and after judging various signs determines whether the person or object is tamei (ritually impure) or tahor (ritually pure).

Whenever I read this Torah portion, it makes me think about how we deal with illness. Skin diseases are visible, and thus we can imagine how people presenting with leprosy must have been so easily and quickly scorned, feared, reviled, and shunned. Serious illnesses today are often less visible, and also carry the weight of far less stigma. Nobody whispers the word cancer anymore. We know it is not contagious, and we rush to be supportive of our friends, family, and community members who suffer.

Rabbi Sara Davidson Berman pointed out in her beautiful d’var Torah on this portion that the term “leper” is used today to describe anyone who is ostracized. “Who are the lepers in today’s society?” she asks. “Those with mental illness.” In times of old, our sages questioned what moral failing had caused people to come down with leprosy. Today too, mental illness is so often viewed as a personal, moral failure. Those who commit suicide are said to be “selfish.” Most people do not consider a death from suicide to be one from a disease – mental illness. Suicide is not a personal failing. It is a medical one.

Our rabbis taught that the disease of tzara’at was caused by “motzi shem ra” – spreading a bad name, or gossip. I would take the concept of spreading a bad name further. Through the misnaming or misunderstanding of mental illness as a personal failing, we add to its misery and turn symptoms into shame. A few weeks ago, a young songwriter in a facebook group spoke in a live video about her struggles with depression. I was alarmed for her, thinking about the shame and stigma that could potentially now follow her career. But almost immediately afterwards, I thought about how truly brave she was. She is perfectly aware that mental illness comes with this stigma, but she also knows that only by discussing it as a disease, will we move away from looking at it through a lens of motzi shem ra – gossip, and instead approach it with compassion, understanding, and love.

Shabbat shalom.

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Becoming a Menorah for a Holy Flame

I delivered this sermon for Parshat T’tzaveh on Friday evening, February 23, 2018.

We read in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat T’tzaveh, “And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring unto you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually (neir tamid).”  And there it is, the neir tamid in our Temple.  Every synagogue has one – a light that burns eternally in good times and bad, in an empty building and a full one, whether we see it or whether we choose to look away.  It has been a pretty dark week.  Stories of the horror of what went down in that high school in Parkland, FL, continue to abound.

At first it looked a lot like what we’ve seen every other time this happened.  One group offers their “thoughts and prayers.”  The other say the time for thoughts and prayers has ended and we must act.  One side accuses the other of politicizing a tragedy.  The other replies – if not now, when? 

But this time does feel different to me.  This time, we are hearing the voices of protest, not completely, but at least in part, from the full range of the political spectrum.  This time we hear the cries differently through the thoughtful, articulate, and enraged voices of our youth and we cannot help but see in their eyes our own sisters, cousins, friends, and children.

Some have tried to dehumanize and distance themselves from these voices by engaging in conspiracy theories that these children are nothing more than paid actors.  Fortunately, for the most part, I think that those who believe this are roundly scorned.  Because this time is different.  Our children are crying out for our help.  Our children want us to wake them from this nightmare.  Our children will rise up and fight the fight for us if they must. 

There are two themes in this week’s Torah portion.  The concept of the neir tamid – the eternal light of holiness that must, through effort, be kept pure and burning continually is the first.  The second is a lengthy description of the clothing of the High Priest.  From his undergarments to his decorative breastplate, we learn about the intricacies of every thread of this sacred garment.  The thing is though, underneath this outfit – the priest is still a man.  If he didn’t wear it, you would not know that he was a priest. 

I am struck, this week, by these children who have suddenly donned sacred garments and become the vessels of the neir tamid.  They appeared to be nothing but ordinary, self-absorbed teenagers, but this tragedy has adorned them and changed them and I doubt that we, as country, will ever be the same.  They are our light.  They are showing us the path.  Cameron Kasky, a junior who survived the shooting said, “This isn’t about red and blue.  We can’t boo people because they’re democrats and boo people because they’re republicans.  Anyone who’s willing to show change, no matter where they’re from.  Anyone willing to start to make a difference is somebody we need on our side here.” 

And they have something that most of us have lost – hope.  These teens expect to win, and because they do, they actually might.  We never told them that you can’t win against the NRA – most of us have practically given up the fight before it even begins – leaving the gate from a position of severe compromise.  Emma Gonzalez said, “If you actively do nothing, people continually end of dead, so it’s time to start doing something.”  They don’t care that it has never worked before.  They don’t care what people say or think about them.  They are showing us all what being awake, alive, and furious can accomplish. 

Can we come together for their sake?  Can we learn from what they have to teach us?  These children have been lit up by this tragedy, but a fire must be kept burning.  A fire must be tended and supported and helped.  If these students are to change our country, they cannot do it alone.  It is up to us to support them, help them, work with them.  They are the fire – we must be the menorah.

I posted earlier this week on facebook, that this was not the time for thoughts and prayers.  I recant that statement.  A prayer is a guided wish.  A prayer reminds us what is truly important, and if our prayers mean anything at all – they lead us to work as partners with G-d to make change.

Shabbat shalom.

Remember that We Were Strangers

Torah

This week’s Torah portion is MishpatimMishpatim means judgements and the parshah contains a collection of rules covering virtually every aspect of human life.  Many of the laws have to do with behavior and moral values.  The Torah reminds us that we are obligated to treat others with kindness because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

It is interesting that the Torah doesn’t just tell us to treat the orphan, the widow, and the stranger well because it is the right thing to do, but rather repeatedly reminds us that we were once like them.  Why is this important?  I think that there is a difference between something that you do because it’s what you should do, and something that you do because of a deeply held personal feeling, a sense of empathy rather than sympathy.

Sympathy is feeling concern, sorrow, or pity for another’s hardships.  We have all felt sympathy for others and hopefully it has lead us to be compassionate.  Empathy is about relating to another’s pain vicariously, as if having experienced that pain ourselves.   The Torah demands more than sympathy when it comes to our treatment of those less fortunate.  The Torah puts us in their shoes by reminding us that no matter how well off we are now, our history is in slavery, our ancestors were refugees.  We keep that historical memory alive so that it will always inform our actions towards others.

Thirty-six times the Torah reminds us that we were slaves in the land of Egypt.  In Jewish numerology, the number eighteen spells out the word, chai – life.  We consider multiples of eighteen lucky for this reason.  Perhaps the reminder of our historic oppression appears thirty-six times in the Torah because the value of our lives is doubled by the experience of empathy with those in need and by giving life to others through our actions on their behalf.

May this Shabbat help us to reflect on our historic redemption and the ways in which it can guide us to empathize with those who suffer and lead us to their aid.

Consider a donation to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

 

Jewish Identity – Parshat Vay’chi

With parshat Vay’chi, we reach the final parsha of the book of Genesis.  An ailing Jacob prepares to offer a final blessing to his children.  He tells Joseph that Joseph’s own sons, Ephraim and Menasseh “shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon,” and Jacob therefore will offer them blessings as well.  When Joseph brings his sons to Jacob, Jacob says, “Who are these?”  The Torah tells us that Jacob’s eyes were dimmed with age.  Perhaps this was the problem.  Or maybe, as Louis Ginzberg suggests in Legends of the Jews, he didn’t recognize them because, having been born and raised in Egypt, they appeared, acted, and dressed like Egyptians.  They didn’t “look” Jewish.

As modern, liberal American Jews, many of us don’t “look,” “act,” or “seem” Jewish.  Our Judaism is a piece of our identity, whether major or minor, that we carry inside.  Some of us can hide it, if we choose.  That is our privilege (one not afforded to people whose minority status is visible on their skin or through clothing mandated by their religion.)  But despite our ability to hide it, if we choose, we are a member of a minority group that faces increasing threat around the world and, sadly, here at home.

This past week, sixteen Jewish Community Centers received bomb threats.  One of these was at a location very close to home where I and several members of our choir perform annually.  This isn’t some far off threat in Europe.  It’s not a story from our history.  This is now, today.  This is happening here.  Swastikas, threats, and anti-Semitic hate speech have suddenly blossomed all across the country.  Because I know history, I deeply and viscerally want to hide.  And because I know history, I also want to cling even harder to my culture and traditions because if our fear leads us to hide and our traditions disappear, the ones who hate us win.

We are American Jews and we are also Jewish Americans.  Both halves are integral to who we are.  We ask ourselves today as Jacob asked of his grandchildren, “Who are these?”  I can only answer for me.  I am Jewish.  I am American.  I am proud and strong and defiant.  I will cling to both of these identities with all of the strength of my being and will abandon neither in my quest to make both communities better.  I hope that you will join me.

 

#blogExodus–Hide

 

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My son is 2 years and 4 months old.  Last week, we played hide and seek at my mother’s house.  “You hide, and I’ll count to 10,” I said.  I counted and he went and hid.  It was very clear where he was hiding.  I could see him from where I was standing, but I went to “look” for him anyway. 

“Hmmmm…” I said.  “You’re not behind the chair…”

“I’m hiding over here, mommy!” He gleefully shouted.

It occurs to me that we play the same game of hide and seek with G-d.  We are always searching, but G-d is always right “over here.” G-d is in the kindness of friends and family and in the warmth of community.  G-d is in the beautiful sunsets and the sparkling snow.  G-d is in the moment when depression lifts and the world once again appears in color.  G-d is hiding with us, even in our darkest moments.  It’s just that the dark moments are the hands covering our eyes, making it hard to see.  We just have to remember that just because we can’t see something in the moment, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.

I believe in love even when not feeling it.

I believe in G-d even when G-d is silent.

-Inscription found on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, where Jews hid from the Nazis

(as quoted in Siddur Likrat Shabbat)

#blogExodus – Grow

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Growth is being able to look at a position you once took and be willing to revisit, rethink, and revise.

Here is some of my seder thinking – personal growth in progress, because as you can see, I’m still vacillating:

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post where I spoke about what can be lost when we gear our seders only towards the children in the room. You can read it here: (https://cantorneff.com/2010/03/21/by-gearing-the-seder-towards-the-kids-are-we-cheating-them-out-of-the-best-experience/) Basically, I suggested that our kids are losing out because they don’t have the experience of learning the old melodies and traditions. I felt that in changing the seder culture to make it all about fun, that we aren’t actually succeeding in making it fun (for most people), that our children aren’t learning, aren’t finding it worthwhile, and that we are losing (for both kids and adults) the family and community memory of the melodies and traditions of seders past.

Since I wrote that post, I’ve had to struggle with my words. My own family members whine bitterly about being at our seder. This is a seder that is done almost entirely in English and with finger puppets and masks, but which otherwise sticks to liturgy and music that are traditional for our family. I am not sure that my insistence on sticking to that liturgy has helped the younger generation of my family to learn the tunes and the traditions. I fear that it might actually be the opposite – that I am the old fuddy duddy in the corner, singing the Chad Gadya from the beginning to the end, pretty much by myself.

I had a conversation with my sixth grade class about the issue and listened while they argued both sides, each contradicting themselves in their subsequent comments. In the end, they said it has to be both, but they don’t want a six-hour seder

Every year we are commanded to see ourselves as if we personally had come out of Egypt. If I had been there, I would want my children to know the story, remember the ancient songs and melodies, but I would also want them to want to pass the stories on to their children. For groups where no children are present, the goals are different. But in families with children, “v’shinantam l’vanecha” – you shall teach it to your children is the most important thing. We can’t teach it to them, if we lost them in the first five minutes. On the other hand, what are we teaching them when we allow the old melodies and traditions to be lost? In this, my growth must be ongoing. I am willing to revise and revisit, but I am not willing to lose the essence and meaning of the seder in the process…

A postscript.

I read this really interesting article last night: http://www.challahcrumbs.com/what-disney-world-taught-me-about-seder/. In gearing our seders towards the kids present, we should remember that our kids are still the same kids they were yesterday, even when they are sitting at the table.  So the only way to make the seder engaging for them is to keep them in mind as we create it. We should take a lesson from the four children of the haggadah: the wise, the naughty, the one who does not yet know, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask. Our seder should contain elements that stimulate the wise child, invite good questions and give them an opportunity to show off what they know. The seder should also meet the needs of the “naughty” child – the one who perhaps has trouble sitting still and paying attention – this child is usually not naughty on purpose. The seder should teach the traditions, the melodies, and the history of Passover to the child who doesn’t learn these things in Hebrew school or at home (even if it means playing them off a CD, as I suggested in my original article). And it should be engaging to the special needs child – stimulating, but not overstimulating in whatever way that child needs. We have to look at who is going to be at OUR seder and then make it work.

3 Nisan – Cleanse

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To do list – Cleanse:

  • Clean.
  • Make a menu plan for the entire week.
  • Shop.
  • Cook.
  • Throw open the windows and let in the fresh spring air (fresh spring air – what’s that?).
  • Through the physical labor of preparing, begin the spiritual work.
  • Play guitar at a beautiful and meaningful women’s Seder of preparation – check!

Well, at least I got one thing done! 🙂