Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thou Shalt be QUARANTINED!

Parshat Tazria
Leviticus 12:1-13:59
5771 Adar II 27 / April 1-2, 2011

Thou Shalt be QUARANTINED!
by David Rosen, Moishe House Hoboken

The subject of this week’s Parashat Tazria has to do with the idea of purity and cleanliness, specifically with regard to childbirth, bodily discharges, and certain skin ailments. In the first part of this parasha, God speaks to Moses and commands that upon the birth of a boy, the mother remains in a state of impurity for 7 days, and upon the birth of a girl, the mother remains in a state of impurity for 2 weeks. People were also declared ritually impure by the high priest upon exhibition of skin diseases such as leprosy and during a woman’s menstrual cycle. When declared to be impure, a person must remain outside the Israelite camp for a prescribed amount of time and purify themselves by means of a mikveh, ritual bath, before they may reenter the camp.

There are a few Jewish ideas that come from the reading of this Parasha. The first is the institution of circumcision for newborn Jewish baby boys, which serves as a reminder of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants. The next is the idea of lashon harah, or bad language, commonly taken to mean slander, gossip, speaking unkindly about someone behind their back. Lashon harah comes about when people were punished with leprosy because they spoke unkindly about someone or God. There is a specific incidence, recorded in a later parasha, when Moses’ sister Miriam is stricken when she attacked Moses’ wife for being a Cushite.

Aside from the implications that speaking unkindly leads to skin diseases, one of the main things I wonder about when reading this portion is why there is a need for separation from the community. What is the purpose of separation and who does it benefit more?

First, when discussing skin rashes and irritations, there are the obvious health benefits of separation so that whatever the afflictions are, they don’t spread. I don’t know what medicine was like back then when the Israelites were wandering through the desert, but I’m pretty certain there wasn’t a local pharmacy around that one could go to for analgesic cream. Instead though, if you read the portion, the idea of separating someone from the community was less health based, and more spiritual based, as the one who declared if separation was needed was the high priest. So what are the spiritual concerns then?

Surely skin rashes don’t spread by means of spirituality. So what does it mean to be spiritually impure? According to the torah, one who is spiritually unclean is forbidden to take part in holy acts or customs, such as entering the tabernacle or holy court. But for me it goes beyond that. For me, being spiritually unclean has to do with, not only a person’s physical state, but with their mental and emotional states as well. If you put yourself in the place of someone who has a skin ailment, or have ever been in that place yourself, how would you act around other people? It would change your normal behavior around other people, make you self-conscious, and possibly force you to lie about your condition if you tried to play it off as it not being as bad as it actually is. I’m sure you would want to try to hide your condition too as best as possible so as to not endure ridicule or social mockery.

Additionally, if you think about the knowledge of medicine they had at the time, they probably didn’t know if something was contagious or not, and a person might not take as much care as needed to prevent it from spreading. Think about what would happen if it did spread? As if there wasn’t enough complaining from the people, do you think Moses wanted to hear about sand getting into open blisters?

All kidding aside, when someone is stricken with any kind of debilitating ailment, it changes that person, how they act around others and how others act around them. The effects of being a social outcast can sometimes last longer than the physical effects of a skin ailment. So in this case, perhaps separation from the community is the wisest thing to do. It allows the person stricken to recuperate without facing ridicule or scorn from others, gives them time to be alone and not worry about spreading it around, and overall it protects the whole community. Don’t you feel better when you know someone is sick and decided to stay home, rather than trying to stick it out and risk the health of everyone else?

In conclusion, separation from the community is not always a bad thing, or seen as punishment. In these situations, it’s better for the community and the individual. The time away will allow the person to heal up and get better, and also recover from any mental or emotional harm that may have been done. Rejoining the community after recuperating also lets everyone know that you are better and there is nothing to worry about, or as the Torah would put it, you are clean again.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Faith in the Food We Eat

Parshat Shemini
20 Adar Bet 5771 / March 25 – 26, 2011
Vayikra 9:1 – 11:40

Faith in the Food We Eat
by Alli Zionts, Moishe House London

This week’s Parsha, Shemini, deals with two quite important issues in contemporary Judaism, although touches upon them each in rather strange ways: obedience and kashrut, our dietary laws. Beginning on the eighth day of Aaron’s instalment as the High Priest, he successfully creates an offering to G-d as an apology for the Golden Calf, an incident which is still haunting the Jewish people. However, while Aaron is taking to his new vocation quite well, his sons’ enthusiasm ruins that joy. Nadav and Avihu, although unqualified to perform sacrifices, do one anyway, and as a result G-d kills them. This strict punishment shows us not only how stern G-d is about G-d’s commandments, but also the type of mindset one should be in to create an offering: one should be concentrated on that which is pure and holy, rather than trying to show off to G-d.

In the second part of this parsha, G-d delivers to the Jewish people the laws of kashrut—with no discernable reason attached. As the dietary laws are so important, it at first baffled me that there was no explanation to the different nuances; however, linked with the killing of Aaron’s sons, it is beginning to make more sense. We are not meant to question G-d with G-d’s reasons, especially for something which involves all people (as we all have to eat at some point).

That being said, contemporary rabbis and other Jewish thinkers have questioned how to keep kosher in a world where other factors are maybe as important—what about supporting the local community? Fair wages for work? Harming animals when there is little need? Without the rationales from G-d, we are up to creating our own “new” kashrut, having to read into the laws and interpret them for ourselves. More and more people are giving up the hecksher (kosher symbol) system for vegetarian-items, or refusing to eat kosher meat unless it is also sustainably produced. These extra-stringencies may get tedious, but I believe that it is the caution and forethought in what we eat that allows us to truly connect to our roots, and show our obedience to not only G-d, but to the world and communities in which we live.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Purim - The Book of Eszter

Parshat Tsav
Vayikra 6:1 – 8:36
13 Adar 2 5771 / March 18 – 19, 2011

Purim - The Book of Eszter
by Zsofia Eszter Simon, MH Budapest

My name is Zsofia Eszter Simon and I am one of the three lucky girls who established the Moishe House in Budapest, Hungary. When Zvi asked me to write about the holiday of Purim, I got very excited, because Purim is one of my favorite holidays.

I was six years old when I got a Megillah from my father and since then I was very proud that I share the same name with Esther the Queen. But I love the book of Esther, not only because of this, but because it tells us a miraculous story of the power of a praying woman.

I have read the story of Esther many times, and I am still amazed by how brave Esther was, although she was only a young woman. But she knew that she is not alone, and she believed in the power of praying. I think today in our spinning world we are able to forget this tiny but not inconsiderable thing: prayer. We cannot see G-d, but we can feel that G-d is there and we can reconnect with G-d anytime if we want, just as we can connect to the world wide web with our super high-tech iPhone from anywhere. In the book of Esther we cannot find the name of G-d, but we shouldn’t forget that G-d is always there with/for us! Every end is a new beginning and when you feel all is lost, then miracles do happen!! I bless you that you should deepen your spiritual awareness, care in a more comprehensive way for one another and sharpen your commitment to social justice like Esther and Mordechai did a few thousands of years ago.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Please Pass the Salt

Parshat Vayikra
Vayikra 1:1 – 5:26
6 Adar Bet 5771 / March 11 – 12, 2011

Please Pass the Salt
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

ב:יג וְכָל-קָרְבַּן מִנְחָתְךָ, בַּמֶּלַח תִּמְלָח, וְלֹא תַשְׁבִּית מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מֵעַל מִנְחָתֶךָ; עַל כָּל-קָרְבָּנְךָ, תַּקְרִיב מֶלַח.

2:13 And every meal-offering you shall season with salt; neither should you remove the salt of the covenant of your God from your meal-offering; with all thy offerings you shall offer salt.

Do you know the story about the sad ocean waters who complained that they were too far away from G-d? The Midrash teaches that when the upper waters were separated from the lower waters on the second day of creation, the lower waters threw a bit of a hissy fit.

“Why should the upper waters have all the fun, hanging with G-d in heaven? What about us?”

G-d, being a good listener and problem solver, answered, “Hey beautiful lower waters, don’t fret. In the future there will be a group of people called Israelites, and they will be commanded to worship me through sacrifices. In order to cheer you up, I am going to add on a rule to their sacrifices that the salt that comes from you will be sprinkled on each sacrifice that they put on my alter. So through your salt you will make it up here bit by bit.”

This appeased the waters and all was good and happy.

Rabbi Yaacov Kaminentsky points out that when salt water is boiled, it is the water that rises and the salt that stays behind. It is as if we are commanded to put the “rejected” part of the water on the alter. And this is basically what Rabbi Kaminentsky concludes. The salt not only involves the element of water in the sacrificial process, but it also reminds us that every part of this physical world can serve as a prayer to the Divine.

When we remember that the Hebrew word for sacrifice (korban) also means to come close, a beautiful teaching emerges. The one thing that was constant in all the sacrifices was the salt. No matter what the reason for the sacrifice, for peace or guilt, sin or celebration, through the salt the Israelites added a piece of themselves that they felt was unworthy to bring close to the Divine. This is a transformational process. What I might want to reject about myself is ultimately accepted by G-d.

I am pretty sure that heaven is not actually above us in outer space somewhere, and I doubt that the message of the salt story is that we are closer to G-d when we are higher up in the sky. I think the message is that we get closer to the Divine when we allow more of ourselves to come close. This point of awareness should be weaved into our lives in all of our prayers.