Monday, April 30, 2012

Half Man, Half Beast

Acharei Mot- Kedoshim
Vayikrah 16:1-20:27
13 Iyar 5772 / May 4-5, 2012

Half Man, Half Beast
by Laura W, MH London Alumna

Once again, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, the priests in the sanctuary/Temple are commanded by H-shem to,

“…go out unto the altar that is before H-shem and make atonement for it; and you shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about. (Verse 18 )”

There are two main schools of thought regarding this practice. Sefer Hachinuch explains that individuals bringing an animal sacrifice for a sin understand that they personally should have been sacrificed as punishment for the rebellion against G-d, but G-d mercifully accepts the sacrifice in his or her place. [1]

In Chassidish thought [2] on the other hand we see that an animal sacrifice is used as a response to the moment of sin when our ‘animal’ nature takes over.

Animal sacrifice in this case represents an existential metaphor for our spiritual development. Sacrificing animals in the Temple  represents the way in which a person sacrifices their own animal-nature and in a sense makes their own body a Sanctuary that is able to receive the Divine Presence.

According to Yogic thought [3] there are 4 primitive urges programmed into our mental-physical experience. These are Sustenance (food), Sleep, Sex, and Self-preservation. They give rise to emotions, drives and other urges and affect our behaviour and our relationships, both with ourselves and with others.
My blessing to you this week is to recognise the Torah as a process that helps us observe our behaviour, and for H-shem to gives us the strength of character to bring a sacrifice in order to regulate ourselves and direct these urges to a higher purpose.  So when you feel one of these 4 animal urges take hold. Stop. Take a breathe. Listen to the message. Then act.

[1] Wikipedia
[3] Mika Hadar

Monday, April 23, 2012


Parshat Tazria-Metzorah
Leviticus 12:1-15:33
5772 Iyar 6 / April 27- 28, 2012

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 amikveh, 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.

The Blessing of the Living Bird
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ
I find the ritual for cleaning the person afflicted with Tzara’at simply strange. Essentially, the Kohen takes two birds. He kills one bird and lets the blood drip into a clay pot with water. Then he takes the second bird and dips it into the water/blood mixture of the first bird. He sprinkles the blood that is covering the live bird on the newly cleansed person and then sets the live bird free.  

I am not really sure what to make of this. But I wanted to highlight this ritual as I enjoy taking note of some of the bizarre practices that we have at our roots. I sometimes see Yogic community members walking around in orange or yellow robes, with their little bells and thin pony-tails sprouting from the top of their heads, and I think, “Hmmm…That is strange.”

If I was able to time travel back to the days of the Jewish people in the desert, or early Palestine, I would probably shout with fright and feel uneasy with the lavish dressing of the Priests, the uber-posh d├ęcor of the Temple, and the bloody worship rituals. It does make me feel less judgmental about other people’s practices when I think how strange Jewish people must have looked (and at times, still look) to outsiders.  

There is something in this ritual though, that I really love. I feel joy when the Torah tells us that the live bird is set free. It is like ourselves and our souls. The live bird has experienced the trauma of witnessing and experiencing pain and suffering. It has been bloodied and shaken by outside forces, yet that was all temporary. It is able to spread its wings again and live on to experience new adventures, new sorrows and new joys.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Me, Myself, and My Community

Parshat Shemini
29 Nisan 5772 / April 20 – 21, 2012
Vayikra 9:1 – 11:40

Me, Myself, and My Community
by Steph Snyder, MH San Diego, Community Member


At first glance, this Torah portion is a frustrating series of confusing and often contradictory events. The portion begins with G-d appearing to His people after they had prepared a sacrifice. This is an awesome and joyous occasion:

“[...] And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces” [Leviticus 9:24]

However, shortly thereafter, a tragedy ensues. Two of Aaron’s sons, upon offering G-d an unrequested flame, are consumed by fire from G-d. Following this, Aaron is surprisingly silent, and Moses, his own brother, forbids Aaron and his remaining sons to mourn properly. To further complicate matters, instead of a clarification or reflection upon what has happened, the portion goes on to explain the ways in which we are to conduct ourselves in the realm of what we eat and drink, such that we can be “clean”.

In the simplest of terms, we start with the holiest of holy (G-d appears before his people in an awesome display) only to digress into the killing of 2 people and a menu.

Through the seemingly chaotic turn of events in this passage, I think there is a consistent message that begins with the punishment of Aaron’s sons. The message is as follows: In order to be complete and holy (above the “basics”), you need to first learn the “basics”: (1) know who you are, (2) know your role in our community, (3) know how to be who you are, and finally (4) know how to fulfill your role in our community.

Aaron’s sons went above what was asked of them. Drunk on the thought of being above the community, they showed no humility, no sense of belonging within the community. Moses recognized this, and doesn’t let Aaron and his remaining sons mourn, but asks that they let the act of mourning fall to their “kinsman [and] all the house of Israel”, emphasizing the importance of community.

To further teach us self-awareness and how to be a part of a community, G-d then gives us the kosher laws. Food is a basic necessity and nourishment. It’s what builds us and sustains us, but it’s also what unites us. Food gives us something to gather around and to share. The kosher laws, centered on food, therefore help us to define ourselves and to build a community. They are a gift of awareness of our actions in order to invoke thoughts of our identity and role in society.

The sentiment and take away message of this week’s Torah portion is simply to constantly remind yourself of who you are, be true to yourself and be true to your role in our community.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Song of Songs

Song of Songs

The Rabbis taught: All the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.

Song of Songs (Hebrew, Shir Ha-Shirim) is the book of eight chapters in the third section of the Bible, the Ketuvim, first of the five Megillot ('scrolls').

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press, as appearing on My Jewish Learning.

Dating & Authorship

According to the Rabbinic tradition generally, the author of the book is King Solomon (based on the heading: 'The Song of Songs by Solomon,' though this can also mean 'about Solomon') but in the famousTalmudic passage (Bava Batra 15a) on the authorship of the biblical books it is stated that the book was actually written down by King Hezekiah and his associates (based on Proverbs 25:1).

Modern scholarship is unanimous in fixing a much later date for the book than the time of Solomon, though opinions vary regarding the actual date. On the surface, the book is a secular love-poem or a collection of such poems and is considered so to be by the majority of modern biblical scholars.

No doubt because of this surface meaning, the ancient Rabbis, while accepting the Solomonic authorship, debated whether the book should be considered part of the sacred Scriptures. The Mishnah (Yadaim 3:5), after recording this debate, gives the view of Rabbi Akiba, eventually adopted by all the Rabbis, that no one ever debated that the Song of Songs is sacred: 'for all the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Ketuvim are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.'

In the liturgy of the synagogue, Song of Songs is recited during the morning service on the intermediate Sabbath of Passover. Under the influence of the Kabbalah the custom arose in some circles, especially inHasidism, of reciting the Song of Songs on the eve of the Sabbath.

Interpreting Song of Songs

That the Rabbis in the second century CE could debate whether Song of Songs belongs to sacred Scripture is evidence enough that in this period there were some who took it all literally as a dialogue of love between a man and a woman, sexual desire expressed exquisitely but with the utmost frankness.

One or two Orthodox Jews in the twentieth century did try to suggest that even on the literal level the book can be seen as sacred literature, since love between husband and wife is holy and divinely ordained. But, while there is no explicit rejection of such a literal interpretation in Rabbinic literature, the standard Rabbinic view, and the reason why Rabbi Akiba declared the book to be 'the Holy of Holies,' is that the Rabbis saw the 'lover' as God and the 'beloved' as the community of Israel.

The Rabbis also understood the opening verse as 'Song of Songs about Shelomo' and took the name as referring not to King Solomon but to God, she-ha shalom shelo, 'to whom peace belongs.'

Revealing in this connection is a passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin, 101a) dating from the second century: 'He who recites a verse of the Song of Songs and treats it as a song and one who recites a verse at a banquet (this usually denotes a wedding feast), unseasonably, brings evil upon the world,' from which it would seem that it was only the profane and frivolous use of the book in its plain meaning to which the Rabbis objected.

Allegories Abound

Nevertheless, throughout Rabbinic literature it is the allegorical meaning that is followed. The Midrash Rabbah to the book interprets the whole book in this vein. For example, the verse (1:2): 'Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth' is interpreted as referring to the revelation at Sinai when Israel took upon itself to keep the Torah and an angel was sent by God to kiss each Israelite.

The verse (1:5); 'I am black but comely' is given the interpretation that the community of Israel says to God: 'I am black through my own deeds, but comely through the deeds of my ancestors,' or 'I am black in my own eyes, but comely in the sight of God,' or 'I am black during the rest of the year, but comely on Yom Kippur.'

The verse: 'Like a lily among thorns, so is my darling among the maidens (2:2)' is interpreted as referring to Israel's oppression by the secular powers: 'Just as a rose, if situated between thorns, when the north wind blows is bent towards the south and is pricked by the thorns, and nevertheless its heart is still turned upwards, so with Israel, although taxes are exacted from them, nevertheless their hearts are fixed upon their Father in Heaven.'

In the Zohar and the early Kabbalah the dialogue of love is between the twoSefirot, Tiferet, the male principle in the Godhead, and Malkhut, the Shekhinah, the female principle. In the opening passage of the Zohar, in current editions, the lily among the thorns is Malkhut attacked by the demonic forces but strengthened against these evil forces by the five strong leaves surrounding the lily, the other lower Sefirot.

The sixteenth-century mystic, Moses Cordovero, interprets the book as a dialogue between the individual soul and God. Even in an earlier period, Maimonides (Teshuvah 10:3) writes in the same vein, when discussing the love of God:

'What is the proper form of the love (of God)? It is that he should love the Lord with great, overpowering, fierce love to the extent that his soul is bound to the love of God and he dwells on it constantly, as if he were love-sick for a woman and dwells on this constantly, whether he is sitting or standing, eating or drinking.'

'Even more than this should be the love of God in the heart of those who love him, dwelling on it constantly, as it is said: "with all thy heart and with all thy soul" (Deuteronomy 6:5). And it is to this that Solomon refers allegorically when he says: "For I am love-sick" (Song of Songs 2:5) and the whole of Song of Songs is a parable on this topic.'

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

Monday, April 2, 2012

True Freedom, U Freedom

True Freedom, U Freedom
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

On Passover we are told to refrain from eating anything that is leavened, or puffed up. Breads, bagels, muffins, certain cereals, and for some of us, beans and rice, are all placed under this category of food that is called chametz. Most of us know that the reason that we eat Matzah, or flat bread, is to remember that when the Jews were leaving Egypt, they had to rush out and did not have time for their bread to rise, thus they ate un-leavened bread. As Rabbis tend to do, they got concerned that eating seemingly leavened products would lead to eating actual leavened bread, so they created a radical edict to spend the entire holiday not eating anything that even slightly resembles leavened bread (most strictly for Jews from Eastern European descent).

Another way to understand this practice is to think about what Passover represents and how this special diet might help the attunement of our awareness. Before the original Passover, the Jewish people and Jewish identity was stuck in a particular mode – that of slavery. We worked in harsh conditions for the Egyptians, gaining nothing from the sweat of our brow. Our relationship with G-d was also stagnated as the Deity of individual ancestors whose memory we had to connect through. Suddenly, there came time for a big change. We were going to be shifting, warp-speed, from oppressed workers to a boundless independent nation. If we stopped for a moment to think about that, we probably would lose faith, and say, “Helk no! I ain’t going no-where!” And if you take a peek into the Torah narrative, when the Jews stop to rest in the desert, they begin to complain for the life they had in Egypt.

So matzah represents the Band-Aid (or plaster) that was yanked quickly off the wound of an enslaved identity. When we eat matzah, or more importantly, when we refrain from eating chametz and chametz-related foods, we are symbolically recreating this obliteration of the usual story and identity that we carry around. All for the purpose, I remind you, of receiving a newer and more liberated sense of self. Thus, we jaggedly cut out all the foods that are “filled with hot air,” and allow our egos to deflate. Of course, quick change does not equal lasting change. For this reason, we begin to count the Omer until Shavuot, which represents a more thoughtful and comprehensive transformation from slave to free-person.

For some of us, we might not connect with the idea of cutting out bread on Pesach. I would strongly recommend trying out the traditional practice in small doses, but I think there are other ways to enhance this dramatic shift in our inner-selves.

1. You might try another way of playing with diet. Perhaps Passover is a good time for a juice fast, or cutting out sugars, or other things that make you “high and inflated.”

2. You can make a list of, “Things I would do if I was truly free,” and then see how close you are to enacting these things. Perhaps there are a few that you should still refrain from.

3. Perhaps there is part of your name that you do not identify with – your middle name, or Hebrew name. You might spend the week introducing yourself with a new name and reclaiming your relationship with it.

4. Maybe there is a new Jewish practice that you want to try out that might enhance the way you live. Meditation, daily prayer, or lighting candles on Shabbat are all tools that free us from our normal way of doing and being.

5. Play with the seder to make it more meaningful. Introduce your own poems and personal stories of oppression and liberation. According to the Haggadah, you have to at least say the following three words: PESACH, MATZAH, and MARROR. The rest just might be commentary.

So however we fill our bellies (and hearts and minds) this Pesach, I bless us that we can experience a new and deeper understanding of what it means to be free. And that we should see freedom blossom in those places where freedom seems stifled.

Many blessings,