Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59
My running joke (for years now) has been to stand before my congregation and begin each sermon with the words: “this week’s Torah portion just happens to be one of my favorites!” Most of the time, I really mean it. Almost every parasha is one of my favorites.
Then there is Tazria.
With its intense focus on ritual purity and impurity following bloody, oozy, or pus-filled emissions from childbirth and skin disease, what do we make of Tazria?
A little disclaimer before writing anything else: Tazria is, indeed, to my great surprise, becoming one of my favorites. Here is one reason why.
Early on in the portion, during the description of blood flow following childbirth, is the command for baby boys to be circumcised on the eighth day. (Lev. 12:3)
Circumcision remains one of the most primal and difficult mitzvot we observe. In Hebrew, it is referred to as berit milah – literally ‘cutting the covenant.’ This is the only way for a boy to enter the covenant. Girls, according to the tradition, are already perfect, and no procedure is necessary to change their covenantal status, but not so boys. There are many valid feminist critiques of the distinction made between boys and girls this way, and perhaps that will be the topic for a later blog.
For now, however, I can’t stop thinking about the bris of my son - fourteen years ago.
Make no mistake. For both my wife and I, his circumcision was a SACRIFICE. Never mind that we Jews have been doing this for thousands of years. Never mind that we had hired a mohelet who was a board certified pediatric surgeon. As a mom, Shauna struggled to even be in the room, and truth be told, when the mohelet offered me the scalpel to make the cut myself (traditionally the father’s obligation, now usually passed along to the mohel) – I almost passed out.
We, as parents, were making a commitment. It meant something. And while I do not advocate for a similar surgical procedure for girls, I miss the level of commitment that comes from a naming ceremony compared to a bris.
A legend: the evil Roman Governer Tyranus Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva, “If God hates the uncircumcised, why does He [sic] create man in an uncircumcised state?” Rabbi Akiva answered: “Does the earth yield bread?” (Midrash Tanhuma, Tazria 5 - summarized - full text below)
What did Akiva mean? It takes effort to ‘bring forth bread from the earth.’ And if making bread requires such effort, then chal v’homer, how much the more so does the creation of a sanctified, covenantal life?
The question is not ‘in what state are we born?’ but ‘what will we do with the life we have been given?’
Complete Text of the Midrash:
Tyranus Rufus to Akiva: "Whose works are better, those of God or of man?"
Akiva: "Those of man."
Tyranus Rufus: "But look at the heavens and the earth! Can a human being make anything like that?"
Akiva: "Creating heaven and earth is beyond human capacity. Give me an example drawn from matters that are within human scope."
Tyranus Rufus: "Why then do you practice circumcision"
Akiva: "I knew you would ask this question. That is why I said in advance that the works of man are better than those of God."
Akiva then placed ears of corn and cakes before the governor.
Akiva: "The unprocessed corn is the work of God. The cake is the work of man. Is it not more pleasant to eat cake than raw ears of corn?"
Tyranus Rufus: "If God really wants us to to practice circumcision, why did He not arrange for babies to be born already circumcised?"
Akiva: "God gave the commands to Israel to refine our character."
Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
The great tragedy of Shemini is the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Here is how Torah describes their very first day “on the job” as priests of Israel:
And the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, took each of them his fire-pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forward alien fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Lev. 10:1-2)
To put it mildly, this seems a little harsh. Their great transgression was that they offered “alien fire,” meaning fire that God did not command. Why would they do this? Apparently, they were so moved by zeal for God that they went beyond what God actually commanded. Why is this so wrong? What possible lesson does Torah intend for us here?
Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik taught that there are two different approaches to religious observance, which he called Jewish and pagan. In the Jewish approach, we are guided not by emotion, but by the discipline of our covenantal obligations to God. Over time, through the discipline of practice, we gain deeper and more fulfilling spiritual meaning and sustenance. The Jewish path is, in his view, one in which our actions are limited by the boundaries of the commandments. The pagan approach, is the polar opposite to Judaism. It begins will zeal and excitement, which leads us to change our practice to suit our emotions. Over time, he argues, this approach ends with disillusionment. (Chumash Mesurat HaRav, Lev. 10:1-2)
I think there is some truth to his argument. However, rigidity in observance does not come without its own pitfalls. There is another lesson to be learned from the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu. Zeal can easily lead to zealotry, which is but another name for religious extremism. Jewish tradition argues that God wants us to take a middle path. God requires our devotion, but within limits. When we go beyond those limits we dance with the possibility of becoming extremists, of becoming filled with the self-righteousness that leads us to disapprove of and eventually to demonize everyone who is not like us. This can happen not only when we go beyond the letter of the law in our practice, but when we make the letter of the law so rigid as to forget the spirit of the law.
Nadab and Abihu teach us that true d’vekut, our ability to be one with God, requires us to dance a delicate dance, with pitfalls and dangers on every side. This is not to say that we should not try. Rather, the opposite is true. It’s just that we should approach the path with confidence in the direction it leads us, and with humility to help us stay on course.
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Keep the Sabbath, or else! This is the tenor of Exodus 31:14: “And you shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy to you: those who desecrate it, die – he shall die. For all who perform labor upon it, that soul shall be cut off from the midst of its people.”
To put it mildly, you might find this language a little … harsh. Today many Jews work on Shabbat, and do not die. How then can we understand or relate to this verse?
Perhaps the Israelites themselves executed transgressors thousands of years ago (see Ex. 35:2), or fines were assessed equivalent to a human life (as in the Talmud, Shabbat 70a). Personally, I don’t want to live in a community where the death penalty looms over our heads to enforce religious observances. As for paying a fine, I struggle (despite what I was taught as an economics major) with the very concept that we can assign a monetary equivalent for the value of a human life.
So can this commandment have a hold on us today? How?
Shabbat is a precious gift – a gift from God, directly to each and every one of us. We need Shabbat. Even God needed to take a day of rest after six days of creation! When we ignore the Shabbat, we not only spurn this precious gift, but we also hurt ourselves. Shabbat is a time for refreshing our souls, pausing from our creative acts during the week and enjoying life. It is a time devoted to God, to our loved ones, to our innermost selves. Each week that we let pass without a Shabbat, without this holy time devoted to what matters most in life, a little piece of us dies.
Thankfully, it is never too late. If we want to restore what we have lost, the gates are always open. So don’t let this Shabbat get away, or the next one. After all, aren’t you worth it?
Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, is packed with a wide variety of commandments, including a short passage that commands us to keep honest weights with us for measuring goods when we travel, and another set of honest weights for use at home. We are then told that those who do not use whole and honest weights (literally ‘just weights’) are abhorrent to God. (Deut. 25:13-16) Why do we need separate weights for home and not-at-home? And why is the strongest possible language of condemnation – toevah (abomination) used here? The word toevah itself is a clue, because it is used exclusively to describe relationships. In this case, I think the Torah is suggesting that we use whole and honest weights with each other wherever we are, which is another way of saying that we must deal justly and honestly with each other at all times. The distinction between home and public also reminds us of the importance of integrity – we should not attempt to cheat in either venue. When we cultivate these kinds of consistent and just relationships we, our homes and our communities become more whole. When we do the opposite, everyone suffers – including and perhaps especially ourselves.
As I prepare to leave tomorrow morning to join the NAACP Journey for Justice, this little morsel of Torah really resonates with me. The justice, honesty and love we want for our loved ones at home is critical, and we must use the same measures for establishing justice, honesty and love with all of our neighbors.
Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17
I used to think that keeping kosher was nonsense, that God cared far more about how I act than what I eat. Then one day, I learned otherwise. This week's torah portion, Re'eh, lists various categories of animals that are not kosher for eating. Have you ever wondered why?
While the categories themselves have some interest for me, I would like to explore the more basic concept that some animals are permitted and some are forbidden. The Torah uses the language of 'clean' and 'unclean' to describe these animals, allowing us only those animals that are labeled 'clean.' These are confusing terms, because we know that the 'unclean' animals are not more dirty than the 'clean' ones. So I would prefer a different terminology: animals that are 'permitted to us' and those that are 'safe from us.'
What a remarkable concept! The world and all that is within it are not ours to consume. We may live in a consumer society, but keeping kosher reminds us that the world is not our oyster (which is ironically not a kosher food). Consider the environmental implications of this idea! According to Torah, God placed us in Eden in order to tend and care for the Garden, and not to use it all up. Every time I sit down to eat, I am reminded of this by the limits that are placed upon my diet, and the constant reminders help me to live more responsibly. Imagine how different our world would be if we all took this lesson of kashrut to heart. Perhaps profits would become less important than sustainability, or climate change a greater priority than partisan politics. On a more personal level, we might become less concerned with keeping up with our neighbors, or elevating our power and status and instead become more interested in how we use the time that has been given us as a great gift from God.
Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25
Eikev contains several of our most cherished mitzvot, commandments that will sound familiar to all who know the shema v'ahavta::
Therefore impress these words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children -- speak of them when you are sitting at home and when you are walking on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up; (Deut. 11:18-19)
With two teenagers of my own, I have been wondering what it means to teach our children words of Torah when we are at home and when we are away, when we lie down and when we rise up. Can we really talk about Torah every moment of every day? Should we?
If you have kids, and if they are anything like my kids, then you know that after a certain (and probably short) period of time that they would tune out our words of Torah. Even worse, they might start to resent these teachings, and choose to distance themselves from our tradition. Can it be that following the commandment to teach our children Torah at all times and in all places actually undermines their connection to Torah and God?
Thankfully, the answer is no. Not only is it possible to successfully follow the commandment, but when we do it well, I think our children will thank us for it.
Our kids learn far more from what we do than from what we say. If we say one thing and then do the opposite, we have taught our children to do the same. These verses carefully cover every conceivable time and place for the transmission of Torah, because we are supposed to teach not only with our words, but with our deeds. Judaism is a tradition of doing, and only when our feet consistently follow our words, will our children be inspired and truly learn Torah, For me, modeling our values and practices is one of the most beautiful and greatest challenges of parenthood, and therefore, is well worth the effort.
Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
This week we get one of the biggest portions of them all, Va’Etchanan, which contains not only the 10 Commandments, but also the Shema and V’ahavta. The V’ahavta begins with one of the strangest commandments in the Torah, the commandment to Love God with everything we have. The question I’ve been thinking about is: can feelings be commanded? Can we make ourselves love another person, or even God? For now, I’m not going to try to answer the question. I’d be curious to know what you think, so please send your thoughts. Then on Friday, I’ll send a link to a short video interview in which I express my own ideas. What fun! Let’s get the conversation started!
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras