Jewish tradition has placed a great deal of emphasis on purity and impurity–not in terms of hygiene, but more in a spiritual sense. There are lots of laws concerning what causes such an impurity, and what to do to contain that uncleanness.
The weekly Torah portion, Emor, addresses the Kohanim, the ancient priests and the specific laws that they were bidden to follow. Among them was that they were not to come into contact with a deceased person since this is something that imparts ritual impurity. The only exceptions were for the death of a parent, brother, unmarried sister or child. All other Israelites could tend to the bodies of the deceased within the community without concern; the Priests, however, had to be ritually pure to serve in the Tabernacle and later the Temple.
It is noteworthy that many of these ideas are on our minds today in the midst of COVID-19. We are very aware of the people with whom we come into contact. We want to know with whom they have been in contact. The questions that are asked when you enter a doctor’s office or even a supermarket parallel those that might have been asked of a priest: Are you pure? Is it safe for you to be in our midst?
The parallel isn’t exact, but the Torah demonstrates that our ancestors dealt with the same questions and uncertainty as we do today. In 2020 it is COVID-19. In ancient times, it was death in general…as well as certain skin diseases. We often read these sections of the Torah thinking how quaint their understanding of medicine was back then. How quaint will we look in a hundred years when our descendants see how we dealt with our current crisis?
One of the beauties of the Torah is its enduring wisdom. Although the document has remained unchanged for millennia, it continues to teach us and guide us in 2020. One could make the argument that there is so much in the world today that the Torah could not have anticipated, and therefore it is of little value in our contemporary world. The authors(s) of the Torah could not have conceived of cellphones, air travel, organ transplantation or perhaps even loving, committed, intimate same-gender relationships. In a way, this is really a side issue. The Torah still has overarching themes that apply in a world that looks so different than the biblical period: building a relationship with God, looking out for others, pursuing justice, seeking peace, and bringing holiness into our lives are just a few of these themes.
There are some parts of the Torah that are clearly antiquated and we may wonder what use they have: the ownership of slaves, animal sacrifices, putting to death a child who will not listen to his parents, etc. When we dig a little deeper, we can try to identify the values that underlie these laws, and many times we find guidance and inspiration. Other times, we remain mystified…and that is okay.
The Torah portion for this week is a double-parasha; Tazria and Metzora are read together. These two portions have been viewed as being in the “antiquated” category. The understanding of medical and scientific phenomena were very limited and the laws regarding what today we might think of as mold, mildew, and a number of skin conditions seem out of date. The laws in the Torah portion represent the ancients’ best understanding of how to deal with conditions that they could not comprehend; they legislated as best they could in the face of mystery.
As antiquated as these laws seem, this year they take on a greater significance. We find ourselves close to the situation in which our ancestors found themselves. We are confronted with a disease that we do not fully understand. We do no know how to prevent it; there is no vaccine. We have no 100% effective way to treat it. We are not fully certain how it spreads. So–like the Priests in ancient times–we are doing the best we can to stop the spread and to care for those who are stricken. The similarities between Tzara’at (the skin condition often translated as leprosy) and COVID-19 are striking.
Can we gain any inspiration or guidance from the text of the Torah? The laws tell us that we are not to abandon those who are ill. The Priests had to check on them regularly to see their progress and determine when it was safe for them to return to the community. It was a process that could be quite lengthy. Sound familiar? The Torah tells us that in the face of that which we do not understand we must be cautious. We must always seek to preserve life. Through it all, we must also preserve the dignity of those who are ill. And let’s not overlook that those who were “caregivers” were given a place of esteem in society.
The most repeated commandment in the Torah is to be kind to the stranger because we know what it is like to be strangers ourselves. A text that is thousands of years old speaks to us in modern times–and especially in the age of COVID-19. Its message of love and concern for others is enduring; let the Torah inspire to be better than our fear and selfishness. Let us work to bring holiness and wholeness into God’s Creation.
I just returned from a “trying” trip to the supermarket. I haven’t been to a grocery store in about 10 days–attempting to avoid it by buying online and having it delivered–but this trip was unavoidable the day after Passover. I stood for 15 minutes in line in the snow (yes, it’s snowing here) to get in the store as they only let a certain number in at a time.
Food shopping used to be a relatively carefree activity that didn’t require a whole lot of thinking. Now, however, it means planning in advance, sanitizing, getting in and out as quickly as possible…or avoiding it altogether and having it all delivered.
I’ve been pretty thoughtful about my food consumption and shopping for quite a while. I have been a pescatarian for about 13 years and before that kept kosher; that means I’ve always had to consider what I was eating, where and when. When I was a single father co-parenting (one week on/one week off) I had to plan meals that were balanced, healthy and that the kids would eat. Since becoming a personal trainer, I’ve had to focus on food issues even more as I counsel clients about how to meet their fitness and health goals. But most of us don’t think about it that much…ergo the proliferation of drive-thrus.
The Torah portion for this week, Shemini, introduces us to the Jewish dietary laws–Kashrut (or kosher)–for the first time. The system in the Torah is not nearly as complicated as it is today; there has been a lot of development and clarification over the years. What Shemini does is cover the animals that are permissible to be eaten and which are not. The Torah gives no rationale. It is not health-related; the vast majority of people in the world do not follow these laws and they are no less or more healthy than those who do.
The dietary laws are aimed at making us more holy–or at least helping us to make more holy decisions about what we put in our bodies. Many years ago I taught a young man (13 years old) who had been diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes just before his Bar Mitzvah. It turned out that this was also his Torah portion. The parallels were clear. Before his diagnosis, he ate what he wanted when he wanted. After his diagnosis that was no longer possible. He had to consider what he ate and when he ate it. It made him much more aware of the role of food in his life.
Kashrut does the same thing. Hopefully, it also leads us to appreciate that we do have food on our plates…and to ensure that those who don’t get what they need. The trip to the grocery store was trying, but I don’t dare really complain; I know that there are many who are way worse off than I am. This was a mere inconvenience that led me to consider what food and the lack thereof truly means.
Torah is at the very center of Judaism. When we talk about “Torah,” though, not everyone means the same thing. A literalist approach would argue that the Torah is what was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai as described in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro; those same individuals might include the Oral Torah as also having been received at the same time.
Others think of Torah more broadly. Torah is from the same word as Moreh/Morah–teacher. It is roughly translated as instruction. There are those who think of Torah as any kind of Jewish learning.
Parashat Yitro relates the “official” story of where instruction came from. There is a sense, however, that what was revealed to Moses and our people at Mt. Sinai continues to be revealed on a regular basis. As time goes on and we make more discoveries, we further uncover God’s instructions and God’s will. In this respect, Torah not only comes from our past–and from a place far away, but Torah also comes from a place very close to us every day.
Our lives are enriched by Torah–by the instructions we receive from many sources; those instructions help us to find our place in the world and what God wants from us. Do not believe that all there is to know about Torah and the world is known already. The search for Torah is never-ending.
Parashat Va-era contains the beginning of the process of our ancestor’s liberation from Egyptian slavery. The end of the portion is comprised of the first plagues God visited on our oppressors.
Va-era and the following two portions are filled with miracles that accompany the Exodus from Egypt. Modern readers often wonder if the events described really happened. Did the Nile turn to blood? Were there frogs everywhere, etc.? And was it possible that these natural disasters only struck the Egyptians and not the Israelites? Scholarly papers have been written that seek to explain the plagues from an epidemiological standpoint. A few of them are rather convincing; there are plausible explanations for how it started and how one plague naturally followed after the other.
But do we really need to understand exactly how the plagues occurred? Do we even need to believe that the stories contained in these Torah portions (or any others for that matter) really happened?
The miraculous nature of the story does not require historical or scientific verification. Ultimately, what is most important is the underlying message: the difficult path from oppression to liberation. This story is not just about the Exodus from Egypt. It is about the constant quest for justice and freedom in our world. Bringing redemption to our world is never easy; it doesn’t occur overnight. And there are times when we reach a milestone–where some wrong is righted or some injustice recognized–and feel that the moment is beyond just us. There is something “miraculous” about it…or a sense that a higher source somehow intervened.There are those who take the story literally, but for those who don’t, there is still the valuable lesson about the work it will take to redeem our far from perfect world.
The beginning of Parashat Ki Tetze gives instructions for when an Israelite soldier finds a woman attractive among the captives of the conquest and wishes to take her as a wife. The man is to bring her to his home, trim her nails and cut her hair. She also removes her captive’s garb. These seem to be signs of mourning. The text continues by telling us that she is to mourn her parents for thirty days–presumably because she will never see them again. At first read, this text might appear to be sensitive. The man’s emotions are clear: he is in love and has desire. The verses tell us that he must first take into her feelings; her mourning for what her life was and might have been is real and must be recognized. This seems unusual since the Torah does not often deal with feelings. While we may take some comfort in knowing that the Torah has sensitivity toward the woman’s feelings, we must not forget that it does not change her fate. Her life was not in her control; she became an object rather than a subject in her destiny. Even so, it is instructive that the Torah mentions that when it comes to emotions, we must look beyond what we are feeling alone. There is always another side to the story that deserves validation and respect. Shabbat Shalom!
Parashat Re’eh begins with a statement from God given through the prophet Moses. We are told that God has placed before us blessing and curse—and it is plain to see, in Hebrew, “Re’eh.”
There are instructions later in the Parasha that the Israelites, once they enter the Land of Israel, are to place a list of blessings on Mt. Gerizim and list of curses on Mt. Ebal. These two mountains overlook the town of Shechem (Nablus today). Gerizim is to this day covered in greenery, while Ebal is barren and rocky. It is easy to imagine that the Israelites looking at these two mountains would clearly see the difference between blessing and curse, between following the commandments and going after false gods. It is an amazing visual aid.
We are familiar with the phrase, “seeing is believing,” but that is only partially true. Sometimes we cannot accept something until we see it with our own eyes. Other times, our eyes can deceive us; we make judgments about what we see on the surface and miss what is going on behind it.
We know that life is never that simple. Unlike Gerizim and Ebal, life is not black and white (although sometimes it is!). Most of the time there are shades of gray…and other colors too. That is why it is so important to see—really see—in order to do our best to determine what courses of action will lead to blessings and which (God-forbid) will lead to curses.