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Friday, April 15, 2011

Parshat Aharei Mot/Shabbat Ha'Gadol: Can Irrational Rules Help us Connect with God and our World?

This week's parashah is Aharei Mot (Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1-18:30). In addition, it is Shabbat Ha' Gadol, the Great Sabbath, which is the name for the Shabbat that immediately precedes Pesakh/Passover. That means that, following Shabbat, there is technically only one brief day left to finish preparing for Passover.

I was thinking about this when I read R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev's 19th century commentary on a verse from the parashah: "You shall observe My statutes and My laws which, if a person do them, that person shall live by them; I am the Eternal" (Leviticus 18:5). In the rabbinic tradition, the hukkim/statutes are viewed as commandments that have no apparent rational reason, while the mishpatim/laws are those that do have rational reasons. The prohibition against murder is one of the mishpatim. The prohibition against mixing linen and wool or meat and milk are among the hukkim.

In his interpretation, Levi Yitzhak states that the observance of the "irrational" hukkim "purifies" a person's mind so that they can then truly understand the meaning of the mishpatim, or "rational" commandments. By looking at the commandments this way, Levi Yitzhak says that a person then come to "live by them," meaning that they will "come to understand that they are the source of their vitality."

In his analysis of this text, R. David Blumenthal discusses how the essence of this teaching is that all of the mitzvot/commandments are part of God's plan and God's will. It doesn't matter whether or not they have an apparent reason.  Furthermore, being subservient to God's will is what is at the core of observance and this too must guide us through the path of mitzvot.

In reviewing these comments, it seems that Levi Yitzhak is trying to say that the observance of the 'irrational' mitzvot somehow purifies or clears out our minds so that we can then view the 'rational' mitzvot in a new light. This new light allows us to realize that the "rationality" of these mitzvot is unimportant. Instead, what matters is that the mitzvot are the tools by which we create holy lives for ourselves and through which we connect ourselves to God. All the mitzvot are as one and their purpose is one - connection with the Divine and the Divine will.

The concept of Divine will is something with which many of us struggle, including me.  I often say that I try to do God's will in my life, even though I am uncertain exactly what that means. In the broadest sense, it means to do those things that make the world a better place and improve the lives of others. God's will also means doing those things that make us feel connected to God and help us to realize that we are all a part of God and God is a part of us.  All is one.  All are connected.

Sometimes doing 'irrational' mitzvot can serve this purpose in a unique way. Refraining from eating leavened bread may seem "semi-rational,” when considering the Pesakh story. However, cleaning out every crumb of leaven from one's house and changing everything around for the holiday, certainly can seem irrational. Yet, the intensive work involved in doing this work can enable us to connect to the Divine in the world, just as much as eating matzah.

This Shabbat in preparation for Passover can also allow us to appreciate and experience this connection in a deeper way. Shabbat is a day of mindfulness during which we are commanded not to do anything that interferes with the natural order of the world.  As we prepare ourselves for the last preparations for Passover, even if we don’t prepare in the traditional way, we can also take Shabbat as a day to pray and meditate.  As part of this process, perhaps we can see how the "irrational" preparation for Pesakh can indeed purify and clarify our mind so that we can then observe the somewhat more "rational" mitzvah of the seder and eating matzah (though, even they are not totally rational). In the end, we can see that the preparation, the Shabbat of rest, and the observance of Pesakh are all one whole unit that prepares us for the spiritual experience of recreating our people's moment of redemption and salvation.

Even if one does not prepare for or observe Pesakh in the traditional way, a person can still use this Shabbat as a time for contemplation. One can take this day as a time to acknowledge that activities and observances in our lives, whether we see them as rational or irrational, are all a part of the Divine whole. They are all part of what it means to be living our lives in pursuit of holiness and connection to the Divine.  Whatever that means to each of us.

So let us all keep that in mind as we leave the workweek behind and prepare to enter the period of soulful repose that then leads into the week of joyous celebration of our freedom from slavery. For, freedom has enabled us to have luxury to live our lives in pursuit of connection with the Divine and in pursuit of a deeper understanding of God's will for each one of us.  May the day come when every human being is free enough to participate in this endeavor.

Shabbat Shalom and a zissen Pesakh - a sweet Passover - to us all.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Parshat Metzorah: Words Can Really Hurt Us

This week's parashah is Metzora (Vayikra/Leviticus 14:1-15:33). In this parashah, we continue the laws concerning the person with tzara'at (skin afflictions) that began last week. Last week we read that the person suffering from skin afflictions (commonly translated as leprosy) is to be kept separate from the camp until the priest has determined that s/he is healed. The person is considered tamei (translated as ritually impure, for lack of a better term) and in danger of contaminating the camp both physically and spiritually. The Torah does not distinguish physical illness as separate from the religious realm. Tzara'at is viewed as a punishment from God for sin and so the priests, those in charge of the religious realm, must oversee the person's diagnoses, treatment (read: isolation) and reintegration into
the community.

The word Metzora, one afflicted with this skin affliction, is read by the rabbis as an acronym for motzi shem ra,one who one who slanders another's name”.  They believed that one who slanders or gossips was punished with this affliction (see the punishment of Miriam, sister of Moses, that comes in Numbers, chapter 12). If this were indeed the case then I would venture to say that many, if not all, of us would be walking around with some degree of skin affliction at various times. However, Jewish tradition takes gossip very seriously. The Talmud actually teaches that to slander or embarrass someone in public is like shedding a person's blood. Therefore, the rabbis believed that slander and gossip deserved a severe punishment that included not only a physical affliction, but also separation from the community.

In his commentary on the parashah, the Hassidic teacher know as the Sefat Emet (language of truth) focuses on the opening verse of the parashah:  "this is the Torah concerning the afflicted person."  He reminds the reader that the Torah teaches "Shalom, Shalom, to the far and to the near" (Isaiah 57:19).  In his interpretation, "far"  refers to the afflicted person separated from the community. In his insightful commentary, the Sefat Emet states that distancing the person
from the community and from God is simultaneously a punishment and the means of bringing healing, defined as shalom/peace or shelaimut/wholeness. He refers to a midrash that teaches  that, though a bandage heals a human being wounded by a knife, God is able to heal through the same means by which God wounds.

In this parashah, the separation from the community commanded by God is a punishment that eventually brings about healing and purification. Being separated from the community and from God enables the one who gossips to think about the effects of his/her actions and to work on changing. Like a person who goes on a silent retreat or a trek in the desert, that person will hopefully find God in the silence and the separation.

In his gloss on the Sefat Emet, Arthur Green comments that one of the ills of modernity is the separation from God. In the spirit of this parashah,  I would also add the concurrent separation from community. He then makes the case that this separation can also be seen as the impetus for healing and bringing oneself closer to God (and community). Our speech is one way we separate ourselves from God and from others. Speaking ill of someone, or simply wasting our time talking about others rather than focusing on meaningful speech, causes a gulf to widen between us and God, as well as community and the universe.

Yet, as the Sefat Emet reminds us, the separation is at once both punishment and cure.  If we allow it. When we realize that we have become separated from God, community and the universe, we simply need to acknowledge this. Then, rather than immediately running back, either literally or figuratively, we need to simply stay where we are. For if we immediately return to the "scenes of our crimes" there is a greater chance that we will simply resume where we left off and find ourselves alone once again.

By simply staying where we are, we can recognize and feel the pain of the separation and loneliness. Yet, if we are not afraid of the loneliness itself and we allow ourselves to experience it we can perhaps hear the voices within us that cause us to speak ill of others, to gossip, to tell tales. We can hear the insecurity, the anger, or whatever it is within us that turns those thoughts into speech. Then we can then move on to the next step, which is allowing those voices to eventually die on their own so that we can then hear the voice beneath them. That is the true voice within. That is the voice of the Divine spirit that connects us to all and that is within each of us. Once that voice is heard, we can then begin our return to the community.

In this way, the separation and loneliness that we can feel, even while being physically in the midst of the world, becomes healing balm rather than a canker gnawing away at our soul. This is only one of the ways in which loneliness, and being alone, can be exactly what we need at that moment. We only have to realize this.

As we prepare to celebrate Pesakh/Passover, which is called z'man heiruteinu/the time of our freedom, let us free ourselves from the chains of gossip and hurtful speech. Let us each assess how far we have placed ourselves from God, community and self through our speech, as well as other deeds. If we then come to realize that we have separated ourselves from community, and that we are indeed alone, let us use this sense of aloneness as a way of bringing us back to God, community and our truest selves.

Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Parshat Tazria: Finding the Light Within

This week's parashah/portion is Tazria (Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1-13:59). It is the first of two portions dealing with issues of skin afflictions, purity and holiness.   Tazriatzara'at/skin afflictions. People with tzara’at must be kept outside the camp until the priests declare that they are healed. 

The classic rabbinic interpretation of tzara'at is that it is the result of some type of moral or spiritual "impurity" or immoral actions, such as gossip or slander.  The idea that a physical affliction is an external manifestation of an internal flaw or impurity may seem anathema today. It reminds us too much of those who state that AIDS or other diseases are a punishment for "immorality." However, in ancient times it was a common belief that everything, including disease, was either a punishment or reward from God.

However, the Hassidic commentator the Sefat Emet provides us with an alternative. His interpretation is a powerful metaphor for how we bring distress upon ourselves by closing ourselves off from the Divine and spiritual living.  He begins his commentary by focusing on the phrase "The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the flesh of the skin a sore..." (Vayikra 13:1-2).

He makes the link between the Hebrew word עור 'or (beginning with the letter ayin) meaning skin, and אור 'or (with the letter aleph) which means light. There is a long tradition within Judaism, especially within the mystical schools, that focuses on the belief that originally Adam and Eve existed in a purely spiritual form and were clothed in "garments of light (עור).  However, after the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were the light was replaced with skin" (אור), which they viewed metaphorically as the skin of the serpent. At that moment, the first two humans realized that they were naked. Therefore, it is the corporeal nature of human existence that arises from this mythic encounter.

From the moment Adam and Eve knew the difference between good and evil, human beings then consisted of a corporeal, physical element and a spiritual element.
  More than that, they realized this reality.  As the inheritors of this sacred myth, we can realize too that we are spiritual beings still cloaked in a garment of light, which is then covered by our corporeal being, the garment of skin.  However, we can still find ways to allow the inner light to "shine through" at specific moments.

That is why, according to the
Sefat Emet, the Torah tells us that Moses's face glowed upon descending Mt Sinai. For after he encounters God "face to face, his inner light was able to shine through his corporeal skin." Sefat Emet believes that all of Israel was ready to achieve that state at Sinai, but that they (read: we) did not remain on that high rung of the spiritual ladder for very long.  Our spiritual affliction brought about our downfall.

Due to human nature, we all experience various degrees of spiritual affliction.
  When we are afflicted spiritually, the garment of light is unable to shine through.   The Sefat Emet believed that this spiritual light is literally able to shine through the pores in our skin. He also believed that "sin clogs up those pores, so that 'darkness covers the earth' (Isaiah 60:2)" and that is why the skin affliction of tzara'at is translated into the ancient vernacular Aramaic as 'segiru/closing.' The affliction represents a closing of the pores and a closing off of the inner spiritual nature of the human being due to sin. Therefore, the Torah prescribes that we must be examined and then purified by Aaron and his sons, the arbiters of holiness, and the ones who can cleanse the people on behalf of God.

Though this text still separates the spiritual and the physical realms, I
believe it has a profound message for us today. It reminds us that we all possess an inner spiritual core. It is an essential piece of being human.  “Spirituality” is not something that we must seek to find "out there in the world." Rather, it is something that we must seek to discover within ourselves. The skin can serve to hide this spiritual self, but it can also serve to protect it. The spirit, being of Divine origin, is powerful and yet fragile.  The power of its light can blind us, as well as others.  This is why Moses wore a veil over his face after the Sinai encounter. Yet, when used properly, our spirit, or soul, can warm and enlighten us. It is something that must be treated with respect and kept in balance. According to the Sefat Emet, we will not all be able to have our spiritual light shine through until the Messianic Era, a time when we will all discover our connection to the Divine in the world.

Judaism provides us many ways for us to re-open ourselves so that we can find balance, bring holiness into the world and allow our light to shine forth.
  We can do this through prayer, meditation, study, acts of gemilut hasadim/loving kindness and tzedakah /righteousness.   We can also do this by mindfully performing our everyday acts such as eating and sexual activity.  We can regain that inner balance, return to our divine source and allow the inner light of the soul to shine through, if we are mindful of the divinity inherent in all we do and say. That is how we "purify" ourselves, in contemporary terms.

Doing the spiritual work needed to open ourselves up to God involves often begins with simply paying attention to where we are in the moment. It can require nothing more than noticing our thoughts and feelings and accepting them as part of who we are. That way, we can hopefully avoid reacting to the thoughts and feelings we might normally label as "negative." For it is the reactions to those thoughts that pull us away from God and get us caught up in our ego. This is what closes
  us off to the divine light of the spirit.

Instead of reacting out of habit, we simply need to act with intention. We don't need to give our ego and our judgmental selves any more
  energy.  If we do this, the thoughts and passions rooted in the ego will eventually dissipate.  And then, we can be in the present and allow ourselves to act with intention and in a holy way.

If this doesn't work, and we allow ourselves to be drawn in by our ego, our tendency to judge, or allowing our passions and desires to drive us then we simply wait until we notice this. At that moment, we recognize that we have closed ourselves off to the inner light of the spirit. Then, instead of berating ourselves for that, we need to do what I described above. We simply need to follow the path described above so the thoughts and feelings will pass and we can once again open ourselves up to God and our inner divine light.

This is the beauty of acknowledging that the light is always in us, even when everything seems dark. It reminds us that the darkness will not last forever and that we simply need to live our lives one moment at a time. For if we do that then the moment will arrive when we can once again open ourselves up to God.   We simply need to have patience, which is, in a way, the key to unlock our souls and open our hearts so that the inner light will shine forth.

With the blessing of patience, and paying attention to all that unfolds in each moment, each of us can eventually bring God's light into the world. In that way we can bring healing and purification to ourselves and to the world. May we use this Shabbat - and every day - to work on opening ourselves up so that the light of the spirit can shine through, bringing peace, salvation, healing and wholeness to our lives and to our fractured world.

Shabbat Shalom.

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