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Friday, April 27, 2012

Parshat Tazria-Metzorah: Beyond Skin Deep

This week we read the double parashah/portion of Tazria-Metzora (Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1-15:33). The parashah introduces the various categories of tumah (ritual or spiritual “impurity”, for lack of a better word) emanating from human beings. The parashah describes in great detail the varying and numerous manifestations of the disease called tzara'at. 

Although it has been commonly mistranslated as leprosy, this disease has little resemblance to any bodily ailment transmitted through normal exposure. Rather, tzara'at appears to be some kind of growth that can occur on a house or on clothing (like mold or fungus) or on a person's body.
Tradition views the disease as being the physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise, a punishment from God primarily for the sin of speaking lashon hara (evil speech). Known as a metzora, someone afflicted by a tzaraat-like patch on their skin is subject to a series of examinations by a Kohen (high priest), who declares the patient to be either tahor (pure) or tamei (impure). If tamei, they are isolated outside of the camp until, upon inspection, the kohen declares them to be “pure.”

Traditional commentaries view this as an appropriate punishment for someone whose improper speech caused others to become separated from one another. Once the person is declared tahor (pure) by the kohen, the kohen then administers a three part purification process, complete with immersion in water, korbanot (offerings), and the shaving of the entire body.

The idea of God punishing a person with a physical ailment for the sin of gossip and speaking evil of others does not fit with my personal 21st century sensibilities. However, the idea that lahon ha'ra / evil speech can infect a person with a spiritual malady certainly rings true. But what about the isolation of the person from the camp? This punishment is reminiscent of the way lepers were treated in ancient times or the way that people with diseases such as HIV/AIDS have been ostracized and shunned by society in more recent times. Yet, I don't believe that is what the Torah meant.

As I wrote above, it makes sense that a person who has caused discord and separation within a family or a community by their speech be separated from others as a consequence. It is important to remember that the ultimate outcome is that they are declared tahor/pure, or ready to participate in the religious rituals of the community. That is precisely why they further purify themselves with immersion, make an offering to God and shave all their hair before they fully return. It is as if they are being born anew, rising from the waters of purification rather than the womb, skin smooth as the day they were born.

But how would the person feel going through this process? I can only imagine.


I am alone
how did I get here       I know the answer too well
I spoke      and hatred came into being
I spoke      and suffering entered the world
I spoke from a place of jealousy envy insecurity
and others were destroyed

now I am here    on my own    where I must       where I should be
here I can speak      but it cannot be heard
it cannot hurt        cannot destroy others       only me

I deserve    I need     to be here
to rid myself of the desire to decimate others through my words
to kill the part of me that wishes to murder others with my speech
to leave here    eventually    pure simple loving as the day I was born

I sit here surrounded    by emptiness desert desolation
no one here     but me and God
I want to  scream   cry   run   dissolve into the earth
grains of sand to be blown away by the divine breath
then I will be no more

but I know that this is not why I am here
and so     I sit in silence   listening to the voice within
chastising  berating  flogging my soul  with its words
taking the hatred once directed towards others
and turning it inwards

then the voice changes
again    facing out to the world     it cries out that this is wrong
I should not be here      I did nothing wrong
they deserved my hatred scorn contempt
for they did not recognize   accept   love me
they did not delight in my mere existence
and so I made them pay

no            the voice from the deepest place within me cries out
this is not how it was
only in your mind    your ego
it was a delusion to enable you to rise above others
wanting to believe you were better
it was you who   brought about the separation
it was you who   engendered the hatred and scorn through your speech
it was you who   terrorized others
in order to avoid the terror of intimacy

yes this is the truth
I did all this things
not out of  hatred  jealousy  envy
but out of fear
fear of connection     fear of the demands   of honest relationship
it was easier to lash out     and isolate
than to draw in and embrace
sitting here I listen to these voices    messages struggling    within
but as I sit   still   silent   listening   a single voice finally remains
the voice of the Divine    the One   that connects us all
it has defeated the voice of distinctions separations the ego

suddenly I open my eyes     for the first time      to see nothing
my skin is no longer covered with the festering sores   which my fear created
I know in my heart that my spirit is pure    prepared to rejoin the others
ready to wash away the filth that still remains   from all the harm I created
ready to offer of myself to the Divine     the One who has resurrected me
read to enter the world    my community    my people
body smooth as the day I was born
soul as pure as the moment it was created
heart open wide as it must have been before        though I cannot remember

yes I am ready
and so I sit    and wait    for them to be ready for me
I desire for it to be soon
but I know in my soul it will be when it is meant to be

Shabbat Shaom,


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Crossing the Sea - the final redemption of Passover

Today is the seventh day of the festival of Pesakh/Passover, the feast celebrating the redemption from Egyptian slavery. According to tradition, this is the day when the Israelites crossed Yam Suf/the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea, if you prefer the older translations). Most of us are familiar with this event from Bible stories we have read or movies we have seen, and yet there is much more contained within this story than meets the eye.

According to midrash (rabbinic lore) the seas split not merely because Moses raised his staff over the water, but because one man dare to enter the waters on his own without waiting for Moses or anyone else to take action. This man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, understood that in order to achieve freedom and salvation we must not merely wait around or pray for it, but we must act as partners with God in order to make it happen!

It was Nachshon’s bravery and his faith in the divine-human partnership that enabled him to enter the raging waters even as Moses prayed to God asking for help. Or was it?In a modern midrash written by my colleague Rabbi Michael M. Cohen, the crowd around him pushed Nachshon into the sea. In his telling of the story, Nachson becomes more an accidental, rather than an intentional, catalyst of redemption. Either way, the midrashim teach that human action must work in partnership with the Divine to bring about redemption, both individually and communally, whether actions are intentional or accidental.
So, the question remains were Nachshon’s actions – are our redemptive actions – intentional or accidental? Voluntary or coerced? The answer, of course, is...yes.

Chag Same'ach – a joyous Passover festival to you all.

Nachshon’s redemption

I stand here
surrounded by throngs
alone frightened
exhilarated wondering
when will something

then I hear storm
hooves pounding
hastening towards
our destruction

then fire rising
from sand to sky
pillar of protection
pillar of obliteration

caught between
fire and water
life and death
freedom and slavery
unknown and known

where is the chosen one
the one slow of speech
quickly tell us
what to do
the one drawn out of the waters
tell us how
not to drown

I stand looking
before me I see only
water churning foaming
beckoning frightening calling
join me
I shall rescue you
from misery
from suffering
from life

in me
beneath my waves
surrounded by my calm
you shall find freedom
peace at last

I am your God
oh Israelites
you have come out of Egypt
for me to save you

I am drawn to enter
the depths of the sea
to seek in the brine
what it offers
I do not know

to step to jump to move
is better than
standing waiting
not knowing
what will come next

I am unsure
as I always am

when suddenly
with no warning preparation
no choice
depths surround me
salt water fills my nostrils
stings my eyes calms my soul
comforts me
I have returned to the womb
though I do not know
if I jumped if I was pushed
I do not recall
perhaps both are true
coinciding contradictions

It does not matter
only the reality
the moment the present matters
I am here in the depths
on dry land
where is the water the salt
the depths its warmth its comfort

now I feel a breeze
I hear a roar a rush
not hooves but muddy footsteps
of my people

surrounded by darkness
I look up the sun is high
I look to each side
walls of water
deep dark geysers
reaching towards heaven
pillars of strength
I stand between
arms unable to reach
either side
feet firmly planted on dry mud
heart uplifted
I see hear touch feel smell
sense the miracle salvation

the people cry shout walk run
march crawl straggle
struggle stumble
are picked up fall again
are lifted carried
each supporting the other
the people are one
finally the first time

I am amazed
as each one passing
seems to look smile nod at me

then the one
the chosen one our leader
stands before me
eyes meeting eyes
he smiles
speaks simply
he says to me thank you

why I ask him
what did I do
was it I who made it happen
no it could not be
yet perhaps it was
all i know is the sound
the roar the spray of water
surrounding us all

I walk in a daze
all others have gone ahead
I am now the last
no longer the first
there really is no difference

then suddenly hear
another sound
not joy fear
I turn around
horse warriors are approaching
I see death in their eyes

I run
towards the screams of my people
calling to me fearful
I will never leave here alive
I will die here in the mud
having only known a moment
of freedom
but that is still better than none

prepared to die I suddenly hear
another rush of water
screams of death cries of shock
shouts of joy all mingled
cacophonous harmony
I do not understand
I cannot stop to look

suddenly I am swept up by the sea
salt water again in mouth and eyes
not soothing this time
but tossing lifting casting me
upon dry land dazed
I am free i am alive
I am in shock

I look behind
the sea is there as it was
the soldiers horses are gone
they have discovered the depths
but they will not be soothed
in the brine
they will not be lifted up and out
they are to be forever entombed
churning waters now calm
giving life to us
bringing death to them

then I hear another sound
joyous shouts songs timbrels
women dancing men leaping
celebrating freedom
salvation survival

i look again to the sea
that had for a moment
been my home
the place that gives life and
brings death

in my mind i see them
the enemy or are they
struggling to escape its clutches
longing for sunlight
then submerging submitting
accepting their fate
they breathe their last
exhaling the life they knew
swallowing the brine
of their new home their tomb

as I see this see them
feel their pain fear suffering
emotions engulf me
I imagine taste once again
the brine
saving us killing them

but this is not imagined
it is real tears flowing
for destruction wrought
for salvation bestowed
a legacy to us
the ones who remain
the ones who shall live

how can we sing
when the dead lie before us
how can we not
when the living are in our midst

I look up
he is there again
the chosen one
drawn from the water
leading us through the water
he looks at me
knowing what I feel
he reaches down
I hold his hand
he draws me up from the ground
to him
embracing a torrent of tears flowing
feeling what I have never
before felt or known
joyous grief
mournful ecstasy

true redemption requires sacrifice
are these words from me
from him from above
from within
yes they are all these
for they are truth

still embracing each other
feeling hearts beat breath rise
together in his arms
he kisses my head
he pulls away smiles gently
turning me around
still firmly in his embrace
I view the sea
calm glimmering sunset
its surface beautiful beyond speech
its depths an unseen horrors

such is the path of redemption
the pain the sacrifice of salvation
such is the way of life

no longer feeling his presence
I turn aroundhe is gone
swallowed up by the ocean
of frenzied souls
rejoicing over him
celebrating the moment
filled with joy and gratitude
it is all we have
and it too will soon be gone

I join with them
feeling gratitude
for the redemptive moment
not knowing what
will happen next
or what I will do
when it does

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