Thursday, April 21, 2016

Parshat Acharei, 4th Portion, Leviticus 17:1-7, April 20, 2016

The story here is that there should be a statute that you should not make offerings anyplace but the Tent of Meeting. If you do so, you'll be making sacrifice to the satyrs (woodland gods of Greek and Roman origins). You'll be breaking the commandment of worshiping other gods. 

It is important in Judaism that you do not study alone. Mistakes can be made, as I often do.  Doing sacrifices on your own incurs a similar problem. Doing the sacrifices in a proper place and time helps to insure that it will be done correctly.

“Any which way” will not suffice. This gets into the territory of an involuntary transgression, where we aren't mindful and the good intentions lead to bad outcomes.

A rabbi suggested that the law that offerings be done in the Tent of Meeting was the first step toward ending offerings. As the population grew, it would be inevitable that the Tent of Meeting wouldn't be large enough. And then the two temples were destroyed, ending the practice for good.

My wife asks why bother with any of this stuff about offerings when we aren't going to do them? What difference do they make now?

It was hard to explain, given the noise of the popcorn popper, the faucet running, and the TV on. But I'll try here. 

In Ecclesiastes 3 we hear that there is a time for everything. As there is a time for everything, so there is a place. This “statute” tells us that we need to be deliberate where we do things. We learn from Aaron's sons being zapped that how we do things is equally of consequence.

This is a teaching story, as we find other teaching stories throughout the Torah.

In a sense, only some spaces are sacred. And, looked at another way, all spaces are sacred. And, one more way, no place is sacred. Maybe it is our faith that makes our spaces sacred. In any case, doing an offering out in the woods is messing with dangerous territory, whether it will be worshipping satyrs or another involuntary (or voluntary) transgression. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Parshat Acharei, 3rd Portion, Leviticus 16:25-34, April 19, 2016

“And he shall effect atonement upon the Holy of Holies, and he shall effect atonement upon the Tent of Meeting and upon the altar, and he shall effect atonement upon the kohanim and upon all the people of the congregation. [All] this shall be as an eternal statute for you, to effect atonement upon the children of Israel, for all their sins, once each year. And he did as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (Leviticus 16:33-34)
I wrote earlier today a sequel to yesterday’s post: Involuntary Transgressions: Lifting up the Chair.

What interests me in the above Torah passage is the idea of atonement, and that the act should be a statute.

Atonement is Christianity appears to be about reconciling with Christ. I’m sure my Christian friends will correct me if I’m wrong.

In Judaism it seems that it is also about reconciling, but this time with God. I do not think that it is a process of God forgiving, but rather that the harm we do keeps us from experiencing the good, in the same way that hate keeps us from love.

We need to take a shower of the crud that we accumulate. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest of holidays. Perhaps it is because it is the point where we become “throughly scrubbed of our transgressions” from the last year, so that we can love more purely.

Statute vs. statue: Is it a coincidence that the words are so similar. The idea of a ceremony becoming a statue is interesting too. Especially in a religion that speaks against graven images. I like the idea of a statute/statue not being a physical object, but being a procedure and an ideal. The ultimate goal is reconciliation. I suspect, because we are humans, we are not reconciled for long. The crud quickly comes back, ready for another shower. Buddhists believe that the world reconstitutes itself moment by moment. Each moment is a new moment. It is constant work to even attempt to be reconciled, be it with God, a family member or friend.

P.S. A friend sent this quote:
“Each activity you perform is an opportunity to observe the ways mind and body can work together and how they can sometimes conflict. The mind can spend hours worrying about a simple task that will take the body only minutes to perform. Although the music may be long, the dance itself is short.” —Gary Thorp, “The Dust Beyond the Cushion”
Perhaps one can see atonement as not unifying us with God, but rather bringing our body and mind together. And bringing our intentions and actions together.

P.S.S. Driving home, I thought atonement not being about shame or guilt. Guilt, for me, has to do with low self-esteem, and shame is about how we think others see us. What separates and quiets us is simply moving the crud away. Then we can reunite, not only with ourselves, but with others as well.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Parshat Acharei, 2nd Portion, Leviticus 16:18-24, April 18, 2016

“And Aaron shall lean both of his hands [forcefully] upon the live he goat’s head and confess upon it all the willful transgressions of the children of Israel, all their rebellions, and all their unintentional sins, and he shall place them on the he goat’s head, and send it off to the desert with a timely man. 
The he goat shall thus carry upon itself all their sins to a precipitous land, and he shall send off the he goat into the desert.” (Leviticus 16:21-22)
There is another way to think about the possibility that one man can confess the transgressions of the many. Rather than one man being separate from the many, suppose that he is just part of the whole.

When I say, I see you, it is actually my eyes that see you, and then my mind identifies “what I see” as you, yet I attribute all the seeing to “I” rather than to my limited eye and mind.

In the same way, we can think of the priest as part of the community. Like a lawyer, he represents the community and can act on their behalf because he is one with the community.

My foot doesn’t need to know that I’m seeing you... and yet it is part of the entire event.

Who is the goat that carries away our sins? Is this a parlor trick? Is the goat a metaphor for our confession and regret for our sins?

Have we hurt the goat, burdening her with our sins? Some say the goat goes over a cliff. Is this fair if it really is a goat and not just our confession and remorse?

We know that the scapegoat doesn’t really excuse the perpetrator. Maybe a good reading of this section would be: who are you kidding... the only way to get rid of sins is to deal with them directly. They can’t be thrown out by a priest or a goat.

Some of our transgressions are unintentional. Here’s a discussion of the Talmudic interpretation of such acts. As is often the case, the rabbis disagree whether it is allowed to do an unintentional transgression.

An example that is mentioned in the Talmud is suppose your child wants to play with the head of a chicken. There is no problem here in cutting off the head of the chicken, other than it should have been obvious that the chicken would die, which is a transgression (taking life for no purpose). So the guiding light should have been whether you should have known better. Manslaughter is another example from our modern world. You don’t intend to kill someone while you are driving home inebriated. Yet your car jumps the curb and kills someone. You did exhibit poor judgment which led to a bad deed. Unintentional? Yes. Ok? No.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Parshat Acharei, 1st Portion, Leviticus 16:1-17, April 17, 2016

“And no man shall be in the Tent of Meeting when he comes to effect atonement in the Holy, until he comes out. And he shall effect atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel.” (Leviticus 16:1-17)
I think it interesting that one person can atone for the sins of his community. I'm not sure what the benefit of such an action would be.  If he or she atoned for me, would I feel less guilty? Would I go to Heaven (which Jews don't quite believe in)? Will they please God on my behalf? Would I feel remorse?

If Aaron atones for my sins, do I still have to do so? Do we believe that God has an extensive data base which keeps track of all this?

I suspect that the act of atonement is one of setting an intention without any expectation of benefit. That is all we can do—saying I'm sorry or expressing gratitude. What the world gives me in return is up for grabs? But if I'm not aware that Aaron has atoned for me, or that Christ died for my sins, would it make any difference in my life?

We learn in Leviticus 16:1 “and they died,” referring to Aaron's two sons who died by improperly making an offering. There are many kinds of death. For a man not to have a son is a type of death. My father's stepfather divorced my dad's mom when it was discovered that she could not have any more children. He needed a son for his pseudo-immortality. Another type of death is to be estranged from community or God. Perhaps these deaths are even more painful than the physical death that we abhor.

Is there a 1:1 correspondence between our actions and what happens to us? It doesn't appear so in the physical realm. But how about the mental realm. How we are treated by others is sometimes more important than our physical lives. That is why some kids who are bullied will take their own lives. They want to be released from a punishment worse than death. Or why more US soldiers die of suicide that in battle. They have died spiritually as they faced the horrors of war. Ending their physical life was the only release.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Parshat Metzora, 7th Portion, Leviticus 15:29-33, April 16, 2016

“And on the eighth day, she shall take for herself two turtle doves or two young doves, and bring them to the kohen, to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. 
And the kohen shall make one into a sin offering and one into a burnt offering, and the kohen shall effect atonement for her, before the Lord, from the uncleanness of her discharge. 
And you shall separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness, so that they will not die on account of their uncleanness, if they defile My Sanctuary which is in their midst.” (Leviticus 15:29-33)
We try hard to understand these laws, using every bit of our rational mind. Many of the laws we can rationalize, that is, we can see that the world will work better if we follow them. An example of them it that we should not do onto others as we would not want them to do to us.

But other laws, such as the law concerned the exiling of a women who is menstruating, are called chukkim, which means that they are decrees from God and cannot be rationalized. In a sense, we do them a disservice when we try to rationalize. A good attorney can justify any action. Anything can be rationalized. But not necessarily understood for what it is.

The obvious question for an outsider like myself is whether I want to follow laws that are not logical. A law against text messaging while driving makes sense, especially if we are going to trust the statistics. But a law about not kissing in a public place... well, maybe not.

I suspect we have a huge number of conventions that we follow because we've learned to do them. In a sense, that makes us part of a group when we obey, and an outsider when we do not. Some of the streets in Austin are narrow. When you see someone coming in the opposite direction one person should pull over. The convention is that you pull over if you are able and let the other car through. Some outsiders just rush through, and force you to play “chicken” with them. 

Starting in the Garden of Eden, humans make choices, and having the ability to make choices makes us human. The world is filled with opposites, including the idea that some behavior (voluntary or involuntary) makes us clean or unclean. 

In Buddhism there is a heavenly realm where things are like we'd like them to be, and the human realm where we can follow our habitual patterns... or we can create new karma. That is the best realm to be born into. That is our choice at all crossroads. For example: you are cut off when driving... you can raise your middle finger, or realize that you don't know what kind of day the cutter offer has had. You have a choice and that makes you human.

In a homogeneous community, the penalties if you rock the boat are severe. In America, you can rock the boat with less criticism because we are so diverse. You'll have many on the sidelines either cheering or booing, as we see with presidential candidates that don't follow their party's line.

What about the dying on account of their uncleanness? Is that to get us to follow the commandments? Or is it metaphorical, saying that if we don't pay attention and make the right choices, we'll be shunned from our community? Remember that God says to Adam and Eve in the creation story that they will die because they did not obey God.

Life is a serious business. Which may be why some don't like to think of it as a game, which is what I proposed yesterday.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Parshat Metzora, 6th Portion, Leviticus 15:16-28, April 15, 2016

“A man from whom there is a discharge of semen, shall immerse all his flesh in water, and he shall remain unclean until evening.” (Leviticus 15:16)
“If a woman has a discharge, her flesh discharging blood, she shall remain in her state of menstrual separation for seven days, and whoever touches her shall become unclean until evening.” (Leviticus 15:19)
More about discharges here. Remember that “unclean” is not something that one should necessarily avoid, for discharges are inevitable for both the man and the woman. This is not about sin, but rather about whether people should be separated from the community and whether they need to immerse in water before they can perform religious acts (prayer, study of Torah, etc.).

Some say that the women is unjustly punished for menstruating. Maybe she looks forward to this time away from a litter of kids. I suspect my daughter, as much as she loves her kids, wouldn’t mind living somewhere else occasionally and getting a break.

And the man has to immerse every morning unless he stayed up all night studying the Torah. So the bias isn’t clear.

I mentioned yesterday the idea that life is a game. The Torah is the rule book. For those who try to apply the Torah to their lives, they find that their situation might not fit the situation defined in the Torah. So they read the Mishnah and the Talmud for further clarification. I suspect they would also ask their rabbi. They might have to make a decision on their own. For example, what constitutes a discharge? A drop? Two drops?

I like this blog post: Life is a Game and You Make the Rules, especially the part of value statements. We see all around us a range of values. Some think everyone should have the right to own guns, and others believe they should not. Some think that wealth should be redistributed, and others don’t. We believe our values are “right.” The post suggests that wanting them to be right doesn’t make them so. Yet we call your neighbor “stupid” because they don’t share our values.

In Buddhism, there is the concept of Âçrava, which means “leaking,” “oozing,” or “flowing out.” It is a general name for evils, like letting out avarice, anger, and lust. It is not that we won’t feel these urges, but that we don’t have to act on them. I’ve heard it described that we can alternately learn to let them come to their natural end. In the Torah, that is often done with time and immersion, and sometimes capped off with an offering or two or three. Is this another possible reading for the discharges?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Parshat Metzora, 5th Portion, Leviticus 14:54-15:15, April 14, 2016

“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, If any man has a discharge from his flesh, his discharge is unclean.” (Leviticus 15:2)
Is life a game? Imagine the promiscuous Christian girl who does crazy things on Saturday night and then on Sunday goes to confession and tells it all, only to repeat her crime wave the next weekend. Is she playing a game?

Or imagine the student who buys essays and aces college? Is this someone who is playing the game well? It was pointed out at the college I taught at that if every teacher gave students a second chance when they cheated, the students would be graduating with a high GPA before you could say “Jack Rabbit.”

Is the discharge the result of not taking life seriously? Does “playing a game” necessarily mean that you are demeaning life? Is the discharge metaphorically a spiritual discharge—evidence that we lost our connection to the Lord?

There is that saying, “you are just playing a game.” In the debate tonight with Bernie and Hillary, a question was asked about where the guns in NYC came from, and Bernie laughed. Hillary was very solemn and said this was a very serious matter. In this moment, we saw how her heart had been touched by those families who had lost loved ones in a shooting. It seemed like she was thoroughly invested in reducing guns to save lives.

When we see a serious “player” we sense they are not playing a game. Martin Luther King and Jackson Pollock were not playing. They were fully embodied in their work. We trust each of their messages because we don’t think they were acting. When MLK said, “I have a dream,” he wasn’t (or so we believe) playing. He meant it with his heart and soul. And he’d give his life for that dream. And the same goes with Jackson Pollock. He wasn’t a graphic designer conjuring up a marketable look. He was embodied in his paintings, again as if they were a matter of great consequence.

The discharge is the inauthentic. It is that part of us that doesn’t take the other seriously. We can say “I love you” in a multitude of ways. Do we mean it? We discharge that which isn’t who we are. We insult our inheritance (who we really are, our original nature).

Perhaps, in the case of professional athletes, I’m insulting them by saying that they are just playing a game. They are serious... beyond serious... as is my 14-year-old grand niece swimming champion. She’s activating every bit of her embodied self to beat her own time and the time of others. Maybe the answer is: Yes, life is a game... and games are very serious. I don’t know.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Parshat Metzora, 4th Portion, Leviticus 14:33-53, April 13, 2016

“And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I place a lesion of tzara'ath upon a house in the land of your possession, and the one to whom the house belongs comes and tells the kohen, saying, "Something like a lesion has appeared to me in the house," the kohen shall order that they clear out the house, before the kohen comes to look at the lesion, so that everything in the house should not become unclean. After this, the kohen shall come to look at the house.” (Leviticus 33-36)
We read here that the Lord has placed the tzara’ath in the house. Did he do this because he's mean, or for some other reason? I'm assuming that God is not mean, though if you talk to people, you'd hear about all the unfortunate things that happen in their lives. Perhaps the mold is a mirror to let us see that something is awry.

My son called with some unfortunate news. I apologized to him for not telling him earlier in his life that good and bad things happen to us. They alternate, like a pendulum. And when we get upset, then we have two problems to deal with... the original problem, and our being upset because we have a challenge. One problem is easier to solve than two. (See the Sallatha (Dart) Sutra.)

Leprosy in the Torah is associated with evil speech, gossip and murmuring. The home is an important institution in Judaism, second only to the temple. Torah should be discussed at every meal. Having a family is one of the greatest acts that a Jew can do. The menorah sits in the window to light the world.

When something is wrong in the house, it demands attention. Typically there is an issue with speech. Someone either said something that they shouldn't, or didn't say something they should have said.

Unlike mold remediation companies, the kohen just inspects the mold. If there is mold, he quarantines the house. If that doesn't cure the problem, he has the people plaster the house, and take the stones near the mold away from the house.

Finally, when the mold is cleared, the kohen performs an offering. I love this two step process. Solve the problem, and then offer gratitude that the problem is solved.

We often don't do step #2. We are fixing things all the time, but not looking enough at why things broke. Your family is dysfunctional. You go on a family vacation, or to a family therapist, and learn to talk together. Problem solved. But not really any closure. You don't assess what really caused the problem and you have just eradicated the symptom rather than the problem. It is time for an offering. We often miss that final step, and the mold quickly reappears.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Parshat Metzora, 3rd Portion, Leviticus 14:21-32, April 12, 2016

“But if he is poor and cannot afford [these sacrifices], he shall take one [male] lamb as a guilt offering for a waving to effect atonement for him, and one tenth [of an ephah] of fine flour mixed with oil as a meal offering, and a log of oil.” (Leviticus 14:21)

As we all know there are many ways of being fair. Airlines believe it is fair to let supply and demand determine the price of their tickets. Grocery stores charge the same for a given loaf of bread to everyone, rich or poor.

People point to the priests as being fair in making it possible for everyone to have a guilt offering. This points to the importance of the community to the Jews. When someone is carrying around guilt they are less beneficial to their community.

And for the poor man, flour and oil is perhaps equal to a rich man’s goat. The big question in my mind is what goods and services in a society should be charged according to one’s ability to pay, and what should be charged an equal amount to each person.

I pay more on real estate taxes. I’m not sure that the services I use are in proportion to what I pay.

“And the kohen shall place some of the oil that is in his palm, on the cartilage of the right ear of the person being cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot, on the place of the blood of the guilt offering.

And what is left over from the oil that is in the kohen’s palm, he shall place upon the head of the person being cleansed, to effect atonement for him, before the Lord.

He shall then perform [the service of] one of the turtle doves or of the young doves, from whatever he can afford, [from] what he can afford, one as a sin offering, and one as a burnt offering, besides the meal offering, and the kohen shall effect atonement for the person being cleansed, before the Lord.

This is the law of one in whom there is a lesion of tzara’ath, who cannot afford [the full array of sacrifices], when he is to be cleansed.” (Leviticus 14:28–32)

I’m confused here. It seems after the guilt offering, a sin, a burnt offering, and a meal offering are done. Enough is enough!

Look, though, at how much care is performed to make sure that the person has been cleansed. Even after the symptoms have gone away from the tzara’ath. My two year old grandson was throwing his food. We took his food away and he promptly stop. So we could now think we solved the problem. But maybe we just removed the symptom of some deeper problem. The ancient Jews were taking no chances.

The proof is in the pudding. The man who had tzara’ath did something far more serious than having a rash. The Jews took indiscretions as a big threat against the community and as something that needed to be dealt with completely. You have a cockroach in your house. You can either step on it and say the job is done, or you can sprinkle boric acid along the baseboards and outside. You won’t see any more after a couple of weeks. That’s what the priest made sure of. Next time, the person will think a little more about their behavior.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Parshat Metzora, 2nd Portion, Leviticus 14:13-20, April 11, 2016

“He shall slaughter the lamb in the place where one slaughters the sin offering and the burnt offering, in a holy place. For regarding the kohen['s service], the guilt offering is like the sin offering. It is a holy of holies.” (Leviticus 14:13)
A couple of things to address here. What is the difference between a guilt and sin offering, and what is the deal about slaughtering animals?


The other word for guilt is trespass. Guilt offerings are for sins against a holy place. Sin offerings are not against a holy place. It seems that some compensation is attached to the action that demanded a guilt offering.

What's interesting is that tzara'ath demanded a guilt offering. 
“And the kohen shall take one [male] lamb and bring it as a guilt offering, along with the log of oil, and wave them as a waving before the Lord.” (Leviticus 14:12)
Having the skin disease was a threat to the “...holy of holies.” This makes the word “trespass” fit well here. Aaron's sons also likely trespassed in some way and God killed them with fire.

Slaughtering Animals

The animals are not slaughtered and left to rot. They feed the priest and family. The Jews were especially careful that the animal would not unduly suffer. I'm curious if they believed that an animal who gave their life (not willingly, I'm sure) for an offering would be particularly blessed because its life had an important purpose. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Parshat Metzora, 1st Portion, Leviticus 14:1–12, April 10, 2016

The kohen doesn’t cure the tazria nor was it caused by anyone but the individual themself.*

I say this partly because when the tazria (rash) is gone, the kohen/priest does a guilt offering. If it was caused by God because of something someone did, how could a priest fix it without being God or as acting as an agent as in some other religions.

Is the message here that “bad things don’t happen to good people”? Of course, we know better now.

Two birds are brought for the offering. We assume that they are both birds without flaws. Yet one lives, and one is sacrificed. We should assume that the Jews though that their own lives were worth more than the birds’ lives.

It would be simple to think that the one who flies off is the one who lives. But perhaps being used for a purpose (as a sacrifice to God) is living, and flying off—away from one’s community—is dying. It is interesting that for the exiled man, becoming part of his community is desired, while we think that for the bird, flying off and not becoming a sacrifice is the best choice. Perhaps I'm missing the boat. Time for bed.

Sleeping on this, I realized that both birds have an equally important task. One is burned for God. And the bird that flies off, with the blood from the first bird on its wings, takes the sin off into the heavens. It would have been a cruel joke to threaten both birds with death, and only kill one of them.

At the end of the year Buddhists write down their sins and burn them in a fire. Another example of letting go and being reborn like a phoenix.

Even when the tazria is gone (which is a function of time), the guilt remains. That is what needs to be cleaned up before reentry into the camp.

How does the offering work? Is it a magical potion? I don’t think so. This isn’t herbal medicine or witchcraft. It is the intention and practice that erases the guilt. In other words, and I might be all off here, it would be a kind of idolatry to believe that a concoction in itself could fix guilt. Repair is God’s domain. The priest, too, has no special powers. He just knows the motions to start the ball rolling for the guilt to be removed. Though I understand that blood does have special power, so that is an exception in these offerings. But the blood still isn't a potion that cures the individual. Rather it is a vehicle for the sin to be removed from the individual as the released dove flies into the heavens.

This is not to say that there weren’t healers. There were, and they continued through the ages. But here, God needed to be appeased and the sin needed to go off into the heavens.

P.S. We been having some discussion on Facebook where I post these ( about what are the scriptures... is it the painting (Torah), or is it how people live it (Oral Torah)? “To see it at all, you had to be there. In a way, he [Robert Irwin] was proposing a new kind of “action painting.” The action in his version was generated not by the hand of the artist and embodied in frozen strokes of paint, but by the mind and eye of the viewer, approaching art, taking it in and reacting to it in real time.” —Holland Cotter/NYTimes

P.S.S. Going back to the house with Tazria... Rabbi Baker says that “the Rabbis teach that the home is a “mikdash me’at,” a sanctuary (or altar) in miniature,” hence the concern that it was “clean.”

P.S.S.S. *—some say “themself” is not a word. It is a funny contradiction, as them suggests more than one, so how can there be a singular? But be assured that it was used as early as the 14th century and is now being revived.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Parshat Tazria, 7th Portion, Leviticus 13:55–59, April 9, 2016

I like the idea that you can’t have a mirror in the foyer of a synagogue because the focus should be on God. The entire pure/impure or clean/unclean (depending on the translation) is really about eligible/ineligible for temple work. When we go to the temple, we shouldn’t be thinking about ourselves, but rather about God. When we show our skin ailments to the priest, we see if we are ready for God.

After finished the requirements for examining the affections of the skin, the priest moves to examine our clothes. Ignoring our insides (which really what this is all about), we learn that everything we bring to the temple needs to be clean. Elsewhere we read about tzara-at on the walls of our house, so what are the walls ineligible for doing? I read that sometimes the stones on which the house is built sometimes need to be burned.

This may not be about medicine, but it is about how deep our digressions go, or, better said, how much we affect our external world. The saying, “No man is an island,” suggests that we have a wide range of influence on our environment.

When we give advice, we sometimes “couch” the criticism so it will be easier to take. I think that is the case here. It only speaks of our external imperfections, but we all know that it is the internal that most often affects the outside.

Not only does the priest fully examine the individual and their clothes, but a process is created to set the person back into the camp/community as soon as possible. Compassion guides the process—compassion to uphold the Torah, to protect the community and the individual, and to enhance the spiritual growth of all involved.

“This is the law of a lesion of tzara’ath on a woolen or linen garment, warp or woof threads, or any leather article, to render it clean or unclean.” (Leviticus 12:59)

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Parshat Tazria, 6th Portion, Leviticus 13:40-54, April 8, 2016

A dermatologist pointed out the shame one feels when they have a rash. We had a neighbor with such a condition who wouldn't let people see her until she had 1/4 inch of makeup on. So I started thinking that the priest was being compassionate when he would exile people with such rashes. But the Torah has an interesting habit of teasing you with an easy solution, and then pulling the rug out from under you. 

At one point if the rash completely covers the body, the individual is “clean” but if they only have a spot they are ”unclean.” Uniformity is highly prized, as is the red heifer without a spot.
“And the person with tzara'ath, in whom there is the lesion, his garments shall be torn, his head shall be unshorn (hair uncut), he shall cover himself down to his mustache and call out, "Unclean! Unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45)
What do we do with this? Sounds a little like wearing a scarlet letter, doesn't it? The covering himself down to his mustache is like a mourner. What is he mourning? Is this done so everyone will stay away from him? Is he foregoing his own shame and embarrassment to save others?
“All the days the lesion is upon him, he shall remain unclean. He is unclean; he shall dwell isolated; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”  (Leviticus 13:46)
I understand that some who are removed from the camp congregate, but with this lesion, he shall be isolated. Is it because the act that he did to get the lesion was so bad that the priest was afraid he would further infect the already exiled?

P.S. I made the claim today (and probably many times before) that religions are very much the same. It is one of those arguments where you can take either side and make a good case. Boys and girls are very similar compared to elephants and ants. And they are very different compared to two boys. My goal is that we don't think we are right or special. I like the statement, “there are many ways of skinning a cat.” Parallels abound. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

Parshat Tazria, 5th Portion, Leviticus 29-39, April 7, 2016

“If a man or a woman has a lesion on the head or on the beard [area], the kohen shall look at the lesion, and, behold! its appearance is deeper than the skin, and in it is a thin golden yellow hair, the kohen shall pronounce him unclean. It is a nethek, which is tzara'ath of the head or the beard.

But when the kohen looks at the nethek lesion, and, behold! its appearance is not deeper than the skin, and there is no black hair in it, the kohen shall quarantine [the person with] the nethek lesion for seven days.” (Leviticus 13:29-39)
Some new thoughts here. I think the Priest/Torah is looking at these external flaws because they are easier to see and admit than our internal flaws. It was easy for me to admit that my arm hurt when I reached for something, while not so easy to admit that my mind in not agile when someone tells me to change what I'm thinking or doing.

The priest is not really our significant examiner, but really ourselves. Old cars had a governor. It limited the speed they could go. We are our worse governor. Waves of self-doubt impinge on us more than the judgements of others. We are our worst critic sometimes.

I spoke with a rabbi about these Torah portions today. He mentioned that there are usually two things that the priest looks for when trying to determine if the person should be in or out of the community. I mentioned that to be killed for murdering someone there needs to be two witnesses... and they have to warn the murderer before hand (but that warning doesn't relate here). Collaboration is important in the law.

The rabbi continued that he had heard a talk about this section of the Torah, and that the speaker spoke of the great diversity in skin color among the Jews at this time... and that multiple clues were necessary to determine if the priests were looking at an affliction or at the person's normal looking skin.

Then we talked about borderline situations, where the priest would be on the fence whether you were ready to be part of a community or not part of a community. The extremes are easy, the borderline situations are harder. After you send the kid to the cloak room when they were bad, you need to see multiple clues to see if they were ready to come back to the room. My two-year-old grandson has been throwing food at school. They might stop giving him food. How do they determine when they can give him food again? How many indicators do they need?

Then I asked who the priest was trying to protect, the community or the individual. Both, he answered. Later I asked a friend who told me that he thought the priest was giving the people time to grow. Sometimes that is hard to do in a community. I liked that idea better.

When John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” he was focusing on the community being more important than the individual. The problem with this is you could end up with a community where no one's needs are met. Ayn Rand, on the other hand, wrote, “I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” which epitomizes the other end of the spectrum, where the rights of the individual supersede all others. This too has it problems, creating a society where everyone is being stepped on. The middle way seems to be when both the rights of the individual and the community are looked after, as the priest is doing.

P.S. In Torah study today, we never got to the Torah. Someone asked the question about how could they explain to their husband the magic of the sacrifices. Their husband was a doctor, and didn't rely on magic for treating people. The rabbi made a distinction between the simple people who take the bible literally, and the modern people who do not. For the modern, there is no man behind the curtain pulling strings. And he talked of the human realm and the divine realm. I suggested after the class that I see the two as one. He was at first fine with that, but then suggested that I shouldn't see them as the same. I told him about how in Buddhism we spoke of small mind/big mind and how they were both the same and different. I also mentioned the Buddhist adage, “not one, not two.” See: and if you really want more: He reminded me to read again Martin Buber (I assume, I and Thou).

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Parshat Tazria, 4th Portion, Leviticus 13:24-28, April 6, 2016

“...the kohen shall look at it. And, behold! the hair has turned white in the bahereth, and its appearance is deeper than the skin, it is tzara'ath which has spread in the burn. So, the kohen shall pronounce him unclean. It is a lesion of tzara'ath.   

But, if the kohen looks at it, and, behold! there is no white hair in the bahereth, and it is not lower than the skin and it is dim, the kohen shall quarantine him for seven days.”  (Leviticus 13:30-31)
Today I'm reading that this all about examination. The kohen looks carefully at the subject. There seems to be a difference when the affliction (called by some an affection) is below or above the skin. Sometimes we stray (or, in Buddhism, leak) and it isn't really us. We might “tell someone off” but it isn't something that we ordinarily do. That would be something on the surface. At other times, we have bad habits that repeat themselves day in and day out.

So the kohen looks very carefully at the skin and the hair, and tries to determine how deep the problem is. Is it something that can be dismissed and the person can return to the community, or is it a more serious problem which necessitates a “time out”?

Is the kohen really looking at the skin, or at the entire person? Is the kohen attempting to protect the person or the community? Did God cause the affection?

I write to prisoners to encourage them on their Buddhist path. They have been set outside the community for a specified amount of time. A jury or judge decided the extent of their affliction. One prisoner wants to write a book about restorative justice. He says he just read the Torah.

It appears that time is the main medicine for both the afflicted and the prisoners. Now we give people a pill or a shot when they have a rash. We say that these are good people who either acted poorly, or were the victim of bad luck. In either case, they don't meet the standards for temple practice.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Parshat Tazria, 3rd Portion, Leviticus 13:18-23, April 5, 2016

“If [a person’s] flesh has an inflammation on its skin, and it heals,

and on the place of the inflammation there is a white se’eith, or a reddish white bahereth, it shall be shown to the kohen.

The kohen shall look [at it]. And, behold! its appearance is lower than the skin, and its hair has turned white; so the kohen shall pronounce him unclean. It is a lesion of tzara’ath that has erupted on the inflammation.

But if the kohen looks at it, and behold! it does not contain white hair, nor does it appear to be lower than the skin, and it is dim, the kohen shall quarantine him for seven days.

And if it spreads on the skin, the kohen shall pronounce him unclean. It is a lesion.”(Leviticus 13:8-22)
What I’m beginning to see here is that the examination has to do with determining the cause of the injury. It is not that all inflammations are caused by god. Some are caused by burning, some by whipping, some by injury, and some by God.

The main concern here is not with the individual, but with the community and the temple. The priest wants to be sure that neither will be tainted by the “eruption.” There is an acknowledgment that some injuries come from carelessness, some from accidents, some from punishment, and some from the anger of God. This almost obsessive examination by the priest is an effort to determine the source of the affliction.

The Holocaust has led some Jews to question their faith. Could a God who is able to cause a succession of plagues actually allow such atrocities to occur? In fact, in the old Torah, published in 1917, the word “plague” is used for the afflictions of the skin. 

This morning my walking partner complained about his heal hurting. Perhaps in ancient times he’d go to a priest to determine the cause of the pain. Was it an accident? Had he angered God? Had he been tortured for some evil deed? Was it a burn?  

Perhaps we could avoid afflictions if we examined the cause. 90% of afflictions will get better on their own. Still, we want to reduce their numbers and we want to preserve the community and the temple while we are recovering. Perhaps when one is afflicted they aren’t able to give what is due to others. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Parshat Tazria, 2nd Portion, Leviticus 13:6-17, April 4, 2016

“And the kohen shall see him on the seventh day a second time. And, behold! the lesion has become dimmer, and the lesion has not spread on the skin, the kohen shall pronounce him clean. It is a mispachath. He shall immerse his garments and become clean.” (Leviticus 13:6)
This portion is about Tzara-at, that some people in the past have erroneously thought to be leprosy. It is not. This would get better, unlike leprosy at that time. The suspected area would turn white, supposedly because God cut off circulation because of the way one had behaved.

As I read about this portion, I learned:

1) That one doesn’t not have tzara-at until the priest says he or she does. Sometimes before a festival the priest will not look for it so that the person can participate in the festival. This is similar to our “innocent until proven guilty.”

2) The priest was not a doctor, nor was this thought to be a medical affliction. It was thought to be an expression of God’s anger, perhaps because the person engaged in hostile talk or gossip. At one point, Moses attempts to prove God to the Pharaoh by having some tzara-at on his hand and then having it disappear.

3) Even walls in houses would get the disease. This is further proof that it was not a human disease.

4) Again, unclean is not fit for the temple or ritual practice, or in this case, necessitating removal from society. 

5) Medicine was not shunned, but there seemed to be some confusion between what ills were caused by God and what were a disease. It is interesting that Freud’s theories seem to overlap this ancient thinking, i.e. that diseases (esp. mental) are created by our psyche.

6) The moral lesson here is that when one behaves badly God is angered and makes us unclean. One of the cleansing agents here is time. We are not eternal sinners. We had behaved poorly and now we need to clean up our act. First step is recognition of the infliction by the kohen, then some time out from society. I take it that the person is not afflicted for life, as prisoners of felonies are in our society. They are deemed clean at some point and are then equal to anyone else.

7) The ancients were stuck between a rock and a hard place in regard to illnesses and medical treatment. They didn’t want to encourage shaman practices, though there are many examples of healers in the Torah and thereafter. But the question remains: if you can get sick from bad behavior, can you get well from medicine, or only from God?

Parshat Tazria, 1st Portion, Leviticus 12:1-13:5, April 3, 2016

Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean.

5And if she gives birth to a female, she shall be unclean for two weeks, like her menstruation [period]. And for sixty six days, she shall remain in the blood of purity.

For many, this is a push my button passage, where we see that a woman is seen as unclean longer when she gives birth to a girl than a boy.

Thoughts rage through our heads. Is it better to have a boy than a girl? Are boys better than girls? Is it a sin to have children (who make a woman unclean).

Are these verses written from compassion or indifference? I can hear many, myself included, thinking, “you have got to be kidding!”

Tumah is the Hebrew word for impurity. It means that a person with who has contracted tumah is tamei, and are not suitable to certain holy activities. But why the difference between giving birth to one sex rather than another?

Supposedly it takes a week for the mother to recover in both cases, but their responsibility is greater with a girl because they have to model being a woman. It is the men who model being a man (obviously). So, out of compassion, she is given another week.

I think this is a good example of how, when we hear the entire story, we change our mind. 

In a larger sense, giving equally to two people is not so easy. Some people consider $20,000 a great deal of money, and others consider it louse change. What makes the difference? The relative value of the amount to each person. 

We tend to judge before we know all the facts. And then we hear the whole story and we change our mind. Is there a bigger teaching lesson here... that it is not always the obvious answer that is the correct answer?

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Parshat Shemini, 7th Portion, Leviticus 11:33-47, April 2, 2016

This seems to be a good discussion of the different  theories about the kosher diet. Different reasons are put forth and then sometimes dismissed. 

In Buddhism we talk about not being attached to our preferences. In Judaism I get a sense that the opposite is true—that we are encourage to be attached.

There are many examples in the Talmud how what appeared to be black and white ended up to be colored with 50 shades of gray. 

This gives the Jew a lot of autonomy. They are told exactly what to do except if they are met with an exceptional situation, which I suspect is a frequent case.

I understand too that clean and unclean are not about sin, but whether a person is ready for the temple and Torah study. We take a shower, but does that really make us clean? What about apologizing to people that we have harmed? How about thanking people who help us? And the story goes on and on. I heard once that your closet and the trunk of your car are a portrait of who you are. Are they clean? Are they ready to study the Torah or to pray?

To me, this is a mindfulness practice. We do this, but not that. We eat this, but not then. And we need to wake up and watch our actions. “The unclean animals,” says Arama, “cause coarseness and dulness of the soul.” This quote was from the article link above.

P.S. Perhaps all the exceptions in the Talmud suggest that one should not be attached to their preferences. For example, the bitter herb to eat for Passover should be lettuce (which goes from sweet to bitter as it ages like the Jews' experience was in Egypt). But if lettuce is not available then many other herbs will suffice... and today, many use horseradish, which isn't approved. The important thing is to engage in the practice, even if you can't have it the “perfect” way.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Parshat Shemini, 6th Portion, Leviticus 11:1-32, April 1, 2016

Why do the Jews have special rules?

Why did God make animals not fit for eating?

Ok... I don't know what to say about food. My arm hurts from a recent surgery and I'd just like to take a pain pill and go to bed.

I've never kept kosher a day in my life, and most of the last 25 years I've been a vegan, which means I essentially ate a kosher diet without being kosher, for my intent was not to separate myself from gentiles (non-Jews), but not to eat meat or dairy for a variety of reasons. Now I'm eating meat... just until I get to remove my sling. I had a feeling that meat would make my arm heal faster.

Food has been an obsession in my life, from one list of eating rules to another. I remember calling my grandmother from college and her first question was, “what are you eating?” When I said, "Brown rice and peaches," she told me that was wrong. My mom was obscessed with food as well and didn't miss a new fad diet.

The other day I offered to get a carpenter some tacos and I was so surprised that he said, "I'll eat anything."

Does my food pickyness come from my Jewish heritage?

Where I'm mostly interested in thought, much of my life seems tied up in caring for my body. How do these two connect? 

When the body doesn't function then the mind can't do its job. Socrates thought death would be ideal for the philosopher because the desires of the body take one away from their thoughts.

We don't eat birds like the vulture because they are scavengers. They might have eaten anything. We sometimes think that the dietary laws make logical sense. Many don't, especially considering the medical knowledge of the day.

The meal in Judaism is special and the Torah should always be discussed (when I try, I often see eyes roll). The selection of food is a means to separate the Jews from others (for better or for worse). It is also a means of being mindful about the feeding of the body. As an extension of this, one might become mindful of their care of the Earth, which feeds us as well. 

I will continue about food as more discussion continues in the Torah about the kosher laws.