Archive | D’var Torah

Familiar verses of the Priestly Benediction interpreted

Posted on 14 June 2019 by admin

This week’s portion, Parashat Naso, includes a section that I’ll make a bet everyone reading this column has heard multiple times before: the last six verses of Numbers, Chapter 6, the Priestly Benediction.
In my own translation it says: “God said to Moses: say to Aaron and his sons: ‘Thus shall all y’all bless the Children of Israel. May God bless you and guard you. May God’s face radiate upon you and be gracious to you. May God’s face be lifted up to you and put upon you peace.
“That way, they will put My name on the Children of Israel and I will bless them.’”
Note: “all y’all” may be a Southernism, but since ‘you’ in English can be either singular or plural, it’s actually very useful to use “all y’all” to indicate “you” plural, just as it is indicated to be plural in the Hebrew.
This blessing is a specific formula for the priests to use, and to this day in a traditional congregation, anyone who is a Kohen will come to the front and recite this blessing in a ceremony called duchening. It is from the ceremony of duchening that Leonard Nimoy took his “live long and prosper” hand gesture. The hands are spread like the letter shin — standing for “Shaddai,” a name of God — and the blessing is given.
The first blessing is: “May God bless you and keep you, guard you, protect you.” This is where my translation is a little squishy. But then again, all translation is interpretation, so we should expect a little squishiness. There’s a sense, though that God will make sure bad things don’t happen to you. The only question is, what bad things — and how will God make sure those bad things don’t happen?
The second blessing is: “May God’s face radiate, shine upon you and be gracious to you.” I have a sense that having God’s face shine on you is pretty good, but again, I don’t have an exact idea what a shining face is supposed to be.
The third blessing is: “May God’s face be lifted up on you, favor you, think you’re special and give you peace.” Clearly there’s a difference between God’s face shining on you and being lifted up on you, but what that difference is exactly, isn’t always clear.
The part that I’m really interested in is the last sentence that isn’t spoken: “They shall put My name on the Children of Israel and I shall bless them.” Think how extraordinary that truly is. The priests put the name of God on the people, and then God will bless them. God blesses the people through the action of the priests. God acts through human action. We act in God’s name and God’s blessing comes forth.
When we help people and protect them from harm, God blesses that action. When we bring light to people’s lives — dispelling the darkness of despair and pain — God blesses that action. When we lift people up out of the depths in which they are mired — when we restore people to a sense of wholeness and peace — God blesses that action. When we act in God’s name, God blesses us all. Our hands are God’s hands, bringing blessing to the world.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Love: appreciating others’ unique traits

Posted on 31 May 2019 by admin

During this seven-week period of counting the Omer, also a preparation for receiving the Torah on the festival of Shavuot, we place extra focus on character development. In this spirit, there is a widespread custom to study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) each Shabbat afternoon — a section of the Mishnah devoted to personal refinement, beyond the letter of the law.
In the Jewish mystical system, every person’s soul comprises seven middot (character attributes) — which form the template for emotive responses of the heart and instinctive character features that manifest in our demeanor. These seven weeks, we employ our faculty of da’at (knowledge in the form of identification) to create greater consciousness within our life to polish our distinct emotions and get them working together. This process is called tikkun hamidot (“character rectification”).
Each middah (lit. measurement) has a specific way of functioning and benefit. The first of these attributes is called chesed (kindness), whose inner essence is ahavah (love). Love is the prime emotion of the heart that also nurtures the other properties into maturity to promote a complete personality development. This inner force of expansion creates a feeling of attraction toward another, resulting in a sense of closeness and unity.
‘All You Need is Love’
Love is the thread that binds us to those people most dear. It nurtures important relationships — whether between friends, spouses, children and parents, or the love for our Creator — and helps these interactions to thrive. The powerful emotion has no limitations, transcending boundaries of time and place. In the Torah itself, there are explicit commandments stressing the importance of creating an active well-developed love inside: whether to “love your neighbor as yourself,” or to love God — “with all your heart, all your soul and with all your might.”
What drives the feeling of love? Sometimes love stems from the recognition of a striking or admirable quality. Here, the mind guides the heart; the more aware we are of these virtues, the stronger the pull. Other times, love is not provoked by any perception, but stems from a more innate bond. Ask a parent, for example, why they love their child. Even when the parent can list many exceptional qualities that the child possesses, it’s not any specific talent or virtue which serves as the ultimate cause for the love; the why transcends reason—it’s simply because “this is my child.”
Ideally, in those areas where we decide to channel our love, we want the emotion to be pure, free of any external factors. At the same time, there may be an advantage to using the mind to recognize special qualities and enhance the love.
The Mishnah
This Shabbat, the Chapter in Pirkei Avot contains a Mishnah (5:16) which discusses these two types of love: “Any love that is dependent on something — when the thing ceases, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases. What is [an example of] a love that is dependent on something? The love of Amnon for Tamar. And one that is not dependent on anything? The love of David and Jonathan.”
At first glance, the Mishnah seems to contain no novel teachings, only stating an obvious rule: Love born from an attraction to a specific quality will disappear whenever that quality disappears whereas a love that is not tied to any perceived advantage will endure. Indeed, everyone is familiar with the concept of conditional and unconditional love — so why are illustrations even necessary? Furthermore, of all the characters (and relationships) in Jewish literature, why were these two cases chosen as examples?
A precise analysis of the Hebrew word for “dependent,” however, reveals a hidden lesson wherein the Mishnah is not referring to what originally prompted the emotion but to the present status. Whenever the feeling of love is currently tied to a specific appreciation in the other — even if it was once unconditional love — there is a risk: If that feature ceases, so will the love. From the other angle, even when love was originally tied to some superficial appreciation or gain, it can evolve into an essential love. In other words, if right now the love is independent of any condition, regardless of its starting point, then it can possess that enduring power.
To emphasize this novelty, the Mishnah brings these specific examples from Tanach: one containing an innate love which changed into a superficial love and another where friendship transformed into unconditional love.
Some people may think along the lines of the old English proverb, “blood is thicker than water,” that family bonds are stronger than those of outside relationships, such as friendship or acquired love. As a result, they may be lax in building that love among the family members, taking these relationships for granted. Alternatively, people may be so focused on themselves and their family unit, creating an imaginary dynasty, that they neglect the opportunity to strengthen relationships outside.
So, the Mishnah provides an example wherein the love of Amnon and Tamar, his sister, was an essential love but the emotion disappeared when circumstances changed. An innate bond between siblings reverted to that of strangers. Conversely, we find a story of a friendship where the bond was so deep that it became like family. “After David finished speaking to Shaul, Jonathan’s soul became joined to David’s soul, and Jonathan loved him as himself” (Samuel 1, 1:18).
The lesson from the Mishnah is that we must pinpoint our most cherished relationships (in multiple areas) and be conscious of what is presently fueling that bond. Love, regardless of the starting point, needs to be practiced and nurtured. The goal is to increase our tangible appreciation of the other’s unique traits, while ensuring that the essential force behind that love should not be tied to what we find attractive or beneficial — the gain — but independent of any virtue.

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Freedom and liberty for all, not just some

Posted on 23 May 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, is famous for lending a verse to the Liberty Bell and I wanted to focus on that aspect of the Jubilee Year. Leviticus 25:10 states: “And you shall hallow the 50th year. You shall proclaim liberty (in Hebrew, d’ror) throughout the land for all its inhabitants. [This is the famous sentence inscribed on the Liberty Bell.] It shall be a Jubilee for you: Each of you shall return to his holding; each of you shall return to his family.”

The question is: Why is the word d’ror, liberty, used instead of the more common chofshi, which is most often translated in the sense of freedom? Rabbi Avraham Bedersi, who lived at the end of the 13th century in Southern France, explained: “Both terms are antonyms of bondage, but d’ror surpasses the other in that it denotes clarity and purity, i.e., anything free of dross and corruption.” That is, if you are set free — the word chofshi — there may be some qualifications to it. How will you feed, clothe and house yourself, if you are merely set free without any resources to support yourself?

Someone who is set free in this way would soon find it necessary to sell themselves back into slavery, just to survive. However, in the Jubilee year, when liberty is proclaimed, everyone goes back to the land they originally owned, and their families. There are no qualifications to the liberty of personal freedom, with the chance to earn your own keep with your own land and the support of your own family.

The purity of liberty is further emphasized with the phrase in the verse which speaks of proclaiming liberty “for all its inhabitants.” Note that liberty is not for a select few. It’s not just for Jews. Liberty is for all.

Penei Yehoshua, a famous 18th-century rabbi and commentator, emphasizes this point: “The Torah does not address ‘all the slaves’ but ‘all the inhabitants,’ because in any country where freedom is incomplete, even if this is the case with only some of the people, all the people are enslaved. One only feels freedom when there is no slavery whatsoever in the country. Slavery is an affliction which afflicts both slave and master. Our sages said something along these same lines when they state that ‘he who acquires a slave for himself acquires a master for himself.’”

How many times have we, as Jews, been the exception to the rule, the incomplete part of freedom? Not so long ago, anyone could go to college, except for blacks who were excluded or Jews who were limited by quota. We have the freedom in America to worship as we please, yet not so long ago the city of Beachwood, Ohio, fought to keep Fairmount Temple, my temple before I became a rabbi, from locating in Beachwood. The case had to go to the Ohio Supreme Court to allow them to build.

What God is trying to tell us with the use in this verse of the word d’ror, is that society will never truly have liberty so long as we have exceptions, people who are excluded for whatever reason from the full rights and freedoms the rest of us enjoy. We must have and pursue complete and pure freedom for all the inhabitants of our country, without exceptions. Then and only then will true liberty be proclaimed throughout the land.

Bimheira uvyameinu. May it happen speedily and in our days.

Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Emor: Kohanim set example for education

Posted on 20 May 2019 by admin

Laws related to the Kohanim (Priests) occupy much of the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus). Hence, the rabbis refer to Leviticus as Torat Kohanim — the Torah (Laws) of the Priests. While both this week’s Torah and Haftorah portions follow this theme, they seem to introduce a dissimilitude.
Ezekiel, the prophet, seems to assign different responsibilities to the Kohanim, ones that seem to contradict the Torah.
The last verse of the Haftorah states that Kohanim may not eat the beast or fowl that dies on its own, or is torn to pieces.
Do these regulations pertain only to the priests? Surely, every Jew must refrain from eating meat not ritually slaughtered, or nonkosher meat. Did Ezekiel mean that the priests were to be the religious professionals? Was it to be their sole responsibility?
Indeed, there were periods in Jewish history when the Kohanim stood out as guardians of Jewish tradition. Aaron tried to resist attempts to make an idol at Mount Sinai. Mattityahu led the rebellion of the Maccabees against the Greek-Syrians and the Hellenists.
Yet there were times when the Kohanim led and inspired the people away from God. The prophets railed against the priests during the First Temple. The House of Tzadok, mentioned in this week’s Haftorah, was the backbone of the Sadducees, who sought to undermine Jewish life during the Second Commonwealth.
Yes, the Kohanim were to lead by example. But, by no means were they to be the sole practitioners of Jewish observance. Rather, this was the responsibility of all.
In this week’s portion of Emor, the Kohanim are directed to educate their young. Only then could they inspire the people. Likewise, educating the young is necessary for all segments of the Jewish nation. It is not merely for Kohanim or professionals, but for everyone.
Parents today must often make decisions about their children’s well-being. The most important decision a parent must make about a child’s education is — to which high school to send him or her.
More important than a day school education is a high school education. We know, both statistically and anecdotally, that the high school years make the biggest impact on a youngster. No boy or girl is immune to outside values and pressures. A child must have a rich reservoir of Jewish values to draw from as he or she begins to make critical lifestyle decisions. We are accustomed to our young people receiving a college education, and beyond. Jewish education and the ability to instruct its values in life cannot lag behind.
Studies show us that a child who receives a Jewish education through high school is more likely to live a Jewish life, and far less likely to intermarry.
If a Jewish high school education is followed by a year of study in Israel — then the intermarriage rate drops drastically.
In a time when, painfully, the rates of intermarriage and assimilation are above 50 percent, investing in a Jewish high school education is a modest price, indeed.
Rashi explains that the adult Kohanim were warned to educate their new generation of Kohanim. Nowadays we are all Kohanim — “And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” We must all make this commitment.
While there are certainly no insurance policies for the future, a Jewish high school education is certainly the closest we can get to assure a vibrant Jewish future.
We are fortunate that in Dallas we have several Jewish high schools from which to choose. We must allow our sons and daughters to benefit from these Jewish opportunities.
Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Wolk is community chaplain at Jewish Family Service and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaare Tefilla.

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Cleansing the soul during Pesach

Posted on 25 April 2019 by admin

By Rabbi Michael Kushnick

Preparing for Pesach requires an incredible amount of time and energy. Shopping, cleaning, kashering and cooking are just a few of the tasks that must be completed before the holiday begins. There is a significant concern for ridding every part of our home of chametz (leavening) during the preparation. The different methods of removing chametz from our homes might be tedious, but the work needed to accomplish this makes a lot of sense. We become obsessed with removing physical chametz. In fact we rid ourselves of chametz in three ways: By selling it by searching for and burning it; and finally, by declaring that anything left is no longer ours. By following this process, we not only remove chametz from our homes, we also gain a spiritual insight into our lives.
The rabbis suggest that chametz transcends the physical world. Chametz also symbolizes the puffiness of the self; an inflated personality and an enlarged ego. To some degree, everyone has these traits. It is human nature to experience these feelings, but it is not good; it harms others as well as ourselves. What if, during the preparation, we were as obsessed with ridding our own bodies of chametz as we are with removing it from our homes? Just like in the home, when we find one crumb of chametz and quickly search for the next, so too in your soul, when you find one instance of chametz — of inflated ego — quickly search for the next instance. Try to dig deep inside your soul by focusing on your conduct since the previous Passover. Isolate the occasions during which you might have acted with an inflated ego, and make a list of those occasions. The list should help you understand a pattern, know if you’ve wronged someone else, and how to repair that wrongdoing. It is hard work, but it is necessary work.
Let’s not lose sight of what Pesach is truly about: Ridding all chametz — both spiritual and physical — from the world. When we do this, we can be the holy people that God brought out of Egypt.
Next year, may we be free from all forms of an inflated self and ego, and truly live as free people.
Rabbi Michael Kushnick has served at Congregation Anshai Torah in Plano since 2013.

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High Holidays, repentance; Pesach, education

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Growing up in Dallas, and attending one of the area’s largest synagogues, each holiday had its own distinct flavor and associations. The High Holidays represented a tedious mental marathon — staying hours in shul — with a few rest stops. We, the elementary school children, sat next to our parents in a packed room, antsy and confused by the complex service, while a visiting cantor chanted solemn psalms in unfamiliar melodies.
The rabbi’s sermon usually entailed a theatrical demonstration of intelligence that centered on a select theme, carefully injected with witty quotes and an unhealthy dose of personal political commentary, that tickled sympathizers, while infuriating certain intellectuals.
Shortly before the sermon, anticipating the upcoming stretch of boredom, we pleaded with our parents for a bathroom break. If they agreed, we quickly headed for the exit before the two men closest to the exit could lock us in. Once the sermon began, we were trapped. But outside the sanctuary doors, we felt free.
Roaming the empty halls with fresh excitement, we met up with friends, a gathering of kids from different schools around Dallas, who had also managed to escape. The fun lasted until one of the older members of the congregation spotted us laughing and socializing. He then marched down the hall, shouting and scolding the group for being outside the sanctuary (or youth classes), and did his best to chase each kid back from where they came. So went the High Holidays, year after year.
The Pesach Seder carried an entirely different vibe; it was our chance to participate. Even within the familiar passages of the Haggadah, there was always room for investigation and fresh insights. Though the event ran long, it imparted a unique Jewish experience, far more profound than steaming matzo ball soup or the 10 plagues with colorful props. It was a night of adventure, where we were transported in time. Imagination merged with ancient mystical memories. If the dogs suddenly barked during the meal, we half-joked it was because Elijah the Prophet must have entered the house for his cup of wine. As the evening wound down and I listened to my father lead the “benching” (Birkat Hamazon, Grace after Meals) at the top of his lungs, I wondered if, one day, I’d be able to do the same for my family and guests.
Indeed, Pesach is considered the prime opportunity for education. On Pesach, the focus is on teaching the children, connecting to our past and planting seeds for the future.
The focus on children
There are many rituals to fulfill on Pesach night — eating matzo, drinking four cups of wine, bitter herbs, telling the Exodus story well. One of the first and most memorable acts, however, is the dipping in salt water, a custom instituted to awaken the children’s curiosity. The rest of the remaining rituals, likewise, offer a multisensory, interactive, hands-on learning experience — the building blocks of early education.
Keeping the children’s interest and providing them with a fun experience at the table is only the first step. The real concern is what significant long-term messages we want to impart. One obvious objective is to reinforce the collective destiny — the struggle to emerge from a people of slaves to a nation of Torah scholars.
This generation is fortunately a step or two removed from the hardships of war times, and certainly the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt. Freedoms are easily taken for granted. As hosts and parents, we must therefore devote time to prepare before the holiday, then be considerate and creative in selecting which excerpts of the Haggadah to unravel, while ensuring all key mitzvot are fulfilled. The practical and challenging goal is to expound without letting the evening drag.
The main point of emphasis is cheirut — freedom. Freedom means different things to different people, but there is one aspect of freedom that is replayed in Jewish literature, and has nothing to do with physical comforts. A well-known but puzzling statement in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) stands out: “There is no free individual, except for someone who labors in Torah study.”
At first glance, this statement conveys that, through knowledge and wisdom, a person is set free, reminiscent of the line “the truth will set you free.” But knowledge itself is incomplete without parallel emotional growth and action. Perhaps the statement in Pirkei Avot refers more to one’s commitment to set aside time, throughout a busy year, to explore our rich heritage.
Laboring and feeling free appear to be contradictory. The long, hard Seder night contains an important lesson, both for adult and child. In Torah, a meaningful life involves embracing the grind and challenging yourself to grow, to be better and do more (in a spiritual context it’s called avodah).
I have noticed that people — especially “mystics,” guides or motivators who preach “living each day to the fullest” — often have no children to take care of, no sense of community, responsibility, or loyalty to a higher purpose. They choose to travel rather than host, partake rather than create. Their contrived raison d’être is simply to absorb the sights and sounds of the wonderful world around them — and take one giant vacation from worthwhile struggle.
The soul’s freedom and highest fulfillment is in giving. Her pleasure comes from progressing, and pain comes from inactivity. True joy is the result of working to change yourself and to heal the world in some part (tikkun olam), while sadness comes when we sense stagnation. So, when in someone’s pursuits, the primary focus becomes on retreat, relaxation time and mindfulness meditations, wherein the soul is only taking — something is subtly wrong. They sink deeper into the pits, a pleasant spiritual demise. All the while, the soul craves meaningful toil and mitzvahs.
Freedom stems from a connection to who you are and your purpose, despite the confines of a difficult external situation. But to get acquainted with yourself demands knowing your roots and where you’re going. Hence, the emphasis on learning Torah.
While we measure our High Holiday accomplishments by the level of repentance and resolutions, a successful Pesach rests in education and engaging discussion.

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Another perspective on palliative pain control

Posted on 11 April 2019 by admin

By Cantor Sheri Allen

I read with great interest Rabbi Fried’s response to “Yuri, M.D.” regarding whether or not pain medication could be administered to a dying patient (in intractable pain) in a dose that would essentially lead to the patient’s immediate death (TJP, March 28, 2019). Rabbi Fried responded that the mitigation of pain is of the highest priority, and as long as the intent was to control pain and not kill the patient, and was administered by a medical professional, then the obligation to not let the patient suffer would take precedence over the risk that the patient might die, or his/her death might be hastened, as a result of the increased dosage. He reasons, “We are only allowed to take a risk to take the patient out of his or her suffering, not to administer a medication that would clearly kill the patient or with the intention of hastening his or her death.”
But that was not the scenario that the reader described, so Rabbi Fried concluded, “Your situation would, then, not be permitted, as we never have the license to take the life of a patient, and you said that the physician knows the dose requested by the patient will take his life.” So the answer hinges on intent. And if, in fact, the doctor knew for a fact that the dosage he was about to give would kill the patient, then I would have to concur with Rabbi Fried — he/she is forbidden by halacha and most state laws (with the exception of seven U.S. states and the District of Columbia) to administer the increased dosage.
But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Dr. Robert Fine, clinical director of the Office of Clinical Ethics and Palliative Care for Baylor Scott and White Health in Dallas, states that it is very difficult to determine with certainty how much pain medication will cause a patient’s death. In fact, he sites research that challenges the assumption that administering opioids in the setting of serious illness hastens death, stating, “When administered properly, there is no evidence such medicine kills the patient, and there is some evidence that failure to treat pain hastens death because pain is stressful and stress is harmful. Sure, there is a dose that one can argue one knows is inherently fatal — however it is not clear to me what the dose is in an absolute sense — it will vary from patient to patient. Furthermore, opioids as a means of causing death are so unpredictable that states who execute persons on death row don’t use opioids to carry out the execution. Opioids just aren’t very good drugs for killing people.”
Assuming there is no clear-cut formula for “dosing a patient to death” (unless a doctor was completely negligent and knowingly administered the medication improperly), we can therefore assume that his/her only intent would be to mitigate pain and suffering. After studying this issue, in a teshuvah (ruling) for the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbi Elliot Dorff concludes, “In an attempt to alleviate the severe pain of a person in the last stages of dying, morphine and other pain medications may be administered in doses sufficient to dull the pain, even if this simultaneously hastens the person’s death. The intent to treat is the crucial factor.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Rabbi Fried that “watching the suffering of another is a profoundly difficult thing to endure.” But I don’t necessarily believe that “we need to entrust the suffering of the patient to the just judgment of God.” That’s why humans (with God’s help!) created hospice (full disclosure: I’m a hospice chaplain). The intent of hospice is to provide comfort at the end of life – emotional, social, spiritual and of course physical comfort, the latter of which requires a variety of appropriately dosed medications, including opioids in many cases. If administered correctly, patients will be relieved of their suffering, and family will be spared the pain of witnessing it, and can concentrate on simply being a caring, loving presence for their loved ones.
Sheri Allen is the part-time Cantor for Congregation Beth Shalom, and a chaplain for the Jewish patients at Vitas Healthcare Fort Worth.

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Parashat Tazria: more than skin-deep

Posted on 04 April 2019 by admin

By Cantor Sheri Allen

This Shabbat, we tackle the subject of ritual impurity. No “skin-deep” assessment today — we are going below the surface to explore the exciting world of leprosy.
Chapter 13 of Parashat Tazria begins, “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: If hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure.”
As if the diagnosis wasn’t bad enough, the metzora, or the one afflicted with tzaraat, was commanded to tear his clothes, bare his head, cover his upper lip and publicly warn people of his fate.
When the condition disappeared, a ritual involving birds, blood-sprinkling, cedar wood, hyssop and a good bath and shave were performed, with the leper gradually re-introduced into the community. But, while the individual could enter the camp, he or she had to remain outside his/her tent for seven days. After more washing, blood and oil sprinkling and making offerings, the metzora was finally declared to be pure on the eighth day.
This whole situation, from diagnosis to recovery, must have been a nightmare for the poor victims.
However, the Rabbis settle on an explanation for this seemingly less-than-compassionate treatment of the metzora: He/she deserved it. They linked the words “metzora: leper” with the phrase “motzi (shem) ra.” This, in turn, was translated as “giving someone a bad name/to defame.” They concluded that leprosy must be the direct result of gossiping, or “lashon hara”: literally, an evil tongue. The punishment for spreading the social contagion of hateful words to others was a physically contagious disease requiring isolation.
While it’s important to teach about the evils of gossip, and to put someone under quarantine to avoid an epidemic, the explanation that strict isolation outside of the camp was necessary is questionable. For example, Moshe Sokolow writes, “The Torah term tzaraat is not leprosy. Leprosy is a contagious skin disease that is spread pathologically by bacteria. Tzaraat, while designated an affliction (nega), is neither a disease nor contagious.”
With this in mind, we can determine that the treatment of the metzora seemed cruel and undeserved, especially if the condition wasn’t leprosy and not even contagious. However, the leaders of that time couldn’t have had the knowledge we have today concerning illness.
It is also possible that isolation was a form of protection for the afflicted. If others feared the metzora might be a threat to their survival, isolation would prevent that individual from being harmed.
It is also commendable that the most respected and revered person in the camp, the Kohen, determined when the disease was cured. It was also the Kohen who alone ritually cleansed the leper. By his showing compassionate care and giving his “stamp of approval” that the afflicted was cured, the patient could reclaim his sense of self-worth, and be welcomed back into his community without fear of being ostracized.
So perhaps we can cut the Kohanim some slack. But, we are still on a learning curve when it comes to the stigma of disease. When the AIDS crisis came to the forefront in the 1980s, the initial reaction to this horrible epidemic weren’t all that different from those of our ancestors. There were many who wanted to blame the victims for their illness, and many who didn’t want to have contact with them.
In 1992, an article in the Huffington Post noted that “36 percent of Americans believed AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.” In 2014, that number shrank to 14 percent. Though better, the figure is still troubling.
Going back further in time, health officials blamed the polio epidemic on squalid living conditions, even though the disease didn’t seem to discriminate between the wealthy and the disadvantaged. Additionally, the typhus fever and cholera epidemic that impacted New York City in the late 19th century was blamed on Eastern European Jews coming to America, via Ellis Island.
So let’s circle back to skin diseases. As mentioned earlier, what the Bible defined as leprosy really wasn’t leprosy as we understand it today. It is known as Hansen’s disease; the Center for Disease Control defines it as: “An infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae.” The definition goes on to describe the physical appearance of the disease, that it isn’t easily spread, and, if left untreated, can cause nerve damage, paralysis and blindness.
With quick intervention, this disease, contracted by 150-250 people in the U.S. annually and 250,000 worldwide, is curable. So, theoretically, there should no longer be any calls to isolate those who have it, as was done in biblical times.
But, we hasn’t come as far as we might think. Myths about leprosy persist; the CDC has found it necessary to continue observing “World Leprosy Day” on the last Sunday of January, which the organization has been doing every year since 1954. The CDC noted that, despite effective available treatment, leprosy remains one of the world’s most stigmatized diseases. Those living with leprosy-related disabilities in many countries are discriminated against and denied basic human rights.
So, while we have medical and scientific answers today, our attitudes are often stuck in the Dark Ages. We have a lot to learn about compassion and empathy when it comes to illness, especially outward manifestations of the condition. The physical marks might dissipate, but the inward psychological damage can be much harder to repair.
There is a lot about disease we don’t know. But, we need to take a holistic approach when it comes to dealing with those who are ill. Isolation, unless medically necessary, can do much more damage than the actual disease itself. Although our ancestors’ approach to the metzora — public pronouncement and subsequent isolation — wasn’t the most compassionate, it was likely what was needed for the good of the entire community. Let’s also not forget that, with the Kohen’s approval, the metzora was welcomed back into the community with, I hope, open arms, once the “disease” was gone.
Our responsibility as Jews and as human beings, is to leave our biases, fears and misconceptions at the door and practice the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. Unless contagion is an issue and quarantine necessary, it’s important to provide a physical presence so those who are ill know that they don’t have to suffer alone in silence or shame. That is when the real healing can begin.

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The number 8: higher and completely distinct

Posted on 28 March 2019 by admin

There is a song that children love which has traditionally been inserted at the end of the Passover Seder called Echad Mi Yodea (“Who Knows One?”) But what does this have to do with relating the story of the Exodus from Egypt? Perhaps this popular poem, all about numbers, snuck into the Haggadah because Passover is the ripest time for Jewish education, to impart to the child (and to ourselves) a Torah worldview. Reciting “Who Knows One?” instills a natural association with One God — and likewise, some meaningful content associated with each number in the song.
A name and a number
This week, the number eight is emphasized, as the parasha title, Shemini, means “the eighth”—after the opening words “and it came to pass on the eighth day.” It’s the only Torah portion whose name is a number. And in certain years (outside of Israel), we read this portion a total of eight times.
This eighth day to which it refers follows last week’s instructions to complete a seven-day inaugural process of the Mishkan (sanctuary). The day after was set aside for inducting Aaron and his sons into priesthood, as they began their service. It was also the day on which the presence of God was revealed — when the Shechinah began to reside amongst Israel.
One of the primary commentaries on the Torah, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, known as the “Kli Yakar,” is bothered by the phrase “shemini.” Labeling something the “eighth” in any sequence implies a common feature with the previous seven. The events of this day, however, were not a continuation of a previous seven, but the beginning of a new process. If so, he questions, why was this called “the eighth”? — it should have said something like “the following day” or “the day of revelation.”
Sevenths and eighths
In his answer, rich with insights, he explains that the Torah uses the term “the eighth day” to highlight its extraordinary quality — a day of revelation. He continues to elucidate how the number eight, which often appears in the Tanach in conjunction with the number seven, carries certain connotations: In Jewish thought, the number eight signifies something supernatural, a superior divine disclosure, while the number seven signifies the natural experience and ordinary processes. (The Hebrew word shemini, eight, also shares a root with shemen, which means fat or expanded.)
(This is a recurring theme: There are seven musical notes in any given scale. Our weekly cycle consists of seven days. The symbolic seven-stringed harp of the first two Temples stands in contrast to the eight-stringed harp in Messianic times, when the entire world will reach a higher consciousness, “for the earth shall be filed with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the seabed.” Interestingly, the infinity symbol we use takes the form of a sideways eight.)
The Kli Yakar commentary goes on to explain how the numerical association even manifests in Jewish law where the mitzvah of circumcision supersedes the prohibition of forbidden labors on Shabbat; a brit milah is associated with eight while Shabbat is associated with the number seven — “and the rule is that the sacred takes precedence over the mundane.”
Grades of holiness
While his question on the Torah’s usage of “eighth” is probing, there are two apparent difficulties with his answer provided. First, how can he claim that the seventh day, Shabbat, is part of the mundane? After all, throughout the Torah and prophets we find references to how this spiritual day of rest is permeated with holiness (i.e., “And God blessed the Shabbat day and made it holy,” Exodus 20:11). These verses — which are found in the Kiddush (from the same Hebrew root word as “holy)” — clearly stress the sanctity of the day.
The commentaries clarify that the expression “seven refers to the mundane” is only relative. The “day of rest” is indeed elevated above the other six days in its purpose — it is the completion of the natural order, the holy element within creation. But the number eight signifies a level that is beyond creation — not just higher, but completely distinct.
In other words, there are two general grades of holiness: There is a finite holiness that still has a relationship to the natural order. We can draw down and access this level with our actions — by refining the world through mitzvot. Then there is a more transcendent holiness, too potent to be incorporated within the physical realm (except for certain occasions).
Thus, we can speak of progressive stages: the raw, seemingly ordinary, existence of material; the perfection or holiness reached within the world (reflected by number seven); a holiness that transcends this world, a signal of the world to come (reflected by number eight).
If so, it seems that the Kli Yakar didn’t really answer his question, but instead made it stronger: The number eight is completely beyond the natural order which is controlled with a cycle of seven, and the eighth day was likewise disconnected from the previous seven, a unique occurrence bound up with the infinite.
But his succinct commentary is perhaps addressing an important existential question: How much of what we end up with in life is earned, and how much is due to factors beyond our effort, what we’d call a blessing or a gift? (A relevant subject in physical, economic and spiritual pursuits.)
Gifts and rewards
A reward, such as salary, is usually commensurate with the achievement — the person’s effort and capabilities — and so is in proportion to the quality of the invested. A gift, however, is not an outgrowth of one’s effort, but based on the kindness of the giver. Yet, in certain contexts, there may be a strong connection between the recipient’s actions and the decision of the giver to present that gift.
In our biblical extract, we are being taught a rule that pertains to holiness. There can be a process whereby the cause-and-effect are inherently distinct components, but at the same time specific actions are necessary to trigger remarkable results, “a gift.” Or from a different angle, in a relationship with God — or the global interaction between human effort and divine response — we must put in work, but what we receive in return far surpasses the boundaries of our capabilities and achievements. In numerical symbolism, the level of eight is infinitely higher than seven — so we can never earn eight — yet only when the process of seven is complete does the level of eight arrive.
This theme plays out in many aspects of our lives. Perhaps the best example is a marriage, which entails components of seven and eight. Seven represents our effort, beginning before marriage and continuing throughout. It is also our love and appreciation for a spouse. Eight is the deeper and eternal love, the connection which reaches way beyond any conscious appreciation. The ultimate goal of Jewish marriage — “finding your bashert” — is to transition from seven to eight and uncover the element of eight.
Two souls join in this world, brought together through an unfathomable intricate series of events over generations. On the one hand, a successful marriage can be perceived as a product of all the personal developments and preparation: the investment in trying to understand the way the other person operates and be in tune with their feelings and build a meaningful life together. But in the end, the fruits of their efforts — a sacred bond, the children created and legacy left — stem from a power beyond the boundaries of any joint effort, “the gift” that belongs to the realm of eight.
Whether in personal growth, in a relationship, career goal, or in our spiritual pursuits, we all face challenges and struggles. At times we may feel that the next higher stage is impossible or out of reach. One message from this week is that we must first recognize our task, the responsibility of fixing and refining our part through natural means, a process signified by seven. But when we do our job to attain perfection, we then uncover a force way beyond us that comes into our lives. This is the gift of “the eighth day.”
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

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The flame of Judaism is ours to keep alive forever

Posted on 21 March 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah Portion is Tzav, the second portion in the Book of Leviticus. The portion starts out with a description of the olah, the burnt offering. What I find interesting in the description of the burnt offering is the commandment from Verse 6 that “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” There are many ways that we can metaphorically understand this commandment. Orot Ha-Kodesh as quoted in Itturei Torah suggests one way of interpreting this commandment:
One is forbidden to extinguish the thirst for God which burns in every heart. We are told that a person who extinguishes an ember on the altar has violated the prohibition of “it will never be put out.” This is all the more true for one who extinguishes an ember of the spiritual fire in the spiritual altar — the Jewish heart.
The perpetual fire represents our perpetual yearning for God and our constant devotion to the service of God. The way that I look at the perpetual fire is more as a metaphor for Judaism itself. A fire, even a perpetual one, is constantly changing — flickering, flaring, dying down. Further, a perpetual fire requires perpetual feeding; we must constantly add more fuel to the fire or it burns out.
So too does Judaism perpetually change throughout the ages and so too does Judaism require perpetual feeding by our engaging with Torah and our tradition. In this new light of the metaphorical perpetual fire, we can see the offerings described in Tzav as relevant again to our lives, even though the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed and there have been no sacrifices offered in almost 2,000 years.
The next offering described is the Mincha or grain offering. Part of this daily offering was meant to be burned completely for God, but the remainder was given to the priests to eat. I imagine that the Mincha offering was a staple in the priestly diet since it was offered daily, and was probably a large portion of the priests’ salary, so to speak. Now I’m not implying that in today’s world, I as a rabbi want to be paid in 5-pound bags of flour. But rather, I would suggest that for those who cannot otherwise feed themselves, we must provide for them daily that they have sufficient food to eat. We provide food for the hungry not just for their sake, but so that we may feed the perpetual fires that keep us close to God.
After the Mincha offering, the Chattat, sin offering, and the Asham, guilt offering, are described. These offerings are described as “most holy” such that they may only be eaten by the “males in the priestly line” (Leviticus 6:22, 7:6) or burned completely to ash and not eaten at all. Clearly, doing teshuvah, repentance, then or now is one of the most holy acts we can engage in. We do teshuvah when we cease our wrong actions, make amends as best we can, and resolve never to act that way again. And with every act of teshuvah, we make the world a better place and draw God closer.
Next comes the sacrifice of well-being, offered for thanksgiving to God or as a free-will offering to God. These offerings are interesting in that a portion goes to God, being completely burned up; a portion goes to the priest making the actual sacrifice; and a portion goes to the donor of the sacrifice. Everyone partakes in this sacrifice, just as we all gather together today to create a holy community. Everyone in our community has a part to play in creating a holy community that gathers together to thank God freely for the gifts God gives us.
God commanded us to keep a perpetual fire burning upon the altar. Today, the flame of Judaism is ours to keep alive. When we engage with our texts and our traditions, we add fuel to the ever-changing flame that is Judaism. When we reinterpret our texts and traditions to fit our modern lives, we add fuel, keeping the fire alive. When we give of ourselves, offering the best of our abilities and resources, we strengthen the community of the Jewish people, we make the world a better place, and we draw nearer to God. May God give us the will to see that the flame burns forever.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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