The Man with No Ear

This week’s double portion is known as the most obscure and hardest to relate to. How do we give a meaningful teaching on a disease that we are unaware of exactly what it is and for which the laws governing it have not been in place since the destruction of the Temple? Though commonly translated as “leprosy,” that does not appear to be what tzaraat was, as this was a disease that could affect a person’s clothing and home as well as his skin. We also do not know exactly how a person was cured of tzaraat. What we do know is that in Leviticus 14:14, a person afflicted goes to the Kohen who takes the blood of the  asham, or guilt offering, and puts it on the tip of the aflictee’s right ear, his hand and he big toe of his right foot. The Kohen also sprinkles oil on the right ear, hand and big toe of his right foot and then offers the hatat, or sin offering, to make atonement for the one afflicted.

This is all great, but what does it have to do with us? I gained some insight from recently reading Rabbi Martin Cohen of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center’s book The Boy, The Door and the Ox. Rabbi Cohen references Mishnah Negaim which asks what a person does who does not have a right ear? The Mishnah says ein lo tohorah olamit, that such a person can never become pure! This has widespread implications, for it means that this person would forever be isolated from his community, never be able to offer sacrifices and never be allowed to eat food in a holy state. Because he cannot literally follow what is in the Torah, and have blood from the sacrifice or oil put on his right ear, he can never rejoin the community.

Fortunately there are other opinions that are given after the original in the Mishnah. Rabbi Eliezer said that for a man without a right ear one can designate the spot where the right ear would be on the man and thus he can become purified. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai has a more radical view, proclaiming that one can put the blood and oil on the man’s left ear. Better to use the other ear than to render the man forever impure!

Some might remember my sermon about the rebellious son and notice that there too things were taken literally. That section of the Bible said that the parents grab the son, which the rabbis took as saying that they must both have both their hands. It also said “our son will not listen to our voice,” which the rabbis took as they must speak in one voice. Such literalism there was meant to exclude a son from being considered rebellious. Here it is meant to widen the possibility for a man without an ear to become tahor (pure) and return to a normal lifestyle.

Why should we care about this? After all, today we are all considered tamei (impure) as there are no sacrifices at the Temple that can “purify” us. I believe that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai are both recognizing that we don’t live in a literalist world but rather in a world with personalized situations and extenuating circumstances. Because of this, we must decide whether we want to follow the literalism of the biblical verse and render someone forever impure or whether we want to recognize the situation and make an exception to render the person pure. I strongly believe that the latter approach is what we want to achieve.

This reminds me of a story told by Rabbi Berel Wein about a man asking a rabbi if a chicken was kosher. After researching the situation the rabbi still was uncertain as to the chicken’s kashrut. For some the obvious approach would have been to declare the chicken treyf (unkosher) and have the man buy a new one. That was not the approach taken by this rabbi. The approach the rabbi took was to first look at the person and see if he could afford to buy a new chicken. If he could, the rabbi would say that it was treyf, but if not he would say it was kosher. What this story teaches us is that one needs to consider the situation and the people involved before jumping to a conclusion.

The reason I believe Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s statements are listed is to give people the option of doing what they can to rectify a difficult situation, that doing something is better than doing nothing. As Rabbi Cohen puts it “When you can’t do what Scripture says you must do, is it better to walk away and do nothing at all? Or is it better to do something else, something similar or reminiscent or analogous, something invented specifically to demonstrate allegiance to the spirit of the law if not the letter?” I view the latter, one’s spirit and one’s kavanah (intentionality) as having great import, and that is a lesson that we can learn from an often glossed-over detail from this portion. It’s an issue we should think about whenever a biblical verse appears to challenge the world in which we live today.

Uncensoring Mein Kampf?

I am generally not in favor of censorship, as one of the ideals on which our country was founded was “free speech.” With that being said, I am very troubled by an opinion in yesterday’s Newsday arguing that “Europe’s pols should put WWII to rest” in which the author suggested Germany reprinting Mein Kampf. As we learned from Chief Justice Holmes’ ruling in Schenck vs. the United States, one cannot yell “FIRE” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, for that creates an unnecessary panic. I would argue that speech that is given for the sole purpose of “inciting” should be banned as well.

The example that comes to mind is the incitement spoken after two Guyanan immigrant children were unintentionally struck by a car in the motorcade for Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and one of them (Gavin Cato) died from the wounds. Afterwards, Rev. Al Sharpton said “It’s an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights.” At Cato’s funeral a banner was hung reading “Hitler did not do the job”. This led to the death of 29 year old Austrailian Jew Yankel Rosenblum and 3 days of rioting in which Jewish shops were looted ala Kristallnacht. If Rev. Sharpton, a leading figure in the African American community, had not spoken, I doubt the rioting would have occurred.

While one can find Mein Kampf quotations all over the Internet, I feel that reprinting the publication would take its access to a whole new level. I don’t want the commoners in Germany reading it because I’m afraid its inciteful speech will lead to more violence against Jews. What scholarly good comes out of reprinting a book where the author says “The personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.”

I hope that Germany will keep Mein Kampf censored, in opposition to Bershidsky’s claim that Hitler died 70 years ago and that it’s time that we end tabaoos. If we do that, we incite more hatred and anti-Semitism.

Shemini-The Power of Silence

     One of the most meaningful moments in my life occurred during my year in Israel, during Yom HaZikaron, the Israeli Soldier Remembrance Day.  I watched the busy streets of Jerusalem grind to a sudden halt. Drivers would slow down, pull over to the side of the road, park their cars, get out of their cars and stand on the sidewalk.  Then there was the shrill blast of a horn and a minute would go by without anyone moving. Finally, the horn would blast again, and people would get back into their cars and go on their ways.

What was meaningful to me about this event was that it demonstrated to me the power of silence.  We live active lives, moving from one activity to the next without a second thought.  I find this to be especially true here in New York, where I see people getting agitated (and sometimes it’s me) every time the subway slows down or when there is a blockage in traffic.  At times in life, however, something so tragic or so memorable occurs that it calls us to silence, to empathy and to reflection.

An example of such an event is in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemini.  In the Second Aliyah, the Israelites are gathered to see Aaron the High Priest’s sacrifices at the altar.  At that moment, Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, offered esh zarah, a form of strange fire that God did not command.  As a result, God brought forth fire which killed Nadav and Avihu.  This is an extrememly tragic moment, as Aaron has just lost his two sons in one fell swoop.  Aaron’s response in this moment fascinates me: it is not a yell or a cry of outrage as we might imagine.  Rather the Torah says vayidom Aharon, “and Aaron was silent.”

Why would Aaron be silent at a moment of tragedy?  Abravanel, a late 15th century commentator, said that Aaron was silent because “his heart turned to lifeless stone.”  Abravanel is connecting the word yidom, or silent, to the word domem, or mineral.  According to him, God did not allow Aaron to feel emotion during this tragic time by hardening his heart.  Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein, a 19th century Polish commentator, has a different interpretation.  He asks why the Torah chose to use the word vayidom rather than its synonym vayishtok.  He says that vayishtok would have meant that Aaron restrained himself from speaking or weeping but that vayidom, on the other hand, indicates that Aaron’s heart was calm and at peace.

I respect both Abravanel and Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretations, yet I disagree with them.  I do not see God as changing our heart during moments of tragedy, nor do I think a father would be at peace after losing his two eldest sons.  My interpretation is that this sudden loss was so tragic and the emotion associated with it was so great that Aaron was unable to speak.  As a student chaplain at Bellevue, I saw people go through experiences that were so difficult and painful that they could not speak about them.  It was traumatic to be in the room with people who lost an eye because of cancer or who knew that they would never be able to walk again.  At these moments of need, what they could give was their presence but there were no words that could be summoned to match what they were experiencing.

I encourage each of us to find ways to utilize moments of silence in our lives, especially in relation to events through which there are no words.  Aaron’s period of silence was needed in order to collect his emotions and thoughts.  Through silence, Aaron gave meaning and reverence to the loss of his sons before he returned to work.  Similarly, through a minute of silence every year on Yom HaZikaron, Israelis remember and reflect on their family members who gave their lives for their country and for hope of future peace.  Both uses of silence call us to be mindful of the moment and to do what we can to unite as a community and to comfort those in need.  May we work on utilizing moments of silence as call to attention for key moments both in our lives and in those of others.

Kardashian Replaced…By a Receipt!

I have a confession to make-I have not watched one episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I do not follow the lives of anyone in the family. However, I found it fascinating to see that on an ultra-Orthodox website Kim Kardashian’s photo was removed from a picture of her, Kanye and Mayor Nir Barkat of Jerusalem. Not only was her picture removed but it was replaced by an enlarged receipt from a different restaurant! Why was this done? Because Kim Kardashian is considered a “pornographic symbol” in the Orthodox world. Not only that, but the article went on to indicate that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, German Chanceller Angela Merkel and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had all had their pictures removed from ultra-Orthodox publications.

I find this both amusing and sad, for a number of reasons. First, Kanye is no Pat Boone, yet the Ultra-Orthodox site decided to keep him in the picture. This demonstrates for me one of the big inequalities in the ultra-Orthodox world: western female celebrities are seen as sex symbols to be excised while no such thing is done regarding male celebrities. Females are routinely cut out of ultra-Orthodox publications, yet I know of no example of a male being cut out. In addition, what good does it do to pretend that Kardashian was not present? Would there be more legitimacy to Barkat meeting with Kanye West alone? Should all women be cut out of publications by virtue of their being a woman?

Two images from my year in Israel (2008-09) instantly came back to me upon seeing this article. One was the Jerusalem mayoral election that fall, when Barkat narrowly won his first election over the ultra-Orthodox candidate Meir Porush. My classmates and I were thinking what would happen if Porush would get elected? Would all buses in Jerusalem have a mehitza (separation between men and women)? Would a law be passed forbidding anyone to drive on Shabbat? Instead Barkat, a secularist, was elected and remains mayor.

The other image that came to mind was taking a Sherut (communal taxi) back from Netanya to Jerusalem after the first night of Passover. After I got on with a female friend, the driver stopped in an ultra-Orthodox part of Netanya. One of the women outside the Sherut signalled to my friend to move to the back of the Sherut. When she did not do so, she was called a chutzpanit (a woman demonstrating shameless audacity) because she didnt respect their customs. It felt to me like a Rosa Parks moment, and I was proud of my friend for not moving.

Since then I have heard of an El Al plane from New York to Israel being delayed because a woman would not sit next to a man she was not married to. There is a prohibition in the ultra-Orthodox world of touching someone of the opposite sex who is not a member of one’s family. While I respect the ultra-Orthodox view on modest (tzniut), if I was in that situation I would likely not move as well.

There needs to be limits in place. Sitting next to someone of the opposite sex or accidentally touching him/her is not the same as having “forbidden sexual relations” with him/her. I am afraid that so many fences around the law have been put up here that we have lost sight of what the law is. In addition, I worry about the “forbidden fruit” mentality-that banning pictures of women or any contact with women whatsoever for men does one of two things: it either makes women something to be feared and shied away from or it increases one’s intrigue and desire for the opposite sex so intensely that it makes it more likely for “forbidden sexual relations” to occur.

I welcome all thoughts and feedback. Let me just say that I do respect the ultra-Orthodox view on modesty-as long as their view does not infringe on the rights of others who see things differently. Unfortunately I see the latter occurring more and more.

Putin Doing Business with Iran

When I read about Putin allowing a Russian air missile defense system to enter Iran, I started to get very concerned. With this system, Iran could deter any country that threatens to take out its nuclear reactor. Russia was one of the countries enabling the framework agreement with Iran to occur, and now Putin looks to cash in on it by selling Iran this $800 million missile defense system. The fact that Putin is offering the defense system (which he had also offered in 2007) further demonstrates to me the danger of lifting sanctions on Iran. Allowing Iran to have this system while concurrently lifting sanctions to enable them to increase their supply of weapons grade plutonium and enriched uranium is very dangerous.

I do applaud Obama for signing the revised Iran nuclear review legislation, enabling Congress to review any deal that the P5+1 make with Iran. The United States making an agreement of this magnitude should be required to have Congress’ backing.

Heartwarming Stories

At the end of 2014, ABC News printed what it considered the 10 most heartwarming stories of 2014. There was the story of the Boston Marathon victim who married a nurse. The defensive tackle of the Cincinnati Bengals who took off to take his daughter to the hospital for cancer treatment (she is now in remission). The aunt who stopped her car in Miami to perform CPR on her nephew, saving his life. These stories were all touching to me, but something was missing from them for me-the fact that I did not have a personal relationship with the people. Because of this I would like to share two anecdotes about people from my former congregation (with their permission) which illustrate to me the importance of life well-lived.

For a year and a half, I have been getting weekly e-mail updates from a former congregant, whose wife Irene and whose grandson Adi were both diagnosed with cancer last fall (breast cancer and leukemia, respectively). Both underwent chemotherapy at the same time. While the situation was dire, the e-mails indicated that life continued to be lived in a spirited way, while fighting the cancer. Irene went into remission in November and is at present cancer-free. This congregant wrote regarding his grandson Adi, “he’s had a million blood tests, many bone marrow biopsies, spinal taps and courses of chemotherapy. Yet he has a smile that lights up the room.” While undergoing procedures, Adi went on a trip to Holland with 50 other children who had cancer and went parasailing and jetskiing in Eliat. I received an update in January that Adi was cancer-free and living at home. While one who has had cancer never knows if it will return, it made me smile knowing that he had persevered.

One of my friends in Tucson was not so lucky. Anna was the first friend that I made at my congregation there and quickly became my running partner. She had lost 90 pounds between January and September 2011. We ran an 8 mile race on Labor Day Weekend 2011 and she ran a half marathon in October-a race I thought of running but decided not to because it was the day after Yom Kippur! On Yom Kippur, she noticed a lump in her leg, but she thought it was just swollen from all the running she had been doing. I spoke with my father, a doctor, who gave me a number of possibilities as to what it was, most of which were benign. I remember that she asked me about it being cancer, and I said “I don’t think so.” Unfortunately I was wrong. After the biopsy they diagnosed Anna with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that spreads through the bloodstream. Anna survived for a year and a half, even after the cancer metasticized in her lungs and in her brain. During that time she went to her brother’s wedding, hosted a New Year’s Party and went to Las Vegas to meet Bette Midler, who sang the song “Wind Beneath My Wings” as a tribute to her. A new word, “Annatude,” was coined in honor of her positive attitude. While inside I’m sure she was angry and upset, every time I saw Anna in public she was joyous and celebrating life. She called her hospital room the “party room” and always had visitors who she would cheer up and “treat” pastorally as much as they would to her. While she had great inner strength, motivation and fortitude, I saw Anna get weaker and weaker as the cancer took over. She passed away at age 28.

Why am I sharing these examples, two of recoveries from cancer and one of a death? When I’m having a rough time, or hitting a wall (as I was when I wrote this sermon), I think of these examples and they give me hope and inspiration. I realize that so much more is possible than we think-all it takes is fortitude, courage and a little faith in creating a better future. I can’t answer why God took Anna at such a young age, nor can I answer why God took any of the loved ones who we are here today to remember. The losses of parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, grandparents and children leave us bereft and in grief, with questions we cannot answer and at times feelings of sadness, anger and frustration. These are real feelings which we need to acknowledge-we all have them. At the same time, let us look towards those who give us the hope and the courage that enable us to continue on each and every day. The greatest danger is that we let our grief and our anger stop us from moving forward and continuing to try to make our world a better place. Yizkor enables us to remember our loved ones-the lives they lived, the values they taught us and the experiences we shared with them. Not every experience was rosy and many of them might have been difficult, yet I hope that each of us will look back to the moments of joy that we shared and that it will cause us to smile, laugh, shed a few tears, center us and give us hope for our future. As we remember those from our past, so too may we bring those memories, those experiences and those values into the present, as we join together as a community to pray on this final day of Passover.

God as a Man of War or as The Compassionate One?

I remember the day that Osama bin Laden was killed. It was two weeks before my graduation from rabbinical school at JTS. When I heard the news I also heard people dancing in the street. There was going to be a celebration at Times Square and for a moment I thought about going. Then I realized that the loss of life, even of one of our sworn enemies, is not something to celebrate.

For those who did celebrate the death of Osama, or of others who have sought to do us harm, there is a justifiable basis for it. After all, we say a prayer every morning and in today’s Torah reading about a celebration after a people was destroyed. This prayer is Shirat HaYam, the song at the sea that Moses and the Israelites sang after Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Sea of Reeds.  I would like to focus on the third verse of the song: ה איש מלחמה ה שמו, “Adonai is a man of war, Adonai is his name.”  When I hear this verse, I often think of Man O War, the winning horse from the 1920s, but I also think of God as a warrior, leading the troops into battle.  This image of God does not sit well with me, as while I am far from a pacifist, I am more inclined to think of a God who loves all of humanity, rather than allying with some and fighting others.  What do we do with this difficult image of God?

Rashi, an 11th century French biblical commentator, is not bothered by God leading the Israelites into battle but rather with God acting like a human general, plunging into battle with sword and spear.  Instead of this, Rashi states that God fights for the Israelites by God’s name, using as evidence that the statement “Adonai is his name” which follows “Adonai is a man of war.” Furthermore, Rashi points out that David said to Goliath “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of Adonai of hosts.”  For Rashi, this statement indicates that God’s name itself is a weapon which can be unleashed against the enemy and which is more powerful than human weapons.

It is Rashi’s second explanation, however, that piques my interest.  In this explanation, Rashi alludes to the idea that different names of God correspond to different attributes of God.  Elohim is God’s stern, judging side, and Adonai is God’s forgiving, merciful side.  Rashi says the use of Adonai here indicates that even when God is fighting on behalf of the Israelites, God has mercy on his creations and feeds everything in the world, unlike human kings, who when engage in war turn away from all other things.  This demonstrates both that God is the multitasker par excellence and that God continues to have compassion for people even when they do not act as God wants them to.  Perhaps this why we refer to God as אל רחום וחנון the merciful and compassionate one, before we take out the Torah on festivals.

Rashi’s comment reminds me of a Midrash found in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Megillah 10b: “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One Blessed be He said, ‘The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you chant hymns?’”  God created the Egyptians just as God created the Israelites, and they are God’s children just as the Israelites are.  This Midrash puts into question the idea of the Israelites rejoicing at the Song of the Sea, as how can one creation rejoice at the downfall of another creation?  It also shows that there is a difference between being thankful that our ancestors were saved from the hands of bondage versus rejoicing at the downfall of other human beings. In addition, this is a reason why we recite half hallel instead of full hallel at the end of Passover, as our joy is diminished from the Egyptians perishing. It is also why we pour a drop of wine from each of our cups when reading the Egyptians’ suffering from the 10 Plagues at the Seder.

This is extremely poignantin our lives. There is still much slavery in the world. The fact that one person can be denied the basic human right of freedom by being held in bondage to another, just as our ancestors were enslaved to the Egyptians, is horrifying.  There are also world leaders, Bin Laden, Saddam Houssein, Ahmadinejad and most recently Mohammad Reza Naqdi, who have preached the importance of wiping modern day Israel off the map.

We need to pray for both the downfall of slavery and of demagogic rulers who seek to do us harm.  However, we need to remember not to lose sight of our ultimate goal: that there will be peace throughout the world and in Israel. Rather than rejoicing at the death of our enemies, we can actively work towards a peaceful future. It’s easy to dance at the deaths of our enemies-after all they hated Jews. However, celebrating their deaths is in my opinion not the answer. Rather it is to work towards ensuring that leaders such as these don’t come into power in the first place.

As we hear the Song of the Sea, let us envision God as both defeating our adversaries as well as providing them with food to sustain them during their lives.  May we be like God, both fighting those who strive to harm us and recognizing that as terrible as their ideologies are, they are humans who are made in the image of God.  As the Midrash in Sifrei Devarim states, “Just as God is called the merciful and compassionate one, so shall you be merciful and compassionate.”  Also, as Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir, said in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Berachot 10a, ‘Let sins cease and there be wicked no more,’ pray that they (the sinners) repent and be wicked no more.  May we be compassionate; praying not for the destruction of our enemies but for their repentance, which God willing will bring us closer to a time of peace.